India Part 6: End

I wish that I was sending this from some hot, loud internet cafe in Jaisalmer Market. But I’m not. I’m sending this from my cold, badly lit kitchen in London. Yes, I have returned from my travels and feel quite sad about it. Sand has been replaced by snow all around me, and female models on billboards once again resume their role of distorting my perception of beauty.

I really thought that I would be one of the most capable at dealing with coming back, but this has not been the case. Everything seems so empty, static, and cold. I sit around my house without purpose and wonder between the kitchen and other rooms aimlessly. I keep checking my fridge but don’t want anything in it. I’m really not happy. My brother and friends seem convinced that the feeling is natural and will pass with time. I’m open to this thought but not entirely convinced. It is for that reason that I am literally about 2 clicks away from booking a flight back out of the country for some time. It’s really that bad.

Ten weeks in a simple, desert environment feels much closer to what life should be like. It’s better at representing what living has been like for humanity on this planet due to its simplicity and closeness to nature. It is for this reason that I loved India. Not because of India itself, but because of the environment we were in. There are so many things that I miss and that I want to continue to experience. I want the sun to beat down on me throughout the day; to sling a sheet-blanket over my shoulders in public when it’s cold; to wear flip-flops in the sand; and to have 3 meals like clock-work and have no say in what they are. I want to be anxious about the temperature of my water before I shower; to want to walk around in the evenings where my trusty hand-held companion isn’t my mobile phone, but my torch; to sleep in the company of others; and to see exactly when the sun rises and sets. I want to share smiles with children who have little; to wake up each morning guaranteed that I’ll be doing something meaningful with my day; to hear the number 5 pronounced “pipe”; to be charmingly shouted at by market sellers as I walk passed their stalls; to be able to bring down the prices of things I buy, and to see and dodge animals everywhere I go. I want the opportunity to have an adventure at any moment.

On the last day of teaching, I was able to see the fruits of my labour with Amida, when she sat outside the Day Care Centre and was teaching a couple of the village kids some of the first words that I taught her 9 weeks ago. It would be the first time she had ever taught any English to the kids she cares for. I was so happy to see this, I almost cried. It’s exactly what I wanted.

Even the other volunteers, I will miss greatly. Despite the gossip and ‘banter’ as they called it, they were the people I shared this experience with. When the vast majority of them sent around sentimental notebooks for everyone else to sign and write their goodbyes, I made sure I wrote a personal message to each one highlighting a trait that I especially liked. I took Amida’s address and gave her mine so we could write to one another. I intend to stay in touch with the village, and I do intend to return someday.

It’s been a pleasure writing to you all. Thanks for reading. I never did get my phone back. And I never got to try out the mystical ritual whereby the thief’s identity would be revealed in person’s finger nail at the recitation of some prayers. So alternatively, my brother popped to Brent Cross and bought me a new phone from the 02 Store. My (same) number should be up and running soon.

Over and out

India Part 5: Values, Beauty, and Theft

Things have been quite hectic for me on camp recently. And much of it has to do with different people’s moral perceptions. I as a Muslim, follow – as best as I can – a specific detailed moral code. Non-Muslims on camp (absolutely everyone else) also have their own moral awareness and principles. Sometimes, our moral opinions see eye to eye, and sometimes there are differences to various degrees. We would all think favorably of someone who gave gifts in charity, for example; or think badly of someone who stole a mobile phone. In terms of differences there are also many. Intimate relations before marriage is a big one. For Muslims its not cool, for those with more secular values it is, and is largely celebrated. The extent of freedom of speech, or freedom to offend is another example. But these don’t represent the biggest gap between Muslim values and general secular ones. No. The biggest difference between the Muslim view on some moral matter relating to the day-to-day, and the corresponding secular view has got to be on the issue of backbiting – to talk negatively about someone behind their back. It’s analogous to eating your dead brother’s flesh in the Qur’an and is said to be “worse than adultery” by the Prophet. In the secular world – it is like discussing the whether. It’s hardly even seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Now of course, not everyone thinks it’s OK, and there are many people of all backgrounds who look down on it, but generally speaking, pointing out someone’s faults, or making an unflattering comment about them when they’re not around is a branch of standard conversation. And this little camp here, is proof and testimony to this. Indeed, I was a victim of slander. It was spread around camp that I was trying to seduce different girls, and so instead of only getting annoyed at it, I confronted every individual who I was meant to have ‘sleezed’ over face to face. They didn’t know what I was talking about. It turns out there was a main individual who was a major source of discrediting me – the same girl that doubted my sincerity before. Thankfully, I forced out the truth by voicing the rumor myself to virtually everyone on camp just to expose how ridiculous it was. Everyone then turned to question her, which suffocated her and made her feel guilty. We now actually have a good relationship.

