The charity I am volunteering with out here is called MYKAPS. My neighbour back in Cambridge (Mr Gavin Shelton, recently married, please step forward) used to be the country director for Raleigh International in India, and recommended a number of charities in the general area. As a result I have had a number of discussions with William D’Souza (the MD of MYKAPS) about how I might be able to help.
On Monday I went out to the village/town of Handpost (just before HD Kote) to go and see them. I am not planning to start until the beginning of May, but thought it would be good to get out there to see how it all works. How long can it take, I thought.
Sometimes you underestimate how difficult things will be here. Not because they are inherently difficult, but because a number of small obstacles add up into a progress gridlock.
Bus stations in India are swirling masses. After queuing ineffectively for 10 minutes at a window called ‘Counter 2’, I then ask an old dude who directs me to stand 6. Stand 6 does indeed have a sign saying HD Kote on it, which is promising, but buses rush past it, with conductors leaning out the doors, shouting their destinations. There are usually destinations on the fronts of the buses, but they are all in Kannada and therefore currently utterly incomprehensible. After asking several people (this takes the form of me holding my hand on my heart and saying “H.D. Kote” whilst looking earnest), everyone assures me that I am in the right place. Buses drive past. People get on and off. There is a almost constant honking of horns and shouting. Lots of people practice that ‘sit very low to the ground with flat feet’ that is almost impossible for us to achieve with years of physical therapy. I ask official looking men in army-esque uniforms if this is the right place. They all nod. Nodding, however, is a dangerous thing to read. People nod for a variety of reasons out her: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘I do not understand any English and have no idea what you are talking about’, ‘I know you are incorrect but I feel it would be rude to point it out’ all can be met with a nod, or, conversely, the ubiquitous head wobble.
But eventually (after 45 mins) a bus does pull in and the swarming begins. I have always been quite pleased with my ability to worm my way to the front of queues but I am a pathetic amateur here. In England queue jumping is rude and therefore if done, you try no to make it look as though you are doing it. This usually involves minimal eye contact. But here there is just no concept of a queue. So it isn’t rude to swarm. Although I have notice that man are far more likely to queue jump than women. Which confuses me. (I know this all sounds frightfully British).
So now I am on the bus and trying to work out what the rules are. Is it rude if I sit next to a woman? Should I sit on the left or the right of the bus to maximise my chances of getting off at Handpost? Should I try and sit next to someone who speaks English well (and what exactly would they look like)?
I end up plonked at the back as the bus honks and poddles its way out of Mysore. My ticket (22 rupees, 42 km) once again bears witness to India’s love of administration, replete with terms and conditions of travel. I decide to recruit the man next to me as my Handpost arrival adviser. To do this I place my hand earnestly on my heart (always important) and look at him whilst saying ‘Handpost’ in an interrogative fashion. The man nods. I am pleased.
We soon escape the bustle of Mysore and are out in the countryside. The red brick soil is occasionally used to make red bricks and the road is shared with harnessed cows, bicycles, and wandering or possibly wondering old men on foot. The road condition is good and I start doing mental calculations as to how quickly we are travelling and when we might stumble across Handpost, Occasionally I practise my earnest charm on my neighbour again. “Handpost?” I say making gestures to the future, and he nods. We seem to have been travelling for ages when my new found mate just gets up and gets off the bus. No “good luck noble citizen in your quest for Handpost”. No “do not fear, pale man, Handpost lies just over yonder hill”. Nothing. I become concerned he has never understood my Handpost requests. A couple more km drift by and I approach another of my neighbours (you know the drill). He nods wisely and then gets up and sits in a different seat on the bus.
We pull into some largish village thing so I turn to the only man left anywhere near me. He confirms this is indeed the oft sought(and rarely found) Handpost and I disembark. A cow takes an interest in me.
I call Mr D’Souza and he directs me to their ‘campus’. “Just ask anyone. Everyone knows where we are”, he says. I do ask anyone and a man directs me straight on. “Yes, yes”, with head wobble. As I am heading out of town, pondering whether the absence of buildings and people should be taken as a good sign, a small boy runs up behind and tugs my shirt “MYKAPS?”, he says (although how he knows who I am, or where I am going, is a mystery).
“Oh yes”, I reply, confidently pointing out of town. He points back to where I have just come from. On the way back we meet up again with my original misdirector and everyone smiles and nods.
William D’Souza is a west coast Indian has worked for developmental charities all his working life. A sprightly 60 year old, he has committed himself to helping others, but he does so with a grace and humility that I find instantly attractive. MYKAPS as a charity spun off from the larger charity MYRADA in 2008, but with still the same broad aims: agricultural support, organic certification, water cleanliness and sanitation.
