Experience as a volunteer in India

This summer I had one of the best experiences of my life. I participated in a solitary project in India.

Many people thought I was crazy when they heard about my project: planting trees in almost 40 °C dry heat for three weeks? In India? Concerns came from everyone around me about dangerous animals, hygiene, health conditions and even about women’s rights. However, I was not discouraged by those comments.

The visit started without a lack of excitement. We had only just arrived at the airport “Chennai” (Madras) and at the passport control we were almost sent back to Brussels. Fortunately, this did not happen. Then our bus got stuck in the mud, and when by the time we had arrived at our first destination there was a snake in the shower. Calling it a shower is probably a bit ambitious, it was more like a bucket of water for four people. However despite a couple of obstacles we had reached our first destination.

Our first destination was Bharathi Trust: a large farm with only two small houses, a small barn, many fields, and surrounded by palm trees and mountains.
“Bharathi Trust” is an organic farm, where we learned to use natural resources for plantation.
For three days we slept close together in a small area on our sleeping mattresses. Above us, we had our mosquito net stretched thin, tickling us during the nights. In the toilets, there were frogs and other animals. 

We were located about a three-minute-walk walk from the main house. We had to eat our meals with our right hand, as the left hand serves a different purpose. We were also not used to all the hot dishes. There were a lot of things to get used to.

During the days we worked in the fields and erected a fence. Working in the rice fields was one of the funniest experiences of my life.
We were in the fields, dispersing the humid cattle manure, which was filled with 10 cm long worms, as fertiliser on the rice fields. It was definitely a dirty job.
However, the whole mission allowed me to explore my own limits and extend them. The project enabled us to work together with the workers of the farm and we learned a lot from them exchanging stories of everyday life.
Siddama, the owner of the farm, seems to be, after my own mother and grandmother, the most motivated woman I have ever met.

Siddama’s story:
Although formally no longer permitted, the caste system in India is still very much present in the mentality of the Indian people.
Siddama was born into the highest caste, into a wealthy family. However contrastingly from her family members, she refused to comply with this labelling and to live accordingly to her caste. After a major attack by a bear, Siddama “lost” half of her face. This caused her to be banished from her caste and become a social outcast. Her life changed tremendously since she was excluded from society. She began to get to know other castes. Today she works together with the ‘untouchables’, the lowest class of people.
Siddama is happy with her two children at Bharati trust. In recent years, she has managed to re-establish contact with her family.

Visiting the untouchables:
On the second day, we got to know one of the villages where Siddama actively helps.
It was an incredible experience. We all squeezed into a tuck tuck - a car - and travelled about one hour on heavily congested roads with people and animals waving at excited people, our legs squashed and enjoying the wind.
The village we went to welcomed us with a traditional Hindu ceremony. They lit a small fire and happily danced around it to the sound of drums. To them it was an honour that we, as European tourists, came to visit their small village. Entirely cut off from society, they live in extreme poverty.

Later we were sent to a family in pairs. I was accompanied by Morgan to a house with two sisters. Their parents worked in the fields throughout the day and despite their young age, they ran the household. Their hut was very small. There were only two rooms with an area of about 4 m². They asked us to sit down on a kind of bench in the rear part of the house, where it was very dark. 
Morgan and I looked at each other with surprise. We had to communicate primarily through gestures and expressions such as smiling with the local population of the village. They spoke only in an Indian dialect. For the first time, I was conscious of the need for human gestures. I felt like we were identical and could simply understand each other with a smile. Such gestures shouldn't be underestimated. Everyone understands them, wherever they are from and whatever language they speak.
As we were watching them cooking, we helped to clean the house and chase the birds and goats out of the house. Although the girls wanted to serve us, we were happy to help.
I became aware of the extent of their poverty, when I asked one of them to use the toilet. They directed me to a brown bowl behind the house. As I looked at the girl with astonishment, she just tried to clean the bowl with her bare feet! As I was also barefoot I wished I had not asked for the toilet at that moment.
The girl stood next to me, waiting for me until I was finished. However this strange encounter caused something in my heart to open up!
In the afternoon, we were dressed up as Indian princesses. All girls were dressed up by their host families in a Sari, wearing make-up, jewellery and garlands. I had a beautiful green garment put all around me and was surprised how beautiful it looked when they were finished.
We gathered in the main square, where all the families were gathered. We danced to the sound of drums. Unfortunately, the girls I was with were very shy and did not want to dance, even though I really wanted them to join in. I danced with my Belgian friends. The sweat appeared with the smallest movements, but I did not mind, I enjoyed every moment.
Next station: Salem, our main project.
Trees were being planted in order to help farmers. We got to learn how to plant without the use of modern machinery and pesticides, without the means of the green revolution. A large number of farmers are very poor, and during the green revolution, many killed themselves because they were accumulating debts due to the competition and did not see another way out of their poverty
When we arrived at the Catholic Municipality of SSSS, we got an “Indian” dot on the forehead as sign of welcome. After our stay in the village, we considered the SSSS a luxury.
On the first day we visited the school and met the young people with whom we would work together for the coming two weeks.
The children were all about fourteen years old and immediately when entering the classroom I got the impression that the boys took much more space than the girls.
Girls in the Indian schools, we later heard by locals, are accustomed to being quiet and are therefore very shy.
We spent the first day together and in order to get to know each other we played games.
The next day we started to work in the fields. Equipped with a shovel, we started to dig holes for the trees. The relationship between the Indians and the Belgians improved over the next couple of days. The Indian boys showed us how to play cricket. The Indian girls preferred dancing and clapping games.
The work was physically exhausting: we planted mango and lemon trees, we had to carry water over the fields and built an irrigation system.
We were very proud of the result of our work: we had planted trees. I even named one of them 'Sun'. It should provide warmth and a sense of security to all trees. We all left behind our green track in India.

After that, together with five other young Belgians, I spent one day in an Indian school. This day, I believe, was one of the most beautiful days I spent in India, if not one of the most beautiful days in my life. The children ran behind me, laughing and calling out loud my name. Fiona! Fiona!

During the last three days we experienced the country from a tourist point of view. This was also very shocking. First we saw the poverty in the country, and now we encountered a different perspective of this country by talking to people working in the tourism industry. They have to earn their living from their work in tourism, and as we discussed with some sellers, we learned that they find it difficult to earn enough to feed their families. 

Many people, including children, belonged to a group of narcotics traffickers and find it very difficult to get out of this vicious circle. They have to beg. The principle is very simple: If they don't collect enough money, they get beaten.

The money collected ahead of the trip during the fund-raising campaign “Sahel Vert” directly financed our DBA projects. A solar roof in Salem was bought for the generation of electricity, the material for the fence at Siddama’s farm was paid for and we donated material to the school: pens, games and books for the children.

I am so happy I had the opportunity to go on this trip. I experienced so much during this mission to India, and I will always carry the Indian sun in my soul.

by Fiona Quadri

1 comment:

  1. Hello Fiona, I have just read your account of your experiences in India, and I am in awe of your open heart and mind, as well as your way with words. I am looking forward to our exchange trip to China, and hope that you will consider writing about that journey...

    Mrs. Garkov