Parents Month: Nine Things I’ve learnt in India by Ms Gitsham

Ms Gitsham in Shop

Ms Gitsham in Shop

As part of our What a Difference a Year Makes campaign, this March we are focussing on parents. Parents also go on a journey with Project Trust – through sending their children off to Coll for Selection, supporting through fundraising and waving goodbye at the airport – it is equally exciting and emotional for parents as it is for Volunteers.

In July 2017, Volunteer Honor Gitsham was visited by her parents Nicola and Julian in India, where they got to see firsthand the impact Project Trust Volunteers have on the ground.

‘I asked my mum and dad to write a brief reflection of their visit to Andhra High School to insert into my post about their visit. Despite driving to Chennai for 6 hours they managed to come back to me with nearly 2000 words! So, deserving a post of its own, I will share it with you…

1. Project Trust Volunteers are highly valued by their projects

From this visit I really understood how critical English is to improving the life chances of children in developing countries. Not just being able to repeat it or read it, but to understand it’s meaning. The teaching style in the school was very traditional with children constantly getting the slate out of their rucksacks and then putting them away again. The teachers were curious about the different techniques we used at home. I have to admit I was quite out of my depth when asked by teachers what Scotland was like and what was the teaching pedagogy in Scottish schools. Everyone thinks all the Volunteers come from Scotland! I don’t think Honor has been too fast to correct them!

2. The Volunteers are pretty incredible and learn so much in a year

It’s hard to put into words the amount of pride I felt watching Honor teach 4 classes. She is teaching English to children aged 4 to 12. She loves the little ones but especially likes teaching secondary. I’m not sure I could calm a class of 40 excited 10 year olds now, let alone at 19 but she was excellent. It was great watching her find examples of opposites that the children understood. Julian was a great prop for ‘tall and short.’ However, ‘hot and cold’ was a harder concept to translate, as I think in Ongole there is only hot, hotter and hottest!

But it isn’t just teaching Volunteers learn so much about. The girls have also learnt customs specific to the culture when learning how to respect others and different communities. In a traditional culture they have had a lot less freedom to what they were used to in the UK. Watching Honor and Phoebe respect these boundaries and understand what’s important to their hosts was amazing. I’m really grateful to the ways their hosts have protected them. It’s not a place where I felt particularly comfortable as a woman. Men congregate together and many watch and stare.

Honor in India

Honor in India

3. The children make the project

One of the very best things about visiting Honor was meeting the children and young people at their project. I’ll never forget the excitement when we turned up at school. I’ve lost count with how many children I’ve high-fived in the last 4 days. Gorgeous kids, full of life and keen to learn. The hostel boys deserve a special mention. Full of energy and cheekiness but are so kind. On the last night, Jules, Honor, Phoebe and I handed out stretchy frogs and butterflies. Had to keep explaining to them they were stretchy but didn’t stick to walls…we soon found that if they threw them hard enough at the wall they did stick! The boys were so pleased with the frogs and butterflies and they quickly got Jules and I chairs to sit down on. Honor was pleased to see the chairs as Phoebe and she had been looking for them all week! I love this photo even though it’s out of focus.

Honor India Balcony

4. Their ability to navigate a completely different system overseas is incredible

The other thing that struck me was how Honor has developed a better appreciation of the value of money. Her Auntie Judith would be proud. Watching her refuse to pay more than the standard rate for the jasmine flowers at the market and reflect on how 20 rupees (2p) was a lot of money was sobering. Having said that, she’s also become a terrific sari shopper! Her sister Phoebe (G) and I know how hard it is to take Honor clothes shopping in the UK – she’s simply not interested and bored within 30 minutes. Watching Phoebe (McK) and Honor navigate sari shops on Gandhi Road was nothing short of impressive. They know all the different styles, what they should pay and can’t get enough of them. We spent several hours in sari shops and the frequent request to the shopkeeper was “Uncle, more colours, this style and more sequins please” Kalyani, the teacher who has taken the girls into her family, was very proud of the price she paid for her recent addition.

5. The relationships they develop between each other are invaluable, especially when learning how to live with others

Honor has been so lucky with her Project Trust partner, Phoebe, and her two co-volunteers Lydia and Kirsty. It is unusual to have to live so closely with another person, apart from when you chose to have a life partner! They have learnt so much about how to work in a team and developed a great friendship. We could see how much they appreciated the strengths of each of the four girls. Julian and I were here for our 30th wedding anniversary and thought there were good lessons about working together there! The girls room was a happy room and we enjoyed many evenings talking and laughing. I don’t think I have ever been so hot in my life in the evening in their room but could have laid there listening to their stories for ages.

