Sunday, 24 June 2012

Atheists and Agnostics Making a Difference In the World IV: Raji C.

"I have always enjoyed volunteer work and I do feel that it is fundamentally important to care for one another."

This is the fourth post in a new series of personal profiles of Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists who are helping to make the world a better place.  

Click here for all posts in this series.


I first met Raji six years ago while we were both working at a survey company here in Montreal.  The job was horrible, but I got a wonderful friend from it.  It's truly my pleasure to feature her here on my blog.

Raji was born in Vancouver, Canada.  She studied Psychology at McGill University in Montreal.

She has had quite a few volunteering gigs: 2007, India; 2009,  a primary school in Nicaragua and AIDS Community Care in Montreal; 2010, geriatric centre in Montreal; 2011 - current, fundraising for a shelter in London UK.  This profile will focus on the India and Nicaragua volunteering.

Childhood Influences of Religion

Unlike our previous two volunteers, Raji was brought up with no religion at all.  She comes from a Punjab cultural background (Sikh) but grew up in a self-identifying Atheist family.  Her parents were very politically motivated ardent Communists.  The very sort of people my parents raised me to once believe were "the enemies of the Church and Freedom."
Religion played absolutely zero role in my upbringing due to my parents' political and social leanings. Some might assume that my parents would therefore have imbued us with anti-religious sentiment, but that wasn't the case for the most part.  
The first time that I remember the issue of religion explicitly coming up was when I was about four or five and asked my parents which religion we belonged to. Exposure to other young children in daycare had lead to minor conflicts and questions about these issues arose, but I was told we were atheists and that we didn't believe in any kind of god.  
My father was definitely an atheist, but I would have placed my mother more in the world of agnosticism at that time, although she's now an atheist. My mother never closed the door to religion had I wanted to explore it, and open discussion would likely have taken place, but religion wasn't at all a part of my family culture.

Despite all that, they still saw fit to give me the middle name Kaur (ਕੌਰ) used by all female Sikhs. Go figure. 
So here we have the volunteer with the most extensive volunteering record so far out of all the people I've profiled or am in the process of profiling.  And yet she has the least amount of exposure to religion out of all of them.  Interesting, eh?

2007: India

Raji volunteered at the Care and Counselling Centre in Calcutta India.  She stayed at a guesthouse in Calcutta just across the street from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (the very one Christopher Hitchens made a piquant expose of in his controversial documentary Hell's Angel and later book Missionary Position).

While stationed there, she kept a blog who's primary function was to document her experience for people close to her.  The blog gives an excellent window into every day life and culture clashes she experienced while doing her work in the region.  I've taken some of her entries placed them here.  Note that they are not her precise words - I've edited things around for brevity and clarity - but they've nonetheless gotten Raji's approval.  So they are of high enough fidelity.

India: Living Conditions

"Our entrance to the guesthouse. The caretakers' family slept on the front porch, behind the locked green grid. Needless to say, coming home after 10pm posed a bit of a problem."
"The guesthouse is an idyllic place, behind the St James Church, set back far enough from the street that some of the constant cacophony of traffic and honking seems to fade a little into the background. It was actually quite pretty, with a small garden, and totally off the beaten path. The only people who usually stay here, besides other volunteers in my group, are volunteers at the mother house."
"But the noise was still quite appreciable. Particularly the family of barking dogs, the youngest of whom would squeal loudly, which would always give me the rather "unsettling" feeling that it was being tortured (it was not). And we could still very clearly hear the incessant drumming leading up to day of Ashura."

The guesthouse was set up dorm style, and I shared a four-bed room with one other volunteer.

"When this photo was taken, there was only one other person living in the room (bed not pictured here).  So it wasn't so bad."
An Italian woman, who didn't actually live at the guesthouse, but who spent an inordinate amount of time there, once referred to our room as "a pigsty". With four people in such a tight space, her descriptor was certainly true.

Raji originally shared the room with one other volunteer from Melbourne. Eventually two older women, one from Italy and another from Spain, arrived.

Raji goes on to mention the bathroom where she befriended a large patch of mould on the ceiling and named him Frank. He apparently grew strong and healthy from the volunteers' daily showers.

Frank, not pictured, lives a little above the green water heater.

