Media Limitations and Manipulations: What freedom are we calling for? P.3/5

All social, political and economic policies and debates are communicated through our media. Therefore, the breadth of our democratic experience is largely defined by the structure of the media and its content. This may not be an immediate cause for panic in itself, but consider this alongside the centralization of corporate media ownership and the picture becomes a lot more worrying. If a handful of companies control the vast majority of what we constantly see, hear, and read about 24hrs a day, then the breadth of our information and democratic experience becomes considerably concentrated and narrowed.

News does not come down to us raw and unadulterated. Rather, it is ‘processed’ and structured in terms of what topics are selected; how information is filtered; what is emphasized and what is ignored; how an issue is framed; and how a debate is bounded. Such tailoring gives Western news a specific ‘character’ to which we have all become innately accustomed.

As author of The Press and Foreign Policy (1993) Bernard Cohen points out, it’s not so much that the media tells you what to think, it’s that they tell you what to think about. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, holds in excess of 130 Newspapers worldwide, including the most widely circulated English newspaper in the world, The Sun. Now seeing as companies such as News Corporation are in competition with the likes of AOL Time Warner, Murdoch’s company will decide to turn many of these newspapers into profitable sensationalist journalism, focusing on the three themes of sex, crime, and sport (Herman and McChesney 1997).

Criteria for much news in general is about what can shock and rouse our emotions as opposed to what is actually informative and useful to society. Crime, sex/money scandals, bizarre/extremist opinions or behaviour, and anything to do with celebrities, occupy a large space within our mass media. Such attention-grabbing topics are also framed in ways that restrict our thinking even further. Violent crime reports, for example, take the form of concise horror stories, creating endless villains and victims out of our citizens rather than discussing the social problems that lead to such incidents. It’s as if unemployment, inequality, poor education, and lack of moral sensitivity in society has nothing to do with such crimes.

Our universities are, of course, filled with experts in such social sciences, but media professionals are largely uninterested in using their knowledge to create an intellectual platform to suggest ways in which we can minimise such offences in the future. Instead, politicians give simple solutions to appease the masses, while disregarding the opinions of experts. Moreover, there have been many studies which show that certain social problems, such as terror, violent and sexual crimes, have been exaggerated way out of proportion, while other studies show that more serious issues – many to do with the environment – are not emphasized enough or are completely ignored. Unsurprisingly, research shows that people who engage with mass media the most are less trusting of other people and more frightened of the outside world.

International Politics

Media has also a strong influence on people’s political opinions due to the majority of sources coming from government and other establishment interests. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extensively argue that in their book Manufacturing Consent (2002) that the modes of handling material by the mass media serve political ends and maintain existing political and corporate power structures. War is a typical concern for such authors. Political scientist Michael Parenti, for example, points out that “whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed… are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality”. Typically, two choices are presented to the public but a third option that challenges the status quo is not.

There have been many studies that have analyzed the political biases in the mass media, which are relevant to today’s political climate. In a research-based publication, Bad News from Israel(2004) by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, the two-year study showed that the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased towards Israel, which had significant effect on the attitudes and beliefs of Western audiences. The study showed, for example, that Israelis were interviewed or reported on more than twice as much as Palestinians, and Israeli casualties were strongly emphasised relative to Palestinians despite Palestinian casualties being greater in number. Even the language of news reports was used in such a way that favoured Israel. Words like ‘hit-back’ and ‘retaliate’ were used for Israeli action, while words like ‘murder’ and ‘cold blood’ was used for Palestinian action. There was also a lack of coverage on the context of the situation. That is, the forced mass evacuation of Palestinians from their homes, and a history of ethnic occupation, which, when not mentioned, makes the Palestinians look like they are initiating attacks for no reason.

Contextual details are typically neglected in such reports because essential root causes are seen as far less interesting than more shocking superficial symptoms. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu captures this point well when he describes news as “a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution – Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow.” Needless to say, such social and political simplification or manipulation works contrary to the democratic goal of educating people so that they make informed choices.

