I’m back in the UK – and my stint of doing voluntary work for three months in India has come to an unexpected end.
On my first day, I decided to take a taxi to Kuruswada in North Goa, the base of Children Walking Tall. It took about 25 minutes from my hotel in Calungute and on arrival I was pleased to recognise Mango House from the pictures I had become familiar with from their website. Filled with a few nerves and much excitement, I was expecting to see and hear children from within the house but the house was eerily quiet.
Rob the charity organiser, soon came back from doing the daily chore of buying fresh fruit for the children and that was when I received my first blow. Rob told me that the charity had not had its licence renewed and, as a result, no children were allowed to come to Mango House. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. The other volunteers later told me that the charity had not had its licence renewed for the past four months. My mind was racing. What did that mean for me? What would happen to the funds we had been raising for the last year? What was the point of me even being here?
What was really upsetting is that for months I had been planning this trip, spending endless hours planning activities for the children, downloading craft activities from the internet and buying lots of craft materials to make things with the children with the hope of making some sort of difference to the children as well as gaining a life enhancing experience. I could see my dreams of making a real difference crumbling in front of me. My disappointment also turned to anger. I had been corresponding with the charity for about 8 months and at no point was I told that there was an issue with the charity’s licence. Maybe I would have postponed my trip to a later date had I been told.
To be fair, without the licence, we all tried to get on with things as best as we could. A small, dark room in the slum, with a corrugated roof and one small bulb for light was used as a makeshift classroom. I remember one day, with all the torrential rain that we had been getting the week I arrived, the rain banged on the roof like someone banging with a hammer and the roof buckled.
For the Hindu festival of Diwali, we celebrated with the children by making paper lanterns. We would pack all the craft materials that we needed each morning and take them to the slum. The children would arrive for class in various states of dress. Some would be partially clothed, some had not had a bath in days, some were going to school and some were not. The children, however, would always await the arrival of the Children Waking Tall van and then come running.
From the dimly lit room with sweat trickling down our backs from the heat, we made our paper lanterns and decorated them with great enthusiasm. We hung them up to dry and the children were beaming with their efforts.
Although my time with the children was brief… the most enjoyable and memorable part of my trip was the children and how their faces lit up when I said ‘well done’ or ‘that’s great’.
Overall my thoughts… I have come back quite bewildered. Goa itself is a beach destination but when you scratch under the surface you come to realise very quickly that under the gloss of sun, sand and sea there are many serious problems including prostitution, paedophilia, AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, child and women trafficking and so on. In the newspapers, daily murders were reported and the day before I arrived back in the UK, four women had been murdered, burned and dumped on the streets of Goa. This was far from the romantic notion that I had of Goa. Another memory which will remain for me forever was the stickers I would commonly see on my bus journey to and from Kuruswada saying `Sex with a child is illegal’ equivalent to a ‘no smoking’ sign that we see in the UK. It disturbed me to think of the extent of possible paedophilia in Goa.
I went with the idea that my contribution would make a genuine difference to some of the slum children of Goa. Instead I found that the volunteers in the absence of the licence were finding things to do to occupy their time, like cleaning the house and re-organising toys, books and craft materials. This is not the experience I was hoping for and after waiting a further two weeks to hear about the outcome of yet another meeting with a government official about renewal of the licence, which again was cancelled, I could see that the situation was one that could go on indefinitely. I therefore decided to return home.
On reflection, I learned many things from my short time in India. Firstly, any organisation, be it a commercial venture such as a dental practice or a charity, needs a strong vision with great leadership and management, structure and goals. To me a lot of the voluntary work we were doing seemed unstructured, with no real long term goal, purpose or benefit. In dentistry, there is a real need to be transparent in our dealings with patients in order to build trust and rapport and I feel that the lack of transparency in their communication about the licence was totally unacceptable.
How to sum up my thoughts, I have done voluntary work in India twice now and both were disappointing experiences but for different reasons. It has really made me question the idea of charity, as I have tried to give monies in the past, just to find it is not getting to those who it was intended for and I have also tried to give my time with similar results. I really don’t know what the solution is. My belief is that charity is about creating something which is self sustaining, helping people to help themselves. I was bitterly disappointed with my experience in Goa and now having been back in London for a few weeks, I’ve decided that charity begins at home. On this life’s journey, we are all works in progress and so my next charitable project will be me!