In her second post about our scholarship trip to India, Oliwia, one of the students on the trip, created a list of ten things she learned on the trip. These are in order of significance (from least to most), but also happen to be roughly chronological. (Note: these are my personal opinions; I cannot speak for everybody in the group, although I’m sure their favourite moments wouldn’t differ too much.)
10. Arriving in India
It takes a lot to take one’s breath away, and even more so to stop twenty-seven young, unsuspecting ‘youths’ in their tracks. India, with its vibrant colours, lively citizens and stunning scenery, managed to do so effortlessly. What we felt on the first drive to Araveli from Udaipur marked the beginning of our Indian adventure and therefore also takes its honorary place at the beginning of this list.
9. Primary school ceremonies
Of all of our reasons to stay motivated and give our all at the building site, the children were perhaps the most tangible because we’d actually met, communicated and played together. Knowing that they will be the ones benefiting from the work was at times the only thing that kept us going through heavy lifting during the gruelling heat. We learned more from them than we could ever have imagined; people whose ages were not yet in the double digits. We learned that language is only a barrier if you let it be. There are many ways to communicate, and a very effective way to do so is through music. The children welcomed us with a heartfelt chorus of a song of their choice at the opening ceremony, and we in return performed an a capella version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing for them at the closing ceremony.
8. Identity/Labels module
To describe the atmosphere of that little cottage that night, hidden in the depths of the Rajasthani mountains and enwreathed by the evening mist, ‘heavy’ would be an understatement. Just as the fog attempted to pierce through the windows and walls of what would become a sort of small, wooden haven for us, we had our own little breakthrough as a group, right there, on one of the very first nights. Thanks to the sharing of some of our most personal stories, deepest fears and even a few people ‘coming out’ (we’ve got to hand it to them: they have a pretty epic ‘story’ to tell back home!), we managed to crack through the ice of apprehension. There was also the worry of being pushed into friendships and tents with, essentially, strangers. We skipped straight to the hugging, shameless crying, and creating of a safe space which would come to be of help and comfort to us all throughout the following two weeks.
7. Anganwadi visit
Translated to ‘courtyard shelter’, Anganwadis are government-funded healthcare providers (there is about one such shelter per one thousand women and children). They are most closely compared to our doctors’ practices, although they double as nurseries for toddlers and education centres for the young girls and mothers. Girls are taught about puberty and motherhood, and mothers about the importance of education and nutritional value. Children may come in for a weekly ‘nutrition pack’ if
they are malnourished, and women for advice (during their pregnancy, say, or domestic abuse). Our Anganwadi visit was eye-opening because staying in accommodation specifically designed for Western volunteers, it was one of the very first times we noticed and experienced the extreme contrast of ‘our’ lives and ‘theirs’. With the air-conditioned, colour-splattered walls of our local GP and its seated waiting room clashing with the stifling hot air and stone-hard floor of their basic and primary healthcare provider. It was also perhaps the very first time we were able to ask questions and gain a first-person insight into the everyday lives of these people.
6. Building site (with Virgin Atlantic judges)
Although not a favourite amongst all of the volunteers, our hours spent at the building site were for many of us a great source of pride because these were the moments when we could physically see and track the difference we were making. Looking back after three hours of tough labour to see that heaps of rubble had been removed or layers of brick had been laid is one of the most gratifying feelings in the world (and one we’d all highly recommend!). Our particular session with the Virgin Atlantic judges makes its way onto this list, however, because it was then, with nine extra pairs of hands (some of them replacing those who were unfortunately too ill to build), that we could see the largest amount of space had been cleared, ready for the foundations of a new classroom. We could not be more thankful for their help, as well as for the ‘dad dancing’ they graced us with, which was admittedly very entertaining.
5. Volunteer-led modules (LGBTQ+, disability and mental health)
These were moving not only because they were lead by people to whose hearts these matters are very close (and who were indeed very brave to so fearlessly lead modules with thirty other people), but also because of the respect, interest and kindness they garnered from all of the other participants. The group was very instinctively protective of each other, and I think that when we saw or sensed vulnerability we became even more careful and sensitive. Having created a self-proclaimed ‘safe space’, we all felt comfortable asking questions which we might have been hesitant to do so in a less intimate or less accepting environment. These verged from ‘why would anybody ever self-harm’ to ‘when did you know that you did not conform to one specific gender’. Some of the biggest steps we made together were during these talks.
4. Udaipur Market
Visiting Udaipur Market allowed for a less facilitated, more natural integration with the local community, which we all appreciated. We were able to lift the albatross that is family and friends’ gift buying from around our necks all while practising our Hindi and haggling skills. It was a very relaxed half-day, and I think we all needed it after a pretty intense first ten days or so.
3. Day in the Life
During the water walk, thirty-one of us carried (barely managed to carry would perhaps be more accurate) the equivalent of what one woman carries in one day (something she does every day). The water pots we placed on our heads were so heavy – in fact, so much so that they were only half full – that they seemed to be burning a ring into our skulls. It was a very physical representation of the pain the average Dalit woman must go through on a daily basis yet also of the endurance she must possess. Although this made for a pretty promising poem idea on my part, it also made for the tragic realisation that despite such daily suffering, a woman will nonetheless still never be thanked, appreciated or even acknowledged for the work she does. Perhaps because it does not bring home physical money or perhaps simply because she is not a man. Inside her home, however, we were able to speak to such a woman. Her whole house was dark and cave-like and the size of my or your bedroom, or somewhere in between, but it was homely due to the little cleverly-made stove she had (on which we baked Chapatis with her) and the drawings and notes she had plastered around on the four walls it contained. We were able to ask her questions, and she told us about how gossiping with the neighbouring women at around noon is her favourite part of the day, and how although she’d like more money and better opportunities for her children, she is not unhappy in her life.
2. Kartik and Yuvraj’s love stories
Our two in-country facilitators, Kartik and Yuvraj, although they come from similar backgrounds, have two very contrasting love stories which they shared with us one night. They are an embodiment of the Indian tradition of arranged marriage, and the good and the bad that it may bring. A fellow volunteer and friend, Charlie Doherty, and I were so touched by these that we decided to do something creative to share their stories – Charlie is currently putting a documentary
together using the interviews we conducted, and I am writing an article titled This Side of Paradise. (Keep an eye out for them both!)
‘Personal development’ – the growth and empowerment of youth to make a difference – plays a large part in MEtoWE trips (thus the modules and social justice aspect). Although our trip to India
was a scholarship project and in partnership with Virgin Atlantic and Free The Children, I am glad that this feature was still factored in where possible. On our last night in Araveli, all of the previous
fortnight’s personal progress was amalgamated into one game when, feeling snazzy in our saris and kurtas, we sat down in a circle, with our backs towards the middle and eyes closed, to play touch. Facilitators would silently choose a few of us at a time to enter the middle and would read out some statements, such as ‘touch somebody who you think has been brave’, ‘touch somebody who has humbled you’ or ‘touch somebody who has genuinely made you smile’. It was a chance for us to anonymously show our admiration for people to whom we perhaps would not usually confess it, and to certainly make somebody else feel appreciated. A circle is a symbol of wholeness and
infinity, and I think perhaps in that moment we all really were one. There was laughter, tears and everything in between, and the storm outside was a symbol of the tumultuous change we all promised to bring to the world thanks to the friendships we made, support we gained, experiences we shared and action plans we formed.
Thank you Oliwia for such a moving and brilliantly written summary of your learnings from the trip. If you are interested in our 2017 Scholarship trip to India, keep an eye on the we.org website later in the year for the official announcement and application details.