Can ONE week REALLY change your life?

At the end of March I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kolkata for one week to see  The Hope Foundation’s projects with street and slum children. Most of my friends and family know how hard I fundraised to make this opportunity a reality, but many of you don’t know the enormous effect it had on me. I know it’s a long post, but a LOT happened, and my ONE WEEK in Calcutta has heavily influenced a life-changing decision in my life.

Initial Impressions

DSC01399My initial impressions of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) were not what I imagined them to be. In the past whenever people mentioned Kolkata, images from the movie Slumdog Millionaire would come to mind; I imagined the streets to be full of beggars, young children walking around aimlessly, people knocking on car windows looking for money. This may have been a very naive and ignorant view, but that was what I imagined the city of Kolkata to be like. On arrival I was shocked, but in a different way to what I had imagined. I guess for people not well-travelled or the younger students on the trip, arriving into one of the poorest cities in the world could have been jaw dropping. However, and perhaps to my detriment, my extensive travels in Africa have toughened me up to the extent that very few things truly shock me these days.

The city of Kolkata was a lot quieter (although FAR from quiet…beep beep, beep BEEP!), a lot cleaner (although again, far from clean), and a lot less congested than I thought it would be. When you think of India, you think of people EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. So my first thought on arrival was, “Ehhh…where are all the people?!”
Being with a young school group, staying in a hotel, and travelling everywhere by private bus – I sometimes felt I wasn’t seeing the real Kolkata. I knew there was more out there, but I felt I just wasn’t able to see it.

Settling in – Something will ALWAYS shock you.

pigsThe two things that did shock me to the core happened after a few days in Kolkata. The first was the slums. I have never been in a slum before and everything about it was just awful. The lack of space, rubbish everywhere, pigs running around and sniffing through dirty water and rubbish, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation – you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight. It seemed few of the kids were in school as most were running around the slum, half-dressed, playing in the dirt or minding younger siblings. Everything about the slums made me feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic and just sad that people still have to live in such HORRIFIC conditions. You literally have no idea how awful it would be to live like that, with so little possessions, and little hope for a brighter future.

At first, even the HOPE projects within the slums couldn’t help take away this feeling of hopelessness. On arrival at the crèche/coaching centre, we found up to 30 kids in what seemed like a very small room. As it was nearly 40’c outside the room was very hot and stuffy, and I couldn’t believe how many kids were taught in that tiny space each day.
However after sitting down and interacting with the kids and seeing the incredible way the HOPE staff managed the student’s time in such confined space, it was truly inspiring. The students in this room were the LUCKY ones. They were learning, singing, smiling and laughing. They were getting an education which will lead to a brighter future, which is something kids NOT in the room will find extremely difficult to accomplish.

crecheThe coaching centres may be small but compared to the rest of the make shift building in the slum, they are actually quite spacious. Plus they also serve the community in more ways than one, as they double as health clinics in the evenings and at weekends. These rooms are little pockets of gold for the children and their families that live close by.

The second thing that shocked me was going on Night Watch. The HOPE Night Watch team is a team of 3 people (a driver and 2 ‘watchers’) that patrols the streets of Kolkata in a make shift ‘ambulance’ each night looking for abandoned or sick children or adults that may need urgent medical help. Driving through the streets of Kolkata at night was eye-opening. Suddenly, as if they had come out of nowhere, I could see that there were people sitting and lying on thin sheets of plastic everywhere. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t think I imagined there would be so many people living and sleeping on the streets. Or maybe I thought it was just individuals rather than WHOLE FAMILIES. It was really sad to see small children and babies curled up next to their mother with nothing to protect them.

woman cooking in slumWe stopped off at Howrah station and it was a real kick in the teeth to see all the people outside the train station, essentially homeless, with nothing to protect them from the elements. It was terrible to see how late these young kids were staying up, way past midnight, running around without supervision, without protection and most likely with very little to eat. We even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to the mother, who was fast asleep. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive. We have SO much, and still complain, while these people have SO little, and yet still do not beg or ask for hand outs. While the night watch team did hand out donated clothes sent over from Ireland, each person who received something was SO unbelievably grateful and happy to receive something as worthless (to us anyway) as a baggy secondhand t-shirt.

These were a few of my favourite things….

hope hospitalOne of my favourite things on the whole visit was The HOPE hospital. I think it is an amazing place, and while one should be sad going around a hospital, I found myself smiling and found the experience really uplifting. You realise how lucky these children are, how great they are being cared for, and know there is a lot of hope for them to have bright futures. I actually found it very difficult to leave the hospital…either I wanted to stay there with them, or I wanted to take them home with me!

Meeting little Ganesh, the 4-year-old boy who was found by the night watch team in December severely malnourished and near death, was heart wrenching. But then hearing firsthand the enormous improvement in his health over the last 3 months, and getting the chance to play ball with him and watch him sitting up in his colouring was quite an emotional moment for me.

Visiting some of the homes such as Kasba, Tollygunge and even the drop in centre (Tollygunge Nabadisha) was a really uplifting experience and in a way reminded me of my love of children, my love of teaching and how being in an office can be hard for me as I am so far removed from the actually people we are trying to benefit.

So, can one week trip REALLY change your life??

