Volunteering in India

I visited India as a volunteer in 2010 and 2011, and am returning again this year. I work with IDEX, a charitable organisation based in Jaipur which runs volunteer camps in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Goa. Their priority is education and social development of communities in deprived areas, and on both occasions I spent 8 weeks teaching English and Maths to children in primary school, and English to slightly older children. In 2010 I was at a volunteer camp in the Thar desert, and taught in the one-room, one teacher school of a tiny village where most of the men were carpenters. In the absence of volunteers the teacher, a dedicated man and an extremely good teacher, taught the 40 or so children ranging in age from 4 to 11 by himself. Last year I was in an agricultural area, but Rajasthan is arid so that irrigation has to be supplied by pumping water up from the water table. Many people in the villages remain very poor. The school I taught in was bigger and catered for children up to 14 or 15 years old but it only had 6 teachers (including the headmaster) for 8 classes, and they could not devote as much time as they would have liked to the younger children. Three of us divided the 30 children in class 3 (7 to 8 year olds) between us, and taught them in different corners of their classroom. In both placements the teachers were very supportive and expressed their gratitude for our help. In last year’s school they tested the children we had been teaching and told us that they could see an improvement in both their English and Maths. This was encouraging as volunteers often feel that they are accomplishing very little in the short time they are there. However the organisation that sends me out (EIL, a non-profit making group in Cork) reminds us that each of us is just one in a large group of volunteers going out from year to year, which can make a difference in the long term.

IDEX volunteers live in a camp in similar buildings to the local community. In rural Rajasthan these are thatched mud brick huts. However each hut has a bathroom with western style toilet, and ’showers’ can be taken every day by collecting hot water in a bucket and pouring it over oneself with a jug. Meals are provided by a cook and kitchen staff, there is a camp manager and a driver for the minibus which delivers volunteers to their place of work every day. There is a staff of Indian ’executives’ who help with lesson preparation, accompany volunteers to work and act as interpreters when necessary. These are young men and women, mostly from Rajasthan, who feel it is important to work to improve the lives of the poorer sections of the community. Two of the executives I met last year have left to set up and run orphanages.

Work starts every weekday morning with lesson preparation after breakfast, and then teaching until lunch time. After lunch I taught English, to a group of girls in the local village in 2010, and to a mixed group at another government school last year. Often I would do more lesson preparation after arriving back in camp, and spent some time every evening writing up my diary and sending emails home. At the weekends it was possible to visit interesting towns in the state independently, and IDEX arranged one weekend excursion which included a camel safari. Food was mainly vegetarian, and fairly basic, but I enjoyed it and found it a
healthy diet.

This year I am going out for 12 weeks, first for four weeks of Hindi lessons in Jaipur (arranged by IDEX) and then for 8 weeks at their volunteer camp in the tea growing hills of Himachal Pradesh. I had taught myself some Hindi before going out the first time, and want to improve through lessons with a native speaker so as to be able to communicate better with the children that I teach, and their parents. I do not yet know what work I will be involved in in Himachal Pradesh. IDEX support an orphanage there as well as local schools and day care centres.

Why are volunteers needed?

According to the 2011 census the population of India is 1.2 billion, with 69% living in rural areas as opposed to 31% in urban areas. In 2010 the World Bank estimated that 41.6% of India’s population lives below $1.25 per day and 75.6% live below $2 per day. In rural areas in particular people live a very traditional lifestyle based on the extended family and caste. There are positive aspects to this way of life – the family provides companionship and support and employment in the family business whether it is agricultural or a trade. Trades and crafts are passed on from father to son and in many cases this is the only way they can be learnt. However there are downsides: the caste system restricts all aspects of life including how one may earn a living and who one may marry. Even now in rural Rajasthan many girls are married at 14 or 15 and thereafter become ’housewives’ in their husband’s family home. This makes local communities feel that girls do not
need to attend school, certainly not beyond the age of about 10. Child marriages (of young children of maybe 8 years old) also still occur. The Indian government has made the legal minimum age for marriage 18 for girls and 21 for boys. It provides free, supposedly compulsory, education for all children. It has attempted to abolish the caste system and make higher education and jobs available to all irrespective of caste. However it is very difficult to enforce these laws, and corruption is rife. Caste is so embedded in the rural way of life that it is still a force to be reckoned with. One of the more extreme problems is honour killings, not only of young people who try to marry outside caste but also of couples who are too close in subcaste. (The marriage rules in the caste system prevent marriage between siblings or cousins). Widows must traditionally never marry again, must wear plain white clothing and discard their jewellery. As recently as 1987 the government passed yet another act making sati (the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) illegal. Another big problem is the infanticide of girl children. Girls have to be provided with an expensive dowry, and leave home at an early age to live with (and work for) their husband’s family. The number of girls per 100 boys in the 0-15 year old age group is about 89, compared with around 94 in Ireland and the UK. Although in India it is illegal to perform foetal tests to determine sex, people with enough money can pay for illegal tests and abortions.

These problems can only be solved through educating the community. Academic education can prepare children for job opportunities outside their traditional family occupations, but they need the support of their community as well. As children from rural areas are educated they will hopefully realise the importance of education when they come to have children of their own, even if they themselves are still living a traditional lifestyle. Education must show them that there are other lifestyles which are not necessarily threatening, and help them to change their society for the better from within. There are many good things about rural India, not least the happiness, kindness and hospitality that so impresses those of us who work there. These can be lost with the traditional way of life when people move to urban environments. I believe the children we teach benefit from meeting people of a different colour and culture. It is important to build up a relationship with them and show them that we respect and admire the good things in their culture. Perhaps broadening their outlook is even more important than the academic teaching volunteers provide.

Why I am asking for sponsorship?

IDEX is not supported by the Indian government, and charges volunteers over €1000 per month for providing board and lodging and some transport. I shall pay them over €3500 for the 12 weeks. But the cost of living in India is very cheap, so I would guess that about half that amount goes to help keep the camps running. I am hoping for sponsorship to help cover that part of my fee. The camp I was in in 2010 was damaged by heavy rain that autumn, and all the thatch was ruined. Minibuses have to use very bad roads and need maintenance. The camp staff must be paid (though their wages are quite low) and computer systems must be maintained. IDEX also provides paper and pencils, and photocopies worksheets for use in the schools and day care centres. In Jaipur they have provided sewing machines for teaching women from the slums there to tailor. There is one camp in Jaisalmer which is fully financed by the British government, who provide the volunteers to work there as well. Running the other volunteer camps is funded by the fees charged to volunteers.

EIL do not recommend giving money directly to the organisation or to any of the schools. I take some teaching material with me, such as books and flash cards, and have purchased other material there – when I get to a town! Any money I receive in sponsorship will be paid to IDEX as part of the fee, or used to purchase additional books, games and other material for teaching. I shall also be selling some Indian souvenirs and the proceeds will go into my sponsorship fund.

Sara McMurry