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We’re not in Kansas any more….

So clearly my wonderful intentions for weekly updates have fallen by the wayside. In my defence, it has been an incredibly busy few weeks. I finally got time to catch my breath over the last few days and have been enjoying  beauty treatments, rambling the markets, lazy coffees and a trip to the cinema (note: it would appear that Bengalis see no need to switch off their phones or suspend conversations during films…by far and away the noisiest cinema trip ever!).

So where to begin? So much has happened since my last entry. Time just slips away from you here. Everyone hit their stride very well with their placements and were heading off to school and throwing themselves 110% into the schools and the communities. There were a few illnesses along the way but nothing too major. GP activities went well and I was really pleased with the engagement from my two teams of volunteers and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed facilitating the sessions with them. In the blink of an eye it was time for GP Week. One of the best aspects of the DC role is that you build up to a tangible project, you have something very solid to work towards, and while the frenzy of activity in the week beforehand is hectic and somewhat stressful, it is a good feeling to be working towards a set output. Myself and Clare (and Gail once she arrived) put in many hours planning, tweaking, practicing, linking, reciting to ourselves in dark corners, making out to-do list after to-do list, meeting speakers and crossing our fingers that the equipment would work (it didn’t all the time!). The launch event was the first of its kind in Kolkata and was a great success. The incredible Dr Atindra Sen addressed the volunteers about the poverty gap, I’m pretty sure most of the jaws in the room were on the ground – he is quite an impressive man and a very captivating speaker. His closing line for his presentation was a very somber and very determined ‘Change will come’.  The volunteer teams presented briefly on their experiences to date which was a fantastic opportunity to realise how diverse everyone’s experience really is. One of the Sabuj Sangha volunteers gave an amazing speech, straight from the heart about his experience to date and how much he had learned from the children in his school – I was hard pushed to hold back the tears at this stage, and there were many wobbly lips around the room at that moment.

But what to say of GP week itself? It was in turns stressful, chaotic, organised, uplifting, inspirational, satisfying and humbling. For the week before hand, lots of volunteers had come up to me saying how completely excited they were for the week ahead which was great to hear, but also a little unsettling as human nature always steps up to check us with a ‘I hope I don’t disappoint you’!. I think my favourite aspect of the week was meeting people who have worked in their fields for so many years but are still so dedicated and passionate, and still believe 100% in the power of change. We gained insights into Indian history and society, into child protection, health, nutrition and education, all delivered by passionate, inspiring and dedicated people. The volunteers massively impressed me with their input and their ideas. On Monday afternoon there was an innovations workshop which concluded with a series of powerful videos on how believing in yourself can be the starting point of many positive things; yet again, dry eyes were a rarity at that moment, I only kept my blubbing under wraps as I knew I had to get up and speak in front of the group in a few minutes! The highlight of my week was the speech by Dr Samir Chaudhari, founder and director if CINI  India. He only spoke for about 20 minutes, but his knowledge and passion shone through; after 35 years with that organisation, he is still seeking new innovations and ways forward, still questioning himself and what he does, still driving for change and looking for new avenues to achieve that change. His warmth, smile, humility and drive will stay with me for a long time to come.