Biased narratives in the film industry are far less subtle. In his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Jack Shaheen shows that Hollywood has vilified and portrayed Arabs as sub-human, militant, and barbaric to the masses since the beginning of film. In his research of over 1000 films that involved Arab characters or references, he found that around 90% were negative, 1% were positive, and the rest were neutral. For Shaheen, such “stereotyping has become so wide-spread that it has become invisible.” Similarly, Social Psychologist Sam Keen, creator of Faces of the Enemy claims, “you can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains – where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore.” Such social scientists never fail to mention the clear political manipulation, which, throughout history, has been used by a variety of political regimes to construct vile, sub-human representations of their enemies to justify invasion, occupation, killing, torture, and social exclusion. The phenomenon of Islamophobia is a current case in point.

We may not be physically forced to comply with state interests as in a dictatorship, though the result is not dissimilar. The corporate race for mass media consumption is a phenomenon that we as citizens pay the price for, both financially, and psychologically, producing news that is generally negative, superficial, and punchy; hardly ever constructive, beneficial, or thought-provoking. Of course, not every item within the media is necessarily shaped by such interests, and good, honest journalism does exist. But the relentless prevalence of social and political misrepresentations on our TVs, news papers, on-line, and on the big screen, is certainly enough for us to question the integrity of our cognitive freedom and the reliability of our democratic


How Social Fear Inhibits Our Freedom: What freedom are we calling for? P.2/5

In Part 1, I discussed the concept of freedom with regards to the banking system and argued that its principles of lending lead to an unjust dynamic between citizens and banks, mirroring a master-slave relationship. Here, I intend to show how crime and the national conditioning of fear are also largely inhibiting our sense of freedom.

National Crime and Security

The lack of freedom that citizens feel due to the highly anticipated threat of crime is often neglected when discussing the Western concept of freedom. Take the UK for example. The Home Office’s British Crime Survey estimated 745,000 domestic burglaries and 1,189,000 incidents of vehicle-related theft in England and Wales in 2010/11. That amounts to about 2000 homes and 3000 cars being broken into every single day. In response, citizens are spending more and more on security. Mintel, a leading market research company, has estimated that the current burglary prevention market is peaking at around £100 million in the UK as we continue to fortify ourselves within our homes.

But what is most alarming is not only the sheer statistical magnitude of property crime in the UK; it’s the psychological states and attitudes that this creates within us. The Office of National Statistics has claimed that 2.5million British citizens pretend to own a dog to guard their homes from burglars, many of whom place misleading dog-bowls at their front doors. In addition, half the population leave their lights on to trick potential intruders, and 1 in 10 Brits ask a neighbour or friend to move their car around when they are away. The list of deception tactics researched by one insurance company is actually quite exhaustive.

Even on the most basic level of human experience, a stranger knocking on your front door in the evening, or approaching you in the street is often met with threat or caution. We instinctively assume that you cannot leave a bicycle unchained in public for the briefest amount of time; and drivers had better hope that no passer-by saw them slip their Satnav into the glove box of the car, lest someone breaks in for it thereafter. You almost have to assume that everyone is a crook just to function in society. Such a lack of feeling safe and constant precaution does not represent the type of ‘free’ society that we would collectively favour. The correct balance between the right kinds of freedom is far from being achieved. Too often it seems that our justice system unwillingly grants the freedom to commit crimes and to re-offend with little consequence, while the freedom to feel safe is largely denied as a result.

World crime statistics typically show crime to be predominately a Western problem, with the US, UK, Germany, France and Russia occupying the top 5 places. But even if we cannot take these statistics entirely at face value due to international criminal recording differences, it’s hard to deny the national construction of criminal fear – particularly through the media – that is especially common in Western societies. Professor of Criminal Justice, Geoffrey R. Skoll, argues that there is a prevalent ‘discourse of crime’, which is said to have been emphasised by governments and the media in the last 30 years. These discourses, which “trickle down from the top levels of ivory towers to popular culture outlets” play on our deepest fears “wherein women are victims of stalking, children are sexually exploited, serial killers lurk in shadows everywhere, and so on”. Our trust in other people, especially strangers, seems to have been shattered by this caution towards criminal activity, which has settled in our public atmosphere.