The bathroom. You can see our shower on the far left. We were blessed with access to hot water. We had to turn a switch on, which would activate the water heater, and if you were smart enough to figure out the knobs, you could avoid being scalded.

There's no curtain, so the floor would be soaking wet after one shower. I, luckily, had shower shoes which kept me from having to walk on a dirty, wet floor (after I made it dirty and wet). Come to think of it, I think I forgot them there!

To relax in the evening and connect with other volunteers, impromptu nightly Yahtzee tournaments were held.

Yahtzee was our nightly ritual. We started keeping our scores in the Holy Book of Yahtzee, which included player bios. We'd set up after dinner and gorge ourselves on chocolate, biscuits and tea. I usually came in last (or second last).  I think Yahtzee is about as boring and annoying as pool (maybe because I suck; or maybe I suck because I  don't like it).  I continued to play because it was a socializing opportunity.

India: Poverty

Apartment unit on Elliot St. Calcutta.
Raji's blog contains a good deal of outward observation and inward introspection.  Here are some of her thoughts on the situation in the part of Calcutta in which she volunteered.
The poverty is immense, and I haven't even seen the slums. People literally set up camps on the sidewalks and they live there. Year round. It's their home. It's pretty spectacular.

For starters, I find it boggling that in West Bengal, a supposedly Marxist state, one can find the level of poverty displayed here. Apparently it has the longest lasting, democratically elected Communist government in the world, and everywhere you turn, you see CPI and Lenin graffiti. Despite this, people's basic needs aren't even accounted for - half the population lives in slums...
Raji had assumed that there was no public healthcare or public schooling in the region based on the abject poverty she witnessed.  She recently informed me that this is not actually the case - they do have public healthcare and education but they do not seem to be very effective and NGOs are still doing a lot of the work.

India: Volunteer Work

Raji was placed at a school for the mentally and physically challenged with no clear job description.  The school itself has to accept whatever the parents can afford, which is sometimes as little as ten rupees (25 cents) and these are by no means the poorest children in the city.  The school seems to require resources that are not available and gets no government aid.  Only two of the teachers spoke any English.

Here is an entry from Raji's blog from that time.
As it stands, I am being placed at a school for mentally and physically challenged students. They're so cute and sweet, it is absolutely unreal. Their problems range from Autism to Down Syndrome to hearing impairment. The hearing impaired kids are the only ones who receive any real academic training, the others get training which will help them to integrate and be self-sufficient down the road (like vocational training). There's no mental health component at all, and I have no skills to be useful here, but I am going to try and do some quick research so that I have more than a superficial understanding of the problems and rehab and try my best to be helpful in some way.

"The picture was taken the day after my last day, when I took a new volunteer to the school. I was kind of disconcerted  by the fact that he didn't seem to notice me when I came by.  When I attended the school every day, he seemed more alert and engaged and would regularly make eye contact with me, but this was taken only one day after I'd stopped coming and he barely noticed me. I guess that's just the nature of the disorder, or the nature of my imagination and wishful thinking."
Eventually, after asking the school direction for a task, she was assigned to one-on-one work with an autistic boy who was around seven years old.   He needed individualized therapy but, due to lack of available staff, didn't really get it.

I felt much more encouraged by that, because even if I have never worked with autistic children before, at least it's gives me something tangible to learn about and work on. It was a bit of a battle at first, because he wouldn't cooperate with me, and being that I was a veritable stranger, that doesn't surprise me. Over the course of three days, however, he seemed to have warmed up to me a lot and is much more cooperative (unless tired or bored).

Classes are taught in a less structured manner at the school.
I've noticed that teaching and disciplinary methods are very different than what I'm used to. The classes are structured differently and on the surface don't appear to be as productive as I remember my own elementary school classroom to be, and the teachers I observed didn't always give the reinforcement or guidance I would have expected.
"These are some of the older hearing impaired kids.  They would spend their afternoons doing recreational activities on the tiny roof on top of their school, including badmington.  They were constantly losing badmington birdies into
their neighbour's alleyway below."

2009: Nicaragua

"The kids in Nicaragua were fantastic. Very positive and quick witted and willing to adapt to anything. This photo was taken on the day we took the primary students to the river. While leaving, the truck got stuck in the mud and everyone pitched  in to to try and clear the wheels and push the truck free. In the end, it took some extra help by a man passing with some cattle to pull the truck out of the mud."
"There were, of course, also amusing observations about the fact that three years old can barely walk well, but they still know how to dance better than most adults in Canada."

