Why would a 26 year old Adman want to go and live in a rural Indian community with no electricity, toilets or washing facilities?
For me life is about experiences and taking part in a charity project overseas in a developing nation certainly ticks all the boxes. Having finished university and started a career, my life was pretty comfortable. I had got used to a well paid job and the trappings that a steady income brings. I holidayed, travelled, bought nice clothes and generally lived my life without a thought for anyone else.
I applied to work for a charity and by early September I was aboard a flight to Bangalore, in South India. At the time I didn’t really know why I had decided to make such a jump. It was a move into the unknown. I don’t believe in acts of intervention however as stupid as it may sound something had compelled me to do it.
So from early September up until Christmas I lived as a local in a village where the weekly wage is lucky to be £10. For the opening few days in the village I was in complete shock. The people had nothing, no shoes, rags for clothes and they bathed in a lake. 95% of the village also went to the toilet outside whilst there was animal waste all over the street. I settled into life as best I could and surprisingly after a week or so I began to feel a part of the community. I was happy washing from a bucket, using a squat toilet (basically a hole in the ground) and eating without cutlery. I didn’t shave or see myself in the mirror for the first 5 weeks. A stroke of good fortune some might say.
My role was to lead a team of volunteers, eight from the UK and 3 from India. Over the three month period we made a real difference to the community. We built twenty toilets for local families, dug the village new drainage, refurbished the nursery school and provided health and school lessons to over 1,000 adults and children in the local area. We tried to show them small changes in lifestyle that would make them healthier. I think we succeeded.
At times the project was tough, seeing poverty and gender inequality up close can be very difficult to adjust to. Living in a slum for three months can also take its toll no matter how happy the locals are. Withstanding this every one of my team and I gained so much. I realised the importance of community and how no matter where someone is from you can make a personal connection.
We also joined in Hindu religious festivals and played in local cricket and volleyball matches against a neighbouring village. These are unique experiences that will live with me for life. As will the generosity of the people of Belfast who helped me raise over £1,000, all of which went directly to helping my village.
On the final morning in our village, we walked around to say goodbye. The village had 80 houses however the walk took us well over two hours. Grown men in floods of tears invited us into their houses for one last final cup of Tea. It was heartbreaking.
The trip has taught me a lot. What truly stands out from the experience is that life will pass you by unless you grasp opportunity and believe in something. This time last year I had no intention of going to India. I did and it changed my life. If you need a new year’s resolution or are in between jobs I would strongly recommend volunteering overseas, you will not only change the life of the community out there but you’ll also change your own.