On Friday of last week the whole group headed down to the Sundarbans for a field trip to Sabuj Sangha projects. Now, 50 white people on the platform at Ballygunge Station is obviously a bit of a novelty, and we acquired a few new followers before we even boarded the train. The local trains here are, at the best of times, a bit of a scrum. Elbows out, leave your manners at the door, and get yourself onto that train. Women knock each other out of the way, babies are lifted high above the melee and men somehow clamber onboard with enormous baskets of unidentifiable fruit perched on their heads. I have been on some fairly packed and bizzarre modes of tranposrt over the years but that train journey took the biscuit. My spine was bent about four different ways, not least in trying to avoid the attentions of one of our new followers (although he was mainly interested in my right arm so reasonably harmless). At one stage I was actually kneeling on Niall’s rucksack as I didn’t have the space to stand up straight. You know that your backside shouldn’t be in such close quarters to somone’s head but there is honestly very little to be done about it, just like that elbow in your face was unintentional. . Everyone took all of this in good humour but getting off at Matharapur Road was really no joke. I am not exagerrating when I say that my feet did not touch the ground. I had no control whatsoever of what my body was doing, and at one stage I was squashing the poor woman beside me into the side of the carriage. Yells and roars of ‘CHOLLLLLO CHOOLLLLLLOOOO!! SIDE SIDE SIDE!!!’ mixed in with general yells and shrieks and not knowing what/who you were standing on. At last I somehow found myself on the platform and a few volunteers burst through the bottleneck behind me. As I was looking around trying to see if everyone had made it off the train and attemting to regain my composure, the train started to pull out from the station and took with it three volunteers. Oh well!!!  We found them again at the next station. I love travelling by train and I don’t mind cramped and uncomfortable transport but I really think we were lucky no one was injured, it would be the simples thing to stumble on your way down and get trampled. Anyway, everyone was fine and sure it is a story to tell!!! The rest of the jounrney was less eventful (although one of our followers had actually followed us and seemed to think he was coming to spend the weekend) in well organised mini vans. Off we went through palm trees and rice paddies with countless goats and cows grazing on the side of the road. People passed by on the narrow road on bicylces, on foot or on pallets attached to the back of bikes/motor bikes. Mud huts took the place of Kolkata’s high rises.  Many faces broke into wide smiles as we passed. I started to get that warm feeling of deep contentment that comes over me in the countryside, in wild places. That night falling asleep to a chorus of noisy frogs, with a clear full moon and little artificial light to be seen, I was more peaceful and content than I have been for a while. Fond memories of Enkosini and Nyika came back to play and I remembered how lucky I am to have been to so many beautiful places.

The Sundarbans is an incredible place. Tranquil and beautiful, rural  and remote. But life is harsh in such a place, the environment is so delicate, heavy rains can wash out rice paddies, flood homes and make transport impossible. Livelihoods are fragile and everything is a struggle. The warmth of the people despite their daily struggle took me back to many of my experience in Africa and made me, once again, marvel at the resilience of the human spirit. It was amazing to see the work Sabuj Sangha are doing with the communities to make life more sustainable, to make sure children can go to school instead of to work. We spent the day travelling around by boat (boarded by means of a plank of wood) and a pallet attached to the back of a motorbike  – quite the best way to travel!!!  Seeing the villages and the every day lives of people as well as seeing the incredible natural beauty of the place was certainly a highlight. It felt to be a million miles away from the traffic jams, rubbish piles and beeping horns of Kolkata.

After spending a while somewhere, the extraordinary becomes ordinary and the unexpected expected. But then there are moments of clarity, moments where you realise, hang on a sec!!! This is not home!!  There may be a few of those moments in a week, or maybe none for several weeks. There have been a few for me over the last few weeks. Watching a parade of 80 tiny Indian children through a rural village carrying the Irish flag is a spectacle I will not soon forget. Having an enormous crab inexplicably crawl over my foot on a train will hopefully not become a common occurence. Seeing a tiny four day old baby sleeping beside her beaming Grandmother in the same hospital that houses the solitary ultra-sound machine that serves 4 million people. Wathcing the fascination on the faces of workers in the rice paddies as we pass by en masse before they break into shouts of greeting and big wave. Walking to a football match behind two incredibly narky and noisy tame geese. Walking down narrow muddy pathways between rice paddies and realising how incredibly luck you are to be there, that somehow fate has contrived to allow you a brief time in this place where you never knew existed, where  you never thought about until a few months ago, where many people will never see or will never think of seeing. Looking out at the scenery from the back of a motorbike, with warm air in my face, cows moving lazily out of the way, skittish goats scampering off bleating for their mother, wide eyed children peering out from behind their mothers’ sarees, men up to their knees in rice paddies,  ecstatic greetings from school children, all of a sudden finding yourself slap in the middle of a Hindu ceremony, and something inside you says ‘  Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more!’.

It is indeed a great feeling realising you are in fact, not in Kansas but somewhere unique and exciting. But then you are reminded that because this is not home, you will never completely understand what is happening beneath the surface. There have been reminders over the past few weeks that while we strive to understand the context in which we are working, we cannot fully understand the nature of the communities in which we are working. The recent bombs in Mumbai are a sobering reminder of a context wider still over which we have no control, and the events unfolding in Malawi remind me of how things can change in the blink of an eye. Change will come, but let’s hope it’s the change we are all hoping for.

Book of the week: ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’ by Niall Ferguson – well worth a read!!!