Sapphire's India Blog.
Setting up health camps in the villages.

During our time working in Deveryaneri and the four other villages we have all noticed that many children do not know much about basic hygiene and cleanliness, most of them fail to wash their hands before and after meals and after they go to the toilet which is in itself a problem as many of them urinate in their clothes and will spend days wearing them afterwards without washing. We have only become aware of these habits the more time we spend with them as shortly after we arrived they braked for the school holidays and have only just returned to the school in Deveryaneri where we have started to have much more interaction with them. We have also noticed infected cuts on some of the children especially the ones of Tollgate village which is the poorest and most uneducated of the five villages we work in. On our last visit we noticed a girl with a very nasty infected wound on her leg which had obviously been there awhile and had not been cleaned or attended to in anyway, we immediately took her to her parents and showed them how to clean it and explained to them that they must do this regularly to stop it from getting any worse. On the same visit to Tollgate another little girl had a very sore and weeping eye which she could barely open as it caused her to much pain, we were all very concerned about her as although none of us are experts it did look like if it was left any longer she could be in danger of losing sight in that eye. After speaking with her it turned out another child has poked her in the eye with a stick a few days before and no one had thought to take her to the doctor or even attempt to clean the eye.

After speaking with the NEWS ladies they informed me that the girl’s parents were away on business and would be back that evening. I expressed my concerns to the NEWS staff and they assured me they would make sure the parents took her to a doctor that evening. We will continue to monitor both girls when returning to Tollgate.

Since encountering these problems we have started holding health camps at the villages demonstrating basic health and hygiene. We have showed the children how to wash their hands thoroughly and explained they must do this before and after every meal and also after using the toilet. We have also explained to them why they must do this and what can happen if they do not do so. We have explained to them about brushing their teeth every morning and every night before they go to sleep. We have also explained the importance of washing all over regularly and also washing their clothes. We plan to hold more health camps on cuts and grazes and how to take care of them. I am also very keen to teach the older girls of the villages about feminine hygiene as the NEWS staff have told me that many of them know little about this, especially as until recently they have always used napkins during their periods, luckily the Indian government has now provided the villages with sanitary towels but I think it is important to teach them about how often they should change them and the importance of being clean during this time.

Since holding the health camps we have noticed lots of the children are keen to wash their hands after meals and all seem to enjoy doing this and they do it very thoroughly just as we showed them. We are keen to re visit Tollgate to see if the parents of the little girls have kept up with what we asked of them. The problem with the children urinating in their clothes seems like a harder battle to win as most of the adult women here also do the same, so the children have learned this off of their mothers and we will need to speak to them so they can be educated to educate their children. I think this will be a hard habit for us to break as they have been living like this their entire lives and it could take a very long time for us to change a habit of a lifetime. I am also hoping our feminine hygiene camp next week will ensure that the young women will make sure they keep clean thus preventing them from any harmful problems or infections in the future.                      

Life as a Hostel kid.

Its been a mixed bag of emotions this week, lots of new children have enrolled into the school and hostel, the hostel is for kids of other gypsy villages that live to far away, so during term time they live here in Deverayneri and stay in the hostel so they can get an education. Some of them are as young as four and will not see there parents for months at a time. Because the hostel is already full at the moment the new children have been sleeping in the run down building across from our hut so we are in very close proximity to them all the time. The hostel is a ten minute walk from our hut so we only see the kids while we are at work and do not see them during the evening. Having some of the kids so close means we get to see how they live and the conditions in which they sleep (concrete floor, straw mats and a few smelly old blankets) The kids are generally left unattended after school and we spend our evenings playing with them and keeping an eye on them. This should not be our responsibility but that of the charity and the school. Often after they have gone to sleep I will see a little shadow sitting across from me on the steps of the building, I have walked over quite a few times to find a tiny child crying in the pitch black because they have awoken in a strange place very disorientated and with no parents to comfort them. I have spent lots of time trying to calm them down and get them back to sleep. A few days ago this happened twice in one night with two different kids. Many of them are still practically babies and it worries me that they are generally left to their own devices, it also worries me what might happen to them when we have left. There is a busy main road directly opposite where the children sleep and although they are all much more resourceful than western kids of the same age I often think they could easily walk out into the road in the middle of the night and know one would know. 

