A drop in an ocean
A bit of a blurry image: these young
hooligans cats are grabbing at a pile of cheap toys that I bought at the local pound shop today. They aren't for them but for some other, much less privileged youngsters.
My son Huw's friend Jenny is in India working for 3 months as a volunteer at an orphanage in Jaipur. It's not the first time she's done this, in India and in Africa. In between she works (as a special needs teacher) to earn enough money to fly off and work for nothing with the most desperate and deprived children you can imagine. She does this with no special announcement, no fanfare, just in as matter of fact way as if she were going on holiday. She writes very detailed and descriptive emails and I don't think she'll mind if I quote from the first one she sent after her arrival. Here goes.
I was warned during my project induction on Sunday not to try and compare what I see here with what happens in ‘my country. ’ There is no chance of that. I have been told not to take photos but that may be a good thing. This place is not worth documenting outside of a Panorama video. These children are nothing. The disabled children are less than nothing. I arrived at the orphanage at 8:30 which is shower time. A woman carries a boy with, at a guess, cerebral palsy by his arm. By his arm. He is dumped on the hard tile floor next to two other scrawny children with profound and multiple learning difficulties lying naked and mewling on the floor. His head hits the floor. I later notice most of the disabled children have scars and sores all over the back of their heads where they’re being knocked. One has weeping bedsores from a life in one position. These children are the sorriest souls I have ever seen. Skinny does not cover it. A lady sat at a bucket of water roughly grabs one and hauls him up by the arm before dousing him in cold water, which makes him wail. He is forcefully rubbed him with soap, heis being handled like a piece of laundry. There is no care. No words spoken to him. This is a conveyor belt of children. Harrowing, devastating, abhorrent, heart-breaking. There are no words to describe this. I am given a towel and put in charge of drying, I endeavour to do this gently, I chat and sing and make funny noises as I rub their hair. I quickly fall behind as a queue of children dripping wet formed behind me. I think the Indian women think I’m essentially an idiot who doesn’t know what she’s doing. When I comfort one of the PMLD boys who is crying pitifully I think I catch one rolling her eyes.
Anyway once dry the children are placed in mis-matched clothes chosen at random from a pile, size doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration and no item is too ripped, its fastenings too broken, to still be in use. Once dressed the children sit at the side of the room. There is nothing to do, no toys, no music, nothing. If a toddler starts to cry or the children get too noisy they are slapped. Hard. There are constant power struggles going on between the ladies and the children. If a lady slaps an older child then that child will find a smaller child to take it out on. There is a tiny girl, scrawny as a baby bird who has a physical disability and she seems to be bottom of the pecking order. She is the one I immediately want to take home.
After their shower a lady emerges with a tray of biscuits and like the pied piper she walks in front of a stream of children, hands out-stretch, leading them into another room. It is just a room. Bare walls. Bars on the windows. There are a couple of straw mats covering part of the concrete floor for the babies to lie on. These offer little comfort.
I am left alone in the room with about thirty under sixes for pretty much the rest of the morning. Occasionally someone will come in with food, apple or cake or sweets or more biscuits, before leaving again. Milk is poured down the throats of the disabled children at an alarming rate. Somehow despite the gurgling they don’t choke.
I do my best to entertain the children. They are very excited to have me there, each child calling out ‘Didi’ (which means ‘Sister’ and is what Indian children call ladies as a mark of respect here) to get my attention. They all want to sit on my lap which is impossible. After an hour or so they have realised if a toddler cries I tend to go and pick it up. This means they all cry whenever I am not holding them. I am only one person which is not enough. These children are starved of love and attention and they crave it desperately. If I don’t entertain them the children start climbing the walls. Literally. They climb up the rails of the windows or they get the little ones to crouch on the floor and stand on them. The older ones pick the plaster from the walls and try to feed it to the toddlers. To say the whole experience is shocking is an understatement.
I sing every action song I know. The toddlers turn and turn their hands to Wind The Bobbin Up. We get faster and faster during Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes until the children collapse giggling. We play Sleeping Bunnies and jump madly around the room. We march to The Grand Old Duke Of York. The older children are pleased to show off their counting skills to 1,2,3,4,5 Once I Caught A Fish Alive. It is hot and I am exhausted. I feel emotionally and physically drained.
If you've managed to read through that you'll understand why I went out and spent a paltry £20 on some of the things Jenny said were needed. It's easy enough to throw money at something like that but it takes real courage and commitment to go and immerse yourself in the horror and hopelessness of it. It's not like building a school or treating disease, when you can see that your efforts have made a tangible difference: it's far more wrenching to confront a situation where your efforts can never be enough to create lasting change. Jenny and others like her are giving something much more valuable than cash - themselves.
Edit: Jenny started blipping a couple of years ago but didn't pursue it. Here's a link to the preparations she made for an earlier trip. Maybe she'll return to blipping with some encouragement although I imagine her online time is very limited at the moment and mainly devoted to emails. But I'll tell her about this blip of course and I'm sure she'll appreciate any comments or offers of help. She'll be in India for another 11 weeks or so and her address is:
C/o Pranay Udawat
E-122, Bank Colony
Jaipur – 30 2023