Juliet (Hill) Pierce
Born in 1946 I was the granddaughter of a Methodist minister, brought up in a household strongly influenced by Christian values rather than religious belief. My father’s motto was “Fair shares for all”. He strongly encouraged my brother and I to do our boy scout’s good deed everyday! Although my family had middle class aspirations, we lived on a modest family income with a strong philosophy of self reliance and resourcefulness, expressed as “make do and mend”.
At an all girls school we were inspired by a headmistress who was a strong supporter of the ideals of the UN. She went out to serve the cause of education with UNICEF in the Sudan and expected us to do similar things. Ideas of service and what we needed to do to recompense the world for our privilege were strongly instilled in us.
I was also a ‘baby boomer’ brought up in a world of post-war reconstruction, new building on the bombsites of London and a feeling of making things better after the destruction and austerity of the war years. By the time I was entering the workforce Britain was prosperous enjoying the ‘swinging `60s’. With near full employment there was no fear of being unemployed after spending some years as a volunteer.
First contacts with SCI/IVS
Although pushed to follow an academic route I rebelled against my teachers to do something more practical and studied to become a physiotherapist. It was at this period that I spotted an IVS poster on a railway station of people decorating for old people and I jotted down the contact number. When I eventually rang the number I talked to John Hitchins who invited me to meet up for a decorating weekend with Sutton IVS.
After qualifying as a physio I attended my first international camp building a children’s playground in Germany. Then I got my first job in Southampton, and having thought all that decorating was behind me, I found myself living in a flat above the local IVS group Chairman! At this point I began to learn more about the ideals of SCI and its roots as a peace movement. Besides decorating we worked closely with the local Social Services Department to run a youth club for travellers’ children and a club for disabled youngsters. I found myself addressing a huge public meeting in Southampton Town Hall to explain what SCI and volunteering were all about.
At this point I received a letter from John Hitchins, by now a volunteer with the SCI India Office. He explained that a physiotherapist volunteer was needed for a leprosy project in Delhi and I decided to go through the IVS selection process.
The first project – Shahdara Leprosy Settlement 1970-1972 I was eventually selected and attended an IVS orientation course and a day for medical volunteers run by the British Volunteer Programme. Eventually I arrived in India in November 1970 to work in Shahdara Leprosy Settlement, but before going to Shahdara I was allowed a very useful period of orientation. This involved spending time with John and Bhuppy and Valli and Seshan (and Subi aged 4) in Delhi.
Valli also took me to Janpath to learn to eat masala dosa and to buy some Indian clothes suitable for going on my first Indian workcamp. This camp was at Baba Amte’s newest settlement for leprosy patients (Anand Gram). Our task was to clear stones and build the bundhs around the rice fields. It was hot and hard physical work and I struggled to eat enough and to drink water from the communal jug by pouring it without my lips touching the jug.
In the evenings Baba Amte lectured us on various issues. Some of the post-`60s, European volunteers were not used to listening to older people’s ideas without challenging them. I remember Baba Amte did not take kindly to this kind of challenge and we had many interesting arguments about authority and rights, and the right approach to respecting cultural differences.
The high point of the camp for me was getting to know Shashi Rajagopalan and Monique (now Michels), listening to their interpretation of SCI ideals and enjoying their laughter, especially as we listened to Dinesh Jesrani earnestly trying to master We shall overcome on his guitar, again and again!
My assignment as a physiotherapist was supposed to enable the rehabilitation of leprosy patients after reconstructive surgery. I had learnt what I could about this from specialists in the UK but was recommended to visit an eminent Bombay plastic surgeon to tap into his knowledge of reconstructive surgery for leprosy patients. After the camp with Baba Amte I therefore travelled to Bombay to stay with Dinesh. The interview with the surgeon was an experience in itself, since the only way he had time to talk to me was by gowning up and standing next to him in the operating theatre while he gave a face lift to one of the Bombay elite.
The final step in my orientation was to attend the SCI India National Meeting in Jabalpur at the end of December 1970. I was able to meet SCI India members from all over India. There were also a few other foreign LTVs present and one lunchtime I found myself sitting next to a young and idealistic Englishman dressed in khadi. His name was Martin Pierce!
Having received this orientation to India, SCI and leprosy I was now considered ready to be sent to Shahdara. Much to my delight, instead of going there on my own, it was decided that Shashi and I would form a small SCI team and go to live in Shahdara together. Although coping with a naïve foreign LTV may have been a burden for Shashi, it was an ideal situation for me. I felt able to ask for clarification about everything I did not understand and I had the benefit of Shashi translating what the patients were saying and what I wanted to say to them (the patients spoke Hindi, Tamil and Bengali and luckily Shashi could speak all three). This must have been very frustrating for Shashi after a while, especially as I proved hopeless at learning enough of the relevant languages. As a team of two, living and working together day after day, and talking by the lightlamp every evening I don’t think there was any subject we did not talk about. After a short time we became very close friends. At weekends we often went to stay with Valli, Seshan and Subi or travelled over to a weekend workcamp helping to build the dispensary and school building in Nangloi, with Delhi Group volunteers.
After all the preparation for using my physiotherapy skills in postsurgical rehabilitation, no reconstructive surgery was performed during my entire stay in Shahdara. Instead, Shashi and I spent our time trying to train the patients to look after themselves to prevent more serious injuries due to lack of sensation. We had to battle against the fatalism of people believing that they were cursed and that there was nothing that could be done to preserve the functions of their limbs or to reduce the injuries.
