Experiences as a volunteer in Rajasthan

For nearly two months earlier this year I lived and worked in a rural area in the the Thar desert in Rajasthan in NW India. The placement was arranged through EIL (Intercultural Learning), a nonprofitmaking organisation based in Cork, who have contacts with voluntary organisations in many developing countries. The Indian organisation with whom I worked was IDEX, Indian Network for Development Exchange. Their headquarters is in Jaipur, Rajasthan, but they run volunteer camps in Himachal Pradesh and Goa as well as in Rajasthan. I recently reported on my experiences in an address at Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge.

The volunteer camp where I lived was on the edge of Shiv, a large village with the main street lined with little shops and stalls. It even had a post office, a police station and a hospital. But the nearest real towns are Barmer, 50 km to the south, and Jaisalmer, 100 km north. Barmer is a lively, bustling commercial centre and the regional capital, but not a tourist destination. Jaisalmer, on the other hand, attracts tourists to its dramatic fort perched on a rocky outcrop. It was a pleasant place to spend the weekend occasionally. The camp was well run by a camp manager and his staff. Most of these were young `executives’ who helped the volunteers with their work, acting as translators when necessary, providing advice and assistance in preparing teaching material, and taking a class themselves if a volunteer was absent.

The volunteers were of a variety of nationalities: they came mainly from the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Holland, with a few from Switzerland, the UK and the US. I was the only volunteer from Ireland during my eight weeks there. Volunteers taught in primary schools or worked in day care centres in Shiv itself and in some of the tiny villages in the area. The Indian government provides free primary education with free midday meals for government school pupils throughout the country, but it is difficult to get good teachers in this area – nobody from outside the region wants to come and live in this arid and poverty-stricken part of India.

The village, where I spent two hours teaching English and Maths every morning was one of the small settlements out in the desert about 7 kilometres from Shiv. The original village of mud brick houses was devastated by a flood in 2005 – after centuries of arid conditions in the Thar desert there have been two severe floods in the new millenium, but for the last three years there has been a severe drought. A non-government organisation (NGO) built 16 stone houses and a community hall on a new site on slightly higher ground, nearer the local water supply – now it is only 5 or 6 kilometres away! These houses all had a big courtyard, with a covered area for the kitchen in one corner. The NGO had left an inscription in Hindi on one of the houses they built which reads ‘the low status of women is a result of illiteracy’. The villagers themselves were building more houses, but the first thing they had built was a small temple, which was inaugurated during my first week there. They had donated the community hall to the government for use as a primary school.

Life in a small village in the desert is hard. The three year drought means that no crops can be planted, but the villagers own goats and some also have a cow. Those with a cow keep her in a covered corner of the courtyard of their house. In this village the men were carpenters and potters, and this is indicated in the name of the village, which means the settlement of the carpenters and potters. These people are of the same caste since caste and livelihood are inextricably linked. The Indian government has made caste discrimination illegal, but it is almost impossible to get rid of the caste structure in a traditional community such as this, where for generations families have lived together and followed the same trades.

Every morning, as soon as they saw the minibus arriving, the children would run to greet us with bright eyes and big smiles. They possessed little beside the school bag and books provided by the government, but they seemed reasonably well-fed and were always happy. First they would go into the schoolroom for prayers in front of the picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. The chant finishes with the words ‘shanti, shanti, shanti’ (peace, peace, peace) and is followed by the national anthem. After that the volunteers would go in and everyone stood in a circle to sing the goodmorning song (to the tune of Frère Jacques): Say goodmorning, say goodmorning, How are you? How are you? Time to start the lesson, time to start the lesson, Now, now, now, now, now, now.

Then the children dispersed to three different corners of the schoolroom for lessons. There were three volunteers assigned to this school, each taking one group. Near the door was class 1, the babies of four or five years old, the next group, classes 2 and 3, ranged from six to eight years old, and my group, classes 4 and 5, were nine to eleven year olds, though I also had one very bright eight year old. We always had an Indian executive from the camp with us, to help out and translate when necessary. The government teacher was usually there as well – a very nice young man who was an extremely good teacher, and who welcomed the help of the volunteers. After we left at lunch time he taught the whole school by himself. Although there were 32 registered pupils the number attending was very variable. Any children visiting the village with their parents for a festival or a wedding would turn up at school, and during my final week I had two twelve year old lads from secondary school in my class who came because they wanted to be taught by a volunteer. As well as visitors, there would usually be some tiny children as young as one or two who would follow the older ones to school. No child who wanted to come to school was ever turned away.