I was also appalled last night when I noticed the children setting up their mats outside and and noticed the building they usually sleep in was locked, the building has just had some work done on it and our CEO (founder and director of the charity) did not want the children in there, even though all the work was finished and everything was dry. After hearing this myself and Mitul demanded that he open the door and let them sleep in there, I was absolutely disgusted that he was prepared to let these tiny children sleep outside in the pitch black near a main road, especially as it has begun to rain a lot here, not to mention that some of the kids are his own relations. If he did not want them in the building (although there is no reason why) then they could have easily slept in the empty kitchen opposite our hut which is more than big enough.

I am finding it very hard not to become to emotionally involved with the children, especially the very young ones who obviously need to be with their parents, I am also starting to notice them becoming dependent on me. All my maternal instincts are coming into play and it is hard to not to develop attachments to them. They are amazing kids and its wonderfil to see how they all watch out for one another, I can’t help think that if they didn’t who would?

A bit about the charity and the work we do.

We work for a charity called Narikuravar Education and Welfare Society (NEWS) established in 1990, NEWS is an Indian based charity in Tamil Nadu, South India. Developed locally from within a Narikuravar gypsy community, NEWS provides food, shelter and education for disadvantaged children and works with five communities to alleviate poverty. This is targeted in 4 main areas, education, health, human rights and livelihood development. NEWS helps people to develop the confidence to overcome societal discrimination: the greatest obstacle faced by tribal communities when improving own circumstances. We as volunteers assist the NEWS staff to achieve the above. Our main objectives are too:

• Raise awareness of the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol among the community

• Increase visibility of NEWS through media platforms

• Organize curricular and non curricular games with the village children

• Teach English and IT skills to the NEWS staff and village children

• Fundraise for NEWS

• Empower Women

Our main focus is on the children and women of the communities we work in. We live and work in Deveryaneri but also visit four other gypsy communities each week. We spend our days in the villages teaching the children basic English skills and facilitating fun and educational activities. I would like to write about a typical week here in Tamil Nadu but the truth is there isn’t one as even though we do have a planned schedule the NEWS staff never quite stick to it and things will often be cancelled at last minute or we will end up doing something completely different to what we had planned. I find it hard not working to a structure but this is also something we have come to accept and again refer to this constant change of plan as ‘the Indian way’, often the staff will turn up a few hours late for work and nothing is said by the CEO’S and no apology is required. Everything here is far more relaxed than the UK and although this can be nice at times I still work better with a routine and this is something we don’t really have at NEWS.

My first weeks on Placement!

After 5 days spent training in Delhi my team and I finally set of on our 45 hour journey to Tamil Nadu, southern India. This consisted of a 38 hour train journey and then another 7 hours on a coach, sounds simple enough, or so we thought. When we arrived on the platform to catch our train we were informed that our seats had not been confirmed and that one member of our team might not have a seat at all. We soon discovered that we all had seats on the train but none of them were together and we were all in separate parts of the train meaning we would have to sleep next to strangers for two days. Luckily Mitul can speak Hindi and after nearly three hours battling with fellow passengers and the train conductor he managed to bargain a compartment for all four of us although we had to pay extra for the privilege.  

We were very relieved that we managed to get seated together as none of us fancied a two day journey sat on our own and sleeping in very close proximity to complete strangers, especially as on the first night we all awoke to find a lady stood in our compartment watching us.

After this first hurdle I managed to get some shut eye and did little else but sleep until we arrived in Chennai two days later, my team however did not manage to get much rest at all and were less than impressed by the time we reached our destination. 

The journey from Chennai to Trichy was hassle free and again I managed to sleep most of the way. We were met in Trichy by our CEO Mahindra who drove us to what would now be our home for the next Three months.

We arrived in Deveyenari which is a Gypsy colony situated on the side of a busy main road stretching for about 1 mile. We were greeted by some of the villagers who performed a traditional gypsy ceremony to welcome us to their home.

 Our new home is what can only be described as a shack/hut with very basic facilities, the hut is also very hot most of the time and it is often too hot to sleep; although we have electric fans there are at least 3 power cuts throughout the night.  I can’t say that the accommodation is particularly ’accommodating’ but I wanted the experience of actually living as one of the community and I think it’s safe to say that I will be doing just that.

