Marie-Catherine Petit – Archives of Service Civil International

Marie-Catherine Petit

Joining SCI

There were ten children in my family. I lived in Rennes (Brittany) and I was studying to be a nurse. In 1964, I heard about workcamps from some of my friends. I joined the SCI group in Rennes, where we had weekend camps to renovate the flats of old people. I liked this work. It was an opportunity to meet other young people in a friendly atmosphere.

This is how I met SCI volunteers with whom we drove to Morocco for a workcamp in the mountains. Jean-Pierre Petit was in charge of the volunteers going abroad, but there was no specific training before the workcamp. (Earlier, from 1957 to 1960, Jean-Pierre, together with a leader  – of the British branch, used to organize 3 week sessions for long-term volunteers, thanks to a grant from the British branch.) My memories of this period concern mostly the travel. We had two cars and we were travelling with two French girls with whom we had long discussions; our views were rather opposite to each other. We visited one of the volunteers who was Basque; at his home, women were serving the men and remained standing, just as in Morocco.
In that country, there were several workcamps organized by a Moroccan association. Ours lasted for three weeks, but the project was going on for five years altogether. We built a swimming pool for the village. There only few European volunteers, the majority came from Morocco, but they were all men. It was a pick and shovel camp, where girls were doing the same work as boys. It was hot, but the camp was in a mountainous area, so that I don’t remember suffering from the heat. As foreign volunteers, we were invited several times by the villagers. We had lots of discussions with the Moroccan volunteers on the camp, but they were not organized discussions and they concerned practical questions rather than ideological issues.
In these days, my awareness of these issues was not really developed and I don’t feel that this experience had a big impact on me, although I was coming from a traditional environment, where I was rather ‘cocooned’. I went there because I wanted to know a different environment (I had been a girl scout and a guide) and to meet people who had different views, in a non governmental and non religious context. During this workcamp, I met people from various backgrounds, but it was not really a shock, even with the Moroccans. To-day, in such circumstances, it would mean more challenge for me.
When I came back from Morocco, I participated in other weekend camps but I was less in touch with SCI. In 1967, I moved to work in the Paris area, where I was very busy with my job and I lived mostly with my colleagues from the hospital, with limited openings on the outside world. In 1971, I wanted to leave this rather closed environment and I started thinking that a different life was possible.
At that time, SCI was looking for volunteers, but this did not materialize for me. For India, they had to speak English and since I did not I first said no. But later on, I felt that I definitely needed a change. I got in touch with SCI and I signed a contract for India. But it took a long time until I could get a visa and in the meantime I went to England for workcamping. I spent two months in Newcastle to build a wall in a hospital for handicapped people – and ultimately the wall collapsed. It was not very beneficial for my English, since the local volunteers wanted to learn French. Therefore, the workcamp – was not very efficient and it was rather tough. I had to work as a nurse for mentally handicapped people and in those days, the living conditions for them were hardly human. (It has changed a lot afterwards).


In January 1972, I finally left for India. At that time, with the low cost airways companies, 20 hours of flight were required to get to India. When I reached Delhi at 5 AM, nobody was waiting for me at the airport. They had been expecting me for a long time, but on the day of my arrival nobody was there. I left with my little suitcase, with all my belongings for one year. It was not an easy situation and I was very innocent. I talked to some men who said that they could give me a lift. They were five of them and they took me to Valli Seshan’s home. But nobody was there! I waited on the steps of the house and I saw the ward’s watchman who was taking his watch patrol, beating his big stick: I did not know what it was. At 8 ‘o’ clock, a volunteer came and called Bhuppy, then Secretary of the Indian branch, to tell him that the French volunteer had arrived. And Bhuppy came at last.

