Week 1: Adjusting my Expectations
On the very misleading website of the non-profit I came to work for, there is a photo gallery of all the activities that happen at the center. Among those listed were yoga, drama, dance, and art activities. I had been under the impression that these things were everyday scheduled activities at the community center. In my skype call with the org I asked if I could help out with the creative arts activities. My host father (also the managing trustee of my NGO) said yes that would be great and very useful. Sorted. Sike. When I rolled into Delhi one of the first questions he asked me was, “so, what are you planning on teaching at the center?” A little taken aback that this wasn’t something he had any plan for, I said I was planning on spending my days at the community center. He said he was planning on me spending two hours there and working from the “office” (his house) the rest of the day. There were no other volunteers, and I quickly realized there was almost no one else staffing this organization.
My first day at the center I walked in and all the kids were studying independently. I quickly discovered that unless there was some special workshop happening, this is pretty much all that happened within those four walls. The “teachers” were sitting in chairs positioned so that they could shout whenever the kids got too rowdy (or lend a well-intentioned smack on the head if necessary). There was no art program happening. There really was no program happening. I decided to just plop down with the kids on the floor, but they quickly became so distracted by my presence that all it lead to was more yelling and smacks across the head for them. I hardly felt “useful,” as I had been told I would be. I found out that when different “didis” (didi is the hindi word for big sister, what they call any female volunteer) came to the center, they taught whatever they had expertise in. I felt supremely unqualified to lead anything. The next two days passed like this; me not really helping with much of anything, and coming to the center anyway at least for the purpose of leaving my homestay. In the office, I really had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. My host dad shared his fantastical dreams about saving the world and asked me to email ambassadors and politicians. No one at the center spoke English.
Along with my discovery that the center was not the warm welcoming presence in the slum community that I thought it would be, was the discovery that my NGO was not so much an organization as it was my host dad’s passion project. Due to unforeseen and tragic medical reasons, my host dad, R.K. and his wife Vandana have no children. For a little bit of background, Indian culture is extremely family oriented. (In the 33 interviews I conducted for my research, only 9 people answer yes to the statement “my life would be meaningful even if I don’t have children.” These interviews had ages from 4-39, boys and girls.) My host parents like to say they have 1000 children now that they have taken on the 6 slum community centers. While my host dad who technically holds the title “managing trustee” is extremely devoted, he is the only person managing the NGO. He has no sustainable source of funding and pays for roughly 50% of the expenses out of pocket. As the regional director of EuroVision Broadcasting for all of South Asia, he alone cannot run six community centers and also grow the org to a point where it is sustainable. In short, when I arrived the Prajna Foundation was somewhat of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, It was a beautiful mess fueled by tragic circumstances and the endless idealism of my host dad. However, a mess nonetheless.
My first nights in Delhi I lay awake worrying that I had made the wrong choice. I could have picked any NGO, gone to any city, and done any project. I was overwhelmed by the affection of my host family, and underwhelmed with the structure of the NGO I was working with.
When my first weekend came around, I was excited to leave my homestay and to avoid the isolation of the center for the day. During my first weekend I went exploring by myself in Delhi for the first time. That day completely changed my outlook. I took the metro straight to Chandi Chowk (the backbone street of Old Delhi and the most crowded most notorious area of the entire sprawling metropolis). I quickly felt lost and vulnerable, and grew tired of taking selfies with every person who walked by. It was 115 degrees outside, and although I had traveled alone, thousands of eyes watched my every move. I did everything wrong. I stood in the line designated for men for thirty minutes at Delhi’s Red Fort before eventually realizing that there was a women’s line on the other side. I stood in the line designated for women for a little while longer, before being pulled out of line and directed to a special window marked “foreigners.” I secured my ticket and wandered around the fort, listening to my pricey and useless audio guide. I sweat, took some photos, took some selfies with strangers, sweat some more, then decided that I had had my fill.
I found some secluded shade where I could let the sweat on my forehead dry into a solid layer of salt on my face, drank the rest of my water, and googled how to experience Old Delhi alone. Once I found a national geographic self-guided tour of Chandi Chowk with a map and highlights, I decided not to uber back to my homestay and to give it one more try.