The Fear of Terror

The construction of national fear in association with the War on Terror is especially significant here. Panic and fear from the overwhelmingly high volume of terror “threats” broadcasted in the media since 9/11 has probably caused more psychological harm to Western nations than any act of terror ever could. For Professor Henry A. Giroux, author of The Abandoned Generation: Democracy beyond the culture of fear (2003) the rhetoric of terrorism is not only important because it addresses human misery, but because it inflicts it as well. Some sociologists have argued that ‘waiting for terror’ is the most typical part of the fear discourse, characterized by a ‘perpetual omnipresent horror’. David Altheide, a Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry uses empirical evidence from news reports to show that the media has repeatedly used the term ‘fear’ in headlines and reports on crime. The association is so strong, that the mere mention of crime immediately implies and engenders fear. Since 9/11, research shows that the same repetitive mentioning of ‘fear’ has been associated with the words ‘terror’ and ‘victim’, producing wider sentiments of insecurity. For Professor Altheide, such fear-conditioning in the media exists because “government officials dominate the sources relied on by journalists”. The wider argument is that our governments are not keen on remedying a scared nation, since national fear pushes the public to consent to more government surveillance and social control (Altheide 2006, Kellner 2003Parenti 2000Glassner 1999). For an excellent and highly informative documentary on some of these issues, please see Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares(2004).

American sociologist and investigative journalist, Christian Parenti, claims that not only does the discourse of crime leave people “scared, divided, cynical, and politically confused” but the prevalence of crime also “short-circuits the social cohesion necessary for radical mobilization”. I will leave it to the discretion of the reader to determine whether or not this is a contributing factor as to why there has never been an effective collective resistance to the economic problems outlined in part 1.

In sum, we have become a culture that accepts fear and caution as an integral part of life. Growing security measures and high crime rates, which are then further exaggerated largely through the media, only heighten this condition of fear, inhibiting both our social and psychological freedoms. If the theories of social control are true, it is all too ironic that some secular societies, which rightly criticised the Church for ruling society through fear of divine punishment, now themselves rule through fear of crime and terror. This once again calls into question the right that we have in the West to call for the ‘freedom’ of others.

In Part 3, I will be investigating the limitations of Western freedom and democracy, specifically in light of the influence of the media.

Banking System and Debt Slavery: What freedom are we calling for? P.1/5

There is a call for ‘freedom’ in the Middle East, both from citizens within its troubled borders, and from our own Western supporters of democracy overseas. This is, of course, with good intention. However, the call seems remarkably simplistic. There is a formulaic image being created of Arab heroes rushing to the streets only to be suppressed, injured, or killed by stubborn, iron-fisted regimes that wish to thwart political freedom. We in the West show our support for our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity under these dictatorships, arguing too that they deserve the right to democratic elections and to other civil liberties that we enjoy here in the West. And so the alleged struggle of freedom vs. oppression / “good vs. evil” continues.

This constructed picture of the situation is troubling. Particularly concerning is the idea that we in the West enjoy some kind of freedom that the Middle East should be aspiring towards. There is no doubt that political freedom in the Middle East is miserably limited. But are we really so much better off? In what follows, I will examine the notion of ‘freedom’ assumed in the West, and consider whether we are in any position to be calling for the freedom of others.

The Philosophy of Freedom

Freedom is not an unconditional virtue in itself. If it wasn’t the case that this seems to be forgotten in modern political discourse, I wouldn’t mention it, but quite often it seems that it is. There are obvious harms that come from certain freedoms. For example, we do not value the freedom to discriminate, or to abuse, or to pollute. Thus we can firmly acknowledge that the prohibition of certain freedoms can actually be a virtue insofar as it prevents harm. Indeed, freedom, like all other social virtues, requires a balance with certain limitations.

