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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Los Volontarios

This end of Calcutta is full of Volontarios; mainly Spanish, mainly female, mainly in their early 20s. Drawn here by the industry in volunteering that Mother Teresa (God rest her soul) started and still thrives today. At peak periods, some 300 volontarios a day come to help the poor and less fortunate. Ahhh.

Sadly being barely out of school and thrown into the hardest city of a developing country many of these volontarios are hard pushed to look after themselves, let alone anyone else.

It’s the aid-world’s equivalent of chucking a bucket of very thin paint at a wall. Whatever sticks is so faint it’s a hardly worth it. Between their youthful naivety and the heavy dose of Catholic rights and wrongs they have to extol, the volume of volontarios means that the job of managing them must rival the work of providing support for Calcutta’s orphans, disabled, elderly and street sleepers. Hosé, one of Mother Teresa’s co-ordinators, who sometimes has to deal with young volontarios going off the rails, confides that many are sent here by religious parents as a punitive or educational experience.

Salvatore, in his 30’s works with the handicapped full time in Sardinia. He tells me about his first time here when he volunteered through Mama T, “They were fighting each other over who would wash these old handicapped men. Fighting. But after an hour they’d all slopped off because it’s physically hard work. I had to clean 20 people in an a day, alone.“

The one benefit of their presence, so small by comparison to the effort involved to achieve it, is that most of these girls go away with an understanding that the challenges of helping the poor, of delivering aid, is not as practically or ethically simple as it seems. Actually that realisation is no small thing, and most will admit that the experience is more beneficial to them than to vulnerable Indians. It’s a form of extreme-socially-conscious-tourism.

Salvatore has nothing to do with these centres for gap-year-do-gooders anymore. Without much effort he’s able to collect several thousand Euros during the year and has made annual visits since 2008 with the money, spending it locally on tarpaulins, shoes, body soap, clothes soap, anti-lice shampoo and food, which, with the help of a friend Manuela, he bags up and distributes direct to street sleepers. This happens at night to avoid mobbing, and under the direction of the Parvesh, the taxi driver Salvatore has used for 3 years. He’s the arbiter, advising Salvatore on who is needy and who is trying it on when there’s a doubt.

As a project it’s a good one, but as a formula, it’s open to a host of vulnerabilities. Salvatore is completely unaccountable to the anonymous donors, apart from a few pictures and videos on facebook, but he diligently makes sure every penny is spent, and pays for his own flight ticket to India. Parvesh could use his leverage with Salvatore to win favours from friends he directs handouts to, but because the recipients are so poor, and the parcels only of value to street sleepers this doesn’t seem to happen.

Each of the parcels he gives out costs about 100-150ruppees to put together. I ask him if it wouldn’t be better to just give out money, and let people decide what they need, but he’s tried that and he just got mobbed that time too. Later, he confides that secretly he sometimes gives cash out, but doesn’t like the Parvesh to see as it would put him under greater pressure to stay unbiased.

They invite me to join them on their final sortie of the year. Salvatore is a burly, stocky man, with a crew cut and an organised way about him, and at first it feels exciting, paramilitary almost. But the trip through town takes me to new depths of poverty. Young babies covered in grime, children sleeping on spit stained squares of cardboard, inches from ferreting rats, the deep slumber on their faces a reminder to me of their uncompromising innocence. Just a fluke of birth separates me from these children. I see an old man so thin and still that I test his pulse, relieved to feel he’s alive. Another man clutches the apple from his parcel like it’s a radiating heat on a freezing day, fondling it in his grim hands while the world rotates around him. It’s not a fun evening. I don’t feel uplifted at the end. I just want those places not to exist anymore. Salvatore is on a high because his work is over for the year. “This is the last year I’m coming back to India. I’ve seen the same people on the streets for 3 years” His need to quit is part revulsion, part despair.

If the Volontarios are watery white wash, Salvatore’s direct approach is like a skilled graffiti artist, beautifully tagging a small corner of the wall. Thankfully he’s good at what he does but there are others that given his cash would just make the wall look untidy.

Part of the money Salvatore raises he also gives as a large lump sum to Anand Bhavan, Hindi for “The House of Joy”. It’s a home for 30 disadvantaged girls, created so they can have an environment to support them through their education. The staff includes Maria a Spanish psychologist who explains that they also work with the girls’ families and there’s a trickle-out effect from these 30 girls effecting their siblings and parents, instilling a value for education. The hope is that all the girls will go on to vocational training or further education after their time there.

It’s clear to see that being chosen to come here for 5 years makes a radical night-to-day transformation to the girl’s lives and the opportunities they will have. Soon the first quorum will graduate from school and they have dreams for the future; Alisha wants to be a nurse (her mother’s unfulfilled dream), another girl wants to be a teacher, antoher an air hostesses (because they are very beautiful). Ambition in a 12 year old Indian girl from a poor family is a rare thing. Instilling the self-belief that they can dream, is a great achievement which Anand Bhavan should be proud of. For other girls from the same background, destiny is to be passed on to a husband so parents see educating them as a waste. To dream of a job is not in a girl’s frame of reference.

The centre costs €40,000 a year to run. This year Salvatore has donated €3000 to them of the €7000 he’s raised. Over 5 years, to transform the life of each girl costs around €6500. All the money comes from donors in Europe. None from Indians.

I ask Antonio, the programme director, why there is no fundraising from India. He tells me he thinks India is not “solidario”. After seven years living here, he knows how wealthy the country is, but that they don’t have a culture of giving to projects like this. Perhaps Indian generosity goes through the local temple to the local poor, he suggests. Incidentally The House of Joy is multi-faith and the statue of Jesus sits between Ganesh and an extract of the Koran.

Maria looks at the fact that the centre is paid for with foreign money from a social rather than political point of view. She attributes the behaviour more to the fatalism inherent in Hinduism and the psychology that goes with it. People here accept their destiny, and live up to the role of society ascribes to them. I’m poor, that’s what I will be. She’s worked in the slums of Rio before coming here in 2006, so I’m surprised she doesn’t have a broader perspective.

Cash is becoming harder to raise since the Spanish government cut funding to Indian NGOs in favour of South American ones after their financial crisis. In the context of radically changing a life, €6,500 seems like a small price, but perhaps if the project only kept girls for 2 years instead of 5, twice as many girls could have more than half the transformation? That’s a debateable premise. But there might be ways to get more from that money. To torture my wall analogy; here they are pinning up a small but expensive painting. Calcutta has a population of 15million people. An awful lot of those people could benefit from this sort of transformation.

I spend the day with the girls, making bracelets with beads, being silly, giggling, listening to their singing practice, and letting them take pictures with my camera. They laugh hysterically at the sight of their friends on the screen. I’ve been looking at this as a numbers game. But up close it’s not. This project shouldn’t be viewed in the context of saving all the vulnerable of Calcutta, it’s about 30 girls. They are a family. Maria and Antonio are almost their guardians or foster parents. They raise the money needed to make things better for these 30 girls by giving them a chance at education.

Salvatore looks at me helplessly, a gaudy bead bracelet hanging from his muscular wrist, and a softness in the hard man's eyes and says “I guess I’ll be back next year.”

Donations to Salvatore can be made my contacting him direct;
Anand Bhavan accepts contributions online at if you can fathom the Spanish.

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