WRITTEN BY MICHAEL OMO-BARÉ
After being raised in foster care, Michael knows first-hand how one person truly can change another’s life! He is now pursuing opportunities to give back what was given to him. Find out what it’s like to volunteer to teach orphans in one of the most rural parts of India.
I was given the opportunity to go to South Africa in 2010 so that I could see first-hand the level of poverty that exists in the local townships (see story). It completely changed my outlook on my life (and life in general). I returned to England with the decision to volunteer my time. Since then, my life has been moving in positive directions – and that’s what has led me to this most recent journey…
Arrival in India
Because I spent my childhood raised in foster care in the London borough of Lewisham, I was given the opportunity to go to India with Basti Ram. On 29 March 2013, I embarked on a journey to one of the country’s most rural parts: Udaipur, Rajasthan.
After an exhausting journey from London Heathrow (via Delhi for a one-hour layover), we arrived to our final destination. Hit immediately with intense heat, we were ushered into tuk-tuks, where we sat crammed for a rather scary journey, weaving and beeping our way past giant, beautifully decorated trucks and bikes that held whole families.
The group and I were very excited for what lay ahead as we approached the large volunteer house amongst the impoverished surrounding area. We were greeted by our Housekeeper and Cook, Mina G, with a traditional blessing and bindi. We then met the rest of the Basti Ram team along with a few volunteers from Holland.
Our Volunteering Role in India
The next day was relaxed as we integrated into the lifestyle, learned names, basic Hindi, and began lesson planning for the following day.
My partner, Kamesha, and I were given two groups of children to work with for the duration of our stay. The first were the 3rd grade students at the local primary school (which was a 45-minute tuk-tuk drive away!) and the other, a group of 6th grade boys from one of Rajasthan’s largest orphanages.
Our challenge was to create lesson plans that were accessible and easy to understand and execute whilst overcoming the language barrier at the same time. With the help of the Basti Ram workers, we created these plans every night before dinner.
Teaching in the Primary School
We would start the day with yoga, then a basic breakfast and then off to the primary school were we’d start by singing the ‘Good Morning song.’ It was always a pleasure to see the children’s faces light up with joy as our voices echoed through the mountains!
When working with the 3rd grade, I found difficult to engage them, understand them and be understood. At first all they cared about was the hand sanitizer I had attached to my belt and the flip camera I took with me on a few of the days. But, gradually, as we built trust, these things came more easily. By studying some basic Hindi (and getting the help of other staff on site), we managed to teach them the correct spelling and pronunciation of:
- numbers 1 to 20
- the main body parts
- eight basic colours
- a few animal names and noises
- we also did Math with them (and very surprised to see how quickly they excelled, completing 4-digit addition, subtraction and multiplication in a flash!)
The Reality of their Situation
The children of the primary school were always so happy and content, which was humbling when we were informed that the only meal they get is the one when attending school! The school is also their only source of fresh drinking water, which everybody in the local area is welcome to use. However, this means a 2 km walk for some!
I found it so humbling and inspiring to discover that these children didn’t even have the basics, such as shoes, underwear, school utilities or food! Yet they could achieve things that I couldn’t when I was in year 7! This made me realise that the youth of the western civilisation could take a leaf out of India’s book in terms of discipline and their ability to quite simply appreciate!
The boys at the Orphanage were an absolute pleasure to work with! The orphanage houses 100 boys, aged between 10 and 18. Because time was always a little shorter with these boys, we would tend to do about 30 minutes of lesson and then large group activities. We played handball and cricket, naturally. But I was also lucky enough to incorporate my own flavour of ice breakers and games; I successfully taught the boys a game like grandma’s footsteps and ‘zip, zap, boing’ – and, most notably, the Cameo (it’s like Candy, a simple 4-step dance).
Other than Volunteering
My main task was to teach whilst in India, but I partook in others things that really enriched my experience whilst there. In the first few days we visited the village and primary school that we’d be volunteering at. It was eye-opening as to see jus how rural it was! Most of Udaipur is surrounded with dense mountains for as far as the eye can see so to stand in a village amongst it all was humbling and quite overwhelming for a few of us!
On the first Saturday, we visited the more populated and developed part of Udaipur. We visited the Jagdish Temple and the Udaipur Palace before having an hour to shop amongst the streets. Visiting this bustling, beautiful and vibrant city really put things into perspective, as we got to see once again the sheer volume of people and poverty that plagues India. Yet there was an undeniable happiness amongst them, making me all the more grateful for my life in London.
The boy below was 6 years old and forced to work on the streets selling hand-crafted ornaments. He attempted to charge me 200 rupees for a small carving of a pregnant elephant – but I bartered him down to 50. I regret the decision in hindsight as that 200 rupees (about £2) could have really benefited him and his family.
I was very fortunate to be taught some basic yoga by a very well-known instructor, who usually teaches at the Udaipur Palace. However, this meant waking at 6 am as the sun began to rise, which also meant it was always a long day before bedtime at 10:30 pm.
