I’m now in Bangalore and have been working at the Born Free Art School in Bangalore for 2 weeks, although I use the term ‘working’ very loosely. The school is very disorganized and everybody is normally at least 2 hours late for everything so I seem to spend most of my time just waiting around. I also don’t know what’s going on half of the time because of the language barrier. The Born Free Art School is more like a hostel really where children can live and attend local government schools. There are a few children that stay at home. Subromony, who is 17, and Reshma, also the same age, who have both passed their 10th Standard (the equivalent to GCSE’s in England), do not go to school or college and are in charge of the hostel and looking after all the other children, making sure they go to school, that the younger children have a bath, that the cooking and cleaning gets done, etc. They also help us, the volunteers, to teach in the local government school where the younger girls from the hostel Meena, Lakshmi and Ranjita attend. We have also started to teach at a local slum school which is just a tiny blue storage container near the slum. When I first got here I expected to be doing art workshops and that I would have materials to use, paints, brushes, paper, but there was nothing, so I bought paper so we could do some sketching and asked again and again for the organizers to supply the other things we needed. Finally, two weeks later, we have a few pots of poster paint and some dried up old brushes. So far I have been mostly teaching simple English in the two schools, singing nursery rhythms and songs like ‘Head Shoulders Knees and Toes’, ’10 Green Bottles’ and ‘Old MacDonald’, and playing ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ and ‘Diamond Dance’.
I am working with Neena from Slovenia who is a good teacher and very strict disciplinarian, not like me at all, and also 4 other volunteers from China who have to give themselves different names so we can understand, Aron, Allen, Ufe and Joy. They are very young and are good fun. None of us really know what we are supposed to do from day to day and I get quite frustrated sometimes, especially when people keep asking me ‘What are we supposed to do?’, to which I reply ‘I don’t know’ many times over. Mioi, one of the organizers of Born Free, made a timetable for teaching at the schools in the morning and afternoon, and in the evenings helping various kids study for their exams, art workshops, and sports at the hostel, but from what I can gather the purpose of making the timetable was so that everyone can ignore it, even the organizers. So I have to take things day by day which is challenging for me because I like to be organized. To be honest I’ve found the lack of communication very de-motivating and when I try to ask questions like ‘Do we have some paints now?’ or ‘Are we doing an art workshop today?’ people normally just reply ‘yes’. So when someone says ‘ yes’ to me, I think I know what I’m doing, then later on it becomes apparent that they didn’t understand what I’d asked and so I’m left feeling confused, isolated and frustrated. Sometimes I have to get one of the Chinese volunteers to repeat what I say in their accent so that the children can understand because they have trouble understanding English when it’s spoken in an English accent, so I’ve had to try very hard to speak clearly and use simple words rather than whole sentences. I seem to spend an awful lot of energy just trying to communicate here.
I haven’t taught in the school for a few days now because Jon has had a big exhibition at an Art Gallery in the centre of Bangalore where he’s exhibiting a huge painting ‘A hundred million crucifixions’ which is about street children, working children, and war. At the opening on Saturday all the children performed a play where they acted out some scenes from their pasts including, a drunken father beating up his wife and a gang of kids stealing a mobile phone using violence, then it went into a scene of war between India and Pakistan and the children all demanded peace, or ‘Shanti’. Then all the volunteers read out a poem from their own country. I read my favourite war poem by Wilfred Owen ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, although I don’t think anyone understood what I was saying. There was also some live music.
Yesterday we had an art workshop at the gallery. Two graffiti artists from Australia were there and they guided the kids to make a big banner that said ‘BORN FREE’ spread out on 4 bits of big paper. We all painted a little section in poster paints then they outlined it with spray paint. It was really fun actually and just what I needed to give me a bit of inspiration to carry on with my art workshops. After taking so long to get the paints I’d started to think that it’s not actually going to happen, but after seeing how much fun the kids had painting, it reminded me of why I do what I do, and it also made me realize that I need to simplify my ideas for the workshops so that it’s really easy for them, and most importantly, so that it’s fun.
The children at the hostel are great. They all have a lot of fun together and are constantly play fighting, doing acrobatics, singing, playing drums, chatting and laughing, attempting to speak to me in their distorted Indian English, teaching me to dance, pulling me around by the hand ‘Sadie come here’, not giving me a moments peace ‘Sadie what are you doing?’. I play with them a lot and teach them simple English songs. They all take great delight in trying on my glasses and using my camera to take photos.
