Admittedly, I was somewhat apprehensive about my time in India. I was due to work for three months on a Maternal Health project with VSO in Jharkhand, a state which I had never heard of before, and one which even the Lonely Planet Guide failed to give me much insight to. Whatever I did learn about the place instilled further fear in me; Jharkhand came across as a desolate jungle, filled with natural resources but lacking much sign of wealth or development alongside them. Indeed, whatever I did come across in my pre-departure research sent warning signs ringing in both mine and my mother's heads, they warned me about "terrorist" related issues and the lack of amenities which I would encounter. Nevertheless, it was all arranged and I am not the type of person who gives up on things. So I made my way to Jharkhand with eighteen new friends from both Britian and India, who were also part of the VSO project.
The first month went by, predictably, in a flash. In the early days of our arrival, we became accustomed to things pretty quickly; curry was to be our breakfast, lunch and dinner, auto-rickshaws along dried out rivers and fields was to be our mode of transport, and the incessant power cuts were to be our enemy. We stayed in a 'Rural Technology Park' two kilometres from the nearest market, and around forty minutes from the town of Deoghar. Do not let the title of our accommodation fool you; the RTP was essentially a large warehouse which we often felt imprisoned within, filled with machinery, insects and, most unfortunately, rats. However, it was also our sanctuary where around fifteen of us spent our evenings playing, talking and learning about each other's cultures. Highlights of our first month include exploring the area of Jharkhand and building a rapport with the local communities.
One incident which sticks in my mind is the day that we decided to take a trip to a supposedly beautiful picnic spot up a mountain. This turned out to be a site in which monkeys ruled the earth and any person who intruded was deemed deserving of extreme punishment by these creatures! We turned up to the mountain, bags heavy with samosas and were greeted by a group of seemingly adorable monkeys. The monkeys proceeded to climb on us, howl, steal our treasured samosas and chase us up the aforementioned mountain. At the time, I feared for my life; only now am I able to look back and laugh grudgingly.
As part of the Maternal Health Project which five us worked on, we focused on the Village Health & Nutrition Days (VHNDs) of rural Jharkhand. These were monthly events which were held in tribal villages that aimed to counteract maternal and infant mortality and malnourishment in the area. Ultimately, our aim was to improve the quality of these days and raise levels of attendance, but it was not a simple task. Not only was the language barrier an issue for us all - even the Indian volunteers struggled - because most of the villages spoke a rural, tribal language; but in addition there were so many myths, customs and stigmas which prevented women from making the most of the health services which were available to them.
Initially, I was shocked to see the setting for the VHNDs; small mud buildings, with no windows or electricity, crammed with tribal caste villagers and livestock. How could genuinely beneficial treatments occur here? How could VHNDs improve if the infrastructure was so basic? Nevertheless, as we became more involved in the project we came to understand that these days offer vital and free health services to villages which were so remote from any alternative health facilities in Jharkhand's towns. VHNDs bring immunisations, counselling and nutritional supplements to people's neighbourhoods; they are organised by local and held in a familiar, accessible locations.
Accordingly, as our appreciation for the days increased, so too did our determination to make the events a success. We monitored the day, evaluated services, examined services providers, and generally oversaw the day. We held meetings with tribal women and urged them to attend the VHNDs, promoting the benefits available to them and the importance of taking ownership of their and their children's health. Additionally, we held specific training for the nurses who were involved in the day to ensure that their knowledge and understanding of what was expected from the day was up to scratch. Once we had come to the end of the project, we completed a final report which we presented to the state government; we compiled critical gap analyses, case studies and our recommendations which we are told will be implemented. I am enormously happy with the outcome of my experience on the maternal health project; we developed a counter system which reduced the chaos of the days, saw an increase in attendance at all the VHNDs we worked on and convinced countless women and children to have life saving immunisations.
Throughout the time that we worked on our projects, we continued to make friends in the region and develop our cultural understandings of India. We were fortunate enough to be invited to visit many of our team's family homes; this meant we spent a weekend in Kolkata at our friend Roon's house, here we got to see a more cosmopolitan area of India, take a boat ride on the Ganges, and even attend a wedding celebration. In addition, we had dinner at our other team member, Ashish's, houses nearby and were greeted by his thirty cousins, two buffalo and unbelievably attentive family who fed us until we were completely unable to move!
Another day which will remain in my memories forever, is the work we collectively did to celebrate International Women's Day. As part of VSO, we were obliged to hold a Community Action Day which we held alongside this fantastic day. Promoting the event on local television and inviting over two hundred girls from a local school, there was substantial pressure to ensure that the day would be memorable and beneficial. We orchestrated a fun filled event orientated towards raising awareness of women's rights, gender issues and sexual health. Additionally, the day involved quizzes, cricket, dancing and a martial arts class. It was enormous success, which we hope will turn into a yearly occurrence at the local girl's school.
Our project coincided with the celebration of Holi, an event which we all totally threw ourselves into. The opportunity to throw paint, powder and water over each other in 40oc Indian sunshine was an opportunity we could not miss. Holi led to the whole of Jharkhand turning into a cacophony of colour; cows were tainted pink, autorickshaws were targeted by paint guns, and peopl would walk around, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that their clothes were permanently torn and their faces were stained an unnatural hue of red.
Once the three months were coming to an end, I came to the realisation that I had completely adjusted to the ways of India. I wouldn't bat an eyelid to a lizard resting inside my mosquito net, I would wake in the morning hungry for potato curry, I could have a two minute conversation in Hindi, and had mastered the art of Bollywood dancing. In fact I have come to the realisation that I utterly adore India; the chaos, colour, smells, the classic Indian head bobble, and the nature of the people that I met, left me completely besotted with the nation.
Not only did my experience of Jharkhand teach me enormously about India - its caste system, the corruption, Hindu gods, recipes for how to make parathas, the hardship that women still face in the country; but I learnt a substantial amount about myself. As one would expect, I left India feeling incredibly privileged, but I also left with the realisation that the capitalist and materialistic world I live in, in the UK, is exhausting, superficial and not something which generates happiness naturally within me. The generosity, hospitality and friendly nature of almost every person I met in India revealed to me the importance of finding contentedness within oneself and expressing it openly to others. Without my three month field work in Jharkhand, I would not have believed that I could cope, let alone thrive, in such an extremely rural and socially challenging environment. Accordingly, I am determined to pursue a career working in developing countries, particularly in the field of women's rights.