Settling into Ozhalur

My first week On placement

I’ve been settling into my placement for a week now. Sorry that my blogs have been very infrequent and haphazard. We arrived in placement on Thursday 18th June. I’m living in a sort of compound consisting of three main buildings and a large area of open land. We are situated in between two communities – a tribal community and a begging community and they do not get on in a village called Ozhalur (pronounced something like Waralur). I am sharing a room with my team leader Fay and Becky Th. We have an en-suite bathroom with a (cold) shower which is actually very refreshing and a Western toilet – oh, the luxury! The buildings are all owned by an incredible woman named Shanta. She is a lawyer and the founder of an NGO called Women In Need Foundation. Originally she and her husband had planned to make the main building a hostel for poor children who otherwise wouldn’t go to school. However they split up and now the building is mainly used as a community function area and also as one of Restless Development’s Youth Resource Centres (YRCs).

Our nearest shop is just around the corner but has very limited stock so for most things town – Chengalpattu – is a 15 minute auto (tuk tuk) away. Journeys are almost always scary and certainly very squashed. So far we have managed to fit 15 adults including the driver into one auto. They comfortably fit about 7. We head into Chengalpattu most days even if we don’t need anything just to get out and about and have a break from the many local children who are constantly vying for attention and wanting to play badminton which they call tennis. We also have a puppy called Pondi who was brought back from Pondicherry by the last group of volunteers. Although cute, she is extremely annoying. She chewed through a pair of my favourite trousers and is constantly biting people. We’ve set up a badminton net and in the evenings it’s nice to play when it’s cooler. Washing clothes is so therapeutic and is even better when we have such a beautiful view to look at. I will try and upload some photos afterwards as I am not describing this place very well.

A lot of our work will be establishing the YRC and getting word out about what we do and how we can help young people in the area. Our YRC is the youngest of them all and we are only the third batch to stay here. We have spent the first week going into local schools and asking for permission to teach. This has proved much harder than I had anticipated. On most attempts the headmaster/mistresses were not in and so we were told to come back in a few days. We had hoped to get weekly slots in schools but have ended up with either half days or full days on one off occasions instead.

We’ve started English classes for our national volunteers which we run on a Tuesday – now known as ‘English Tuesdays’ which we think is a perfect name for indie/folk band. We also have ‘Tamil Thursdays’ but this isn’t quite so catchy. We’re also hoping to hold a weekly computer class on a Saturday morning for local children to teach them basic computer skills and hopefully improve their English.

Father’s day also coincided with International Yoga Day so I attempted to teach a yoga class to four fellow volunteers. It lasted around an hour and I think (hope) that they enjoyed themselves. The following night we had a huge power cut that last for hours and kept us awake as it was far too hot to sleep. On Tuesday, our group yoga session was rudely cut short by a very fast approaching storm. We stayed in camel pose until the rain ran into our noses and we got too wet to continue. It feels magnificent to open your heart to the rain like that though.

On Wednesday we wrote our needs assessment questions which included questions such as ‘What do you think the biggest problem in your community is?’ and ‘Can you name 3 vector-borne diseases?’ We are doing the needs assessments to find out where our time and resources are best spent. Wednesday was also Abi’s birthday. We learned how Indians like to celebrate birthdays – by smearing icing all over each other’s faces. It took a lot of face wash to remove the greasy icing and my ear was full of bubblegum flavoured icing. In the afternoon once everyone had had a chance to clean up we began doing the needs assessments along our road speaking to those in the tribal and begging communities. The tribal community were extremely open and honest with us and told us that their biggest problem is alcohol abuse. The begging community made no mention of this even though we passed by two very drunk men. In the evening I went up onto our roof and did yoga by myself for over an hour. When I finished it was dark and I lay under the stars until I got called down for dinner.

On Thursday 25th, we spent the whole morning doing needs assessments in our local community. We were joined by Paul and Praveen who are at university in Chennai studying social work. They are an odd pair but they proved very useful as they are very good at talking to people about very personal issues and are very quick to establish rapport. After lunch we began painting a bookshelf in the YRC. Eventually it will have the Restless Development logo amongst other undecided things. We also planned our after school group for children from the local school. At 4pm we went ‘child-catching’ which isn’t half as bad as it sounds. It meant standing outside the school and telling them about our club. The first session ended up as collecting names and addresses as we needed the children to get permission from their parents first. I did more yoga once the children had left and we had some peace and quiet.

On Friday 26th, we typed up needs assessments and then made posters about drug awareness for International Drug Awareness Day. After lunch we spent the afternoon planning a skit to perform to the community the next morning regarding the abuse of alcohol and ganja (cannabis). Soon after we had finished, children from the local school showed up for after school club and we got them to draw pictures of themselves and then annotate them with things that they liked about themselves.

On Saturday 27th, we performed our skit to 70 locals and it went down really well. We had two scenes. The first was about two young boys who bought ganja, really enjoyed their spliff but had no money to pay for more so resorted to stealing a woman’s handbag and they subsequently got arrested. The second scene was about a drunk father who spent all his money on alcohol leaving his wife and children starving at home. He got really drunk and was killed by a car. I played a very convincing upset child. In the evening, we went to the cinema to see Jurassic World in an air-conditioned room. I cannot tell you how cool it felt after temperatures of 38-42oC! There was even an interval during the film for people to go and buy more drinks and snacks. On the way back we had to walk a long way on the side of a motorway which we then had to cross, nearly getting run over in the process, to catch a bus back home.

Sunday 28th was a rest day but one of the nationals, Abi, had invited us round for lunch. It was the first time I have had chicken since being here and it tasted so good. Abi had been up since 5am preparing the food for us and I felt slightly awkward as she watched us eat. It is traditional for hosts only to eat once their guests have eaten but in this case she didn’t end up eating until we had left. In the evening, we were invited to another national’s relative’s wedding. We dressed up in our smartest clothes and then it began to rain. It rained and rained and rained. It only got heavier as we ran to catch an auto at the tree at the end of our road. Once in Chengalpattu we were picked up by Shobana and her uncle in a car and it felt so weird to be isolated from the sounds of Indian roads. We weren’t at the wedding for long. We arrived and had our photo taken with the bride and groom as is custom and then ate the most delicious food we’ve had since being here and then left. I felt so sorry for the bride and groom who stand for hours having their photo taken with every guest and they can’t even smile!

All in all, it’s been a tiring but very enjoyable first week and I can’t wait to see what the next week holds!

Em xxx