In terms of definition, human freedom is generally understood and defined as being able to choose according to our own free will without coercion. The modern emphasis of freedom is almost always on ‘choice’. In the West, this is typically celebrated in our freedom to say, do, elect, and pursue what we want in our lives. The surface appeal of this type of liberalism is strong, especially to the citizens of dictatorships in the Middle East. But there are a couple of essential factors that are almost entirely neglected in such a sense of freedom. First, freedom is not only about choice, it’s also about the options that are given to us. Who decides and gives us these options? There doesn’t seem to be anything especially democratic, for example, about being given two options to choose from, when you had little to no say in what those two options were in the first place. Second, to what extent do the values of our society – which we are constantly and necessarily subjected to – influence the extent to which we desire such choices? We might find that these often ignored factors of available ‘options’ and external ‘influence’ are far more fundamental to the notion of freedom than the rather static aspect of ‘choice’ on its own.

There are a number of spheres within our socio-economic and cultural system that manifest this essentially philosophical problem of Western freedom. Of course, each of the following sections deserves a thesis of its own regarding the issue, but I will try to outline some basic realities that are immediately relevant to us as individuals, specifically on a day-to-day basis.

Banking System and Debt Slavery

Starting with the banking system and its creation of national debt, then, the root problem here is in what is called “Fractional Reserve Banking”. What this basically means is that all the money that the banks physically reserve in their accounts is only a fraction of the much larger amount that they lend out. This allows for more loans to be issued, putting more and more people in debt. But where does the extra loaned money come from if it is not part of the banks reserves? Well, they create it from nothing through a leverage principle called the money multiplier. This means that the loans we take out from the banks typically have no inherent value.

When you take out a loan from a bank, the bank transfers a digital number to your account. There is no actual value to what is transferred; it is just an electronic number. It’s a bit like when you arbitrarily change the time on a digital watch. In return, you are compelled to repay this ‘loan’ with tangible work, usually through some mundane or unpleasant job, for what feels like most of your waking life. And if, for whatever reason, you cannot repay the loan; in the case of a mortgage, your home, car, or any other items put down as collateral – which do have value – will be repossessed; or in the case of a standard loan, you will be prosecuted or have your possessions forcefully taken by bailiffs. The addition of interest to your repayment not only tightens the iron collar, but prolongs the repayment indefinitely – typically, a lifetime and beyond. UK Debt statistics from Credit Action show that the total UK personal debt at the end of December 2011 stood at £1.451 trillion, with the average debt of every UK adult being more than the average national wage. The alarming truth is that there is not enough money in existence, in the form of attainable income, to pay off our average spending, bank loans, and their accrued interest at any point in time. It is systematically impossible. The outcome is such that at least 300 people a day are declared insolvent or bankrupt (can’t pay off their debts), and around 100 properties are repossessed by the banks every single day (this is a far greater concern in the US). In addition, research published in both The Economic Journal and theJournal of Health Economics continues to confirm a link between debt and stress, depression, and mental health problems (Gathergood 2012Disney and Bridges 2010), while an article from USA Today sees psychologists claiming that debt problems are linked to marital breakdown, domestic violence, and even suicide: a high price to pay for unjust principles in our economic system.

Of course, no one is strictly forced into these economic situations, but getting a mortgage and a /or a car loan are practical necessities in the modern age. Ordinary folk are lured into taking on these burdensome responsibilities through seductive advertising that glosses over the potential difficulties. High pressure and/or psychologically sophisticated bank salesmen are pushed by the bank to “sell products” (make loans) in various ways, and are paid commission to do so. Therefore they are no longer assisting a depositor in a professional capacity with professional responsibilities, but flogging as many goods and services as possible in any way they can. Thus ordinary citizens, few of whom have been taught the basics of finance in our state schools, are subtly pushed into a situation that leads straight to the unpleasant constraints of debt.