Following the map, I had a new sense of assuredness. I ignored the stares and photographs being taken of me, and did my best to open myself up to what the heart of Old Delhi had to offer. The rest of that day included temples, back alley jewelry markets, some of Delhi’s best and most famous street food, and sitting in on a service in a mosque with live singers and drummers. Once I had found a spot in the main room of the mosque after a stranger had helped show me how to properly cover my head, where to wash my hands, and where to leave my shoes, I felt like my meltdown at the red fort was a lifetime ago. I sat in the mosque (which was AIR CONDITIONED!!!) for almost an hour listening to the girls singing and observing people worshiping. No one took pictures of me, actually no one seemed to even care or notice that I was there. It was the first time since I arrived in Delhi that I had felt blissfully inconspicuous. I was amazed at how such a serene marble space could exist in the middle of a street that embodied chaos.
That evening when I returned to my homestay, my host parents eagerly listened to all my stories, and patiently appreciated my photos of sights which they had seen in person hundreds of times. Our conversation was interrupted when a former volunteer from the center’s founding years came to our door to surprise my host mother for mother’s day. She brought her 8 month old baby, a bouquet of flowers, and all of my host mothers favorite sweets. She had known that mother’s day would be tough on my host mom who will never have children of her own, and whose mother died within the past year. The former volunteer started talking about all of the things that she had accomplished when she worked at the center, and about how much she cared for the kids and the mission there. The NGO is small, but this woman was so close to the organization and the people behind it that they had become like family.
She quizzed me about what my plans for volunteering were and I really hadn’t thought about it much that weekend. I decided that the next day I would really dig in. As we passed the surprise cheesecake around in a circle, took photos, and talked about old memories and dreams for the future of the NGO, I felt really at home. I had been accepted into this family, and I had accepted the responsibility of contributing as much as I possibly could to the foundation.
Week 2: Wrapping Up
Within the previous four weeks I have made a full set of alphabet flashcards and a sticker chart for the five girls I intensively worked on English with, gone through 6 bags of Cadbury Dairy Milk individually wrapped chocolates that I used as incentives for good behavior, rewritten/adjusted 12 short stories to be sensitive to Indian culture, interviewed 33 kids about their experiences, and completed three art projects. The first two weeks I devoted entirely to English. I spent two and a half hours every day going over sounds of letters and working through stories with the same five girls. When we started, these girls couldn’t even name all of the letters in the alphabet, and by the end of two weeks were able to clap out syllables, sound out letters, and piece together words. They had literally learned how to read English within 12 days. (A testament to the remarkable ability of little kids to learn languages.)
The third week I devoted myself entirely to interviews for my research, but as I began the third week, I decided that I could only teach so much English in one week, and decided to spend the last week trying to beautify the center. I was hoping it could become somewhere that was well looked after, colorful, and welcoming. If we could accomplish this, it would be the only space in that slum that filled that description. I felt that that would have a much more lasting impact than any amount of short stories.
Monday was spent working on the website for the org (which desperately needed an overhaul) from 8 am when I got back from my morning run through the beautiful Jahapannah City Forest until 11 pm when we ate dinner. Today we cut out hearts and messages and taped them up in the drab main area, and I just wrapped up my third hour of pre-cutting strings for tomorrow’s friendship bracelet extravaganza.
Looking back at how unsure I was of that first week, I could not be happier I decided to lean in. I was afraid of taking on a self-guided project and being the only English speaking volunteer, I was afraid of the amount of affection my host parents were giving because I didn’t feel like I could reciprocate, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to turn the wild city of Delhi into something I could manage, and most of all I was afraid that somehow this incredible experience would be wasted because I picked the wrong path or wrong project.
I think about the long conversations and old photo albums I looked through with my host mom, the moments where I was actually drowning in children and they relentlessly jumped on top of me, the moment when Anu begged me to find her a copy of I am Malala in hindi, the moments when Prianka, Ritu, Khushboo, Tara, or Anu pieced together a word that I thought for sure I would need to help them with. The fact that I somehow felt that these four weeks could have been anything but incredible is laughable now.
I just placed my order for samosas and bought green balloons for my last day of work on Friday. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye, and there is so much more I wish I could do. There are so many parts of Delhi I never came across, so many places in India I never saw, and so many brainstorm sessions between my host dad and I about our org that will be left unfulfilled within my time in India. I struggle to think about how to best tie up my lose ends, and to what extend I should stay connected with my org, my host parents, and with the kids I worked with. Regardless of how difficult it will be to fly out of India with so much left on my bucketlist, I really cannot put into words how lucky I feel. Not only am I counting my lucky stars because I got to come to India at all, but also that I got to have the precise experience I’ve had. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have asked for anything different, and I am so happy I decided to lean in.