Back at the “Project”

After a week and a half away, I came back to two new volunteers, Ellis (20 year old from Scotland) and Ollie (18 year old guy – our first guy! from England), and my stuff shoved into bags and moved into a different room.

If there’s anything I get twitchy about, it’s having my stuff moved, particularly in a manner where I can’t easily find things. One of the reasons why I chose to stay at one project for the whole four months instead of moving around is to have a home base. To have my own bed, my own bit of space to come back to when I was sick of playing tourist. If I had just come back, after a 13 hour bus hellish, sleepless bus ride + hour long metro ride + thirty minute lost driver rickshaw ride to having my space completely shifted and not knowing ahead of time1, I think I would have flat out cried. As it was, I didn’t have the option of just crashing out on my bed and sleeping all morning because everything needed to be re-situated. I surprised myself at not being too twitchy about it. Not thrilled, but not twitchy.

I’m kind of dazed at just how much has changed in the week and a half I was gone. Wendy left, Betsy is in Jaipur, Ollie was here (and then left, he was there just for that week I was not), and we have Ellis. We have a white board now, and we’re apparently teaching them how to write English as well, though I’m still only vaguely updated on what has gone on over the past week and a half while I was in Dharmasala.

I went back to the project for the first time today. It was a very frustrating experience. Previous times I’ve just kind of had a day of letting whomever was there when I wasn’t run things and I just offer support when necessary until I picked up my stride again. But Betsy is in Jaipur and Ellis is new herself, and has no way of knowing just how much has changed since I left. And, suddenly, there’s children. Lots, and lots of children.
They outnumber the women, particularly in the second class, where I saw only four people out of over a dozen I recognized. Gone is the fun, women-only-feel of a group of friends supporting each other as they learn English. I loved that chemistry. We haven’t worked on bags or jewelry or any of the other things that make this an actual women’s development project since before Betsy came. The only volunteers that ever got to see what this project is apparently about is Wendy, Katherine and I (and Katherine only barely).

I’ve already started to get cynical about it: which came first? Are there volunteers because there is a project or is there a project because there are volunteers?
Katah Sandesh, the new NGO that I theoretically am helping has been flailing for so long I’ve started to question it’s continued existence. I no longer see the connection between what we are doing as volunteers and Katah Sandesh. All I see us doing are informal classes with people unrelated to Katah Sandesh that Mamta throws together. I’m not saying that what she’s trying to do – offer free English classes to women and children that she cares about – isn’t lovely. I’m not saying that Mamta herself isn’t lovely. I’m just questioning if the reason why I am doing this at all is because Mamta gets money for each volunteer that she has – she gets money for our room and board and the project gets money. We are presently her only source of income.

So this morning I stared at two class rooms mostly filled with children and wondered what the hell this has to do with women’s empowerment.
I did not sign up to teach children. I signed up to work with women. I like kids well enough. I just have zero interest in teaching them.
So I sat there, in front of half a dozen small children (both girls and boys) where there used to be women. I corrected the kid’s notebooks and spelled out colors for them to write down.
I simultaneously mentally prepared an email to the Director about how I wanted to change projects. I came here (and paid) to do a women’s empowerment program and this no longer has anything to do with women. I could spend the rest of my time here (6 weeks!) actually doing what I came here to do instead of this haphazardly organized class set that is seemingly set up to milk money from volunteers (again: I do like Mamta, very much so. I just expected there to be an actual project for us, and one relating to women).

But then the class was over and I went across the street with Mamta and Ellis to where the second class is usually held, Betbati’s house. Betbati’s daughter in law (both Betbati and her daughter in law were my students back when this was still about teaching women), had been pregnant. She gave birth prematurely a few days ago and the infant boy died. The bedroom/living room where we held our classes when it rained was filled with somber men. We went upstairs and sat on the roof with the extended family’s women, all much more quiet and subdued than normal. I drank chai with Betbati (who patted my knee affectionately throughout) and politely attempted to follow the conversation of women. I said all I could say – Maaf Karna (I’m sorry), which is the only thing one can think of saying in a such a situation. Language is such an inefficient vehicle for grief and sympathy, and a language that is not your own, even more so.

A group of elderly women (elderly is an understatement: they looked like raisins wrapped in brightly colored ribbons/saris) came out of the room that Betbati’s daughter in law was in. They started wailing, almost ritualistically, their saris covering their faces, their bodies shifting side to side. They continued to do so while we went into the room to pay our respects to the mother who lost her baby.

I know these women. Not well, not even well enough to remember the daughter in law’s name2. But I see them daily and they accept my place in the neighborhood, and it’s acceptable for me to come by and pay my respects. I have been here long enough to see both births and deaths, to see festivals, to have family dinners with people other than my host family. I really do like it here.

But the project is a joke.

I don’t know. Is sacrificing the neighborhood, the people worth doing something I actually want to do? Does moving projects actually mean that I would do what I want to do, or would it just be the same situation in a different location? How can I change this situation? What can I do for the women? Is there anything I can do to be proactive about getting the actual project back into the swing of things?
I need to talk to Betsy, and attempt to talk to Mamta a bit more.
Six weeks is a long time to feel this way.


1 I sussed out the situation beforehand from Betsy so I knew that my stuff had been moved before I arrived.

2 I feel awful about that, but when you have women-students with variable attendance and your shared languages doesn’t allow for extended conversation, it is hard to remember names.

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2 Responses to Back at the “Project”

  1. Jacomina de Regt says:

    Remember, you are speaking the universal language of showing up and caring in the situation of the death of the baby even if your Hindi is not sufficient to express it more eloquently.
    I would definitely try to get back into or move to a woman’s project for the last 6 weeks. Good luck!

  2. Pingback: On Volunteering | mis·trans·la·tion

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