First contact with workcamps and SCI
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, East European refugees from the Second World War were being offered nationality in various countries. I came into contact with the settlement of refugees in Austria who had been living – some as long as 18 years – in the huts of Refugee Camps in and around Linz. Land had been given them but they had to build their own houses – but although each family were assisting each other, they had not got enough labour. So the United Nations Association set-up a work camp in the area, requesting (mainly students) to work alongside these families to build them houses. I was not a student, but I had heard about this because I was a member of the Cambridge University United Nations Group and so I spent my yearly holiday at the U.N. camp in 1961. I learned how to be a Builder’s Mate!
While there I saw posters about U.N. nurse volunteers working in various parts of the world – in areas where there was poverty and suffering – much of which was caused by conflict. Although I had trained as a nurse, doing a 4 year training, I had left and had been working as a Secretary in Cambridge University. Then I wished I had the confidence and ability to do what those U.N. volunteers were doing. I felt their work was also such a good contribution to world peace, and this would help different races to experience each other. However, I felt it was beyond my confidence and capabilities.
I kept talking about it however, and one day a student told me I should go and talk to a woman he had heard at a lecture, who had been doing such work in India and who would be in Cambridge for the next few days. Somehow I felt duty-bound to go and see her, even if just to prove this was something I really could NOT do! (Her name was Cara Schofield). I had a very interesting meeting with her, in which I learned she worked as a volunteer for S.C.I. This resulted in me visiting London headquarters for SCI in England – subsequently to an interview, and subsequently being accepted as a volunteer! I felt then that I had to put my actions where my mouth was, and actually dare to go and do it!
Before I could go – as I was not known to S.C.I., I was told to attend a short-term work camp in Belfast, North Ireland – working manually again – creating a sports field for a mental hospital. Here, I learned to wield a pickaxe!
I joined S.C.I. because of this strong unaccountable urge within me to do something towards creating more Peace in the world. This may be because, having been a child in the War, I had heard much talk about the horror and sadness of war, and had seen the photos which came out of Belsen. This probably led to a period of depression in my teen-age years, when the Korean War broke out. I always had felt that I could have been born anywhere in the world and felt I was so lucky it was England, where we experienced less directly the atrocities of war and hatred. As a child, I had also noticed that the ‘enemy’ I witnessed as Italian prisoners of war, were in fact, lovely, singing people who liked children! So, then, my childmind asked “What really is an enemy?”
My expectation of SCI was that by working together with different nationalities, with awareness of working towards a peaceful world, would help to that end. It only fitted into my life at that time because my boyfriend was a Hungarian Refugee and I belonged to the Cambridge University UN Group and their Overseas Club, and Buddhist Society – all of which could be said to touch on this subject. I also worked for the Adviser to overseas students in Cambridge and went to social gatherings of British Council students from abroad.
My experience with SCI
Apart from the short-term work camp in Belfast (2 weeks) before I left, my experience of SCI was going straight out to India as a LTV (Long Term Volunteer) for just over 2 years. I left in 1962 and returned in 1965. In India at first I worked in Dharamsala with Tibetan Refugees. The Dalai Lama had only come to India in 1959, and his elder sister, Mrs. Tsering Dolma, was only just in the process of setting up the Children’s Nursery for Orphans, and the children of Tibetans working in very rough conditions high up in the Himalayan roads. My work was to do as much as I could to look after the health of the children and adults. There was a Swiss Red Cross Doctor, but she was some ways down the mountain, where the very youngest children lived. The conditions in the one house were then very poor – 200 boys slept in one room, seven to a mattress on bunk beds or on the floor. Woe betide the one who fell out backwards from the top bunk! In fact it was a miracle that this never happened. To ensure all children in that room received ‘worm’ treatment, I had to treat all 200 on the same night, because they never slept in the same place each night – so it was difficult to keep track of who had had the medicine the night before! To check for scabies had to be done on Bath Day. This was done at the (only) tap outside in the big yard. They received a change of clothing then, so while they were naked for the washing I could check and treat anyone with scabies! Sometimes I had to ask permission to check all the childrens’ eye and ear health during Buddhist ‘prayers’ – it was the only time I could be sure I’d seen all the boys and girls! In all there were about 250-300 children. It was impossible to prevent the spread of infection under such extreme circumstances, and sometimes children died as a result of diseases like measles – unknown in Tibet. These children and adults had little natural immunization against most diseases because Tibet is such a cold plateau that there are few diseases there. I used to work together with the Tibetan Herbalist Doctor – we would discuss ‘cases’ and if we disagreed about a potential treatment, we would refer to Mrs. Tsering Dolma as the final arbitrator! We had a good relationship. This was vital, because I learned that because of an incident with a Red Cross Doctor who would not allow the monks to carry out a ritual for the sick, the Tibetans began to ‘hide’ sick children, rather than go to the Doctor. This taught me how important it is to understand the meaning of cultural practices and to deeply respect them and have open discussion. There are so many stories I can’t tell all of them!