I have always felt one should ‘Do what you LOVE and LOVE what you do’. It’s now time I started listening to my own advice.

holi festival calcuttaMy 7 days in Kolkata were TRULY LIFE-CHANGING, but strangely not in the way I originally thought. I thought I would return home with a renewed passion for working with a charity and for progressing my career in the Humanitarian field. However what actually happened was that my week in Kolkata made me re-evaluate my career choice, and my priorities in life. It made me realise I belong in a classroom and not in an office. Working with kids and not with computers. My biggest passions are working with children and travel so it’s time I combined the two and ‘lived the dream’ so to speak. 

I hope to return to Kolkata someday, with the Hope Foundation, and dedicate my time to working on the projects, working with the children and sharing my passion for life. HOPE is an amazing charity, and the people who work for HOPE are true angels in disguise. If you ever get the chance to visit Kolkata, make sure to look up The Hope Foundation. Who knows, it could change your life too.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Renewal

The only thing that can bring things back to life, and restore energy levels in this community, is clean water.

As long as there is water, these young kids can continue to grow, continue to learn, continue to live.


Dear Diary- Kakuma Refugee Camp

It’s 1am and I’m sitting here in a lovely double bed in the JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services) house in compound 1 of Kakuma Refugee Camp. It’s hard to believe that I am really here. We got the bus from Lodwar at 8am this morning and what a journey it was- anyone that’s been to Africa will know that no bus journey will ever be uneventful but this trip really took the biscuit!

After waiting an hour, until every last seat was filled, we set off North…only to stop minutes later to pick up more and more passengers, who were crammed in and placed sitting on upside down beer crates, head rests from the bus seats or unstable buckets! As I watched in awe the woman beside me began to brest feed her little new born baby, until we heard a commotion outside. Two Turkana men were attempting to lock their herd of goats in the luggage compartment under the bus! Can you imagine that happening in Ireland?! Hilarious!

As we sat there exasperated by the bumpy journey, hot and sweaty from the unrelenting heat and hungry (as always!), we noticed a cattle lorry drive by crammed full of school kids, to say they were like sardines in a tin would not do this image justice…it was unreal. How they didn’t all crush each other or suffocate was an absolute miracle…it’s quite unbelievable what ‘safety’ standards are here in Africa…if they exist at all! Although the site was pretty horrendous, we then began to hear noises coming from the truck, sounds of joyous singing and laughter! It seems even travelling in a cattle lorry won’t put a damper on the African spirit!

Eventually after filling up the bus with what looked like vegetable oil, a hectic last-minute push of extra women onto the already crowded bus and a few screeches from the poor goats in the luggage compartment..and we were on out way! But alas…nor for long as we broke down halfway to Kakuma! The engine over heated and there was billows of smoke everywhere. We all got told to evacuate the bus in the middle of nowhere while the driver threw some bottled water over the engine to cool it down, and we were on our way again!

Kakuma itself is a dirty little town. The feel, the atmosphere and the smell was pretty awful and sort of gave us the chills. We really didn’t feel comfortable or safe there. There is such a melange of ethnic backgrounds, cultures and nationalities wandering around- Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Rwandan refugees.

We found Sister Stellas house after about 20 minutes only to discover the sisters had just been robbed and held at gunpoint last night… for the 4th time this month! They were all very shaken and were giving police reports when we arrived. This is the point when we met a guy from Kiladare who offered to look after us and show us the refugee camp. Strictly speaking we were not allowed in without work permits issued from Nairobi, but with him and keeping a low profile it should be fine!!

It was fascinating to see the inside of a Refugee camp, home to over 80,000 refugees. To see the World Food Programme tents, the UN jeeps everywhere and representatives form so many charities or NGOs that I have only previously read about in the News. The camp has been there over 15 years, so many people have been born here and lived in the camp all their lives. It is all the know.

We met some young Kenyan girls at the HomeCraft centre and had a very engaging conversation about love and about life, about customs and traditions. They could not believe I was NOT married. I could not believe, at 16-17, that they all had children!! Many of them told us that they had children just to prove that they could, as many of the men would not marry them unless they could bear many children!  The idea od getting a job and going to college (as I was doing) instead of getting married seemed absurd to them! We got invited to a party to say farewell to the current UN chief in the camp which was a whole other kettle of fish compared to anything we have so far experienced in Africa.In fact, it was almost like not being in Africa, just for the night.



What would you do if Kidnapped?

You’re driving through a remote, desert area in Sudan when suddenly you hear gunfire. Bullets and mortars seem to be exploding in every direction. You can’t see ahead of you and have no idea if you are a target or simply caught in a crossfire. What do you do??

Well there is a whole long list of things you must do. All of which I learned in class today. I also learned what to do if I’m Kidnapped. That’s right, as part of our Masters course we had Brian Casey from the Irish NGO “Goal” lecturing us on security polices and management.  This included an exercise on what we should do, or how we should act, if kidnapped. It also included things such as the hiring of security guards, planning to traverse extremely hostile and dangerous territory and what to do if caught in crossfire.

And people say lectures are boring!

Whilst all of the above kept the class captivated and firmly glued to our seats for 3.5 hours with no break (!!!), for me the most interesting lesson was what to do if kidnapped. It’s something I have never thought much of before but frightens me a lot. It made me realize how dangerous working in the Aid  sector can be. Can you imagine ever been kidnapped and how scary it would be? Been taken to a remote hideout, your family and friends having no idea where you are or if you’re still alive. Held captive with armed guards or captors who don’t speak your language. It would be both physically and mentally devastating.

I guess as with all difficult challenges life throws at us,

“Without Risk, There can be no Reward.”