Throughout my stay at Chirag, I continuously pondered what my purpose was at the NGO. Given the huge language barrier, I could not fathom how I could possibly be more valuable as a volunteer intern than a student with similar academic qualifications from within India who could speak Hindi. By the end of ten weeks, however, I have come to learn why Chirag directors and staff members alike see value in having foreign interns, though this did take the entire stay to uncover.
For the first few weeks, endless questions bounced around in my head. I felt as though I had few people to ask because the English-speaking staff members in the head office did not grow up in the area. A conversation with a professor from the U.S. finally triggered a switch in my approach. She was at Chirag leading a summer abroad session of twelve students for the second time and had many experiences conducting research abroad. She said of her students that they come here wanting to Google everything, which in fact was exactly what I was doing at that point – trying to download as many academic papers as I could while the internet god was happy (aka when the internet was working and the power was not out). Because of this tendency, she forced them to be completely without internet for the at least the first two weeks. Instead, she emphasized the value of learning through conversations. I asked her how that was possible here when none of them spoke Hindi either. Surprisingly, she told me that quite a number of the staff members at the Reetha office knew a lot more English than
they let on. Upon the first few meetings, of course, they are shy about their English speaking abilities, but as you make an effort to get to know them, they’ll become more comfortable. This came as a huge surprise to me because I had strongly underestimated their English speaking abilities from the start.
The following day when I went to the Reetha office, I tried to converse more and more and sure enough, I was able to learn about their work and lives outside of the office. At this point, however, I was still confused as to my value as an intern. In fact, it seemed to me that so many foreign interns passed through the Reetha office that many of the staff members must be tired of strangers hopping in and out, unable to speak their language.
Going to Dewaldar was the second turning point for me this summer. The very set up of this campus office alone made a drastic difference. At the head office and Reetha office, staff members went home after the work day, and as a central point for the NGO, almost all interns passed through this region. On the other hand, a four and a half hour drive through the winding, bumpy mountain roads sits the peaceful Chirag Dewaldar office where three of the staff members lived in dormitory-style rooms by the office year-round. Therefore, rather than spending most nights learning about life in Europe from fellow interns, I had the opportunity to befriend the staff members who had grown up in the villages where Chirag works. Together, we prepared food by candlelight during scheduled power outages, we ate dinner outdoors under the full moon, we danced in true Bollywood fashion to local Kumoani music, we shared riddles and jokes through a long series of pantomimes, and most importantly, we were able to learn from each other. It’s not often that you can have a philosophical discussion surrounding the question of “what is this love?” with one who believes fully in arranged marriages, one who believes love marriages are more successful, and one who considers his own marriage as both. With these friends, I was able to ask all my questions, and they were equally interested, asking me an endless number of questions about the US as well as my opinions on their way of life.
Finally, I was able to ask how they felt about foreign interns prancing in and out of their office. For one, I learned that interns passed through primarily only during the summer months between June and August. Therefore, for the staff members with whom I was speaking, these months brought some excitement to the office days. Secondly, while I had understood in the past that English was an important language because of its prevalent use in the professional business world, I never before considered its necessity for gaining knowledge.
So many scholarly articles and books are published only in English, especially in India where English serves as a second official language. For the staff, to have English speakers around to practice English with or help explain short passage written in English, it was a great benefit. Foreign interns also brought new perspectives to the organization, allowing the staff members to think about the same problems in a new light, as one staff member explained to me. He said that if they only had local interns, then the same thinking, the same habits, will continue as they are with no one questioning whether they are good or bad. Lastly, as one staff member told me, he feels so fortunate to work at an NGO where he can meet foreigners. In the villages, he said, few people have this kind of opportunity to talk to someone from so far away. Since his potential chances for travelling outside the country are slim, being able to learn about the world through foreign interns also serves as a way of exploration for him. This, of course, led me to consider a new element of privilege, one based on mobility. As I look ahead past graduation, I feel as though I could be studying or working anywhere in the world next year. This international mobility is a direct result of the privileged education I have had and the unequal global system where funds for international travel sit almost entirely in developed nations.