Learning to learn during SWASH Village volunteer-internship in Indian NGO

When I came to India with Debora, I did not know a lot about the culture and what to expect from Indians and their country. As I signed on as a SWASH Village project volunteer-intern back home, many people in my country told me that India is very dirty with trash everywhere on the streets and that people do not respect the environment. However, I did not want to come here with assumptions and I was sure of one thing: this experience would change me and open my mind.

The beginning in the village was intense. We wanted to change everything as we had thousands of ideas to improve what we were observing – people burning their trash as well as throwing packaging on the floor, open drains where trash was floating, some trash in the fields and the cows eating it. I thought that the community were unconscious and we would have a lot of work just to make them realize what they were doing. We stayed for a week in a homestay during Induction. We shared all our evenings with the family, playing with the kids, learning Hindi, eating like crazy and of course discovering them. Thanks to these links that we’ve kept, I got a good opportunity to observe the way they are living and relate it to our SWASH village project. We saw how they deal with water and trash, thus introducing us to the trash-picker of the village and helping us understand the different systems in India.

As an intern, you also travel a lot! We already went to Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Jodphur and Agra and there are still so many cities to discover. Everywhere you go, you can observe the habits and the ways of dealing with the waste in the different cities; people cleaning the open drainage, bins in the corners, men and women brooming in front of their doors – because their house has to be clean even if it means throwing everything in the streets – and even poor people collecting the trash such as hard plastic, glass, cardboards to sell it and earn money. You also see good habits like using reusable plates and glasses instead of plastic items, washing them in the shop without anyone thinking it’s unhygienic. These concrete examples made us picture the whole trash system outside of our small village and also gave us some ideas to develop, even if it is more difficult to initiate change in their way of thinking. Travelling is also a good way to understand how Indian people think as it is easier to meet English speaking Indians that we can communicate with, which is not always easy in our village with our poor Hindi. 

The more I meet and talk with people and the more I realize that they hate trash on the street and having to burn it because they feel it’s harming them as well as others. They would love to have a clean village and good health. Before globalization, they were using leaves and biodegradable materials to pack and transport items whereas now plastic is everywhere and in huge quantities. It is really hard to create a system and adapt it, especially in such a big and populated country! But the government started a campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, to clean the country and it will take time but you can already see the impact on big cities. This can be a tool and a way to sensitize people in the village even if they already know that plastic is bad and have implemented their own system.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleaning the road to launch the campaign Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

After 3 months here, I realize how the assumptions I heard were wrong and that Indian people are every bit as smart as us. It is not because trash is everywhere that they do not care but they do not have other alternatives for now. It is exactly like in our Western countries some decades ago and honestly, do you really know what your trash becomes after the garbage man takes it from your house? We are here to help them develop a sustainable system but, since it will take time, we need to find alternatives in the meanwhile. 

Visit to a recycle-able waste materials collector’s shop in a city

SWASH Village program and EduCARE India’s volunteer interns have many ideas such as reducing the plastic coming into the village, recycling soft plastic by filling sofas or pillows and still more innovation is to come. I still have so much more to learn from all the research we do on the Internet and in the field. I realize I did not know much when I arrived here and you could say I still know nothing but I’m learning every day and Indians opened my mind so much and most importantly, they taught me how to listen to people.

Camille Cristophe – France

with

Debora Cortez Miranda, Portugal

SWASH Project Manager

 and 

Centre Project Coordinator 

Gajner, Bikaner, Rajasthan, India