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Orla Owen
Zeinab Akhter

Orla Owen's Gap Year Grant report 2017

The Trust awarded a Gap Year Grant to Orla Owen. Orla spent a year with Project Trust in a rural village school in Kottapakonda, Andhra Pradesh. This is her report on her return.

Orla Owen

Report to the Roughley Trust

I am now back from my year in India. A culture which was alien and at times frightening to me, eventually became home and one I will miss dearly.

Project Trust asks its volunteers to learn about the world and be a positive force within it. I hope I was able to bring fun and laughter to my studentsí lives, no matter their circumstances. I sung, danced, and played with the hostel kids. We celebrated Womens Day, Halloween and many festivals. I taught all my classes the joy of the Beatles and Abba. I learnt about India, a country which is so diverse and fascinating.

While I was in India I wrote a community study. This is part of it.

Resourceful kidsOrla Owen

The kids on our campus do not have access to technology such as mobile phones (which are potential isolating tools) but this is not a detriment to their happiness. Life for a hostel kid is communal; they share rooms, share clothes, share textbooks, eat together, breath together!

In their free time they are chatting or playing. The kids are extremely resourceful, fashioning cricket bats out of sticks and using clipboards to play frisbee.

There's a big emphasis on study

The study is strict and exams are constant. Yet the kids are still happy and enjoy the free time they have. They understand the importance of study, 'If we study we get good jobs. It is difficult to live comfortably in India, it's every man for himself' This makes sense when beggars, often children, sit next to your home and plead with you at your local temple.

To be surrounded by so much cruelty and poverty so young is the kidsí drive to do well. So are the kids growing up too quickly? Are they too mature and aware of the precarious world they live in? In a country where 67% of the population live below the poverty line the kids are lucidly aware they need to perform. Nerveless they are still carefree, joking, running and chatting endlessly.

Our kids have tough lives

Some have grown up in violent environments, where beating and physical punishment is so normal that the kids laugh when their friends are beaten. It has been a shock to me knowing that many students leave violent houses and witness things everyday which attempt to steal the innocence and joy of their childhood. Yet I am perpetually awe struck by how brave and bold my kids are; they still have wondrous dreams, and a great appreciation of life.

Humour is their coping mechanism; they have portrayed beating in a comedic effect when performing drama sketches. I thought they trivialised it, but they repeatedly tell me beating is bad. I respect the tenacity and strength of children who leave behind distressing home lives before entering the classroom. I respect them for putting up with a legal system which too often fails them. They do not give up. It is a privilege to teach them.

The role of food in family life

I have observed that food plays a crucial role in a child's life: the school tuck shop Is forever busy. I am asked everyday 'what did you eat?' One student told me the time he is happiest is when he is eating because then he is with his family and friends.

Indian cooking is the result of Love and sweat; women get up at obscene hours to prepare the daily dishes and you are encouraged to eat extravagantly. For a full stomach is a happy child and it is painfully clear that many kids will not eat in India, when 400,000 children alone live on the streets. Food is an offering of love and friendship which the kids share with us. India offers a more healthy preoccupation with food for its children than the west, encouraging you to eat more and praising you for putting on weight.

Love for Mother India

Although none of my students have the means to go abroad, they reverently talk of America and the UK. But would they ever desert their India? Every Indian I have spoken to possesses an ardent love for their country. A deep respect and connection to their country has been nurtured through childhood. I ask them why do you love India? Mother India is the ubiquitous reply and the kids refer to India as a mother heart.

India has shocked and infuriated me but also managed to wow and catch my heart. Its bizarre beauty from the bewitching call to prayer or flower sellers scenting the girlsí hair with Jasmine, the kindness of the sweeper who helps you onto the train carriage has meant India has cast its inexorable magic spell. I can't pen down the exact reason why I feel compelled almost ordered to come back. All the kids love 'my India.' I think growing up in such a special country makes for a happier childhood.

What is there to love about India? The plethora of festivals, temples, friends, flowers, colour, the variety of culture and atmosphere. I ask the kids this simple question. What makes you happy? No one replied watching TV, no one replied my computer. We have one working computer In the school. No one replied horse riding or football club. Happiness comes from family, playing hopscotch on dusty roads or helping prepare sugary, sickly festival snacks, teachers, friends and living In and breathing in 'my India'.

The last month at the project was emotional

It was a time when I felt at my most happiest. I belonged, I smiled and India smiled back. I danced, sang and messed around with the kids. I visited their villages. I felt closer to them and to India. Some say India has no full stop, It is a country of fascination where you will always ask one more question.

I heartily thank all of you who supported me. I have made lifelong friendships. I went out to India and lost my identity. I was not defined by who knew me or what I had done, I was simply Orla Mam and a friend to the hostel kids. I had to accept that no one was bothered by who I voted for or my favourite musical. I had to become a teacher and member of my new community, and so a new wonderful identity was created. And now am back in England and it's like lím starting all over again. Never again will I hear a hollering of 'Orla Mam' as I walk up to 4th class. I donít have the responsibility for a class of 35 screaming monkeys and I never thought I would miss trying to control 5 year olds who are trying to understand a foreign tongue, but I do.

I am so privileged to have access to education and to live safely, but I will never take this for granted again and INDIA - I WILL BE BACK.

Orla Owen