Solvig Starborg – Archives of Service Civil International

Solvig Starborg


Born in 1945 in southern Sweden, I was an only child of working class parents.
Both my parents came from poor families and neither had a higher education. However they had embraced the ideals of the Social Democratic Party which came into government in the 1930s. My father was a self taught mathematician and taught, as a volunteer, in evening classes, run by the local workers union. