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I was invited by the Assumption Sisters in India to spend two weeks with them in five different communities to get a taste of the variety that is India before we send volunteers. The sisters were all very kind and hospitable and I had a wonderful time.

In north Kerala, I was met at the airport by the Sisters and a 2-hour drive from the airport brought us to the hills of the Western Ghats. Trees abounded, teak, rubber, coconut, jack fruit, banana, mango, spices, flowers, and medicinal plants. On the edge of the village of Thelpara the Sisters’ convent currently accommodates 3 classes of young children but they are building a primary school a short distance away to open at the beginning of the school year in June. So far off the tourist trail I was the only foreigner there and I received a lot of stares, despite my efforts to blend in by borrowing the local dress (trousers, tunic top and scarf) which were very comfortable and cool in the heat of the day. I joined in the prayer of the Sisters and at Mass experienced the two rites, the Syro Malabar rite (in Malayalam, the local language) and the Latin rite (in English and in Malayalam.) I enjoyed the food, which wasn’t too hot, and we visited some of the local families who received us graciously, and one evening a group of Friends of the Assumption met in the house, all young adults.

Besides the local language everyone learns Hindi at school and also English. Kerala takes education seriously and most people are literate but in the rural areas English is not widely spoken and many of those who do speak it are not always confident. Some schools are English-medium (including the Assumption primary school) where all the teaching is done in English. I think there is wide scope for two volunteers here, teaching English to all the children and tutoring the adults.

I then went to Calicut, on the coast, where the sisters have a centre for human development. They run training in leadership, skills development, self employment, educational activities and organise self-help groups in the local villages and a cancer support group. The city is so different from the village and there is constant hooting of traffic, overtaking on all sides - lorries, buses, motorbikes and the motorised rickshaw … and pedestrians.

 My third community was in the state of Maharashtra which has a completely different language (Marathi) and alphabet. It was also 10 degrees cooler, like an English summer. In Vithalwadi on the outskirts of Pune I was greeted by the Sisters and the 40 girls who boarded there, with the traditional Indian greeting of song, a garland of flowers and red powder on the forehead. I was also very fortunate to join in a Day of Recollection for members of Assumption Together. The girls tried to teach me some Marathi words but my memory wouldn’t hold them.

From Pune I had a 5-hour coach trip to Tilloli, in the tribal areas and was again greeted in Indian fashion. The sisters have a school for 500 tribal girls aged 6 to 15, most of whom board with the Sisters and they are building a new hostel for them.  Whenever I appeared I was mobbed by the girls who weren’t used to foreigners and they practised what English they knew on me. Song! Poem! Story! Around Tilloli the land is irrigated and individual houses are surrounded by their fields of wheat, grapes, cabbages and varied crops. Extended families live together, so children grow up with their cousins, amid their animals and crops. The families we visited welcomed us into their homes and shared their chapattis with us as they were cooking them on wood stoves. Very few of them spoke any English so although it seemed an ideal place to work we could not send volunteers there.

Finally I went back to Pune, a big city, and stayed in the Provincial house. On the Sunday we went to the novitiate for Mass and lunch where they have 3 aspirants, 6 postulants and 2 novices, and there are also 5 juniors in formation; so many young sisters give the province energy and hope.

At the end of my trip I could see the variety of the work that the Sisters do and we agreed that a good option for volunteers would be Thelpara for the first 7 months until the school closed in March then a short holiday and the final 3 months in Pune, teaching English to the novices. They would experience the rural and the urban environments, teaching children and adults, and the Malayalam and Marathi languages.

And now I have bought my own Indian outfits for when I go back!

Helen Granger, Volunteer Co-ordinator