For the eight days I participated, we learned the sun salutation stretches, breathing exercises, holds, and finished on the last day with the moon salutation, which was one of the most difficult things he showed us. I’d love to say I still do yoga every day, but early mornings don’t tend to agree with me…
‘All the materialistic things in the world don’t mean a thing without a temple to enjoy them – your body is that temple.’ – Yoga Instructor
The Preciousness of Water
Part of my trip to India also involved ASDAN and the learning objective was to understand the agricultural circumstances within India in terms of water and food.
We were shown a very effective way of washing nearly a week’s worth of laundry with just one bucket of water and soap. This would have been the equivalent of using 20 buckets when using a washing machine. We were also shown how to bathe with one bucket of water which would have been about 80 litres when using a bath. The water saved could supply a family for a week! We soon began to realise how precious water was. Now that I’m back in London, I strive to minimise the wastage of water, wherever it may be.
Our Struggles as Volunteers in India
Half way through the last week, tensions began to run high. The heat was getting to us, we all began to miss our families and friends, and the food really affected some of us! The food was basic, yet nutritious. But, being a meat-lover, I struggled to maintain my enthusiasm when served plain rice and dahl for the umpteenth time. As a result, energy levels were low all throughout the day, and people began to bicker.
As you can imagine, the group began to break up and detach, cliques where formed and arguments ensued. Our Team Leader quickly defused the situation by the next day but it was interesting to see how wholly and fully people change when hungry, tired and homesick. This, once again, put our lives into perspective as we mulled over what had been said.
The Final Day
The last day of teaching was an emotional one. Rather than cracking on with the usual teaching, we played games and sung songs – and generally had a good time. When we were finally ready to leave, the tears began – from both the children and us.
There was more than just sadness in the tears; there was genuine empathy. Because we had all been raised in foster care, we completely understood what it felt like to be left, abandoned, forgotten…
Every time a group of volunteers leave, the children continue their routine, which involves either attending school or helping their parents farm. Despite our sadness, we left with a strong sense of accomplishment. With the skills we taught these children, we hope that they will be able to move forward in their learning and development to one day excel and eventually help lift their families out of poverty. Education truly is key!
As the trip drew to an end, we left the volunteer house and made our way to the Udaipur train station. We then had an 11-hour overnight journey to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. I awoke with an hour left of the journey to see the vast expanse of the Indian countryside whizz past.
There was a very strong smell that hung in the air as we drew closer to our destination. If poverty had a smell, it would be this. It was a mixture of animal waste and sweat, with underlying tones of rubbish and fumes. It wasn’t pleasant! We tried in earnest to take shallow breaths as we lugged our bags along the platforms and out into the blinding, sweltering heat where we jumped into a minivan and to be whizzed to a hotel, a stone’s throw away from the Taj.
The Taj Mahal is as beautiful as they say! As we approached the outer courts, we were buzzing with anticipation. The tour guide gave us the speediest introduction before hoisting us in and around the perfectly symmetrical Taj where we saw the inner sanctum that holds the King and his beloved 3rd wife, for whom the Taj was built. We also saw a surprisingly accurate image of Albert Einstein etched in stone directly above the exit. It needs to be seen to be believed!
We learned that Agra’s climate is dramatically affecting the mable of the Taj, which is why horses or electric cars are the only way to approach the Taj for a 3 mile radius. We also learned that the maddened King had planned to build an equal sized Taj in Black marble parallel to the original for himself; however he was arrested before this could happen as it would have crippled Agra’s wealth.
After visiting the Taj, we headed for the station and boarded a train that took us back to Delhi. There, we spent the night at a youth hostel, which was the best night’s sleep I’d had all trip! The rest of the journey home was a blur of little sleep, airplane food, and cramped legs. Oddly, I was very glad to see the drizzling rain of London and embraced the brisk cold as we exited Heathrow and started our way back to Lewisham.
The Lasting Effects
Since being back, I’ve noticed that I’ve really changed and developed. My love for meat has diminished. I bathe with half the water I used to. I wash dishes and brush my teeth whilst staying mindful of the amount of water I use. I can make a wicked curry! I now appreciate all food given to me as I realise how lucky I am to be able to open my fridge and select anything I want – or go to the sink and pour myself a large glass of pure, sterile water! These are things that I now actively appreciate and want to bring to the attention of others.
It saddens me that a large majority of people in the western world will never experience the things I’ve seen and done. Therefore, radical change is likely to be merely a dream in the eyes of a few, rather than the reality it could be for many.
I’d like to meet with anyone who is interested in offering these sorts of volunteer opportunities to likeminded people (young people especially) through grants, funding, and group fundraising. These kinds of experiences are the best way to allow the coming generation to appreciate what we have and to see what we’re capable of doing when we act selflessly and seek to make a difference in someone else’s life.
I would like to deeply thank the YMCA for funding my trip! The YMCA are the organisation for whom I currently volunteer in England and this experience wouldn’t have been possible without them! I’d also like to thank Lee McDaid for giving me yet another amazing opportunity! Thank you all!
OTHER ARTICLE SHARED BY MICHAEL