We talk about this and that and try and work out how my skills might be used in MYKAPS. I tell him that I am interested in how development works on the ground. And this is perhaps the crux of what I am trying to achieve here: people have quite rightly told me that if I want to do the most good for the most people, it makes far more sense to stay at home in the UK and either earn lots of money and give it to charity, or work in a more ‘business’ like way for a charity, supporting remote operations which are far better handled by local people who understand the terrain. But, and I am sure I am being selfish in some ways here, I need to know how these things work for real. What works and what doesn’t. It’s all very well having bright ideas in some well lit, highly sanitised office in Covent Garden, but what actually is achievable on the ground. And then maybe later I will work back in the UK. But first I need to see this. To work in a small, focussed way.
So I try and explain this to William. I want to see what you do, and how do you do it. He has concerns that my presence and requirements will interfere with their everyday work. Which is a fair concern. So we come up with the following tasks:
1. Write role descriptions for each of the people who work in the Handpost campus (approx 38). This will require interviewing them and seeing their projects in the flesh, and trying to piece it all together.
2. Redesign their website to show more clearly what they are involved in.
3. Write proposals for funding to apply for grants etc.
I am pleased with this. Whilst it is quite administrative, it allows me to burrow into each person’s projects and really get to understand what they do. No doubt it will be difficult at first, but this is what I am here to understand. MYKAPS has, in general, moved from internationally sourced funding to locally (ie nationally) sourced funding. For the website stuff, and the funding requests, I am not sure how to appeal to an Indian market, but we shall see.
Raleigh International do work with MYKAPS and William mentions he is going to check up on one of their projects. Do I want to come along?
So we leap into the Mahindra and away we drive. And so there I am, nattering away in the back of a truck with William about happiness vs income, water sanitation issues (55% of people in the local environment do not use a toilet of any description leading to cross contamination issues), and it strikes that I am really happy right now, here in this deserted landscape, bumping through potholes. And that this really is what this trip is about.
When the Portuguese missionaries came to India, along the south west coast stretching down from Goa, the Indians they ‘converted’ didn’t have surnames. So they gave them all the name ‘da Souza’. I think it means ‘priest’
We arrive at the Raleigh project. Raleigh International is a youth development charity that takes groups of 18-25 year old people from the UK and places them in projects for 3 months, usually in rural and remote areas. They usually do 3 projects in their 3 months. They work them hard: the projects are dry (by which I mean alcohol free rather than arid), they sleep on hard floors and they get one day off a week. But it’s a fantastic opportunity to work in extremely remote areas, but with good levels of support and safety. And to meet other people of their own age, but often of extremely different backgrounds.
Hannah built a school and other notable charitable items with Raleigh in Namibia in 2000, whilst I was drinking my way through Zimbabwe and turning down prostitutes in Mozambique. It appears I am late to the charitable party.
“Your blog bores me” it almost seems as if she is saying. “Get on with it”.
We rock up at the project . A field in the middle of nowhere. The track just stops and we leap out to see a group of about 6 young, tanned British people digging holes in the terracotta earth with picks, swinging dwarfen shovels through the air and churning up the ground. I feel pale and white and gawky and like the kid at school who never did any sport. William beams at them in his Indian way and says “I am William, the director of MYKAPS”. They smile and nod politely. “And this”, he says, gesturing at me “is Nick. From England”. They nod politely at me. I attempt to stand more casually, as if I am not assessing their hole digging progress. They have that look in their eyes that says “Who the hell are you?”. I decline to elaborate at this point.
William’s agricultural project manager explains what they are doing. The farmer is trying to grow mangoes and they are helping him out. The field slopes down to a huge lake at the bottom, and when the rains come, the water just rushes down, taking the topsoil with it. Raleigh are digging ditches perpendicular to the hill slope, that act as drains, catching the water and topsoil at regular intervals. It is hard, hot work.
Mangoes take five years to produce fruit. Clearly this is a long time and therefore farmers require a mixed portfolio to produce output in different seasons. We are in year two. But there is a problem. The elephants who live in the woods surrounding the lake (of which I am reliably informed there are 5200), have found the mango plantation and come at night to eat it. The word is out. Anti elephant measures have, so far, been ineffective. They are considering growing chillies around the borders to irritate the elephants’ trunks.
And after suitable pleasantries, and smiles and nods, we leave the project and return to the MYKAPS campus for hot, sweet tea. William introduces me to some of his staff “Nick will be working with us for 4 months” and I am made to feel very welcome.
I hop back to town on a private bus, with three of us jammed in on the front seat. The sun drops away behind the hills, but the honking and beeping and swerving continues long into the night.