This was written during my student days and published in Leeds Student.
To be fair, 45ºc is just unnecessary. There’s really no need for such blistering heat – particularly when you’re a ginger fair-skinned Brummie. When I landed in Delhi this summer, India was approaching the end of its worse heat wave in decades. The hot and sticky humidity made my month of backpacking around the North a bit of a sweaty struggle. However, during an unexpectedly productive four weeks of solo travel, I went paragliding off the Himalayas, rafting down the Ganges, took an elephant ride in Rajasthan, joined the patriotic hollering on the Pakistan border, visited 18 cities, survived numerous lethal rickshaw rides, acquired a good few dozen mozzie bites, learnt some Hindi, received endless grillings from curious natives, cultivated an impressive ginger mullet and witnessed all manner of festivals, forts, heritage sites, museums, shrines, temples and ghats. Awesome.
13 rolls of film and 6 hours of video tape later, I looked forward to settling in the cooler Southern city of Bangalore for my subsequent two months of development work. The highly Westernised ‘silicon city’ of the sub-continent, Bangalore boomed in the 90’s, attracting lots of foreign interest and migration – putting a heavy strain on the infrastructure. A portion of India’s 250 million English-speaking-middle-class elite work in the plush high-rise offices, literally on the doorstep of some of the world’s poorest. It is a grim contrast.
In early June, after a two day train journey to the South, I met up with my project partner Paul and we were introduced to the Development Education Society (DEEDS) by the director, nicknamed ‘Tiger’. Over the summer we would be mainly teaching English in day-centres in the city slums or rural areas of Tamil Nadu. Having done a similar project in Uganda last year, it was great to start getting to know the kids during our tour of the centres. We were introduced to the children one by one; many of them were school drop-outs or worked regularly in factories, earning pennies. Some worked as domestic servants to the rich in the morning, and came to DEEDS in the afternoons. We regaled the sea of curious faces with a selection of poorly recalled nursery rhymes, whilst I accidentally made of the children burst out in tears by pulling (apparently very disturbing) ‘funny faces’. Shortly afterwards, one bewildered looking character approached us and I cheerfully said, “Hey, don’t look so worried!” Paul whispered, “Um, Tom. He’s blind.” It perhaps wasn’t most gracious start to the project, but I hoped to make a bit of a difference here and was optimistic about bringing some fun and excitement to the lessons.
The sandy slums were more spacious than I’d expected, and the buildings showed more signs of permanence than the corrugated iron huts I’d witnessed in Kibera, the world’s largest slum, in Kenya. Amongst the hustle and bustle of our n ew place of work, children played barefoot in the polluted streets – some of them occasionally stopping to defecate on the side of the road. Although efforts to establish a sewerage system were visibly being made – it was clear that the locals were living in filth, with seemingly little idea of how disease is spread. Randomly placed cows, pigs and scraggly dogs roamed the streets (as is the case across India), whilst rats, easily big enough to be mistaken for small felines, scuttled along the gutters!
Over the following weeks, we embraced the ‘non-formal’ teaching approach and used worksheets, role-plays, games, crafts, songs and posters to communicate the basics of English. Our revision sessions appeared to reveal that some things were sinking in – but with such a range of age and ability in each class, it was impossible to get through to everyone.
We had an easier time when we moved to the rural placement. Here, the students were more attentive and willing to learn – perhaps a little less ‘street wise’ and hardened than their urban counterparts. The teaching was more straightforward, but living arrangements were a little more ‘hardcore’. Having been treated to a comparatively luxurious apartment in Bangalore, Paul and I were now sharing a flat with no shower, hot water or civilised toilet, where the temperature frequently lingered in the forties. Additionally, it became necessary to sit in darkness during the evenings – as we learnt that a single light was prone to attract a menagerie of mystery insects, including swarms of miniature beetles and the odd hand-sized spider. The appearance of such beasts was usually marked by my girly screaming, which continued until Paul wearily ran in to butcher the said creepy-crawly.
What impressed me about DEEDS, a fully Indian charity, is that as well as handing out rods, they dish out nets, bait and subscriptions to Angling Times. It’s not just teaching and day-care, as I’d presumed when I’d signed up via a UK development charity called ‘Development in Action’. In fact, the NGO works on every level of the community, it’s seriously inspiring – as is the passion and wisdom of Tiger’s staff.
In addition to work in the city slums, DEEDS looks after almost 50 rural villages, where the major causes of poverty seem to be people’s ignorance, and the inability to think long-term and understand their own problems. With a network of almost 1,000 sponsored children, the charity goes into villages and communicates their message through songs and puppet shows (such as one we saw that highlighted the importance of breastfeeding). DEEDS goes on to help suppress superstitions, teach people about their rights, about nutrition, voting, farming techniques as well as the importance of sending their children to school. They set up farmer, women’s and youth associations, they subsidise seed banks, wells and herbal gardens, they offer a loan scheme, business advice and even provide skills training. All this is done with the help of the community – who always pay for at least some of the costs. Everything is done at a grassroots level by local charity workers and volunteers, and it’s much more effective – dare I say it – than the ideas and methods dished out by Western charity directors from their air-conditioned London offices.
A billion people, over a third living below the poverty line – India’s problems are complex, broad and often seem hopeless. However, DEEDS is superb example of development work actually working, and working well.
The teaching was a challenge, a lot of the children had already been dealt a shockingly cruel hand in life and they were often, perhaps understandably, awfully behaved. Since the pupils were attending voluntarily, we couldn’t be too harsh; we maintained discipline most of the time, occasionally enlisting the help of our translator, Shanthi (who sometimes wielded a small ‘motivational’ cane). Since most of the people living in the slums had migrated from the neighbouring state, they didn’t speak the local language, let alone any English. As it’s only really spoken by the educated middle-classes, English is not a real necessity in India – but it’s one of the many colonial leftovers and regularly helps lead to employment.
I did this placement during the summer vacation in-between my 1st and 2nd year, if anyone is interested in development – then perhaps take a look at www.developmentinaction.org for more information. I had an amazing time, it changed my outlook and apart from a couple of minor tropical diseases, I also returned with unforgettable memories, great friends, and a renewed passion for teaching!
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