Making Dosa
Ms Gitsham & Madam

Making Dosa/Ms Gitsham

6. India is a sensory overload!

Everyone tells you that India is an assault on your senses, and it really is. The spectacular colours of the saris, the contrasting smells of wafts of jasmine in the girl’s hair to the open sewers on top of the constant sound of the auto (tuk-tuk) horns. It took us 6 hours to get to Honor and 6 hours back to Chennai but I wasn’t bored for a moment. There are so many things to see from the colourful labourers in the paddy fields, the sugar almond coloured Hindu temples, Massey Ferguson tractors decorated in tinsel, pom-poms and paintings and antelopes, monkeys, peacocks and wild boar. And then there is the food…I’m a big fan of Indian food and we have eaten very, very well. I have come back with a bag full of spices and am hoping Honor will bring some of Madam’s recipes back with her. Madam is the most amazing cook. Her prawn curry is one of the best curries I’ve tasted. She was hugely generous and cooked for us morning and night forever filling out plates – we have had to learn the word ‘chaloo’ (meaning ‘enough’) and will probably need to buy bigger trousers when we get home! She packed our breakfast when we left, taught me how to make dosa and presented me with a chai tea pot before we said goodbye.

7. Women are the glue that binds their communities together

Ongole is very traditional and the role of women is so different to that in the UK. Woman work very hard. The domestic tasks take forever without the use of modern appliances. They rise early in the morning to do the housework and spend the day cooking. At the school, there were many, many Aunties cleaning and cooking in what were very basic conditions to feed 60 hostel children. It’s hard as a woman and mother of 3 girls to see how subservient woman are to their husbands. Not all husbands allow their wives to work outside of the house. Those that work as teachers at the school are up early boiling water cooking and cleaning before they even get to school. However, what struck me was how strong the women are and how much they support each other. Whilst Sir is in charge, Madam has such an important role in the school. She is the listening ear and encourager of everyone. She has been so kind to the girls, acting as their ‘Indian mummy’ (which she and the girls refer to her as.) Kalyani is the teacher who has taken Honor and Phoebe under her wing and opened her home and family life to the girls. When I thanked her, she said ‘don’t worry we will look after them and we will then look after the next two volunteers.’ We had the most amazing lunch at Kalyani’s house in her village and Julian practiced eating with his right hand; no cutlery. The girls are really skilled in eating with their hands now. The whole family is living in two rooms whilst the new house is built. And then of course there is Subu, the young hostel girl who greeted us with posters and sang beautifully to us in Telugu before we left. Bright personality and student who when she’s not studying is doing domestic tasks. Subu’s wish is to become a pilot. An old headmaster told me at 17 that what women really need is a good husband. I remember being outraged at the time but in Subu’s case I really do hope she is blessed with a good husband who enables her to have a happy home and professional life.

Madam and Kalyani have been great role models for Honor to learn from. The women bind the community together. They are each other’s go-to and the power of female friendship provides a huge support. On the Sunday, Kalyani and the girls arranged a picnic for us at the beach with the families of three of her closet friends. To see them playing like girls in the sea fully clothed was magical. In England, we get our bikinis on at the slightest hint of sun and go in the sea. Here, we were in the Bay of Bengal fully dressed, no beach paraphernalia and having the time of our lives. At the end of the day each of the women brought out amazing Indian snacks they had cooked and rice dishes which they proceeded to feed us with from their right hands. Pranuthi’s father fed first then Julian then us. I struggled to get my head around eating with my hand and being fed by someone else but in this culture, it is custom and a sign of affection. Kalyani said that after the birth of each of her children her father came to her house and fed her like he did when she was a child.

8. We have more in common

Just before I’d left the UK I’d been privileged to join one of the More in Common gatherings with friends of Jo Cox. After India, I understand more deeply what she meant about us having more in common than that which divides us. I felt this when seeing the parents and children of so many different faiths dropping their children off at school (as I have done many, many times over the last 18 years) all united by the same things, love for our families and wanting the best for our children.

9. How this visit has developed my understanding as a parent of a Project Trust Volunteer

Honor is our oldest and therefore our first to leave home. To say we’ve missed her is the biggest understatement. However, I’ve learnt that missing them is better than seeing their dreams unfulfilled. We know we wanted to go and see her but there is a lot to organise as we have two younger children. The list of instructions spanned three pages but thanks to great family and friends who made it possible we found ourselves on the flight to Chennai. Was it worth it? Every moment. I don’t think I could have understood what Honor has done and the people who have become so important to her if I hadn’t gone. My understanding of the world and communities is greatly improved from having the chance to visit the project. And being able to see how important Project Trust are in playing such an invaluable role in helping children around the world (regardless of their background) get a good start. They are helping to develop the next generation of leaders of social change. The charity is 50 years old this year. Long may it continue.’