In time, more help came to Dharamsala, notably by Save the Children Fund, who sent out a salaried nurse, backed by resources. So then SCI felt I was more needed where there was no nurse – and so I went to Hatibari Leper Colony in Orissa state. There had been one nurse for SCI there before me (Valerie Hagger) but she had now left to return home. (She had also been before me with the Tibetan Refugees in Kasauli). Again, in Hatibari, I had no funding or resources available – though good people from home sent money out towards my projects.
Before I arrived at Hatibari, I spent two weeks at an Indian short-term work camp in Kalikapur village, in Bengal, near Calcutta – mainly agricultural work and evenings listening to classical Indian music! This was a wonderful experience of integration!
My work and life at Hatibari was another total cultural change. Most of the lepers (250) were Adavasi (tribal) people who normally would live in the scrub jungle areas, but there were also many Hindus including the highest caste of Brahmin.
Here my work was similar – to do my best to look after the health of the lepers. There had been a severe problem of corruption by a doctor, who had been appointed there, and India SCI had revealed this, and he had left and no other doctor was yet appointed to visit. There were only a couple of cow-shed like buildings and one square room available, other than the mud-huts which were scattered around the area, which were occupied by individual/shared lepers and two for our small SCI team. The leader was an Indian from Calcutta (Maulik). There was a veterinarian Indian volunteer, Felix, and a Frenchman, a Canadian American and Finnish girl came and went during my time there. All the others worked to develop agriculture – rice, vegetables and, by grace of Oxfam, a fish tank to provide food. Most of the lepers had been beggars until they arrived here, when the Orissa State government and SCI funded basic food. Rice and dhal daily gets a bit boring, hence the drive to get better vegetable, etc.
The cow sheds were filled with a number of Indian rope-beds and became the male and female ‘hospital’ wards respectively! The square room was used for treatments – medicine giving and treatment of leprosy ulcers. At this stage there was no possibility of a scientific check as to which leper was an infectious case or not. This was badly needed to ascertain correct dosages of leprosy medicines available. At that stage the effects of leprosy could be reduced but there was no cure. Nowadays there is a cure found.
Gradually I noticed that in the evenings people came who were not really ill – they just wished to be together. So with some money sent from England, we bought local Indian board games and set them up in the room. So this, the Square Room, became also the Community Centre! Shortly after, the Brahmin wished to discuss the setting up of a small temple – which was duly built and then he would lead the lepers in the various Hindu ceremonies. People gradually became happier, although were the poorest people I knew.
I shall never forget the wandering Guru, who got leprosy and ended up in our community. I brought him into the ‘hospital’ – so that he would rest and not wander about, enlarging his ulcer. It was cold at night and while he was there we managed to purchase some blankets for each bed. When I did my ‘night-round’ of ‘the hospital’, all the others were giggling with glee and using their blankets – all except the Guru. One leper – Nisakaru – had given himself the role of interpreter for me. When I asked him why the Guru was not using his blanket and he asked him why, the reply was “It is such a beautiful thing to be given a blanket that, before I can use it, I must say thank you to God. I cannot do this however until sunrise tomorrow, at special prayers. I will take it with me to say thank you and then I can use it.” Sure enough, he was using it the following night. Here was a man who had nothing – and waited to say “Thank you”, rather than grab it and be warm. A most humbling experience for me coming from our materialistic western world.
Another day I had to tell a beggar who arrived wanting treatment for the worst foot ulcer I’d seen (half a foot only left) that I could treat him but there was no more food allowance available (we were full to capacity). On hearing that, one man whose family sent a very little money every so often, stepped forward and said quickly to me, “You can take him in. I will share my food with him”. This was incredibly moving for me. I’m glad to say that this man who looked like a skeleton when he arrived grew to be quite ‘chubby’ 3 months later, and his terrible foot healed up at least. Maybe the maggots in the deep wound assisted the healing in fact!
The lepers were quite challenging. Whenever a new person came to Hatibari, instead of the normal Indian greeting of “Nameste” with palms of the hands together, they would do this gesture, but enclose the visitor’s hands between their palms. If the visitor flinched, knowing they had leprosy, the lepers took an instant dislike. A bit naughty, perhaps, but understandable. They quickly gauged whether your humanity was real towards them or not.