When I got back to Bangalore this time the organizers put me and another volunteer in the girls room at the hostel, so I slept there for 4 nights. Although I got to know the kids very well by living alongside them, I found it hard not having any of my own space. Also the hostel is a real mess and the bathroom is gross. I had a lot of bites on my legs which were really itchy so in the evenings I would put calamine lotion on and all the kids would want it too and started to make out that they had itchy faces. It was also impossible to read my book as the children would interrupt me the whole time and when I wanted to go to chill out before going to bed the boys would be in the room wanting to play games on my mobile phone. They are nice kids though. While I was there it gave Reshma a break from looking after the younger children. I feel sorry for her because she is now the only older girl. Reshma and Subromony are in love with each other and are always fighting and arguing which can be quite tiring sometimes, especially when it happens during lessons. Reshma is very insecure and is always shouting at Subu. I found out from Mioi that she has had a lot of trauma in her life and when she was 6 years old she found her fathers body hanging in their home, she has no mother, and after her father died her step mother started to abuse her and her brother so they both ran away. I don't know where her brother is now. I felt a bit guilty about leaving the hostel but I just can't function as a teacher on such little sleep and having no time to myself.
I was told that while I was away in Kerala and Goa that Jonny and Rajeesh, the two boys that tried to steal from me and another volunteer before I left, had run away from the hostel. They are both very intelligent boys and work well together as a thieves, and I can just imagine them living back on the streets doing what they know best, although I feel a bit sad for them and hope they decide to come back one day. Unfortunately it seems that NGO’s like Born Free are the only option for kids living on the streets but I’m not sure what kids will do once they leave school/college, and the support that they get when they move out of Born Free. One of the older girls, Gowri, had got sick of Born Free and left because she’d fallen out with one of the older boys Jillalli. I’d actually had a phone call from Gowri while I was in Hampi and I couldn’t hear her because it was such bad reception there, but I was told that she was phoning round to people trying to get money so she could go to Mysore. I’m not sure what connections she has there as she is an orphan.
Some of the older kids work alongside Jon as assistant artists. He has a studio and is currently making 3 wax sculptures of Gandi, Mother Theresa and a Bollywood celebrity. He is also making Panchatantra medallions to sell in a shop on Mahatma Gandi Road, the main road in the centre of Bangalore. Panchatantras are pictures which tell stories about morals and are associated with the Hindu religion and Jon has re-written them so that they do not exclude the ‘untouchables’ from the religion and also changes the way women are treated. I have spent a lot of time at the studio making these panchatantras by pressing clay into moulds but to be honest haven’t really enjoyed it as I feel like I’m not doing what I came here to do. Also I am never asked if I want to do something I’m just told on the day what I’m doing and then expected to do it.
I feel sorry for the kids here. When I am at the hostel it seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere and there is no opportunity out there. It’s in Avalahalli which is a developing area with lots of construction sites all around and I am not allowed to go outside after 7pm on my own and have to get the boys to walk me up to the main town so I can go home. I’ve bought a bike which is a rusty old banger and the breaks don’t work very well. I took it to the shop to get the breaks fixed but the man didn’t seem to do it very well even though I got him to do it again 5 times. There are no standards here in India. Even so, I have a bike and enjoy being more mobile and not having to rely on waiting for Jon to take me places or arguing with dishonest rickshaw drivers.
Today I’ve given myself a day off and will cycle into town now to buy a train ticket to Pondicherry so I can meet a couple of friends. I am desperate for a break and a bit of time away from the city and the organizers of Born Free, who I also live with. I like cycling in Bangalore although I’ve had a few near misses with people trying to cut me up as my breaks don’t work very well, and having to dodge the cows in the road. I will also have to try and find the post office again as I need to get my stuff organized for going away and post back a few of the heavier things that I have bought. Things take a long time in Bangalore as it’s a big place and there is a lot of traffic. Also the addresses don’t really exist as I know them back home and I have to ask directions to landmarks rather than roads.
I went through a stage of feeling like I didn’t want to come back to Born Free as the disorganization is an issue for me, but I’ve decided to think about things differently as after all, this is not England, it’s India, and to come back and just make it fun for the kids. At least now we have the art workbooks which I bound together with needle and string and we have the paint so we are finally ready to get messy.