Monday, 20 January 2014

India, IDEX volunteer placement

I have just finished my first full week of volunteering and already it has been an experience over-flowing with mixed emotions. Exasperation, frustration, hope, laughter, defeat, inspiration, confusion... just about everything you can think or feel has been crammed in to my dizzy head.

Despite not being able to visit the project prior to choosing it, I chose to work at the local government school on the mornings as it is severely understaffed and I felt like I would feel most useful in a situation where I was educating children. In my head I pictured being given a small group of older children that would sit wide-eyed and fascinated by the power of knowledge and would be super obedient because they adored me for swooping in and enlightening their minds. Oh how wrong I was...

Monday morning I innocently approached the dusty, shoe-box building, preparing myself for the unknown,

The Unknown was there in abundance.

The whereabouts of the teacher - unknown. The children's ability to speak english - unknown. Their manic hindi/konkani chanting and yelling - totally unknown by me! And how on earth I was supposed to suddenly lead a lesson when I couldn't even get them to all sit down at once, most definitely unknown.

All the headteacher suggested was to get them to copy out all the two-letter words on the board. Because once they go to high school all the teaching is in English, they just spend all their lessons learning English words, which just left me baffled because you take for granted your native language being so widely known. My primary education was indulged with exciting history lessons about tudors and kings and queens and fascinating science lessons and writing stories and simply learning about the world and it gave me a passion for knowledge. All these kids learn is how to speak in a language they barely understand. Their method of teaching English as well has been incredibly frustrating. They just teach them a big list of two-letter words by getting them to all write them down then read them out. The kids are not taught what these words mean or how to use them in a sentence, they are simply taught to recite them before moving onto the next list of three-letter words. But then so many people I've met in India can speak really good English so it must work somehow... maybe over my time here I will be enlightened.

Anyway, back to me standing in front of a black board with a bunch of little kids running up to me and tugging my clothes cheeping "Teacher! Teacher"...

Through the overwhelming noise and confusion and high-pitched meow came calling to me and I looked down to see the tiniest, little white kitten running around, dodging little children's grubby grasps. I picked up the little baby and put it on the 'desk' in front of me. Immediately all the children went quiet and stared in wonder as the little kitten ran round the teacher's table and they all started shouting "cat! cat!". Task number one, draw the cat and write out the word CAT. Oh cats, they're always there for you when you need them most.

I spent most of the morning after that getting the children to sit down. They'll just randomly get up and walk out the classroom onto the dusty path outside whenever they choose and they kept coming up to me with little pieces of paper that they'd wrote their names on. The first girl that did it came tentatively up to the desk and said "name, ma'am" and gave me a ripped up piece of paper with her name written in loopy writing. It was so adorable and I carefully folded it up and put it in my bag. Five minutes later they're all shoving their names in my hands shouting "Name! Teacher! Ma'am! Name!" and the initial heartwarming feeling was replaced with complete frustration.

Another thing I find really hard is that because the school is so small and there's not enough staff or money, kids of all abilities and ages are herded together and there were a couple of girls that were clearly so capable and intelligent and they have to just sit and entertain themselves while the teacher desperately tries to stop kids from beating each other up, running out on the road or kicking the cat. I just wish I could whisk them up and send them to a school that would recognise their potential and they could do so much with their lives and they will never have that opportunity here.

The kids are all about 5/6/7/8/9/no one knows and are all children that have moved to Goa with parents searching for work and so are in quite poor families or in bad living situations. At the end of my first day the headteacher came and asked me how I'd got along and then proceeded to tell me how the children are all very stupid but that they also have rubbish parents. She told me his very loudly, in front of their big, innocent brown eyes and actually grabbed a couple and brought them over to tell me that this boy's parents are alcoholics and this girl was forced to work as a servant while her brother spent all their money. It was quite hard to hear her announce this so unemotionally in such a matter-of-fact way, but then over the week I've learnt what a ridiculously unorganised state the government schools are in and how there is nowhere near enough funding and no structure so she's clearly had to harden up to hardships of life.

After my first day of complete mayhem I was absolutely terrified about how I was supposed to survive eight weeks of this and wishing I'd selected the orphanage where I can play games with them and give them hugs and not feel a responsibility to educate them. But if it's a challenge that will only make it more rewarding in the long run.

The Tuesday was a bank holiday because it was the Muslim festival of Eid so I just want to my afternoon volunteer placement. In the afternoons I opted to help out on a programme that IDEX initiated called Adolescent Girls. Monday to Thursday in the afternoons all the young teenage girls that live in the Monte Hill slums can gather together and in theory get help with their school work but really it's more an opportunity for them to just get together and giggle and paint henna, practice dance routines, plait our hair and just be normal teenage girls.

Monte Hill slum area is literally a shanty town settlement on top of the hill. As you walk up the steep uneven path you;re surrounded by rotting garbage with cows eating their way through it. Little half-dressed children will be wandering around on their own and stare and wave as we enter. The houses are like Rubix cubes made out of squares of corrugated iron, hardboard and brick, with little holes for windows where little old women stare out of you from. Once you see past the obvious signs of poverty and the lack of hygiene however, there is actually something so homely and welcoming about this area. Poorly wired electric lights are strung from all the rooftops forming a net of glittering bulbs and little Muslim flags flap manically in the wind like a cheering crowd.

It's so cliche but the girls here are just so unbelievably happy and normal and full of excitement for life, despite having so little. They come running to greet us and grabbed our arms and ask how we are and then we all go to one of the girls' living room and sit on a mat on the floor and spend the first half hour laughing at everything. They were beautiful traditional clothes that are so well looked after and even though the house is so small and basic and dark, it's kept impeccably clean. They don't have a lot, but what they do have they treat with so much respect and value it so highly.

The girls are all so lovely but they also get moody, or snappy... they sometimes meanly laugh at each
other and there is definitely a 'queen bee' even in such a small community. But in some ways these negative personality traits are reassuring because it reminds you that they are just normal teenage girls and will act like normal, stroppy teenage girls and it's nice that they are able to be like that and live their lives as teenagers rather than jumping straight from childhood to adulthood which was previously the only option before IDEX came along.

I could go into so much more detail as every single day this week I have learnt so incredibly much, but it's Sunday night, and tomorrow I have to face a group of wild children and giggly teenagers. So night, for now.

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