Not long before I left, a new Doctor was appointed to visit. He really did not want to be there – it was not helpful to his career to be sent to a Leper Colony. This trick was tried on him and he failed the test. He also made a great show of washing his hands. That night I found Nisakaru charging about the land, with blood-shot eyes, and carrying a stick. When asked what was wrong, he raged about the Doctor, saying he would overturn his car when he next came and set it alight. Nisakaru had been ‘smoking’ Gunja (marijuana) grown everywhere by the lepers at Hatibari – and I had quite a task to quieten him down.
Nisakaru loved to be with me in the Treatment Room – he would hang his long arms over the cupboard door, and sing softly. When patients would come in, he would translate, “Didi, this man has Head-defect (headache)”, or “Didi, this woman has Water-defect (cystitis)!”
I loved my time also here at Hatibari as much as with Tibetans. The worst moment was when the new Doctor on a visit called me “a Bloody White”! Racism on the other foot for a change!
Finally SCI wanted a volunteer to go to Japan – from England – and as I was already half way there, they decided I should go. This was much more organized! I worked in a Christian Charity Out-patient Clinic in the slums of Osaka, called Kamagaseki. Here there was a doctor always present, and 2 regular nurses. I was not left to my own devices here! Language was a severe problem, but the nurses were welcoming, if somewhat bemused, and the Doctor tried to communicate in German! As all the medicines were labeled in Japanese characters the Doctor spent time adding labels in Romaji (Roman writing) in Latin! – so I could recognize the medicines he asked me to get! He was wonderful. The people who were patients were either Korean itinerant labourers or Japanese ‘Buraku’ people. In those days the Buraku were treated as a class apart (rather like ‘untouchables’ in India) and were very much despised. Access to jobs was severely restricted if their origins were known. A small girl of seven years who visited the Clinic ‘taught’ me some Japanese. I tried to make some sentences. I decided to try this out at a smart party organized by a Dental Professor. Imagine the horror, when his smart guests heard this ‘foreign’ woman speaking to them in the Buraku style!! The professor received complaints! He found it amusing, but decided to let me learn ‘better’ Japanese and I taught his dental students some English!
Japan was a much more severe culture shock than the Tibetans or Indians. Partly because I sort of expected the Japanese to be more like the English, because they lived in a modern urban setting and wore suits! I expected Indians in loin-cloths to be different. However, I found an easy rapport in the main with both Tibetan and Indians, whereas I always felt uncertain in Japan – in spite of the fact that while I was there I had a wonderful Japanese boyfriend of whom I was very fond. I gradually learned that Japanese have strong feelings too, but, culturally, it is a failure if you demonstrate them. Slowly I learned a special sort of silent intuition into how another was feeling – and had to work out how, and if, I indicated that I understood. This was a very controlled world, and difficult for me while in Japan. I spent two shorter sessions – one working in an earthquake area (Niigata) doing emergency work like digging latrines, and guarding a school at night against looting (people who had lost their homes were temporarily housed there). The second was a wonderful time haymaking in Hokkaido!
My work was mainly as a LTV, long-term volunteer, to oversee and treat the health situations wherever I was as best I could – usually with no octor on site, and little resources, except my knowledge gained during training and from books which had to be severely adapted to the non-sterile conditions and lack of any building built for the purpose (except in Japan) and any medicines. Bandages, cotton wool etc. were bought with money sent out from good people at home in England who wanted help. I took out my own stethoscope, syringes, needles etc., (again, this was not required in Japan).
My expectations were met, in that in some way the interactions with people within SCI, and those for and with whom I worked – did bring an awareness of how to strive for peace. This came even deeper when things were the most difficult – not the least that I had to learn that I personally had to keep eternal vigilance on my inner world and reactions, if I was truly to work for peace and overcome the differences that caused the troubles. It often required a lot of heart-searching, and letting-go of some of my own strong ideas, in order to reach out to understand the opposition, and to find a possible common ground on which to continue working together. The desire to find common ground and good will has to be much stronger than the desire to be the one whose view-point is RIGHT!
I’m sure I was realizing this both at the time, and also on looking back.
In the 1990s I did some training for ‘volunteers’ going abroad with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). I found it lacking compared to SCI (in 1980s) in that it was England (with government aid) sending ‘aid’ to other countries (doing a good job), but lacking the equality for potential exchange of volunteers, i.e. in SCI we are all in the same organization offering mutual help.
