When I was 18, I – quite literally – stumbled upon an amazing opportunity. It was my second year of university in Utrecht, The Netherlands. I was exploring town with my (then) boyfriend and we walked into a travel shop called JoHo. While entering, we were greeted by an enthusiastic store clerk, who asked us a question that would change the course of our lives for the next months: “Would you like to travel abroad for free?” My initial reaction was surprise, followed by a healthy dose of scepticism: this sounded too good to be true. Still, we were intrigued.
As it turned out, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs had assigned resources to subsidize ‘WorldSupporter’, a youth volunteering project by JoHo. The goal was to incentivize young adults to visit developing countries and contribute to growth projects. One particular opportunity that caught our attention was a project in the region of Tamil Nadu, India.
About half a year later, having successfully secured the approval from JoHo, from our parents and from our university, we set out to venture into wildly unfamiliar grounds. No information session or flyer could have prepared us for what unfolded before our teenager eyes that following month.
We were greeted by a land of raw beauty, with tall palm trees and red sand roads. Dreamy beaches were occupied by lounging cows and vendors selling fresh coconuts and juicy pineapples. Weathered roots of massive ancient trees were scattered with free-roaming goats and other life stock. On the side of the road, one could buy colorful flowers or steaming chai – a spicy, sweet milk tea with a mouthwatering aroma.
The Samugam Home
During the first two weeks of our month in India, we were stationed at the Samugam Children’s Home in Pondicherry. There, we supported staff with the care of children, accompanying them on day trips or helping out around the building. Samugam Trust is a non-governmental and non-profit organisation working to provide a safe haven for children of the local gypsy community: an ethnic group ranking lowest in the Hindu system of castes, also referred to as the ‘untouchables’. The etymology of this word comes from the treatment these groups receive from the rest of the population: the gypsies are being shunned, they are – in the most literal sense – outcastes.
In an attempt to alleviate the situation that these people are born into, Samugam persuades parents of the gypsy community to place their children in the part-time care of the Samugam Home where they can sleep, play, eat regularly and catch rides to school. In this way, Samugam hopes to build a brighter future for the next generation.
Inside the community
One day, we were invited to visit the gypsy community and get a closer look at how they actually live. Secluded from society, behind a long stretch of land purposed as a garbage belt, live approximately 60 families in heartening conditions. Even though Samugam has made efforts to support the community by providing food, clean water, and by renovating houses, seeing how people lived there was a tough pill to swallow. Small children sat on the pavement, filthy and unwashed, eating hands of rice while swarmed by tenacious flies. On the ground lingered pieces of scrap, garbage and animal droppings.
Despite their seemingly harsh reality, it was reassuring to see that there were also plenty of moments for fun – children playing in a tub of water, women styling each others hair. To me, it speaks of a strong mentality to be able to find positivity in a life with such a dubious outlook. That said, this is a perspective coming from someone who grew up in the West, under totally different conditions. The gypsy lifestyle has existed for generations, it is deeply entangled with their culture and heritage. Speaking to members of the community, the gypsies expressed to us that they treasure their way of life.
After two weeks our voluntary work came to an end. We used our remaining time in India to pick up our backpacks and explore other parts of the country. We started our travels on the tropical beaches of Goa and we ended in the busy hurdles of Mumbai.
Reflecting on the trip after so many years, I feel grateful that I was able to go and explore this extraordinary piece of the planet at such a young age. It was a humbling experience that has probably had a part in forming me into the person I am today.
To me, the country shows a stark contrast between a breathtaking beauty – in nature and in culture, and sadly, a pressing poverty for some unlucky members of society. But amidst those bleak conditions, I also encountered a strong collective mindset and a tight knit community.
How you can help
The tireless efforts of Samugam Trust are nothing short of admirable. Besides the good work they do for the gypsy community, they are involved in a number of other initiatives – ranging from housing elderly who are affected by leprosy to organizing women empowerment projects.
If you feel intrigued to learn more or to support their cause, check out their website here.