Raji volunteered with Dianova Nicaragua at the Las Marías Center, a primary and secondary school. It was located about an hour from Managua off the pan-American highway.

Nicaragua: Living Conditions

Much like her experience in India, Raji had to make some adjustments in her day-to-day living.
Life in rural Nicaragua is certainly not like life in Montreal. We did not have consistent daily access to running water in all areas and on off-days we had to collect water from a storage tank. If you needed to bathe or flush the toilet, you did it with the water you collected in the morning. It was three months of cold, inconsistent showers. They also have a lot of scary creatures like tarantulas. All that is minor and one adapts quickly and beyond that it's more or less how you would expect life to be in a rural area anywhere on earth.
The biggest challenge was language but Raji also found it tough to live on site 24/7 going to sleep and waking up with children always outside of her window.  Privacy was non-existent and it was difficult to develop any kind of personal life outside of the school.  Gossip was rampant and no action ever went unnoticed.

Nicaragua: Volunteer Work

The main building, housing the girl's residence, the cafeteria and the staff administrative offices.
Raji worked with the around 80 of out of the 300 students were residents who lived on the site. 
Many of the children were not able to go home every weekend and therefore I initially intended to complete a project and to try to establish a peer education and counselling program so that older students could help younger students deal with the demands of living apart from their families and to coach them in life skills. Unfortunately, this did not transpire owing to the size of the project, my limited time and my limited Spanish abilities. Nevertheless, I spent the summer assisting at the school where I could.

Nicaragua: Difficult Contradictions

Nicaragua is a religious country with a Catholic majority.  It would appear that this has had some influence on public policy.
Much like India, I wrestled a lot with seeming contradictions: for example, during my time there an absolute ban on all forms of abortion was introduced, including therapeutic abortions. Meanwhile, there is an extremely high teenage pregnancy rate and high maternal death rate.

Nicaragua: Some Reflections

Raji made a special friend while staying at the school: Moncha the monkey!
Monkeys are deeply social animals, but Moncha had to sit chained by herself with no monkey companions. The kids were quite afraid of her, so she had no real human companions either.
As an animal lover, Raji immediately felt bad for her and visited her daily.  It didn't take long for them to become the best of friends.
If I wasn't fast enough in getting away she would wrap her tail around me, crawl up my arm, wrap her little monkey arms around my neck in an embrace and refuse to let go.  All she wanted was a hug!
I'm happy to report that Raji has learnt through the grapevine that Moncha has been donated to the local zoo to live with the other spider monkeys.
Would be nicer if she were in the wild, but she'd probably been in captivity too long and it's better than being chained alone to a tree!
Raji shared some of these final thoughts about the experience with me.
I was also able to build on my insights and reflections from India. The experience did drive home the importance of persistence, self-awareness and adaptability in working in a culture apart from one's own. Further, psychology and other helping professions can focus very heavily on the individual, but going abroad and being able to observe as an outsider heightened my awareness of the tangled relationship between society, economics, politics and individual well-being and that these different dimensions can not be separated.

Raji says the children had boundless energy!

Why Raji Volunteers

I asked Raji why she puts in such consistent time volunteering.
I think that it's part personal ambition, part upbringing and part personal neurosis.
Obviously my parents' attitudes had a big impact on my values, but a number of personal experiences also lead me to want to work in a profession that served vulnerable people. As a result, I have always enjoyed volunteer work and I do feel that it is fundamentally important to care for one another.

A degree alone won't get you far if you want to work in a helping profession, so I did a lot of volunteer work not only because I enjoyed and valued it, but because it helped to refine my interests and to narrow down areas that I may wish to pursue professionally. In addition, after graduating, I was working in a bank and protecting a bank's assets wasn't exactly the common good that I was thinking of, so volunteering was a good way to pursue my genuine interests outside of work hours. Volunteering internationally came about as a result of a desire to travel and get away from traditional tourist attractions and to gain a richer understanding of everyday life for people within a particular city or country.
Obviously the learning experiences were one of a kind and I wouldn't give-up volunteerism or travel for anything.

“The Mouth of Hell” or the Masaya volcano. One of its three craters is still active. The smoke you see in the photos
 is a toxic gas being emitted from the volcano.

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