My views on the irrelevance of teaching English to these village kids has changed somewhat. I’ve now come to see that education – irrespective of the subject matter – gives a lot more to these kids than academic content. It gives character and discipline. When I look at some of the uneducated girls or boys in the village there’s something incredibly ‘scatty’ about them. Like, really uncontrolled and all over the place. I’d do a good impression but can’t show you now. But when some of the educated boys come through in their little school uniforms (blue shirts, khaki coloured trousers and bare feet) there’s something so dignified about them. It’s like education has taught them self-control, patience and respect. This realization has helped me teach with more zeal. Teaching has been good and Amida has been making steady progress. I felt like I reached a landmark a few weeks back when, in one of her reading sessions, I wrote a longer word for her to read. She stared at it for a little while and uttered in and Indian accent.. “ye… yesterday?” I was so happy. Especially considering that she couldn’t read the word “am” when we started. Her pronunciation was great too. We’re now going through kids books picking up new vocabulary along the way. It’s been beneficial for me also in the sense that everything she is learning in English, I am memorizing in Hindi, so that I can test her on it. It’s going to be a real shame that it will all end when I come back to England in a couple of weeks. Amida is incredibly graceful about her disability. The other day she was building a house for her brother beside her own. She would move on one arm and one leg back and forth across the sand picking up sand stones, and pile them up to construct walls of a new house – or at least the beginning of it. I felt that I wanted a home there too. She wears a purple Indian style dress now.

Strolls around the village have generally done me good. One day, when Amida was visited by some of the village women for chit chat – rendering my teaching services on hold – I walked to the out skirts of the village and followed a small path into the unmanned natural distance. The area around the village in which we teach is much more vegetated than the camp area. There are trees, bushes and hills, though it is still generally dry. Terrain consisted of uneven rocks, and dry grassy patches which all reflected the intense heat of sunlight. I walked continuously in an unknown direction for a good 30mins till I came across a flock of 150 sheep and goats being led by an 18 year old shepherd named Kareem. I asked if I could join him, and talked with him in what little Hindi I knew. He explained that he would walk with the animals from sunrise to sunset everyday. There was endless, untouched natural existence in every direction as all 152 of us made our way up an inclining hill, which elegantly revealed a picturesque lake in the distance. I stood in the shade of a tree close-by as the animals drank and ate around the lake for a good 20 minutes before being taken to their next destination. I stayed behind alone. The lake water was clear – possibly the first clear water I had seen in India. I prayed the noon prayer, dabbled in the lake, and laid in the sun alone till a next flock of goats and sheep came with their shepherd. Time to go. I tried to head back in the direction that I had come with the shepherd but failed miserably. I really wasn’t around when God was blessing people with a sense of direction. Again, nothing and no one was around and the flocks were way out of site. Just when my steps in any direction were becoming arbitrarily chosen, I heard my name being shouted by some of the street kids from the village. They had come far out to harvest grains for their livestock and were heading back in with their hands full of a certain green plant. I helped them carry their load and was escorted back just in time for the bus’ arrival to take us back to camp.

In other news, my phone was stolen within camp grounds. My £450 Nokia N900 super computer phone – jacked. I was seriously pissed off. It had diaries I had kept, all my images and videos of India, which I was looking forward to show everyone, my poetry, thoughts etc. I would care a lot less if I’d lost or broken it, but just the idea of someone’s hands snatching it from a table in the canteen while it was charging is just low. I felt like I never wanted to own anything valuable ever again. A lot of people tried to help me though. I made friends with a guy here called Aziz who was introduced to me through a local tok tok driver, Musa. The latter saw me as a practicing Muslim and therefore wanted to introduce me to another practicing Muslim, Aziz – his friend. I met Aziz in a mosque here and was invited to his humble abode one day where I met his little son. Aziz is of average height, slim build and probably in his mid-late 20’s. He has a very confident way about him. As he sat me down for something to drink, he went off to change out of his traditional Indian clothing for work. All the houses I’ve visited here are incredibly simple: stone walls, dusty bed, old pots, pans and occasionally an old dusty TV. He came back shortly afterwards dressed as a Police Man. He had been working in the Police for 8 years. This explained his confidence. On one occasion, he took me to an Islamic shrine on the back of his bike and didn’t seem happy with what was going on there. There were Hindu men and women on site who were taking photos in holiday snap-shot fashion. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but he sounded unhappy and everyone in the shrine went quiet. He was in plain clothes at the time but spoke with authority in a way that made everyone make way for him. He later explained that he was telling them not to treat this place like a picnic spot. When Aziz heard about my phone being stolen on camp, he wanted to do everything in his power to get it back for me. One of his ideas was odd, to say the least. It was communicated through him and the Head Executive on camp: “They read Qur’an, and then thief will appear in nail”, Aziz pointed to his thumb nail. “…But only a child can see it.” I looked at Aziz, who waited for a response from me, then at the Head Executive on camp who was looking at me, nodding his head as if it was a solution that I should have thought of myself. I was obviously quite surprised. I know we believe as Muslims that the Qur’an has medicinal ‘powers’, but this sounds a bit too surreal. Even so, I accepted the offer. The process apparently had to be done by someone who had memorized the entire Qur’an. The only problem was that this person was out of town at the time.

