Category Archives: India

Home sweet home

So…I’m home! As you may have noticed from my previous post, things weren’t exactly going swimmingly with the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme with Restless Development.

The team leader from the other group had decided to call it a day and left, and I and one of the junior volunteers in my team decided to do the same. I’d been torn for a while about what to do – I kept thinking “I’ll just stay a while longer, things might pick up…” – but there’s only so much waiting, trying and hoping you can do.

Ahhh, if only we could be as zen as this chilled out chap...

We thought that once we’d made the decision and informed the appropriate staff members, it’d all be smooth sailing from there – how hard is it to change a flight? – but we should have probably known better by this point…

We never heard from the Indian Programme Manager again (perhaps indicating his level of investment in the “project”), and were pushed from pillar to post when trying to sort out our journey home. Eventually it seemed that someone, somewhere was looking into changing our flights (I think we’d been waiting for nearly a week at this point) – but it was Friday afternoon and they had their weekend to get to! Never mind the fact that we were sitting there going stir crazy, having been there for the best part of 6 weeks with nothing productive to do – they were going to clock off and try and get back to us on Monday. They had previously told us that what would be most convenient for them would be if we were to “sit tight” for another two weeks, which we resolutely refused to do – the crux of the issue was that there was nothing to do, we were wasting our lives there. Asking us to waste two more weeks was a bit much.

When we were told to hang about until Monday, and there was still no sniff of a flight being booked, I decided it was time to call in the big guns and ring my mother. Off she tootled onto the internet and found us a flight for the next day – not for two weeks time, as we’d been told was the next available flight – and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved in my life.

Restless Development said that as we’d not booked the flight through STA travel, they wouldn’t be able to pay for our flight home, but could make a part contribution to the cost of it. I’d given up my job, then 6 weeks of my life, a lot of my patience and hundreds of pounds, but it was finally nearly over.

I rang the Assistant Programme Coordinator to ask her to book us a taxi for the next day (seeing as we couldn’t speak Oriya), as instructed by one of the UK members of staff – she then refused to do so, telling us we weren’t leaving as she didn’t know anything about it. I told her our flights were booked – and then we had a rather ridiculous few phone calls of pantomime-style “Ohhhh no they aren’t”…”Ohhhh yes they are”. Anyway, to cut a very long story very short – we got the heck out of there. It took us over 2 days and 3 flights to get home, but we were home!

Since returning I’ve found out that the rest of the ICS volunteers have left India – whether of their own volition or being sent back, I don’t yet know.

This series of posts (1, 2, 3) has given a bit of an overview of the ICS experience – when I’ve recovered a bit (no, seriously…!) I’ll get to work on some posts about India, development, aid and other related topics – so if you’re interested please stay tuned!

Trouble in “Paradise”: struggles with ICS India

Reading my previous post now, I chuckle to myself at the hope I still had about the project picking up – well, as much “chuckle” as I can muster, whilst also being close to bashing my head against a brick wall with frustration.

Students in India
The 3 Bs of education: bored, bemused, baffled

When speaking to friends and family back home, they try and helpfully suggest speaking to other staff members, or contacting the London office again – but we’ve contacted everyone we possibly can and aren’t getting anywhere with it. We’re in almost daily contact with various staff members about the situation, and while there is a bit of talk, there is no action. We’re even chastised for contacting the London office by the Indian staff – we’re informed again about the “chain of contact” we should follow – we should put all our worries to our designated Assistant Programme Coordinator (APC) who we should see daily – but in the time we’ve been living in Chatrapur, we’ve seen our APC very little – weekly would be pushing it, and certainly nowhere near daily. At one point early in the process I put a group worry about the male Programme Coordinator to the female APC, hoping that the sensitive situation would be dealt with tactfully. The problem was passed straight on the the male member of staff, who came and aggressively put an end to any further discussion. Following that little “incident”, you can probably see why this “chain of communication” thing wasn’t really going to work.

Aggressive behaviour, drunken behaviour (though we’re not supposed to drink, the male members of staff have been actively encouraging it, getting drunk themselves, buying alcohol – including for underage volunteers – and calling those who do not wish to drink “boring”), as well as inappropriate and aggressive conduct with volunteers, a lack of training, a lack of preparation of the project (in fact, no useful project actually existing), no prospect of things changing, the list could go on – what the hell are we doing here?

