Friday, February 25, 2011

Volunteer Survival Strategies

Hazaribag is not a big place. I live on the outskirts and can walk into the town comfortably in 25-30 minutes. There is one cinema (Hindi only, obviously), no sports complex, bowling alleys, live music venues, swimming pool, golf courses, pubs (!), theatres....basically all of the things that in the UK we tend to use to fill our lives. So what is a volunteer to do....? This is my guide to surviving as a volunteer in India....

Exercise is important – it's obviously good for your physical health, but also your mental well-being. I love running in the UK, and here is no different. Every other morning you can find me running to the Jheel and back. It's quite pleasant out there to be honest. The Jheel is basically a man-made lake. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a proper monsoon last year, there isn't much in the way of water in it any more, but it's got trees all the way round and the paths are quite good – which makes it as good a place as any to run. I've been involved in a couple of impromptu games of cricket too, but I bat like Phil Tufnell and bowl like Inzaman ul-Haq (I'm guessing here, but I can't see Inzi steaming in and pinging one down at 90mph). I'm looking at getting some morning football organised too....

Reading – I read. A lot. The Kindle is officially the greatest invention of mankind. I will accept no argument. I can store 10,000 books (I probably have about 70 on it at the moment, so still a bit of space) and take them all with me wherever I go. I read in my flat, on the bus, at Cafeteria. I'm falling in love with reading again and that's a very good thing! Recommendations this week - The Raw Shark Texts and Generation A: A Novel.

The Cafeteria at the Jheel is a great place to spend an afternoon btw. Cafes don't really exist in Hazaribag apart from here, but you can sit around, watch families come for picnics and enjoy a bit of sun away from all the traffic and noise! You also get coffee and good food – winner!

The Kindle also gives me access to the Internet, anywhere in India, for free. Yes. For free. Ok, so it's not like using an iPhone or anything like that, but I can check my email and get the latest football scores ;-) Luckily for me, India is well connected in terms of Internet, so I can also actually get online most of the time during the day in the office. I say most of the time – powercuts happen a bit more often here than in the UK ;-)

Cooking – ok, so I'm not going to get a Michelin star any time soon, but I'm enjoying being back in the kitchen again after a year of Marriotts! Among my accomplishments so far: Indian flatbreads, steamed pudding, pancakes, apple fritters and numerous curries.

Music – ok, so this is a bit of a no-brainer, but I listen to a lot of music. Everyone knows this. If I'm on my own I have music on – my mp3 player never goes more than about 10m away from my person at any time! Here though I've been using Spotify a lot. If you haven't used it before, Spotify allows you to listen to music over the Internet – and it's legal. You can have it for free and it will play a couple of ads per hour (like a radio), or you can pay like I do - £10 a month. For that I also get to download the files to my laptop – useful during power cuts (see above!). I really can't praise the service enough – plus you can link it to Facebook and send songs to your friends as you find them. Awesome! (Not too subtle hint – if you use Spotify, send me links to stuff you're listening to at the moment!)

Blogging – obviously I do this too. I write about my experiences and thoughts. It's good to do from a professional point of view (my Genius or Guinness blog) – I'm thinking about the work a lot more, but also it's a good way of getting the story of VSO and Srijan Foundation out to people, which is the important thing really. People seem to like the blogs too, so hopefully people are getting a few laughs out of this too!

Try to learn Hindi – so, I still haven't got lessons organised, but I have got a pretty good program. It's called Byki and the Express version is free to download. I've downloaded a load of lessons for it as well and I'm working through them. I need help with my grammar and pronunciation, but apart from that I'm golden! ;-) In all seriousness though, I am improving (slowly) and can get by in terms of buying whatever I need and making myself understood. Not going to be translating War and Peace into Hindi any time soon though!

Finally, and probably most importantly, getting out there, walking around, talking to people and exploring. I probably don't do this enough at the moment, but the people here are soooo friendly and happy to see you in their country, it would almost be a crime to stay indoors. In fact – I'm going to make it against the law. If you're a volunteer in India and don't spend at least one evening a week walking around the town and meeting people, I will come and bash you around the head with a chippathi pan!

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to run a meeting in India

Running a meeting in India? Here are some helpful hints on how to do it....