Each group of children sat on a mat in front of a blackboard. They were shabbily dressed – especially the girls – and their feet were bare. But they were very enthusiastic. Everyone in the class wanted to answer my questions, or do a sum on the blackboard. One of the little boys, Vasu, who was not one of the cleverest in the class, sat in front gazing up at me with big eager eyes, and his hand shot up each time I asked a question. He would look so delighted when he managed to get the answer right. Officially I had five boys in the class and seven girls. But four of the girls rarely attended. One had to herd the goats – her aunt, who looked hardly older than her, would come and fetch her away to do this – and others had duties at home. One of the three girls who attended regularly, Sushila, was the cleverest child in the school, and extremely quick at picking up new English words.

The education of girls is not a high priority in traditional societies. When I asked the teacher about Sushila’s prospects of going on to secondary school he replied that it was unlikely – she would need the support of the community. This did not mean financial support as IDEX would have helped out in that way. But girls here still marry at fourteen or fifteen, even though the legal minimum age is eighteen for girls and twenty-one for boys. On marriage a girl will go to live in her husband’s village with his extended family. We met the fifteen year old daughter of one family who had come back to the village to stay with her parents while her husband was away from his home learning carpentry. In Shiv village itself, where people followed a variety of different trades, the better off and more educated families would not marry their daughters off so young, and would send them to secondary school, some even paying for them to go to a private school.

Education and reduction of poverty are needed to give women a better chance in life. It’s not something that can be changed quickly, and even well-off families may be very traditional. When I asked one of the executives what his seventeen year old sister did he replied ‘She’s probably making chapattis right now’, and when I heard that she would be married next year and asked what she would do then he replied ‘make more chapattis’. The expectations of a large proportion of women are severely limited. But the situation has improved. It is not so long ago that child marriages were common, and female babies would be killed or neglected so that they died. We met a bride-to-be from another village whose marriage was to be the first in her village for 100 years. For the last century no girls had survived beyond infancy. But we were told that now things are much better, and there are ten young girls living in that village.

In traditional families the married women are usually veiled in the presence of strangers, though they seem to dispense with this when they become grandmothers. (The veils are not like muslim veils but are parts of their colourful transparent scarves pulled across their faces.) Two of us visited one house in Shiv where the whole family assembled to greet us and offer us hospitality. Though the women did not veil in front of us as we were both women, the daughter-in-law had to remain veiled in the presence of her father-in-law.

The ties to the extended family are extremely strong, and it is hard even for young men with a higher education to break away. It is expected that sons should follow their father’s trade, have marriages arranged for them, and bring their wives to live in the family home. One of my Indian friends from IDEX, aged twenty-four, wanted to work in Delhi to get experience in tourism, in which he had a masters degree. But to his family Delhi was the big wicked city another world away, and his father cried and said that giving him a further education was the worst mistake he had ever made.

But there are also positive aspects to this traditional, almost mediaeval, lifestyle. The extended family provides strong mutual support and companionship. Even those who want to make a new life for themselves can feel extremely lonely living away from home, and still feel a deep sense of responsibility to the family. And the people are extremely hospitable and friendly. We were invited into homes, and would be offered chai (spiced sweet tea) and tit bits to eat. The adults seemed very fond of the small children. We would often have one or two young fathers sitting outside the school with a baby on the knee watching what was going on. The older children take great care of the young ones. Tiny children would follow their older friends or relatives to school, and if they hurt themselves or were upset in any way an older child would immediately be there to comfort them. I never saw the children fighting or quarreling. The worst would be a verbal disagreement about whether one of them had cheated in one of their games, which never lasted long. They had a great sense of fair play, and always greeted the winner of any game with ungrudging applause. This is not quite universal – in one of the larger schools in Shiv the teachers, who were all women, would slap the children, and this would result in the children hitting each other. The teacher at my school was always very kind and gentle with all the children, though he maintained discipline extremely well.

At the end of my eight weeks I was sad to leave this community. Life in the desert is hard, and even the better off families in Shiv village seem to have very few possessions. But they don’t complain and wait for others to help them – they take responsibility for their own lives and manage as best they can. Their way of life is inevitably changing – mobile phones have made a huge difference in recent years – but traditional life styles change very slowly. I hope that as they change they will not lose what is best in their society – their hospitality, friendliness and happiness.

Sara McMurry