So I continued to be pissed off because of my phone. JJ lightened the situation for me along with Josh, another male volunteer and 3rd of 4 members of our musical group, The Desert Boys. Josh is a good looking, fair skinned, dark haired, music graduate. He plays a variety of instruments very well and has a great sense on humor. I recall him saying on one of our musical/chill-out sessions together that “everything in life is a distraction, from alcohol to orgasms.” He followed it up with saying that he didn’t know what he was being distracted from, but that’s how he feels. I felt no impulse to give him my opinion on this matter and appreciated the point for what it was. So anyway, on the black day that my phone got stolen, JJ and Josh spent about 2 hours deciding and debating over which fictional detectives they would be since they would carry out their own ‘investigation’. They settled on a couple of characters from the US drama, “The Wire”. They then went around camp in the dark shining their torches on the most unthinkable ‘suspects’, blinding them and mockingly interrogated them in a way that really lightened up my mood. JJ would occasionally shine his torch on his own face from below claiming, “Don’t worry, we’re on the case” before disappearing into the darkness. Oddly enough, an actual ‘lead’ was drawn from this comedy sketch which pointed to the Night Watchman’s son: a thirteen year old scruffy-looking farm-boy who wanders in and off camp ground who was seen once with an ipod which he in no way could afford. Aziz wanted to search the entire camp – staff and volunteers individually, but I thought that would be too much. He came in and questioned some staff anyway in plain clothes. Still annoyed at my phone being stolen, I looked at all the staff on camp with suspicion and hardly wanted to say hi to any of them. The next day at school, I wasn’t in the mood to teach. I asked my supervisor if I could leave and go for a walk around the village for a while. On my return from my walk, my attention was caught by a large goat laid down on its side making repetitive screaming noises. It looked like it was in pain. As I circled around it, I noticed what I can only describe as a small bubble coming out from its rear end. I re-assessed the size of its stomach and came to the logical conclusion that it was hungry.. oops, no.. pregnant! The goat was in so much pain that it was rubbing and hitting the side of its head against the sand and stones beneath it. Slowly, and little by little, a see-through jelly bubble was being forced out with a moving creature inside. I’d never seen anything like it. Some street children thought it was funny to try and prod what was coming out with sticks, but I scared them off. Then an old Indian woman in an old dusty purple gown came over, lent down by the goat and delivered the baby with help from one of those street kids. The boy tossed the wet, feeble, mucus-covered lamb in front of the head of its mother as she commenced to constantly and compassionately lick the sticky wet substances off her newborn. The love from mother to child was so strong, necessary, and instinctive, that it made me think of the innate creature-love that our mothers must have for us underneath all the attributes that make us human beings. At this point I realized that all my anger and sadness about my phone was killed at the sight of this birth and the love that followed. It was a lesson much appreciated and well timed.

India has traditional values when it comes to women. This is good in many respects but unfortunately has a negative consequence also. Current Muslim countries are guilty of the same thing. Basically, instead of traditional values on women bringing about noble, dignified, respectable men, it produces pervy natives who think every Westerner is willing to have sex with them. It is so annoying. You’d be sitting in an internet cafe, and the conversation with the dude who runs it would go something like this: (Indian accent) “Ooh so you wolunteer, huh?”, “Yes”. “How many people you are?” “About 48 of us.” By this time I’m wondering if he’ll allow me to add on the internet-time that he’s about to take up with this conversation at the end of my timed-session. He’d continue with great subtlety: “Many girrls in your camp?” At this point my face drops in a sigh as his would brighten with a smile. Then at some point they would use the term “jiggy jiggy” which sounds ridiculous enough when its not said in an Indian accent, and I would want to leave. Why do traditional values on women breed perverts in the modern world? Possibly because the teaching of such values are incomplete in that women are taught to be ‘women’ in a certain way, but men are not taught to be men in any way. Instead they are left morally unchecked with little respect for the opposite sex. It seems to be a general problem in many poor, conservative countries.