So in sum, the banks generally seduce and give you digits of no actual monetary value, oblige and pressure you to work hard to repay the illusionary debt, and will ruin your life and take away your highest valued possessions if you do not. Household debt thus mirrors many of the attributes of an oppressive master-slave relationship: ownership, obedience, burden, and severe punishment. And no political party running for elections ever offers an alternative to this fractional reserve, interest-based banking system since central banks – which benefit abundantly from this system – have close relationships with their respective governments and have strong authority over their economic policies (Moser-Boehm 2006). In addition, the major banks influence who runs and succeeds in ‘democratic’ elections since they heavily fund advertising for their political campaigns. Thus our ‘option’ to be released from this economic enslavement is not available, hence a clear lack of freedom. I should mention that this has branched out to be a worldwide problem, but is most certainly driven by affluent centralised Western banks.

Of course, the effect of an unjust economic system has wider social implications. Capitalism places importance on a free market economy, individualism, and a relentless ambition for company profit. This often means that optimal productivity requires the reduction of paid human labour. Hence, we have continuous wage cuts and redundancies, the replacing of people with automated machines, and the setting up of labour forces in poorer non-Western countries, which means unemployment and inequality become pressing realities in Western states. Meanwhile, psychologists consistently show that the rise and prevalence of unemployment and inequality correlates strongly with the rise of crime (DeLamater et al 2011: 382).

In Part 2, I will be examining our sense of freedom once again, but within the context of crime, personal security, and fear.

India Part 2: Arriving at Camp

We have arrived at the camp in the town of Jaisalmer, in the state of Rajasthan, NW India. We travelled on a tightly packed bedded train. On the long overnight journey from Jaipur to here, I learnt a lesson. A quintessential volunteer – a short, overweight, young, plane faced girl came to the area that I and a few of the boys were resting in and just wanted to talk to me. I struggled to keep awake as I was trying to sleep before she came, and I didn’t really know why she had come to me, but I gave her my full attention for as long as I could. She stood in the dark train aisle talking to me for an hour about her concerns and life back home. In that time, I got to see that she was more than the stereotype I had thrown here into; she was an individual with her own personality and identity. This encouraged me to speak to everyone on this level to try and rid myself of stereotyping.

I can’t upload pictures of the camp, but I can hopefully describe it in less than a thousand words. We are in a desert. Jaisalmer does have a busy town center consisting of endless markets and small shops, but we are situated about a 25minute drive away from it in the middle of nowhere. The camp consists of a few mud/dung/sand/some brick buildings around a square area a little smaller than a football pitch with all buildings around the edges enclosing an open space of dry earth, stones, lined shrubs, and a couple of shelters and pathways. Almost everything on the camp is sand colored. Beyond the camp there is only desert, sprinkles of dry agriculture, and wind turbines for as far as the eye can see – endless dry horizon in every direction. There are never any clouds, the sun beats down on us all day (quite unbearably at times) and it is between warm and cool in the night. The tips of every sunrise and sunset are visually unhindered.

The room (hut) that all 11 boys are in is not as bad as I thought. It’s actually quite spacious with high ceilings holding 5 bunk beds and a single bed for us all. I took the nearest bottom bunk to the door so I can make a quick and quiet exit when I need to solely wake for morning prayer. There is sand everywhere. As I lay down on the bottom bunk facing up, I noticed previous volunteers had littered the bases of the top bunks with messages: “You have no idea what u have let urself in for. You’ll go mad with boredom. Don’t hold your breath for electricity, running water or getting laid. Prepare for insanity. It’s like a prison here.” Another simply read: “you got the bottom bunk. Wanker.”

