By Chris Fleming
“12 weeks to change your life” – this statement is bold and proved to be one that I battled with daily until recently. I have 17 days left in India but only 11 in-community. I have come to realise that it was my expectations that had to change, not India .
When people asked me before I came here what I was doing, how I was helping I began to don a persona of a poverty fighting, equality driven vigilante. I stood tall, proud and confident with the response of ‘combating child labour’ – however, at 5’7″ and rather scrawny, I lack the height and build to compare myself to the likes of Batman.
I wasn’t aware of the ‘how’ but my imagination got the better of me and I began to play out scenarios that did give the excitement of a superhero; rescuing children from homes, farms or sweatshops. Giving this physical liberation was the most prominent approach that I could fathom.
When I arrived the reality was very different.
I have never studied ‘Development’ nor been directly exposed to ‘International Aid’ but I left Scotland with the hopes to return with my own success story; something to tell everyone about and feel satisfied that my efforts, my impact had brought about change and made a difference.
Because I came with this expectation and the reality was much different, I became very disheartened at my task in hand; the objective was to form youth and child groups in rural tribal villages.
How would this end child labour?
What would forming groups of those who were exploited, undermined and disregarded by many do to stop a problem so ingrained and deeply rooted in a society from happening?
This wasn’t what I thought I was here to do – this wasn’t what I signed up for.
Persistently, we went to the villages – small, poor and some lacking in access to basic resources – although we tried we were met with resistance and greeted each day with hostility; a general sense that we were coming with an agenda to convert them to Christianity or enforce a neo-colonial doctrine – imperialism is still a raw and sensitive issue here.
It was frustrating, it knocked the confidence I had previously had. Not only that, I began to wonder if these villages wanted any help at all. This negativity stayed with me for a while, it was always at the forefront of every idea and moment I thought about how beneficial this ‘Aid’ was.
It was with this constant battle I began to question if it was my own approach; my own lack of understanding and patience with how I viewed the community, international development along with the history of India collectively.
I came here with a masculinised aggressive idea that all development would be welcomed – that it would be hands on and that I was going to be recognised for this.
I came here with a selfish mindset that automatically shut off when it wasn’t how my perceptions and expectations had previously thought.
These areas which were scoped out as ‘in need of development’ may have had problems, visible or not but they also had so many positives – it just took this questioning to see that fully. The villagers had such a deep level of community and intimacy. Those who we had reached out to and were receptive showcased their skills, invited us into their homes and culture; they began to encourage others to talk to us, to engage with us and to share their own stories – I began to feel protected and comfortable around them.
I had been so narrow minded that because I hadn’t invested in these relationships that was reflective in other peoples behaviours – the penny dropped.
I had been given this amazing opportunity and my time here was limited – it was precious but what was more precious were those that I was interacting with on a daily basis – the villagers themselves.
We look at poverty in a financial way far too much that don’t stop to reflect on other types of poverty – particularly emotional poverty; something we in the west have so much of.
We look at helping others by revolutionising their lifestyles with western principles or cash injections and overlook what their culture and stories can teach us.
Now I look at my time and input here so differently from the beginning. Yes I can help by offering advice on their human and working rights and encourage children to attend school but also, I can learn to appreciate what they are teaching me; how effective and more profound life is when you have these strong intimate relationships with each other. From this I can understand how happiness isn’t always dictated by having an abundance of monetary wealth but by the stories you create with those around you.
It brings me back to what can a youth group do? How can they make a difference?
The answer is simple, so much so that I can’t believe it has taken me so long to realise.
Empowering young people allows them to have the platform to speak up, to be confident in brining about social and political change but more importantly to revolutionise their culture the way they want to – choosing their own methods. By doing this the hierarchy which oppresses the youth will become enlightened to the power that they hold.
Bringing this level of change to these villages is not something that can be achieved over 12 weeks, I’ve happily accepted this. The change that has occurred over this time is the change within me, my expectations and perceptions. This has been an impact that I didn’t seek out but that happened only through reflection and inspirational people that have been my work, time and life for the past 3 months.
I stand even more taller, more confident and more proud that they have changed me.
To read Chris’s original blog, visit https://scottopic.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/india-a-wee-life-change/