  1. Don't bother with a purpose of the meeting, just decide you need one. You can come up with a reason later.
  2. Due to point 1, agendas are obviously not required either.
  3. Start times are flexible. (Captain Subtext interpreting......”Turn up whenever you want. Don't apologise if this is under ½ a day late”)
  4. End time is flexible. (Captain Subtext interpreting.....”No-one has anything better to do than listen to you. Feel free to run on well into the evening”)
  5. Don't bother preparing for the meeting, Definitely don't read any pre-meeting materials. You can read the documents in the meeting, this will make you look serious and professional.
  6. When you arrive, decide immediately that whatever seating arrangements have been set need to be changed. Rather than ask one person to resolve, better if everyone grabs nearest chair/table/desk and move it in a random direction a distance not exceeding 3cm.
  7. If someone is talking, but not directly to you, it can't be that important. Feel free to get up, walk around, go to the toilet, whatever you want....
  8. If someone is talking, but not directly to you, it can't be that important. If you don't need the toilet, why not get your phone out and take some photos? After all, if there isn't a photo of people sitting at a table, the meeting basically has no output.
  9. If you're explaining something to someone, it helps to write the exact words you're saying on a notepad and underline each one for emphasis. This is especially helpful if they understand completely the first time, ask a different question and you decide to repeat your previous answer.
  10. If you have a volunteer from the UK, who you still haven't arranged Hindi lessons for, definitely invite them to meetings run exclusively in Hindi. It's a great use of their time!
[For those suffering a sense of humour failure, this is meant to be tongue in cheek!]

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Crashes, Rubbish Tips and Yummy Food

Last night I got back from another field trip. It was a pretty interesting experience for a number of reasons - 1) it's always good to see the villages where the work we do actually happens and to meet some of the people impacted 2) I got to have a bit of time off and visit some tourist attractions 3) some pretty random stuff happened!

Ok, first of all - the touristy stuff. There's not much reference to it here....mainly because I didn't realise it would be happening and didn't have my camera. That, as far as I'm concerned, means it didn't happen, so I'm going to have to go back there at some point! Therefore, you can hear about Rajgir another time....

So, Sunday morning (yes, I was working all weekend again!) we set off. I was with Rajiv and Swapan, two of the founders of Srijan Foundation. We'd hired a car for the trip and off we went. Our driver was pleasantly non-suicidal, which makes a change for India. Normally, overtaking is a matter of pulling out, beeping the horn lots and praying that nothing is coming in the other direction. If there is something coming, a game of chicken ensues to see who pulls off the road to avoid the collision.

Anyway, I thought this guy seemed to value his life a little bit more than normal, so I felt good about that. We'd been driving for about 20mins, and then it happened.... In India, lots of people ride motorbikes and mopeds. They have different rules here - you can easily get three people on one, I've seen as many as four or five. It's madness. Women sit side-saddle on the back, no hands, no fear - lunacy. We overtook one such couple on this journey, flying along at what I would guess was 40mph, no helmets. About 5 seconds after overtaking, our driver slams on the breaks - one of the multitude of potholes in the road. Said motorbike comes flying up alongside me on the left, bumps through the pothole AND THE WOMAN FALLS OFF! No lie, this woman, probably 40 years old, rolls about 3 times before coming to a stop in the dirt. She got up and seemed ok, but it could have been really bad.

Wear a helmet kids!

The rest of the journey was thankfully uneventful. We were travelling to the state of Bihar, which is north of Jharkhand. The town was Nawada. All I can really say about Nawada is that it is dirty and has more flies than I have ever seen in my life. Apparently it is 100 times better than 5 years ago. This concerns me...

We were staying in a hotel, which was actually quite ok. I got my own room, which was a pleasant surprise. On the last field trip I had to share a bed with my boss - not something many people have to put up with! This was also a good thing as my stomach was again playing up. Not to Nepal levels, but not ideal. I have now left Jharkhand three times since arriving - on each occasion I've had a bad stomach....coincidence? I hope so!

The work we were doing was actually to assess a project being run by another NGO. It was into the second year of 4 and Srijan had been asked to come in and give our opinion on it, so we headed to the office and met with them for the afternoon. On the way back from the hotel, we got a bit lost. I know this, mainly because at one point we took a "short cut" across the Nawada rubbish tip. I'm not joking. The dumping ground for this city, which was already the dirtiest place I'd seen in India, and we're driving straight across it!

Monday was a trip out to the villages. We saw the midday-meals program for the schools (ensuring children get varied and proper meals in school, hopefully encouraging their attendance!), vegetable gardens and met with a number of local people. The vegetable garden was really pleasing to see - one small family in particular. There was a woman, partially disabled, probably about 40, living with her mother. No males in the family, two children. They had a tiny little plot where they'd started growing veg as part of the scheme. The size of the plot was tiny by any standard, but the benefit was huge. The family were actually eating vegetables - improving their health, while saving money (she estimated Rs 50 in 3 months - just under a pound, but significant for them) at the same time.