I’m learning a lot about myself out here. One of the most solid traits that I seem to be known for, is being dangerous/adventurous. It seems like a new trait, but I guess in London, there’s no real need for the trait to ever surface because everything is so ‘civil’ and controlled. I’m also picking up a few new skills. One being learning to play the guitar. We have so much free time here and two guitars kick about the boys room so it made sense. I’ve learnt to play my two favorite songs of all time: ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead and ‘Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, and have not really felt inspired to learn anything else. They’re both quite depressing, which possibly reflects something about me. I’ve also learnt how to ride a motorbike. (This is omitted from Mum’s email- so do not tell her). I took out a scooter first, then a crappy kick-start bike with gears, and now I ride the best electric-start bike on rent. As the Bike Rent Man offered me his best bike he laid down a helmet for the first time and offered me to take it. In my head there was a toss between ‘safety’ or ‘fun’. I chose the latter, but I am careful. Have I mentioned the cows that are EVERYWHERE in India? Like literally in the markets on the roads, pavements – its like they own the place and life just goes on around them. It seems like some kind of Cow Paradise here. I wonder if the cows over the border in Pakistan have heard and are trying to make a break for it. I’ve also revisited that wind turbine on a few occasions and have scaled its height and even stood on its head. It is amazing. I lay down on its small platform and saw so many constantly moving stars in the sky and thought I was tripping out. It’s the only place out here where you are not bothered by people, flies or mosquitoes since none of them will travel that high.

Anyway, sorry for the delay, will try and update again sooner.

India Part 3: Teaching and Camp Life

So day 1 with teaching started and I was quite clueless as to how to go about it. I began to question the founding intentions of Platform2: Why, for example, are we being made to teach these village kids English – that is, their ABC’s, when in all liklihood, they will work manual jobs in and around the village all their lives, and die – in and around the village – having no contact with tourists or ever need such language skills. “But if you get just one kid educated enough to move to Jaipur (the big city), and they work there, then they’ve made it, and you’ve made a difference.” These justifications from my fellow volunteers seemed quite naive and superficial. However, I wasn’t going to try and ideologically uproot this vast humanitarian project within which I am quite insignificant.

I figured that I would use my Muslim identity for teaching purposes – afterall, this is why they singled me out for the Muslim village. In particular, I was thinking of the wash for prayer since some kids are quite dirty. It’s common for the young ones especially to be half naked (this might be a potty training technique?); snot is usually encrusted on their faces on which flies settle without protest from their hosts. I still, for the life of me, can’t understand how the kids don’t seem to realise that three flies are crawling all around their eyelids. The older girls (8-10) dress very colourfully and are always enthusiastic to see us. Amida, the day care centre’s teacher who moves around on her arms due to her disability, is always dressed in a bright yellow modest Indian style dress with plaited hair. She’s 25 but looks 35 and is very thin. On my first day I performed the afternoon prayer and some boys – who should have been at the school – where quite eager to join . A couple of the girls did too. We all went outside in the dry sun and I called for some water to be fetched from the well (haha, I never thought I would ever say that). All 15 kids or so gathered around in their colourful dresses to watch me teach one of the boys how to do the wash for prayer. It seemed they had only seen their fathers and uncles do it but had never done it themselves. I went through the process with about 3 or 4 of the schoolboys. Some of the girls learnt it and poured water for themselves separately. We all then went back into the empty (but again, colourful) room where we prayed. This was a nice experience though it was a one off since the boys went back to school for the remainder of the week and the girls seemed too shy to do it on their own.

In terms of teaching English, I decided to take a little initiative and offer to teach Amida, the day care centre’s teacher, one on one, while my teaching buddies, Chloe and Amy teach and play with the kids. I just figure that Amida would learn faster and if I could spend everyday teaching her English, she could at least continue to teach the kids after we’re gone. She just about knows her ABC so it’s pretty much starting from scratch.