We also concentrated on trying to breakdown the social prejudices about leprosy that led to people being locked away in Shahdara rather than treated in the community. We enjoyed holding camps at the colony to get as many people as possible accustomed to relating to the leprosy patients as people. We also enjoyed getting the patients out from behind the barbed wire to participate in SCI fundraising activities like the first all India sponsored cycle rally run by SCI India around the Delhi ring road.
Towards the end of 1971 Shashi and I participated in a camp in Bihar, working with the villagers to build a dam. We worked with a big group of workcamp volunteers and LTVs Monique and Oswald Michels and Hans Kammerer who were based in Titmoh Village.
After that the drama of the war between India and Pakistan, the breakup of East and West Pakistan resulted in a flow of Hindu refugees into West Bengal. Shashi went to work with the SCI team supporting the massive refugee camp near Dum Dum Airport.
I was alone in Shahdara for a while which proved one of the loneliest and most difficult periods at first, but one that I soon got used to. Having considered myself a gregarious kind of person I found myself almost afraid to be in groups of volunteers, preferring to rush back to the solitude of Shahdara and the familiarity of the patients with whom I could only communicate in sign language.
Then it was my turn to leave the settlement as someone needed to be sent by SCI to make contact with the newly formed Bangladesh SCI. This was an exciting time. I travelled up the West Bengal border and crossed into Bangladesh making contact with the Indian army. I found myself being asked to mediate between the local Mukti Bahini leader and the Indian Commander as the young Bengali liberator felt he was being upstaged by the Indian army and it was he who should be hosting me as the first international visitor to cross into that part of the new Bangladesh. I managed to feel I was upholding the spirit of SCI and reconciliation by persuading the Indian commander to at least shed his uniform and to wear civilian clothes to the evening film entertainment being provided for the local community, so that he would look less like an occupying force!
Finally, the Indian Army leant me a vehicle and an officer to drive me to Dacca across all the temporary bridges constructed besides those so recently blown up by the retreating Pakistan army. I was going to Dacca to make contact with the Bangladesh SCI Branch and to see how SCI India could join in the reconstruction efforts. Colleagues in SCI Bangladesh greeted me warmly. They showed me the tragedy of what had befallen Bangladesh and we had a weekend camp at a home for the girls who had been raped by members of the Pakistan army. As a physiotherapist I was also concerned to do something to provide care for all the amputees, mostly children, whose limbs had been blown off by anti-personnel devices designed like toys. At that time all the training facilities for physiotherapists were in West Pakistan. Later it was to be the SCI volunteer physiotherapists who did a wonderful job in getting the Bangladeshi training facilities started.
In 1972 I returned very reluctantly to the UK having learnt so much from the SCI experience. Shashi had taught me to question the woolly ideas of compassion I had arrived with. She showed me how laced they were with ideas of cultural superiority. Valli showed me what open mindedness and internationalism really meant. Seshan kept challenging my half baked ideas of development. Bhuppy showed me the richness of Indian culture and how humour could transform situations of tension and allow people’s humanity to shine forth. So many others taught me so much about what it is like to live and grow up in another part of the world and to look out on our planet with fundamentally different but equally valid perceptions. The exposure to the effects of war had a profound effect on me, what a waste! And how come so many innocent people have to suffer from the manoeuvring of big power politics? I left India reeling, feeling hopelessly disorientated and returning to a UK that was both familiar and alien.
It took me three years of studying for a degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies to recover my bearings. By the end of that period I had met up with Martin and we had decided that the best cure for our mutual disorientation was to marry and return as volunteers to India!
Second project as a volunteer with the Asian Regional Training Centre 1975-1977
Martin and I arrived in Visionville avoiding any official processes by paying for ourselves as volunteers and taking on the role of managing the Asian Regional Training Centre which was intended to support the SCI India office with the orientation of volunteers coming to and leaving from India. It was also a chance to act as a base for organising and running workcamps in Karnataka. I am not sure how the idea arose but it proved a wonderful opportunity for us to live and work with the Sato family. I did not really have a role other than to help out, whilst Martin threw himself into organising workcamps. This was just as well as I spent the first few months being ill and then the last few months being pregnant! The last month of being in Visionville was particularly tough as the Sato family was forced to leave the country and Martin and I with our young son Richard tried to ensure an orderly transfer of the work of maintaining Visionville to its new occupants. It was clear that it was time for us to return to the UK.
After such an intense experience of India, Martin got a job as a solicitor in Leeds so that he could use his Hindi and work with migrants coming from the Indian subcontinent. I became a member of the IVS National Committee eventually becoming the Vice Chairperson, giving this up when I became pregnant with our daughter and focussing on working locally. Meanwhile Martin returned to workcamp organising by becoming an IVS local field officer. Slowly my paid work commitments grew and my involvement with SCI reduced to occasional IVS weekends and hosting SCI visitors. Slowly I became involved in community work in a multiracial inner city area, and then became more involved in education and education policy. In the 1990s I returned to work in international development as a consultant, eventually specialising in strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation of mostly DFID funded programmes.
The effects of the SCI experience on my life
Like most SCI volunteers, the experience radically altered the direction of my life. That first decorating weekend led to going to India. The experience of meeting so many extraordinary people in SCI India and being exposed to poverty and the aftermath of war completely woke me up politically. Before India I was a fairly politically naïve medical person, after India I wanted to be involved in changing the world! However, what I learnt was not how to be engaged in politics as such, but the importance of continually trying to understand different points of view, the urgent need for communication across cultures and the need to use everyone’s insights, not just those who are articulate or powerful, to build a better world. When I meet SCI people I realise that is what we have in common and that I think that is the quiet influence we are having.