After an eight-hour flight I finally landed in New Delhi, all I had to do was make my way through immigration and find the man with an “iSPiiCE” placard. I was nervous, because although I’d been told to put “tourist” on my visa application, I was actually volunteering. My guilty conscience (though completely unnecessary) was making my heart pound and palms sweat as I approached the immigration official. Yet, needless to say, I had been worrying about nothing and proceeded quickly to collect my luggage.
Making our way across Delhi in a taxi, we weaved between cars amongst five lanes of traffic when there were only supposed to be three, there was a symphony of car horns in the background each playing at a different pitch, and there were various vibrant colours visible through a haze of dust. Numerous children were playing cricket on the grass verges beside the road. People had warned me that Delhi would be an attack on the senses, but I can’t help but feel this is the wrong description – it’s more a reawakening of them.
That evening we travelled to Dharamsala – a rural region in Northern India, surrounded by the Himalayas. I was there to volunteer with iSPiiCE (Integrated Social Programs in Indian Child Education). This is a charity that works at the grass roots of society, you can see exactly where your money is spent: the local day-care centres, food for the children who go there, and educational supplies, as well as much more. Without volunteers, and the money they bring in, charities like this would not become a reality and this poverty stricken, rural village would be in danger of slipping through the cracks like so many other places across the world.
Our tasks included assisting at day-care centres, where we helped to take care of the children, and keep them occupied by playing games. At first this task seemed daunting; my Hindi is non-existent (although I know a few words now), and they have very few resources so most of the games you play involves something that you can make – be it drawing a picture which they can colour in, making some play dough, using washing up liquid to make bubbles (always a hit), or singing nursery rhymes, counting, and playing catch. It is not hard, but it is incredibly rewarding – after the first couple of days the children emerge from their shells and you see their personalities. There laughter, giggling and mischief making is uplifting and endearing. Yet, when they brought out the scales to check their weight, it was a stark reminder that life here is hard.
In the late afternoon, after a refreshing cup of chai tea, we partook in some private tuition, teaching (mostly girls) English. I have never done a TEFL course of any description, but there are some resources and books that you can use; simply by using some imagination and creativity you can create a lesson plan that is always absorbed with great enthusiasm from those whom you teach. ISPiiCE embraces the idea that everyone, girls and boys alike, should have access to an education.
However, it wasn’t all work, we had organised trips to see different parts of the region; we went trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas and also went to the Taj Mahal. Volunteering with iSPiiCE was an incredible experience and was like a home away from home. I was completely immersed in a different culture, at the heart of the local community and experienced their unfailing hospitality. I couldn’t help but silently shed a tear when we left.
On the way to the airport, whilst at traffic lights, an elderly man came up to the car; he was asking for money. He has, most probably, been that poor since childhood just like the street children we regularly encountered. I knew India had a huge wealth disparity, but actually seeing the scale of this poverty, the hardship of life and the injustice which poverty causes was hard to imagine. The way to combat this has a lot to do with education, and this is something iSPiiCE clearly endorses so that all children can start to meet their potential, and hopefully, at some point, escape from poverty.
Photo credit: Clare Nellist