We soon attended a meeting where we met all the ‘executives’. In other words, the Indian staff here who are running things: heads, cook, driver, first aider, assistants etc, – about a dozen natives in total. Ground rules where also established. Various forms of misconduct can result in getting sent home. For example, alcohol is not permitted on the premises, and you are not allowed to leave the camp after 7pm. Depending on severity, consequences are: a verbal warning, then a written warning, and a final warning before being sent home. I regret to inform you all that I am the first volunteer to have been given a verbal warning. This was actually issued before we arrived at camp. What was my crime? I rode on the back of a motorbike of a native Indian dude. I’ve done this three times, though twice was because they had offered to take me to a mosque, and once for fun. The fun occasion earned me the warning. At the same time however, Platform2 have asked and trained 2 volunteers out of the 48 to carryout an evaluation task in week 5, and I’m one of them, so I’m hoping they won’t be so quick to ship me back. I will, however, be more careful in the future (not to get caught). I’m finding the rules very inhibiting. Especially not being allowed to wonder on my own and having to be in bed by 11pm. On one of my hunts for isolation after dinner on the first evening, I exited the camp area to find a little circular shelter on elevated ground behind one of the camp’s corners. I figured no one else would discover it or be seeking isolation, but about 15mins later, JJ – my London, Congolese friend – had walked out seeking exactly the same thing. We really are alike. I cannot stress how glad I am that he is here.

At night there is no electricity, so you have to use a torch to do everything, even to walk to the toilets across camp. Showers consist of going into a cracked, filthy stone cubed room and pouring buckets of murky water over your head. I don’t even want to mention the state of the toilets, though all of a sudden eating little has become a brilliant idea. On one of my wonders within camp I noticed the soft faced northerner – the girl who was sending the text on the bus – speaking on her phone. I waited at distance till she finished. She was in tears and claimed she had just told her mum that she wanted to go home. I took her aside and sat her under one of the shelters and this time, explicitly told her at length all the reasons why she should stay, and what a great opportunity this is, how there are natives here who live worse than this all around us without choice, and how likely it was that she would regret leaving if she didn’t give it time. She seemed to agree.

I’ve tried to be as helpful as I can around camp and I think I am the only volunteer to have spoken to and memorized everyone’s name. This means I chat to absolutely everyone. I’m finding it tricky to put a finger on my identity among the other volunteers. First off, I’m the only Muslim. I still wear the Muslim hat almost constantly and practically everyone knows I pray. I make no secret of it. In fact, I announce it before leaving a group, but very casually. I do not talk about Islam unless I am asked and have noticed that on such occasions, passers by will stop to listen in. This is not because anything I have to say is necessarily engaging but because there is nothing to do in this camp. I use myself quite consistently to help others, especially the females. In an environment where much daily functioning is practical, the endurance difference between men and women becomes more apparent, especially in this heat (as opposed to Western cities where day to day activities are all pretty comfortable for both genders). For example, on our travels between towns, on approaching a wide, long staircase on the train platform, each and every volunteer was carrying a suitcase of at least 20kg in the heat. It was a struggle by anyone’s standards. After getting to the top first, I repeatedly raced down and up, and grabbed bags in pairs from the female volunteers and placed them at the top of the stairs. Most of the other boys immediately joined in grabbing bags from females and every girl was more than happy to be helped. The boys actually performed the task with a sense of duty. It was a striking case of chivalry that was accepted by everyone. Other things include offering my seat to the ladies, carrying their water buckets, comforting them when upset and not coping, etc. Part of me is doing it because it’s right, and part of me is doing it because it will help me feel more positive about the relationships I make here.

A couple of the boys have brought guitars and I have somehow and very wrongly been labeled ‘singer’. JJ plays guitar and we ‘jam’ quite a lot. We have a lot of fun and have even discovered beats to go with some of my raps. The other volunteers seem to enjoy them. I’ve had to alter my attitude to music slightly. I don’t personally ascribe much value to it, but for the people here it means so much and rates quite highly in their ‘deep experiences’, so I’m quite active in the music scene on camp. Though, it’s mostly just for laughs, singing romantic boy-band songs that everyone knows. I have also disclosed that I have done some acting, mainly because a few people do theater here and it’s been a topic we can connect on. It seems to surprise them but in a good way.