So we teach in the morning and do practical work in the afternoon. Our recent practical work consisted of going into a dirty well and emptying it. This literally meant climbing down inside a rectangular room underground, repeatedly filling up buckets of water and sending them up by rope. Only 3 of us went into the well, myself and two other girls. It was dark so we couldn’t see much if we weren’t standing beneath the well’s trap door above. The water was about calf-height and filthy. Our Indian supervisor had climbed down as well and shone a torch light against the back wall of the well to reveal at least 500 frogs on a dry inclined part of the floor that wasn’t immersed in water. It looked like something out of the Old Testament. We had to clear them out too. We literally picked them up with our bare hands, and threw about 30-50 of them into a bucket at a time. There was plenty of screaming and shouting, me included.

Camp life takes up 70% of our waking time. A lot of time wasted in my opinion. I’ve grown quite popular throughout the camp as I continue to be as helpful as I can. Some of the girls have called me “Jesus” or “a shepherd” because I always have a group of people around me. But it’s true. If I sit somewhere, a group forms quite rapidly. (This is ironic because I’m probably the only person who wants to be alone.) My slightly antagonising strong Christian friend has been quoted to have said “Why does Zee get so much respect, he’s not even speaking the truth”. Not sure what to say about that.

Having a “bedtime” at 11pm is proving quite good for me. I’m beginning to think that one of the keys to organising your life is organising your sleep. I wake up everyday at 6am without fail for morning prayer. At this time everyone is asleep so I head on out into the dry outskirts of the camp to pray. Every other morning after prayer I go for a run around the camp with a tall, slim blonde girl called Megan. She has claimed that she likes the way I think and is one of few girls here who does not seem to engage in gossip. I’m still big in the music scene and have somehow found myself as singer in the camps only band, “The Desert Boys” (I didn’t come up with the name). It consists of myself, JJ who plays guitar, and two other male guitarists/musicains. We’re all from London.

One of the 11 males here is a 20 year old boy from Bernley named Carl who has a shaved head and an athletic build. He has a few tattoos of his local football team around his body and has a thick ‘northen’ accent. He loves Eminem and sport. When he is with some of the other lads, things can begin to get incredibly immature. Half of the boys are quite into alcohol and women. I remember making a statement in the boys room at the very beginning that I didn’t want any alcohol in the room (this is a camp rule anyway). JJ was the only one who backed me on this as he doesn’t drink either. The other evening on a weekend, Carl had come up to me and pulled me aside with a very hesitant expression on his face. His tone was a little uncertain. As he took a second or two to find his words, I couldn’t help but think he was about to ask if it was OK if he and some of the lads could have a few drinks in the room for the night. His actual words were something like this: “I was wondering if I could come watch to do your prayer tonight, I’d really like to see what you do.” I felt like the world had turned upside down. I would have put money on him being the last to show any interest in this (at least 3 others have asked me the same thing). And so, I took him out to the outskirts of the camp at night and talked him though the prayer and Isamic ethics. I tried to sum it up for him: “Prefer others over yourself… So if you want something like water or whatever, and someone else does too, you give it to them first.” He liked the idea. The next day as we got off the bus with our provided lunch boxes, one girl cried out that she forgot hers. Without hesitation, Carl handed over his lunch box to her and kept his head down. I really respected him for this. He’s since been very quick to give up his seat on the daily bus to our placements from camp too. On being asked who his favourite person on camp was, despite us not hanging out that much, he said it was me.

With the girls things are becoming more complicated. “He makes me feel special, but then I know he makes all the other girls feel special so, I don’t know”. I’ve heard such quotes about me on a few occasions. One Catholic Scottish girl came up to me and apologized. I asked her what for, and she said “I thought you were the most insincere person ever, I just thought no one could be that nice.” Unfortunately I have been told that this girl still thinks I’m insincere, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. I’m told, however, that other girls strongly defend me. I had thought that going down the overtly Muslim route (Muslims hat, beard, public prayer) would avert sexual attraction. It doesn’t. My biggest guard is never going to hotels at the weekend with all the others. I am the only one who consistently stays on camp over the weekends since they always come back with stories about who has done what with who. This kind of talk makes up a big portion of general talk on camp.

I still can’t express enough thanks for JJ being here. With him I can be myself and make as many conceptual comments as I want. He does this too. With most of the others, if my conceptual comments aren’t about relationships, there’s not much interest. I kinda feel like I walk around camp enshrouded with veils that are quite suffocating. Being able to take them off now and then makes a big difference.

Till next time, all the best.

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