It’s India’s National Day today. I have a holiday from work and time to reflect on what I have achieved with my students. It’s not as if they are speaking fluent English now,or even attending our little classroom regularly.
The programme I am enrolled in is called ‘Women’s Empowerment’ but it is difficult to empower women to whom I cannot speak in their native Hindi and who are still struggling to recognise the letters of the English alphabet. Sometimes my ‘women’s’ class is half full of boys and the girls are only aged from eleven to fourteen!
At the request of our Idex supervisor I have introduced a few ‘discussions’ based on articles that I find in the daily newspaper. We talked about the rising cost of certain food items. At the moment the soaring price of onions has been in the news. The newspaper article mentioned that some women, forced to make do with fewer ingredients, are likely to continue to feed their husbands and menfolk a hearty meal while having less for themselves. This should incite a little resentment methinks but no, the response of the women was to murmur their approval of these self sacrificing women. These were obviously women of good character! What, I ask, if they are pregnant and need the food for the unborn child? Oh, in that case they would take the food for themselves, I am told and the men would not object. It is good to realise that India is peopled with men and women of such outstanding character!
The next newspaper I pick up has three articles about mistreatment of women in India. This is just on the front page! One low caste married woman who resisted rape was burnt to death by her outraged attacker. The Indian consul in London has bashed his wife, who ran bleeding into the street. He claimed diplomatic immunity with no sign of remorse. The third story was about a seventeen year old girl who had been raped by a prominent politician and was then jailed by him for alleged theft. Now an attempt to bribe her female prison guard to suppress the story, has failed, because the guard refused the bribe.
The heading I wrote on the board was ‘Respect for Women’. My married ladies nod knowingly. What should women do to help themselves, I ask and they agree that women should speak up. At this point one of the women becomes quite agitated and has a lot to say. Often when I think they are arguing and interrupt to ask what is going on they will giggle and say “No, no just talking.” My class supervisor tells her “No, no Aunty, be quiet.” It is not till later that I discover what the problem was. Rambai-devi’s husband has an alcohol problem. He drinks every night. Later still I am told “Yes, yes, this is a very common problem in the slums.”
So what difference does it make that I and so many others come to India to volunteer our services? Are we just a passing parade for the underpriveleged to practise a little English with before we move on?
The fact that there is a Volunteer Centre is a positive thing in itself. Even when there are no volunteers it remains open, being run by Idex staff. The women can meet each other outside of their home environment. Although they live day in, day out, in close proximity they did not know each other when they first came to the Centre. Whether they learn English, maths or computer is of secondary concern. For some it requires breath taking nerve to venture into their first educational environment. On my first day there was a lot of giggling and mirth at the expense of one of the women who told us at the end of the class that she had decided she would come to class but fearing that at the last moment her courage might fail, she would then spend the time in the toilet.
We volunteers come from different countries and cultures, all of which have greater regard for womens’ rights than does India. Perhaps we can be an example to them of emancipated womanhood, even if to them it appears that we have come from other planets, not just other countries?
Another contribution that I feel we make is to take our students on outings. These excursions are a very big deal for them. Mothers’ faces appear in the schoolroom to check out who is taking their children away for the day. The girls arrive dressed in outfits that I haven’t seen before, clean and smart with their hair freshly braided. A few older girls turn up as well. They are too busy with chores to come to school often and I don’t begrudge them a day off. It saddens me to think that in my short time in Jaipur I have seen more of their city than they even know about. I pay for the tuk tuk rides, the entrance fees at the Science Park, for road side lunches and ice creams. They squeal and tell me what a good teacher I am.
Of all the exhibits the true to scale dinosaur is by far the most popular. There are playground rides in the park (with scientific explanations about displaced mass, potential and kinetic energy etc. — not interesting!) and I enjoy seeing 18 year olds play like little children after watching them at home, squatting to sift sacks of grain or do their stitching. There were fifteen of us and the entire outing cost me about $20.00.
Two of the married women accompanied us on our last excursion, to the Planetarium. Sita-devi looked superb in her yellow sari with loads of heavy jewels round her neck, dangling from her ears, her arms covered in bangles and wearing lipstick and nail polish! Gora-devi giggled throughout our lunch. It was the first time she had been to a ‘restaurant’, in truth a little cafeteria but in lovely garden surrounds. The girls must have got their heads together as they all turned up in jeans and none had head scarves this time!
My personal ambition was to feel that I had made a connection with the people I would meet.
What a very successful trip this has been.