From Cheltenham to Chennai
– an ICS adventure
Hello world and welcome to my blog
From a very young age I was always interested in the world. It started around the age of 6 when my mums friend bought me a light up globe for christmas and I couldn’t stop staring at it. 14 years later, I decided it was about time to explore that globe in real life, and stare at the wonders it held in front of me.
However.. slight issue. I had just left sixth form, and was on basic salary job, with little savings. I trolled the internet for volunteering placements abroad, from elephants in Thailand to orphanages in Brazil, but they all cost extortionate amounts of money, which I did not have. Down beaten, I turned to FaceBook to express my anger about my predicament, but before I could click the final button on posting my self wallowing status, something just below caught my eye.
ICS (International Citizen Service) was sat right there, right below my moaning status about my lack of funds and bundles of ambition. I clicked curiously on it to see it was an organisations that sends British youths abroad to volunteers in Asia, South America and Africa for 12 weeks at a time.. at absolutely no cost. There must be a catch I thought, but I applied anyway.
Long story short, 7 months later on the 4th May 2016, I was stood in Heathrow Airport with 30 other volunteers about to fly off to India to volunteer in the southern state of Tamil Nadu for the next 12 weeks.
The Adventure Begins
Sitting on the plane I thought to myself ‘have I made the right decision?’ I know that sounds dumb considering I had been dreaming about a day like this for years. But when you are actually sat there and you realise you are going to be thousands of miles away from home living in a tiny village with a national host family with strangers you have only met for two days, living and breathing rural culture, it suddenly hits you that this is very real and it isn’t as simple as getting the bus home from London.
The first week was basic training, preparing us for what we would face when we arrived in placement. We would be split into four different teams across the state, Vellore 1, Vellore 2, Kanchiparum and my team, Thirvallur. As well as the 30 international volunteers, there would also be 30 national volunteers, who lived in the areas we were going to be volunteering in. The English was limited, but a lot better than what I expected it to be.
We were briefed on the sort of issues we would be teaching about, health and livelihoods. There was the WASH program, ‘Water, Sanitation and Hygiene’, and also MHM, ‘Menstrual Health Hygiene’. I knew the MHM would be a struggle because of the ways the girls are treated when they started their periods, and throughout their puberty.
After two weeks we finally went off to placement, and I arrived the village I would be living in for the next 8 weeks, Thiruvalangadu. We knew we going to have a YRC (youth resource centre) but nothing prepared us for the 12ft x 7ft metal shed on the roof of a third floor building. I think I was naive when I was expecting the sort of church hall you have for your 7th birthday party.
The planning was a struggle at first, we had a school placement lined up from the start, but organising the sessions was difficult. We were told most of our classes would be 9th and 10th standard (14, 15 and 16 year olds), so we had to tailor them to their age.
Before my eyes the weeks started whizzing past, and then we were at our top up training in Pondicherry, and I realised we were already half way through our placement. Back in the village we carried on with our sessions, and it was time to tackle MHM and female empowerment. We ran two sessions with the 9th standard girls at the local Government High School, one on girls empowerment and another on menstruation and puberty.
We were apprehensive on how the sessions would go because we had been previously informed on how little the girls knew, and how it was such a taboo in India. I was strangely impressed in how much the girls knew about the puberty side of our sessions, but little was known about the menstruation.
My highlight of the session was when I laid an A3 piece of sugar paper on the ground with the outline of a female body drawn on. I handed out some pens and asked the girls to draw on the puberty changes. The leg hair and arm pit hair was drawn on, and I asked them if they knew any other hair they grows on the female body. The girls all stared at me, and I could tell they knew but were too embarrassed to say anything. Finally a girl grabbed one of the pens are stared at the paper. Moments later she scribbled on some pubic hair, and ran out the circle in embarrassment whilst all the other girls laughed. It was an amazing moment to see her do that. Although that is something so simple for someone in the UK to do, for her that was breaking her own countries taboo.
A massive passion of mine was Womens’s Empowerment and Equality, and in India I had the opportunity to host my own women’s day in Thiruvalangadu. It total 35 women arrived, and we had our female village President do a speech, as well as my ama (the wonderful host mother I stayed with). It was beautiful how passionate the women were about their equality in a country when men are definitely viewed as more important and superior. Instead of adding all the details in this post about the women’s day, I’m going to write a separate post about it soon.
The weeks carried on and before I knew it we had reached over 500 youth and taught them life important skills about health and livelihoods. Then before we knew it, the dreaded day (exciting day for some) had arrived, and we were back in Chennai having our debrief before we flew home. It was emotional to say the least, because although we are getting to see the International volunteers again at Action @ Home training just two weeks later, the chance of realistically seeing the National Volunteers again is about none to 100.
I formed a proper bound with my National volunteers, but it hurt to see them go back to Thiruvalangadu, but I know we will keep in contact, and the stuff we have taught each other will carry them on into their futures.
I am going to write a separate post about ICS and all the information you will need for it. I truly do recommend applying if you do want to see the world and make a difference whilst you’re doing it. There were times when I was sad, angry and homesick, but the majority of the time I was so happy and full of energy that you forget those bad days straight away.
Thank you for reading my first blog post. I hope I didn’t ramble on too much. Please do leave any feedback below.
Until next time,