Last summer, Veronika, a third year BSc2 student, went to India to volunteer as an English teacher. However, things took a turn: The region where she stayed and volunteered was hit by floodings...
How did this idea of volunteering in India come to mind?
At some point, I realised that I was not appreciating what I had. All the things I have, like my room, facilities, food, my parents, I take for granted. I realised that I was getting into "a bubble of comfort", and I got kind of stuck in it. I didn't realise and appreciate the small things in life... And I wanted to change that. With this idea in mind, I started looking for some volunteering work that I could do over the summer. At some point, I found this website called Volunteering Journeys, and this organisation mainly focused on volunteering opportunities in India and Sri-Lanka.
After some more research, I found out that there was a program that combined one of my hobbies, yoga, with this international volunteering experience. First of all, this program itself really spoke to me, because of the combination of yoga and volunteering. Moreover, I have always wanted to visit India. This is, because I felt, and still feel like there is something special about the country of India. It's a huge country with a completely different culture. The people have their own food and their own way of life. It is a super interesting country, partly because it is now developing and changing so much, which seemed marvellous to experience myself. Many people go to India because they feel they are lost. The country has this image that it will show you the initial "right way" in life. I read a couple of books where India played a big role, for example "Eat, pray, love" and the book “Shantaram ". The latter one described the country with so much love. The main take-away from that book for me was that there are lots and lots of people on just a limited amount of space, especially in the Indian slums. If people would not love each other, there would be wars and a lot more crime. However, despite the fact that there are so many different cultures and religions amongst the Indian population, people all live together peacefully. I find this very impressive. When I decided to sign up for the yoga program, I had to choose between two main volunteering jobs: (1) The women empowerment program, and (2) Teaching English to primary school children. I didn't really have an upfront preference so they put me into the second program.
Something else to mention: When I decided where I wanted to go, I saw this program and I thought it was perfect. The place was Kerala, which is a region in the Southwest of India. Moreover, it's a very green region nature-wise. Also, it is considered as one of the most developed regions in India: The literacy rate is pretty high. It did sound to me like a more or less safe place to go. However, the thing I didn't check out was the fact that there would be monsoon season (raining season) during the time I would be there. I subscribed to the program and got the information booklet, in which it was stated that the summer is actually the worst time to go to Kerala, mainly due to the heavy rain. The pretty beaches that were on the website would possibly be flooded. I started reading reviews on the internet, and eventually I felt quite confident until two weeks before I was leaving for the project. I started checking weather forecast and realised that there would be 27 degrees with 80% humidity and rain every day. I started packing for this adventure, and noticed that half of my suitcase consisted of precautionary measures to prevent anything bad happening to me. I realised I was going into the unknown... However, as soon as the plane departed and we were in the air, I knew everything was going to be all right.
And then the adventure started...
When I arrived at the airport, my experience of the Indian way of life started immediately. There was supposed to be a person waiting for me, but you guessed it, he wasn't there, and he was nowhere to be found. I decided to call the organisation, but I wasn't able to understand them that well, as they were speaking English with a quite strong accent. Fortunately, I found the guy who was supposed to pick me up. After waiting for other arriving students, we went into the car and travelled to the place we would call home the next three weeks. I was lucky to arrive together with 25 other new volunteers. This is because people who have already been volunteering there for a week or two might not want to discover and explore the city again.
The thing that I struggled with most was the fact that nothing was really arranged properly, at least not to the extent we are used to in the Netherlands. Plans were moved around all the time. We arrived on Saturday and the schedule said that we were going to have an introduction and explanation of the project on Sunday. This was going to take the whole day, so that's what we prepared for. However, as soon as we arrived, we got a short introduction of around 1-1.5 hour about the volunteering we had to do the coming weeks and there was not even a paper handout of what we have to do. Especially when you don't have any teaching experience, it's very difficult to come up with a proper teaching plan on your own with only this limited information. On Sunday, we took a trip to the Kerala backwaters. This is a system of canals and rivers, which was just amazing. We also tried traditional Indian food. This day was a very good start of the adventure. The nature and the really nice people made it even better. All of the fellow volunteers came to Kerala with the same objective: To learn something, to make a difference, to contribute, to get to know the country, and to give all that they can to the place.
