On a trip to Rajasthan as a tourist shortly after I retired I fell in love with India, its vivid colours and teeming life. I wanted to go back, not as a tourist to the cities, but to live for a while among people in the countryside. My chance came when I heard about EIL, a not-for-profit organisation based in Cork. They offered placements in India for people over 30, teaching English and Maths in rural primary schools.
I opted for an 8 week placement – I could not take longer because of family commitments. EIL provided an excellent pre-departure workshop and training. I went out to the Thar desert in Rajasthan the first year, and enjoyed it so much that I went back to Rajasthan the following year, and then to Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas the third year.
As the minibus wound its way across the sand towards the tiny village where I taught the children would run to meet us with bright eyes and beaming smiles. They were so keen to go to school, and enjoyed being taught by volunteers. They had little English, but they loved to recognise words on the flashcards I brought. Songs and games in English were a great way to teach them – ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’, and ‘Simon says’ were always popular. They sat cross legged on a mat in front of me, their feet bare. Three of us divided the forty or so children between us and taught them in different corners of the single schoolroom. When we were not there, their teacher took the whole school by himself.
One of my ten-year old girls was very clever, and picked up new words quickly. But the teacher told me she was unlikely to go on to post primary education. The villagers would not see the point of educating a girl beyond the age of 11. Many girls in Rajasthan are married at 14 or 15, though the minimum legal age for marriage in India is 18 for a girl (and 21 for a boy). I hope that the education volunteers help to provide will encourage girls to press for their own daughters to be better educated, even if they only had a minimal education themselves.
In Himachal Pradesh the girls do not get married so young, and more of them remain at school until 14. There were more girls than boys in the little school where I taught. But this was because government schools are free, and even families that are not desperately poor are unwilling to spend money on educating daughters, though they may send their sons to fee-paying private schools.
The parents of the children I taught, both in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, were very poor. But I have many memories of house visits where the family would bring out a bed for us to sit on in their courtyard, offer us chai, and sit round to talk to us (through our interpreter). Sometimes as we left the woman of the house would bring out red powder and place a mark each of our foreheads – a traditional act of respectful greeting or farewell.
In the Thar desert, the village where I taught had no shops or market stalls, and I would see women in colourful saris with bright metal pots on their heads walking 6 km across the sands to fetch water. There had been a drought for three years, but the villagers’ goats managed to survive on leaves from the few scrubby bushes. Himachal was a little more prosperous. There was plenty of water from the mountains, so it was easier to grow crops. The hillsides were terraced with little fields which grew golden with wheat ready for harvest while I was there. Men and women reaped it with sickles.
None of the people in the villages where I taught had money for luxuries. In the larger villages where there were market stalls and a few shops the goods for sale were necessities of life – food, plates and mugs, pots for water, knives, clothing. It was refreshing to be cut off from the pressures of consumerism. When I returned home I found the shops depressing, with a plethora of goods which seemed to me unnecessary and extravagant, and the advertisements which urged people to buy things they did not really need were ridiculous and distasteful. Equally upsetting were the cookery com- petitions on television, which seemed to me to be just playing with food. Where I was in rural India food was a basic necessity which some found it hard to afford, and which nobody wasted or took for granted.
Since returning I have been writing articles and giving talks, trying to make people aware not just of the difficulties of life in rural India (especially for women) but to give some idea of the beauty and fascination of the country. My volunteering experiences have been so rewarding, and I have left friends there with whom I am still in contact via email. I would encourage anyone who can get away for at least a few weeks to volunteer – and age is no barrier!