“I came to know about Mutki Trust through a friend of mine from London. When I told her I was taking a sabbatical to go travelling for six months, she invited me to do some voluntary work at the hostel in Chaparda. In Gujarati this is known as giving ‘seva’, or being of service. I wanted to spend some time in India and really experience Indian culture as this is part of my ancestry. It was the first time I’d been to India I didn’t go there with any set agenda about what I would learn about myself. I knew about the poverty in India and wasn’t expecting it to be easy but I wanted to be open to whatever experiences came my way.
When I first arrived at the Mukti Trust project and the ashram I was surprised by the size of the place. My initial reaction was of feeling overwhelmed at the place. It was in a very remote part of Gujarat, and it was difficult being understood as few people could speak English and I couldn’t speak Gujarati. I found it noisy and chaotic but the girls were friendly and eager to welcome me. The people in the kitchens who made our food were also welcoming towards me. We ate lovely Gujarati vegetarian food and come meal times they were constantly offering me more food and piling up my plate!
After a couple of weeks I settled in to a routine of teaching English in the morning at the school set up by BET to both the girls and boys, then spending a couple of hours in the afternoon at the girls hostel playing with them. Between around 5-7pm the children had activities and playtime and I would spent that time teaching them how to ride a bike, playing badminton or skipping with them, there was a good selection of toys and activities to amuse ourselves with. If we didn’t want to do that the girls would love to show me traditional Indian dancing and sing songs.
It was initially daunting walking into the classroom to teach English, especially as I couldn’t speak Gujarati. The English teacher’s however were a great support and would translate in Gujarati while I taught in English. The boys and girls were also very welcoming. They were fascinated by the fact that I looked Indian, yet spoke English and wore Western clothes. However, rather than that being a barrier between us it provided a rich forum to build a teaching relationship on. When I first stepped into the classroom the children wanted to know about the UK and see British money. Within a couple of days I was being asked into almost every class to show British money, the children were fascinated by it. The boys and girls would yell out from their classroom if they saw me in the corridor and plead with me to come in. The first few times I taught a class the children would give me a round of applause and want to shake my hand. A few times I had children asking me to sign their exercise books. It felt sometimes like being a bit of a celebrity! When I would walk around the grounds of the project I was always greeted with a ‘Hari Om Teacher’ by the boys and a ‘Hari Om diddy’ by the girls. ‘Hari Om’ is a traditional Gujarati greeting and is basically a blessing. ‘Diddy’ means sister.
The teachers were also eager for me to share as much knowledge about British culture and understand the English language better. They were very friendly, I was invited to a teacher’s house for lunch and was fed the most glorious food. She told me that in India there is a saying that a guest is a god and that was exactly how they made me feel with their warmth and hospitality. I went to see a Bollywood film at the cinema with one of the teachers and even though I can’t speak Hindi I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I also understood for the first time why Bollywood films are so popular. My theory is that life for most people in India is pretty hard. At the hostel my shower consisted of a bucket and cup! Power cuts and the water supply going off would happen regularly. Spending an afternoon at the cinema was much needed respite. The colorful dance routines and ‘feel good’ factor was just the escapism I needed.
I was given quite a bit of responsibility during lesson times and had free rein to teach the children anything. I took it upon myself to borrow some books from the teachers and would come up with my own lesson plans. It would be a lesson in keeping with their curriculum e.g. learning about the time or past tense. Everyone was so supporting and helpful to me it wasn’t long before myself and the teachers had effortlessly slipped into a routine of me teaching and them translating.
The children were eager to teach me Gujarati, though I wasn’t good at it! But the girls were always warm and affectionate towards me, despite the language barrier. When I would get over to the girl’s hostel in the afternoon I would always be greeted with hugs. What I miss the most about the whole experience was how affectionate and open the children were, how warm and welcoming they were in spite of the cultural difference.
One event that sums up the spirit of the children is during Sports Day. For some reason their Sports Day lasted three days and I would turn up and sit with the teachers to cheer the children on. It was a fun, high spirited atmosphere and everyone was enjoying themselves. During one sports event it suddenly occurred to me that there were no parents present. I noticed in those moments that these children’s lives were not being witnessed by their parents. The children were growing up in to such wonderful people and many of them did not have a consistent parental figure watching, witnessing and celebrating their victories, however big or small; whether it was winning the three legged race at Sport’s Day or learning to ride a bike. Yet the children remained so loving and open. I truly admired their spirit and felt touched and privileged to be a part of their lives, even for a short time. I felt the need to take as many pictures of the children as I could to document their lives. Like I said at the beginning I didn’t go to India with any set agenda, I wanted to learn about my ancestry and I couldn’t have asked for better teachers than the young people at the project. I went to the hostel set up by Mukti Trust to do ‘seva’, to be of service and I came away feeling that the children have been of more service to me than I have been to them. The ashram was sometimes a hard place to live in, but the children helped me and gave me the will to see it through.
I will always wonder about what kind of adults the children will become. As I remember that Sports Day, watching the children striving to do their best, to succeed, to win, cheering each other on despite not having their parents around to witness them, I am hopeful for them all. To the children of the Mukti Trust and BET I should like to say ‘Danjavad’, which is Gujarati for thank you”.