The volunteering itself
I was expecting that we, as volunteers, would be there to give something extra to the children. I was thinking about giving additional lessons in an interactive way, i.e. playing some games. In the manual, they said that you didn’t really need to prepare and that you didn’t have to bring any teaching material. I thought about the project in this way: In the morning, I would do yoga, then teach English and in the afternoon play with the children, whereafter I would go home and read some books and do some meditation: I thought about the project like it would be some quality time with myself. It was nothing like that. I had to teach four lessons per day, all of them taking around 45 minutes to 1 hour. In the morning I had to teach three lessons to children from around 10, 11, and 12. In the afternoon, there was one more lesson with kindergarten children of around age 4. Usually, there were 2-3 volunteers per class. However, we were not ‘extra’ as I thought, but we were literally substitutes for the teacher. We had to follow a government program about what to teach to these children. The required level that did not match the level of most kids in the class. Some of the kids were very bright, and could follow me, but most of them unfortunately couldn't: They didn't understand what I was saying, what they had to read, etc. In the lessons, I was not able to hear what they were saying, as they were very shy about their English and thus talked very quietly. They were taught to copy, paste and learn by heart, because that will make them pass the exams, which made the whole teaching experience very difficult.
We would usually split up: One of us would be teaching in front of the class, and the other(s) would be in the back helping the children who were struggling the most. They had very minimal English skills, so it’s very difficult to start to teach someone English, especially when you don’t even speak their language. You can imagine that the whole experience was quite chaotic. However, the kindergarten in the afternoon was easier as I knew better what to do: Use a lot of expressions and emotions, say a word and let them repeat this word. We sometimes drew pictures for these children to make meanings clearer.
After around one and a half week, Kerala was hit by floodings. The program got cancelled, and no one really knew what to do anymore and how long this would take. I think we really started realising how bad the situation was when we wanted to go to Munnar, which is a really famous tea and coffee plantation in Kerala. At first, the trip was cancelled due to the huge amount of rain, but this decision was reversed eventually. Only when we travelled halfway to Munnar, we suddenly got a message from our guide to turn back because a lot of tourists were stranded there. Apparently, the airport was flooded, and we heard stories about people having to leave their flooded houses. Moreover, many people had to be saved from the water. We were very fortunate to be at a relatively safe place, as this region was surrounded by water and all the excessive water would flow into the ocean. However, 50 kilometers from our place, a massive tragedy was going on...
Some of the people rebooked their projects and flew back home. But I am a really optimistic person, so I thought it would be fine eventually: If it would have been very dangerous, my coordinators would have told me to go home. But they didn’t, so we (approximately a third of all volunteers) stayed. We decided to do something about the situation instead of just staying where we were and wait for it to be solved on its own. We heard that people were transported into camps and came up with the idea to buy these people some necessary products, like clothes, hygienic products, and food. We started spending our own money, but soon we realised that if we really wanted to contribute, we should collect a bigger amount. So that's what we did. Our coordinators had a lot of contacts in the city of Kerala and thus they knew were the camps were located and which ones we could visit to bring our stuff. They figured out what the camps needed and how many people were there. Our coordinators helped us a lot in the sense that these people in need have a different culture than us and thus do not always wear clothes that we think are suitable or helpful. They would just stick to their old and dirty clothes in case our donated clothes would not be in accordance with their culture or traditions. We have also got help with who to give it to and where to buy these clothes cheaply.
The people were shocked, they didn't know what was going to happen. Their house was either destroyed or completely flooded. They had to start all over again. Still, they were smiling at us. A great example of this is as follows: At one of the camps, the people were having lunch. We came there to bring them some more food. However, the first thing they asked us was: Are you hungry? These people were so open and hospitable, they would share or give everything they have. Another example happened when distributing food. You might expect some people to get as much as possible for themselves and/or their families. However, no one took more than they needed. Moreover, they were super impressed that white people were there to help them. The image they have was completely different: They thought that white people would never care about the situation at developing country. They were just really impressed that we did not try to flee from the country because of the problems it was facing.
At some point, people from the camps started leaving to their houses again, so we started looking for families who had some serious issues with their house so we could support them as much as possible there. We met someone who was hosting three other families in their house, one of which had a pregnant woman as well. We mainly decided to help these four families in total. We went to buy a lot of food for the whole village. Just as in the camps, the whole village was working on distributing the food proportionally to the amount of people in the family. Everyone was taking as much as they needed so that the others could do that as well. You could really see how thankful they were.
Take-aways from this experience
Of course, this was a huge tragedy, but on the other hand, this really challenging situation brought out the best in people. I experienced the most beautiful sides of human nature: All those people experienced one of the worst things that could happen to them, but they were all hanging on each other and helping each other. And they still appreciated small things: Anything that made them a little bit more happy. We struggle with small problems, but those people don’t let themselves down even though everything around them seems to literally fall apart.
The last thing I’ve learned during this volunteering experience is as follows: If there is a problem, don’t be afraid to just go and act. At first, when one of the volunteers proposed to start a charity, we were lost what to start with. But here is the truth: Through taking actions, you find the right people who support you. Collecting a 1500 pounds and making them go into wright place seemed quite unrealistic at first, but slowly but surely things got together. You shouldn’t wait, but just go and try. Be pro-active.