Now as for teaching, everyone has been asked to select one from about 9 different placements to work on across three different villages. Everyone had a choice in his or her placement. Everyone except me. I was singled out by one of the head executives and told that since they, as Hindus, have trouble outreaching to a Muslim community in the area, I would be put to use in the Day Care Center (pre-school) of the Muslim village. What was my special task? To go into the community and encourage parents to send their kids to the day care center. Without knowing Hindi of course…? Two other volunteers have chosen the same Day Care Center that I have been placed into. Chloe is one of them, and a Jordy girl, Amy is another. It’ll be us three, every Mon-Fri, till the end.

I figured I would tell Chloe and Amy a thing or two about Islam so that they understood the environment they were going into. As the three of us sat in the eating area on camp, I was explaining basic Islamic beliefs and was interrupted by a tall slim, blue eyed committed Christian: “I’m sorry to interrupt Ziad, but Jesus wasn’t only sent to the Jews, in the New Testament, Paul says…” I really did not want to get into this. Luckily, one of the girls turned and responded to him before I did: “Well Zee’s just giving us the Muslim view.” What a great response. I affirmed it: “Yes, it’s the Muslim perspective”. That seemed to kill any tension leading to debate. He left it there but still made a comment to undermine me later. On a few occasions he’s made false assumptions about my life, but I pleasantly correct him and show him as much love as the others. He is a good guy but very much all about Jesus, Love, the New Testament, “the Heart and not the Law”. Incidentally, he is the only other male volunteer to have been labeled as a singer. I get the feeling that he’s not quite settled regarding me.

We all visited the schools and the day care center in the Muslim village this week and I have to say, this was the lowest point of my time here. We were told in advance that the Muslims were the naughtiest community. The schools however were cool. Kids (3-12) were eager, lively, happy to see us and they all loved the fact that I was a Muslim (the hat was a give away, again). It was a big deal to them because they weren’t used to it. If I was given the choice like everyone else, I would have definitely chosen to teach in a school rather than the Day Care Center. But at the same time, I accept that this must be what’s best for me. The Day Care Center consists of a room with around 15 kids, 95% female, from babies to young teens. The kids were quite rude and almost entirely uneducated. Their teacher was a slim Indian lady with a disability. She had polio, which in her case meant that she had muscle paralysis in her legs and therefore was constantly sitting and moved around on her arms. Many of the toddlers were half naked, dirty, and the room smelt awful. It was a disturbing site. When fellow volunteers teaching at the school saw the Day Care Center, they were thanking the heavens that they did not have our task. Everyone unanimously agreed that my group had it worse. We all felt very uncomfortable in that room. For the first time, I’m genuinely asking myself, how on earth am I going to do this, which is not a question I’m ever in the habit of asking.

We’ll see how it all goes this week, but I’m really not looking forward to it.

Peace be with you all

India Part 1: Introduction and Induction

In October 2010 I joined a 10-week volunteer programme to teach English and serve a village community in Rajasthan, India. The emails I wrote to all my friends and family during my experience do a fairly good job of narrating key points of my experience. I hope the people who have expressed that they would like to read the ‘blog’ are reading this now.

Pre-leaving Email

09 September 2010

Hey people,

As some of you know – and some are about to find out – I’m going to India for 10 weeks to live and work with a small community in Jaisalmer, in the state of Rajasthan. Part of my work there will be teaching various basic subjetcs to children with other volunteers from the UK. If any of you have any kid’s-learning books that are related to the following, and you wouldn’t mind giving them away, could you please let me know and I will come pick them up off you this weekend or early next week before I leave?

* Teaching English and Maths to Classes I – V (age 5 to 9 years)

* Activity based joyful learning, through creative and interactive teaching methods

* English – simple word recognition, greetings, colours, emotions, and alphabet

* Maths – basic addition and subtraction, multiplication and division

Anything would really make my time there MUCH easier, even if you just have one basic book that I could use to teach from. I will try to keep in touch when I’m out there but we are told that electricity comes on only once a week, there’s only one computer between 48 volunteers, and that computer is super slow. So it’s unlikely.