We have now been living in the village for nearly two weeks  and it feels like we have become part of the furniture, all four of us have developed good relationships with the people here, especially the children who are wonderful and although they speak very little English we have really gotten to know each of their individual personalities,  in the evenings they often come and sit on our porch and play games with us.

 In our first week we found some balloons and introduced the kids to the joy of water balloon fights which caused much hysteria and excitement ,  everyone got very wet indeed. Water fights are welcomed by all in this incredible heat (40 degrees).We are developing good relationships with the staff here and also the village children who are wonderful and we really enjoy interacting with them.

Although we are now settled in the village and everyone is used to us it has taken a while to get to this point, for the first week we were hounded every time we walked through the village by up to fifty people at a time all very inquisitive and all wanting to say ‘Hi’ which is fine until they start pulling at your hair and pinching your skin and poking your face. It feels like we are celebrities here as people are always asking to have their picture taken with us, some parents will quite literally throw their babies at you with little warning and demand a picture, the babies  often seem very put out, but the parents seem too distracted by us to notice.

We still find it strange that the people are so interested in us and all because of the colour of our skin, it sometimes feels like they put us on a pedestal just because we are white, this can feel very awkward and uncomfortable especially at the recent school function where they sat us on the stage facing the entire village as if we were members of the royal family or the judges on X Factor, we all felt very uncomfortable and eventually we were seated at the side of the stage instead.

During the recent function, Mahindra and Sitta (News CEO’S) asked us to perform a ‘traditional’ English dance in front of the whole village which would have been ok had we been given any notice, but we were expected to come up with something almost immediately, we all felt very intimidated as we had been watching the school children practicing their traditional Indian dances all week and they all danced so beautifully. We came to a unanimous decision pretty quickly and decided to go with the good old faithful – Macarena, we were very worried that it would look awful compared to the other dances that were being performed for the function but amazingly our dance was a hit and all the children went wild and cheered us all the way through.

Things are often sprung upon us at last minute and we have nick named this ‘the Indian way’, recently we were left with a classroom of 60 children aged 5- 13 without any supervision and expected to know what to do with them, It was complete anarchy and as it was our first time with the children we had no idea what to do or how to control them. Amazingly we got through Two hours without any major disasters, but it was not a particularly enjoyable experience for any of us and we were shocked that so many children were left in our care on one of our first days on the placement.

We have been working in the village school which has a hostel attached for children who come from the other villages and stay there during term time and also for the orphans of the village. It was shocking visiting the Hostel for the first time as it is made up of 3 rooms with concrete floors and a few very thin mats which the children sleep on and little else, they do not even have pillows! Often there are kids as young as 4 left unsupervised for hours at a time, a few days ago some of the school children came running to our hut shouting ‘fire’ so we ran to the school to discover a small boy had set fire to some news paper in one of the classrooms and nearly burned down the building! luckily know one was hurt! but it worries me that 70 odd children ranging from 4 - 11 are left alone for such long periods of time!

We have now been living and working here for six weeks and we are half way through the placement, without sounding to cliché it has been a rollercoaster of emotions for all of us, living and working in a small team twenty four hours a day can be very tough as there is little time for oneself and no escape from the village and the constant attention we receive on  a daily basis.

 The thing I have found most challenging and hard to accept here is the inequality between men and women,  It is very hard for a strong willed independent person like myself to accept the way women are expected to behave here, I appreciated this is the Indian culture and I am a guest in this country but I can’t get used to how much repression women face here. While it is fine for a man to walk around in little more than a towel covering his dignity women must cover every part of themselves and even a bare shoulder is considered to be very offensive. Personally I have found it very hard having to cover all of my body as if it is something to be ashamed of especially as I have struggled for many years to be happy in my own skin,  here I am wearing what can only be described as a sack. The women here are not able to express themselves in many ways and often they must sit on the floor in the presence of a man as a sign of respect while the men sit on chairs.  Men are free to drink and smoke but If a women was ever seen doing either they would be disgraced and thought very badly of.

In the Gypsy communities we work in many girls will marry by the time they are 12 to men as old as 25, this is something we are trying to discourage, the charity we work for will often hold talks on the dangers of child marriage. Many marriages in India are arranged by the parents, the bride and groom will not meet until their wedding day. I cannot imagine having no choice in the man I would have to spend the rest of my life with. I have observed many unhappy marriages in the community we are living in and cannot help but wonder what goes on behind closed doors