It seemed that many ‘volunteers’ did not go with a sense of ‘greater purpose’ – often because the work would add to their C.V. (curriculum vitae) or for travel interest or in lieu of employment in England, when getting work here was difficult. Having said that, many VSO volunteers came back having had such a strong experience that they continue to work hard to keep the world becoming more equal or more understanding. One VSO ‘volunteer’ said to me: “In the 1960s you were idealistic, we (in 1990s) are more realistic”. Is she right? I hope we were both idealistic and realistic.
Looking back on SCI
My appreciation of SCI’s aims remains deep within me and have been my personal aims and values throughout my life. They remain fundamental in the desire for world peace and harmony. I only wish that aid-giving organizations affirmed similar beliefs today and that more governments held these values at the core of their ideologies and practices.
Was SCI efficient? In some ways I think it could be criticized for not being as efficient as it could have been – certainly there was a feeling of trusting to the wind and hoping for the best! VSO in England today could be described as extremely efficient, but bound up by interviews, regulations and much training prior to leaving, and constant monitoring of the ‘volunteers’ and of their living conditions. We were mainly left to our own devices, and lived exactly as the people we were assisting. Of course, the set-up of VSO is entirely different. The organization is government assisted, and the ‘volunteers’ receive a salary equivalent to that of an indigenous person of the country to which they are sent. VSO is much more organized with a tight safety-net. S.C.I. volunteers in the 1950/1960s were really ‘thrown in at the deep end’ with very little preparation and no training for the country and often lived at a great distance from the SCI H.Q. in the countries to which they went. There were probably no other British volunteers present in that country; though I believe there were some small ‘teams’ in some parts of the world. There was no management system of any real sort.
The impact of SCI on others may be difficult to assess. In India I was in such poverty stricken situations one could say one was only “holding peoples’ heads just above the water” – therefore not drowning. Certainly Tibetan children mostly did grow up fairly healthily, and knew some happiness, and some beggar lepers lived rather than died, and became part of a community, with a ‘temple’ built by themselves, observing known religious rituals which both empowered them and gave a framework to their lives – much better than wandering the streets begging, getting more ill, and dying alone.
In Japan, a British volunteer working in the slums did have a huge impact for peace – so much so that I had to appear on television! So I was well placed to say why I was doing such work. All the more so, because I was working amongst the Buraku people – a group of Japanese who at that time were very despised by the Japanese themselves and access to employment was severely restricted.
The benefits to me personally were enormous. The work and whole experience helped me to feel more authentic as a person, because I knew I was now living in such a way that my values coincided with action – whereas before, I may have had the values, but did not know how to try to be effective in living them. Therefore, I felt more empowered. I learned personally also that I did not have to prove myself to other people – but also I did not have to prove myself to myself! I became my own judge, needing less to defer to others. This was a key growing point. From a very dependent person, I grew in independence of character.
The experience certainly led to a complete career change, although, on return, I was very lost for a while. After some career guidance it was made clear to me that I was much more interested in social problems than I was in medical problems, so I changed career into social work, taking further training, of course, to do so. On return I had felt that I could not be effective unless I returned to India or a similar country – now I was able to understand that oppression and poverty are relative to which country you are in, and I was able to work according to my values in England.
Any lasting impact? Apart from a major career change, it possibly affected my attitude to politics, as I was not in any way political before I went. Now I received each party’s manifestos carefully to see whom I should vote for. I still remain a floating voter, and have never joined a party – but increasingly (especially as I am now retired) I join ‘pressure groups’ and assist various campaigns in order to influence politics and ‘the public’ in this way. (Main organizations such as Amnesty International, the Medical Foundation Caring for Victims of Torture, Survival International (Tribal Groups), The Refugee Council, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Compassion in World Farming, Peoples’ Trust for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, etc., etc.!) I also became an anti-racist trainer. I have always traveled a lot – I’m curious to know more about how other people live, and the conditions of the environment they live in. Increasingly I realize we are all a small part of a large whole. At present I grieve that large corporations influence governments so much and greed and desire for power seem to be dominating forces today. If only the overwhelming force in the world was for a more caring, compassionate, and harmonized world.
I have not had much to do with SCI in England in recent years. It seems it has reduced considerably and has very few long term volunteers, mainly in Africa. I do understand there are quite a lot of short-term work camps. Whether those young people attending work camps today have the same zeal for peace as I knew I don’t know – but certainly they have good-will.
SCI – the future?
It may be necessary – while keeping the original aims and values – to reflect on how to reach the darker spirit of these present times, in order to create more respect for difference, true Human Rights and the Responsibilities required to ensure them, and a more peaceful approach to solving antagonisms.