For the record, I’m not looking forward to going… at all, but I’m hoping this will change.

Peace be with you all,


Arrival Induction

15 October 2010

The first three days of our stay here is an induction. It is in the city of Jaipur, not our project destination, which is a 14hr train journey west of here to a desert village called Jaisalmer. We head out there tomorrow, God willing, and it will be there that we work and spend the remainder of our stay in India. This has just been a briefing, getting to know each other, getting used to India period only.

There are 48 volunteers – 11 boys and 37 girls. When I asked Platform2 – our hosting company – about the imbalance, they told me that more girls apply than boys. I had severe concerns about the type of people that would come to these trips. I have however been making strong effort to get to know absolutely everyone, despite not really having connected with anyone yet.

‘I hate it here, and want someone to come take me home’. I read these words in a text over the shoulder of a soft-faced northern girl on the coach from the airport to Jaipur. I had noticed that no one was really talking to her. Before she finished the message I began a friendly 30min conversation with sub-text covering all the reasons why she should give things more time. She put her phone away after a few minutes so I hope the message was never sent. I’ve also encouraged other girls and guys to speak to her from time to time.

I had previously prayed that I would have just one incredibly close companion amongst the volunteers; someone I could relate to, speak to on the level, someone with similar interests as me, and who would get the same jokes as me. I think I have found this is a 24yr old 6″4′ Congolese NW Londoner called JJ – a Criminology Masters graduate. We hit it off immediately at the airport and I’m incredibly grateful that I met him. We spend most our waking time together.

For these three days we have stayed with a host family in Jaipur which consists of a middle aged Asian man and his inquisitive and intelligent 14 year old son. Myself and four other male volunteers have been sleeping in the boy’s bedroom – 3 on a bed and two on the floor. Fortunately, JJ and I were put in the same room. We all get on well. Two are 18 years of age. I am the oldest of all volunteers and at first I begun to think that this trip is 3 years too late in my life, but after interacting with the young ones I see that some actually look up to the older boys – that is, JJ and I. So it’s a whole different dynamic. One boy has sworn to give up facebook for the entire journey (I may have had a bit to do with this) and enthusiastically let’s me know how well he’s doing on a daily basis.

I haven’t changed my clothes since the flight (sorry mum), and I’m sure the boys I live with are getting quite suspicious since they change everyday. I’m yet to drop the merino wool justification on them. I can see it now… “yo zee, you been wearing those clothes since Tuesday man, don’t you like, need to change?”… “Naah, it’s cool because it’s merino wool, innit! – I can drag it out at least another week.” At that point I’ll probably lose all the friends I’ve made. Aside from that, because I shaved my head almost to skin before I left, I wear the Muslim hat almost constantly – because it looks slightly better than my shaved head. A couple of Hindus have clocked on to my identity and greet me with ‘salam’ and a smile, but part of me thinks they’re making fun of me – I can’t quite tell yet, but I’m on to them.

We visited a slum area here in Jaipur, but the people there were pleasant and generally seemed happy. Many of the volunteers are learning that people are happy here without possessions and people with possessions in London aren’t so happy, which is a good lesson. Most of the volunteers have never been out of Europe (some, the UK) so it’s quite a shock for them.

We’ll be leaving this place (Jaipur) tomorrow (sat) for the project destination in Jaisalmer. It will be an over-night coach journey so we plan to arrive on Sunday. I am told that we will teach children in pairs of volunteers – so two of us to a class, and we will keep the very same students throughout the 9weeks or so. I’m dreading the 6.30pm curfews where the volunteers will essentially be locked in with one another with no separation, but we’ll see how it goes. Generally, I look forward to Sunday as that’s when things will really start.

Peace be with you all