From there, we'd completed our work and it was on to Rajgir. Now, I said I wouldn't talk too much about this, and I won't. But I did want to talk about one thing. Rajgir is an important holy site for Buddhists. As such, it attracts a lot of tourists - including the Japanese. This has led to a number of Japanese infrastructure projects in the area - road improvements, etc. So, we're driving from our hotel to get some food, it's after 6 so it's dark. We pull out onto one of these Japanese roads and what do we see? It's like I'm on an airport runway - the cats-eyes are blinking on and off like LEDs, flying off into the distance. It's the most bizarre thing I've seen in a while. Why they couldn't make do with normal cats-eyes wasn't apparent!

Another thing I should mention is the food in Bihar. Litti is awesome! It's little balls of dough - imagine a kind of naan dough-ball with filling....yummy! There's a pic on the left (I have to say that the presentation of the ones I had wasn't quite to this standard!) Check here for a recipe.

We also had aloo parantha

Rajgir is awesome by the way - I'm definitely going back, and a full report will be coming then (with pictures)!

Only back in Hazaribag for one day - I'm heading back to Gumla and Khelari again. This time I'm setting them up with Internet access and email addresses, plus doing some initial IT training. It's all about starting to improve their communications and processes. Hopefully!

Saturday I'm hoping to catch some of the Jharkhand Games, I'm sure you've read all about them in your papers so I won't go into detail here ;-)

By for now!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Srijan Foundation - 10 Years Today!

Hi all,

So it's been almost two weeks since I got back from Nepal, and I've been working 12 days straight - who said this volunteering lark was easy?! Anyway, that's (kind of) my excuse for not posting in that period - although it's mainly been that I've been waiting for today.

Basically, this weekend has marked the 10th anniversary since the Srijan Foundation (the organisation I'm working with, just in case you missed that!) was founded. To recognise this fact, we've had a couple of days of getting most of the team members together to discuss what is currently happening across the organisation and look forward.

It's been a really interesting experience for me over the last week. Last Saturday I set off on a two-day trip out to some of the remote offices to introduce myself and meet the staff. The field offices are where the actual projects are run and give a great insight into the work that Srijan Foundation does, so I thought that was worthwhile posting here....

Jharkhand (the State I'm in) is a primarily rural state. The main occupations are farming and mining. It's actually an extremely mineral rich state, which should really make it rich. It's not. It's one of the poorest in India. Education is severely lacking and attitudes to women, children and the disabled are also what would politely be termed "backward" in the UK.

All of these things are inter-related. The poverty of the families means that they often withdraw their children from school at an early age. Children work in the mines and in the businesses related to that. This means that their future job prospects are extremely poor. Going back to school once they've left is extremely difficult. Many migrate to the big cities in search of work. There is a sex industry that thrives on the back of these migrant workers, spreading STIs back to the rural areas, where a lack of sexual health education means that infection rates soar.

Girls in the villages are seen as a burden on the family. Money has to be paid for their marriages and the more they are educated, the more has to be paid (as they have to marry a boy with equivalent or better qualifications). This means girls are taken out of school even earlier and marry as young as 13 or 14. The average age of marriage in Jharkhand is under 17. It's a sobering experience to be here and to understand the situation so many people find themselves in, just because they weren't fortunate enough to be born in a country such as the UK.

So what are Srijan doing about this? The simple answer is a hell of a lot for such a small organisation - They provide Alternative Education Centres and Bridging Schools for the children who have missed time in school to allow them to rejoin education. They provide vocational training to get adolescents out of the mining and sex industries. They provide sex education, both to the children and to the rest of the villages so that they understand the importance of safe sex and their rights as individuals. They provide access to contraceptives, medical treatment and literature on all of this. They provide sensitivity training to the villages regarding women's rights, the importance of education of children and other such equal opportunities issues. They provide medication and advice to girls caught in the sex trade and help to prevent abusive behaviour towards them. They set-up women's Self-Help Groups to allow women to use Micro Finance systems to start their own businesses, growing crops, creating clothes.

The list goes on and on....I'm probably leaving off so many things that I'm doing them an injustice. I'm working on a website for them at the moment, so that will give you more information once it's live.

They really are an amazing organisation and it's been a privilege over the last few weeks to work closely with a number of them and see that passion for their work coming through. I just hope I can do a good job and help them over the remaining 10 months of my time here (yep - been here over 2 months already!).

If anything I'm talking about is inspiring you to get involved, you can learn about the next VSO meet-up here.

Anyway, I think that's enough for today. I (finally) get a day off tomorrow I think, so I'm going to take the camera out around town, so look out for those hitting Flickr soon!