Despite the long journey and a sleepless night, I decided that day to follow the volunteers in the march organized by SCI (Walk For Peace) to collect money. There I saw a man spitting red, then another one, and, finally, an SCI volunteer. I thought that they had tuberculosis, but they were simply chewing betel. Since my English was still poor, I dared not ask questions, but I was looking around a lot. For my first meal, I wanted to take Indian food, but it was quite tough, especially after this sleepless journey.
I stayed for some time with Valli, then I went to Nangloi, a colony which was actually a slum, supposedly temporary, but in fact permanent. This was the major SCI project in India, which lasted for several years. It was a dispensary, where they were giving vaccinations, and also doing some gardening and sewing. I stayed there for two or three months, then I went to another project near Madras, then to a slum in Bombay for  three or four months. I was replacing the nurses who were long-term volunteers but who were taking a leave. Finally, I went to Bangladesh for an international workcamp.
Foreign (notably English and Dutch) long-term volunteers were participating in these workcamps, together with Indian volunteers, boys and girls. The workcamps also included workshops, which employed some paid workers, for instance in carpentry and sewing.
My first year in India went on in this way. I was supposed to stay for one year, but I stayed for another year, in the state of Bihar and in the Patna area, south of Calcutta. To reach that place, one had to walk for an hour in the jungle. It was with a tribe, in a village, where I was the only Westerner. There was an Indian volunteer who stayed and others who came for brief periods. This period was rather tough, although I was well integrated in the village – which required some time since the villagers were tired of seeing volunteers coming and leaving. But when one was staying for a longer period, he/she was well accepted. So much so that, as a volunteer, I could not do anything alone. For instance, if I wanted to walk on the road for a while because I was looking for a quiet moment, a number of villagers would come and ask me what was wrong with an Indian volunteer which would explain why I was going away. It was an interesting experience, but I am not sure that I could stand it to day, after being so independent.
There was a special house for the volunteers. It was made of mud and every month it was necessary to lay some cow dung on the floor. In the village, living conditions were far less difficult than in the slum. It was simple, but very clean. We could have a shower every day and, inside the house we were independent. For the people it was cleaner than in the slum. The children were mostly suffering from tuberculosis and from scabies. But in 1972 the village had never seen a doctor; one had to go to the nearest town in order to be cured; in some instances, we had to go there with a sick child. When the people were coming to the dispensary, it was because the local medicine had failed.
I don’t think that there was so much that we could teach the local people concerning health, at least with regard to medical care. There was more work to do from the point of view of food hygiene. We could teach them by doing with them, for instance with a little vegetable garden, in order to improve the diet of the children. The quality of water also had to be improved; we used to put disinfectant in it. Anyway – and doctors were very surprised – I have never been sick, even without taking drugs against malaria. Once, I participated in a big festivity where I was the only European and I drank some turbid water, but nothing happened to me.
At the beginning, I was with a Swiss volunteer, who was a horticulturist and we had several Indian volunteers. Bhuppy, then in charge of the Indian branch came to the workcamp and I also went to Delhi, where I was living with Valli.


I came back to France in 1974. I had been on leave without pay. On my return, I took back my job as a nurse immediately, but I was completely out of touch in relation to my friends. I felt closer to my SCI friends, rather than to those that I had left. I was living between two separate worlds: my professional environment, with which I did not share much and the SCI people, where many friends were sharing the same ideas. I liked my work, but I did not have much in common with my colleagues. It was mostly in terms of the way of life. When you have lived for one year in a tribe, where you are entirely left by yourself, with very few people around, when you buy almost nothing and have to walk for one hour to take a train, it is really a natural life. When I came back, I did not have any good clothes, nor any money (I could not save any during the period when I was a volunteer) and I had to ask SCI for some money, but I could not spend anything, therefore I could not go to a shop. My friends told me: “Either you go again, or you adjust to another way of life, but you cannot go on like this”. Even in the hospital, I kept my habits of saving money in an extreme manner.
I worked again as a nurse, but I came often to the SCI Secretariat, where I was helping with the office work. I participated in the training sessions on Asia, which were taking place for five days before the departure of long-term volunteers. I told them about my experience and gave them some practical information on life there.
Once, I thought of going again to India as a volunteer, but Valli told me: “You will never be Indian. Since you have enough income to pay for a travel to India, it is better for you to work in your country and to come to India from time to time to visit us if you like”. In any case, I was not convinced enough to drop my life in France altogether. I went back several times to India, taking a leave without pay from my job, in order to visit my friends and to do some work in a workcamp, but I was never really a volunteer again.
When I went to India for the first time, the impression was very strong: it was such a different environment. SCI made only one mistake while I was in India: to leave me alone with an Indian volunteer, which was not a good idea in such an isolated environment. When you go to India for the first time as a volunteer, you strongly believe in your role and you think that if you leave, the project would stop and it would be a problem for many people with whom you stay. To-day I would have a different view and I would look at things with more distance. I don’t think that one has to accept anything. I had very high ideals, but I never believed that I would change the world; I only had the idea of living together and to learn how to know each other. I still believe in this. In any case, this experience had a very big impact on me. I began to look at the world in a different way, to have a new awareness of the world.
Concerning the efficiency of SCI action, I believe that from the medical point of view it was limited. There were only a few instances when it was fortunate that we were there to take urgently some sick people to the hospital. And there were the campaigns against smallpox. But I believe much more in the efficiency of human relationships, on both sides. On the Indian side, I could see when I came back that something had happened. But I think that we learn more from our stay there, than the people there from our visit. It is a one way process. I also learnt a lot about myself: an opening on the world, which made me more tolerant; an awareness of a number of issues, including on politics; the acceptance of being different. For me, there was life before and after India. For instance, if the events of May 1968 had taken place after my stay in India, the impact on me would have been different. I am much more open to the outside world, while I used to be focussed on my little job. I also learnt a different way of life: refusal of the consumption society, which looks ridiculous for the younger generation.