Abigail Rowlands – Volunteer Experience

SICHREM is a small human rights-based charity working in Bangalore, and stands for South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring. When I began volunteering there, 16 staff filled the two small office rooms, and their primary activities were focused on filing complaints on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and in educating students, other NGO workers, activists, and members of the public.

As this was not my first trip to India, nor indeed my first time volunteering in India, I knew to some extent what to expect. In fact, as someone who’d been longing to return from the moment my plane left the runway in August 2009, I was anxious to submerge myself back into the world of saris, incense, rubbish, annoying cows, ‘namastes’, and too-spicy food.

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Volunteering in Shillong, Meghalaya (north India) in 2009

Bangalore was a little different however. I soon realised with more than a little disappointment that South Indian states as a rule don’t speak Hindi primarily (though there are pockets of communities that do); neither do they celebrate my favourite holidays of Holi and Diwali. They don’t eat the fantastic food that Rajasthani’s prepare – there’s less cream-based dishes, no paneer, and everything is kinda soupy – and they also prefer to greet you with a boring, western handshake. Had I actually arrived in India, or somewhere that just shared the same name?

I managed to get over this initial disenchantment once my work at SICHREM began to pick up. Despite the small number of staff there seemed to be so many new faces to learn, and the social systems at the office were difficult to interpret at first. After a couple of weeks however, the staff started to open up, and I felt a bit more at home.

My official roles were to work on a research report assessing the functioning of the State Human Rights Commission for Karnataka – the state Bangalore is the capital of and the area that SICHREM primarily works in – and assist with various fundraising jobs, grant applications, and producing campaign materials. The thing I was most anticipating was producing a project on gender-related issues, as my main academic interest area.

Jubilant protest

In my first two months (January-February), SICHREM gave me the opportunity to spend a week in Kerala fundraising at an international film festival, called ViBGYOR – where I managed to sneak in to see independent films on the violence in Kashmir, women in Iran, honour killings in Rajasthan, and more. Then it was One Billion Rising, which Bangalore celebrated in style at Cubbon Park – the central green space in the city. We had loudspeakers playing out the latest Tamil beats, and all the women – Dalit, office-worker, foreigners alike – started grabbing each other to dance. Girls performed a dance clanging cymbols together, and mothers sang out their pain, as a protest of women crossed the busy intersection with banners.

Everyone dances

My next few months were comparitively low-key, but I spent much more time being involved with workshops and seminars on everything from trafficking, to sexual harassment laws, to trans-men and -women. In conducting the research for my main report, and arranging interviews with various activists across Bangalore, I met so many interesting people, and expanded my contacts across Bangalore’s charity sector beyond measure. If I ever want a job here, I know where to come back to!

Outside of SICHREM I was busy learning Hindi from a domineering (but fantastic) woman called Razia. Though my lessons were held alongside six and seven-year-olds who could both read and speak better Hindi than me, I grew attached to Razia and her family as I saw her first grandchild welcomed to the house, and her second daughter get engaged. Theirs was one of many attachments I made to people in the local community. Every day on my commute to work, Senthil at the dry cleaners on the corner would call out hello, and the fat street dog he fed would be asleep with his tongue poking out.

Living in India was a constant battle between the fantastic, and the abhorrent. Being a long-term resident in this country is very different to holidaying, or even a two-month volunteer placement. Once past the fifth or sixth month mark, it’s definitely not a novelty anymore, and the same worries and pressures start to apply: the water bills need paying, the huge deadline at work, finding time to hang out with your friends. It’s not a holiday, but it is a chance to see your host culture with a developing sense of understanding. You start to glimpse some of the beliefs and value systems that really drive people to act in one way or another, and the justification for things that might seem surreal elsewhere. With that sympathy, you find yourself starting to think in the same way.

Spice market in Mysore

Of course, no trip to India would be complete without some sightseeing, and I did a couple of weekends away to Mysore and Mangalore. My main time as a tourist happened towards the end of my placement though, when I took a month out to see South India with my boyfriend. Despite the monsoon – which really just reminded me of England anyway – it was fun to see the less-visited parts of KarnatakaKerala, and Tamil Nadu, and a totally different experience to the sites of the iconic golden triangle. Everyday India is most definitely not about the Taj Mahal, or Delhi’s Jama Masjid, but in those moments alone walking along a sea cliff, or standing on top of the world next to a lonely temple, you’re reminded of India’s hypnotic power.

Bringing the focus back to SICHREM, it was overall an experience I would do again. Not everything was perfect with my placement – SICHREM had some of its own problems with funding and staffing, and certainly there were times that my ideas clashed with the paid workers in the office. I also never got the chance to work on any gender-focused projects or material, which was sorely disappointing. However, I still feel that it was one of the most interesting and useful experiences of my life. Above the obvious benefits that the opportunities and responsibilities I was given there will have on my CV, it became an invaluable lesson in adaptation. I learnt how alternatingly easy and difficult it is to adjust to a new culture, and embrace difference, at a scale you are never faced with in the UK.

India is already calling me back. With half my heart still there, I cannot say that I have really left. I know that I will return, but whether I will be a visitor, volunteer, or expatriate, only time will tell. The pictures below summarise just a couple of my favourite moments, and why I love this country so, so much.

Moi, proof I was there!

Dancing in the street

Shiva statue, Murudeshwar

The wedding ride

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Dinner

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Climbing

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Bangalore Comicon – Sowmini, me and Prarthanah

One Billion Rising march

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