At one point, during the training, things got so bad that the Country Director for India flew in from New Delhi to assess what was going on and take statements. Things started off well – she proclaimed complete neutrality, and assured us that she wouldn’t show the communications we’d had with the London office to the members of staff in question. We then found out that she had shown the papers to the staff, and at the end of our sessions with her, stated “As I mentioned, it is my job to remain completely neutral. However, I’d just like to say that I am completely behind my team, and have complete faith in them. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” Very neutral. I think we knew then that the whole thing was doomed!

Ready, steady…hmmm

3 weeks in – and an interesting 3 weeks it has been! We spent 2 weeks training at a youth hostel in Godalpur-on-Sea (a weird mishmashed Indian/English name if ever I’ve seen one!), though to be perfectly honest I think most of us came away from said training more confused than when we arrived. Not off to the best start!

Lighthouse, Godalpur-on-Sea

Living in our little place in Chatrapur are 4 English volunteers, and 2 national volunteers. When we arrived and during the training it became clear that the roles we came out here to do aren’t as clear cut as we thought – the junior volunteers are struggling to understand the reason they are here, and myself and the other senior volunteer are feeling much the same. We have now been told that 80% of our role is to be spent researching information on the internet – and I can’t see the reason for flying us across the world to sit doing what we could do in England, or doing that which an Indian person could just as easily do (if not more easily, as they obviously understand the culture, language and whatnot here). Also, there is no internet connection here, and no plan to have one installed. Go figure that one out…

The junior volunteers are to go into schools to try and teach about the Indian administrative system – civic participation – to children who speak no English. As such, they have the National Volunteers to go to the schools with them to translate. But of course the Indians know more than the International Volunteers do about the political system here, and citizen rights – so they are doing the majority of the teaching. We’ve brought up our concerns with staff, who have suggested that the junior volunteers teach whatever they’d like to teach – music, IT (despite the lack of instruments or IT equipment) – though none of the junior volunteers have teaching experience, or any idea of what might be needed or missing in the curriculum.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine, so-called “aid” where people go abroad and impose their ideas of what the community needs without actually consulting the community. As it happened, this “teaching whatever they like” didn’t happen in the end, but the fact that it was suggested worries me somewhat as to how seriously staff are taking things. Speaking of the staff, I’ve got a whole lot of stories there…though I won’t get started on that or this post will end up novel-length!

Although we’re off to a disorganised and altogether worrying start, I’m still grateful for the opportunity to have come out here and hope that we can work on creating a viable project. We’re still working through things and trying to create our own roles – it’s a challenging time for all of us, but we’re pulling together as a team to try and work things out.

New year, new chapter…in India

Fishing on Chilka Lake

In a few days I’ll be in India, beginning in-country training for my International Citizen Service placement with Restless Development. This time last year, while searching for a job in the third sector, I could only have hoped that an opportunity like ICS would come along.

I have always been interested in international development and its surrounding issues, and have volunteered and worked for charities for quite some time, but until ICS I haven’t been able to focus on development. Three months on-the-ground work will be invaluable experience for all of us involved with the programme, as well as increasing our confidence and knowledge of the development field.

This will be the first time that Restless Development has worked in the state of Odisha, in the east of India. This project is a great opportunity to get under the skin of a local community, meet new people and learn about another country and the problems it faces. Hopefully we’ll be able to make an impact during our time there, and pave the way for future volunteers to continue our work.

During my time over there, I will be acting as a leader for the volunteers I’m living and working with. This is a wide-ranging role incorporating project management and ongoing pastoral support as the group comes together. Although I have managed projects for charities in the past, this project, with its in-at-the-deep-end aspect, will definitely be a challenge. A new culture, new and as-yet-unknown tasks, new people, challenging day-to-day lifestyle, and the pang of homesickness will no doubt create heightened emotions in all of us.

But they’ll also give us life-long friendships, with our fellow volunteers and those of different cultures, amazing experiences to have and stories to tell, and the knowledge that we can thrive and help bring about change in any situation.

Best of luck to everyone else involved in ICS!