By Samuel Fox:
This year I spent 12 weeks taking part inÂ International Citizen ServiceÂ (ICS) with VSO in Jharkhand, India.
When I first found out that I’d be spending three months in eastern India during the monsoon season, I was somewhat apprehensive. Fortunately the weather proved to be pretty ideal, as the rains were nowhere nearly as frequent as I had envisaged and had a cooling effect on the temperature for a day or so after each shower. We stayed together at what was known as the Rural Technology Park (RTP), about 18km away from Deoghar. Our two cooks took on the roles of adopted parents and always kept us in high spirits despite having a limited understanding of English. A couple of times we surprised them at meals by wearing fancy dresses, which they found absolutely hilarious, as the concept of dressing up was not at all familiar to them.
Deoghar is home to one of the most significant temples of Lord Shiva. As a result, every year in the holy month of ShravanaÂ thousands of pilgrims descend on the town wearing bright orange, after having walked 105km barefoot, bringing with them, water from the Ganges. The festive atmosphere is unique, and the diversity of worshippers is quite fascinating: some pilgrims being from affluent backgrounds and others evidently much poorer, yet all brought together through their religious devotion.
After completing our extensive training programme, we had a week of visiting different communities to conduct research for presentations. This initiation was very important to get a grasp on the differences in pace of life, infrastructure and the role of women. In some rural communities there was a notable lack of women’s voices, whilst the local NGO we were working with (NEEDs) employs women in prominent positions.
The project I was working on (‘Anganwadi Chalo Abhiyan‘) involved improving the capacity and functioning of the government run preschool education service. In rural India it is very common for young children to work in the fields so it was our job to ensure that they had access to appropriate education, nutrition and health monitoring. On our first day in the village there was an all day wedding party. This got us off on a good footing as they were in high spirits and allowed us to join in the drumming and dancing. After our data collection we began to work with the children, playing games and singing songs in Hindi and English (‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf’ was a particular favourite). After only a few days the children were able to lead some activities on their own. Community members received us very well on every visit and they would come to watch us working with the children and talk with us. We were very generously treated to lunch by one community member, featuring some deliciously cooked mutton. One of the most satisfying parts of the project was handing out new toys and learning materials at the community centre. The first toy we gave them was just a small plastic ball, but that alone got them in an excitable playful mood. We also got them to decorate their own paper butterflies, which they were extremely proud of, parading around the village and showing them off to their elders. During our project we became aware of several shortcomings in the services the government was providing. At the end of the project we presented our findings to local government officials who stated their intentions to make changes within the next week in our village.
I found the Indian people very hospitable and endearing. They take a great deal of pride in their treatment of guests. Another striking characteristic is their profound love for music and dancing. People I met were seldom hesitant bursting into a song and do so with remarkable confidence.Â Family ties in India are extremely important. In the West we have come to expect our families to respect our decisions concerning our lives, whilst in some parts of India family often plays an integral part in the decision making process. Their sense of community is much more assured than in the UK. Whilst carrying out our data collection, villagers could name all of the children in their surrounding area without batting an eyelid.
Working with the national volunteers was fun. At our mid-phase review in Rajgir, Bihar (a significant place in Buddha’s life) discussing cultural differences proved to be one of the most interesting sessions. Addressing challenges like these proved fruitful and allowed our groups to work better together after returning to our projects.
The programme kept us busy with community action days (CADs) and global citizenship days (GCDs), as well as our respective projects. We conducted a CAD on a stage outside a school for International Youth Day, making the youth aware of their future career options and encouraging them to actively participate in their communities. We performed songs in English and the nationals also performed in Hindi. A notable GCD was on the topic of hygiene and sanitation at a rural school. The children responded with great enthusiasm and all of the children and their teachers were made to wash their hands in the proper fashion.
I enjoyed my ICS experience very much and recommend it to anyone, regardless of what their future career plans are. It is the perfect platform to develop organisational and interpersonal skills, and a brilliant way of gaining an understanding of infrastructure in the developing world. I have gained a lot of confidence in working to professional standards and I am now motivated to start a career in development work. Spending time living in another culture has been a valuable experience to me and I intend on continuing my learning of the Hindi language for future visits to India.