You might have a singular vision of volunteer work overseas.
Some sanctimonious fantasy that you are going to swoop in with your Western ideals of equality and love for all God’s children. And gosh darnit, I’m going to be the one who will affect change, bring hope.
That’s what I believed. At first.
In truth, I hated the first two weeks.
Don’t pat me on the head and chalk it up to culture shock. I dived into eating with my right hand with gusto, relearned squat toilet etiquette from my first foray into Asia, and even adjusted to my bare feet touching where others have walked before.
It seemed I wasn’t so much fighting culture, but the elements. Or purpose.
On my first official day all the kids gathered in front of me. I sat in a plastic patio chair as 42 pairs of eyes stared at me. I stared back.
Then Suraj jumped up with a ukulele, launching into a song. All the children joined in.
“We welcome you, we welcome you, you are welcome to Chiild Haaaven!!’
I clapped in delight, so charmed with my third world charges.
Garishma, very pretty, with chocolate skin and shining eyes approached with a silver tray. A small candle burned on the tray alongside a pile of red powder and a finger bowl with a liquid resembling oil. She dipped the end of her index finger in the bowl first to wet it, then dabbed a bit of red powder to create a paste. I flinched with excitement as she bent down to press the substance to my forehead.
I just received my first tikka. Blessings.
A surge of hope quelled in me. So ready to change their world.
So, it began.
The first few days were engulfed with learning the setup. There is 1 cook, 1 matron, 1 gardener, Kavita and Prakesh. Then me. The hanger-on. Every staff member seemed to have a set routine, while I drifted, frankly, sometimes bored out of my head.
Their insistent hospitality rendered me a coddled queen. Everything was brought to me in the food or drink realm.
It was only at night I was left to my own devices.
With 42 kids whirling around the complex, every age group is placed in different schools. Some are in Marathi medium or primary, some are in what’s called English Medium (main language: English), some are in high school, and only 2 girls are in college. This heady bit of information means revolving school schedules.
They are clothed, so I didn’t have to replace rags.
They are fed, so I didn’t have to cook feasts.
Kavita is the constant force in their lives, so “den mother” is not my role.
I quickly discovered that only after homework and during play did I become useful to the kids.
They are a repetitive mob that encircled me, barking questions or orders, pawing me with their hands.
“Auntie, your name?”
They pulled my ears, poked my skin. Grabbed my watch and twisted it around. They gawked at me like a newly captured zoo animal. Sometimes I am the reincarnation of Joseph Merrick. I tried to say hello, speak meager Marathi – they giggled.
At times I had to retreat to my room and breathe.
Reading the intern manual inside and out did not prepare me for this.
After days full of this, nights left me frustrated fighting mosquitoes, bugs of an unknown lethal level (it’s the big, black scorpions you got to worry about, not the tiny red ones) or ant swarms.
I washed my clothes, bra, rubbed tea tree oil on my neck and ears, washed my feet swollen from too much inaction until I fell exhausted into a bed that creaked like an Alcatraz prison cot.
Not to mention the twice a day power outages.
Yet, I would rise the next day to reenact it all over again. I kept wondering why when my purpose felt buried. Something forced me to keep going.
I wondered if it would be better if I had come for a particular reason. Teach writing. Hold formal English classes instead of the casual lessons held outdoors daily. Erect a proper home with a real mother and father in place.
I knew they would never run up to me excited and breathless to reveal a makeshift craft they created, like they do with Kavita.
On the dawn of my third week I found Sanghvi crying. It was almost her third week too, being a new intake into Child Haven.
She carried around the same silent confusion as I did since arriving, making me feel connected to her, as though we communicated telepathically. Spilling our woes through our eyes and gestures.
She’s a very bright girl, tall for her 10 years, and has the most beautiful hair, streaming past her waist.
That day her face crumpled with sadness and tears.
She looked up to me and said, “My mother is not coming. She doesn’t help me.”
That nearly broke my heart, I choked back my own tears. All I could say was I’m sure your mother loves you, the false tone ringing in my ears.
I told her to not be sad, caressed her cheek. She perked up – dancing and singing for me. We broke out into song together and she showed me the moves for Prayer Dance. Other girls joined, until an entire chorus line formed.
That’s when I knew. You don’t affect them, they affect you.
I felt hopeful again, accepting that I won’t solve all the social ills of Child Haven. But, to gain a child’s attention for 5 minutes or see their faces light up when I hand out cardboard tubes of finished toilet paper is enough. Even when they swarm, demanding two at once, multiple hands out in want.
Why not give it to them? It’s the small pleasures. I take them with glee.
Editor’s note: I found out later that Sanghvi’s mother claimed she was a widow, when in fact she wanted to dump Sanghvi and her brother Simon and run back to her husband. The mother has never once visited her children since I’ve been at the home. Isn’t that awful?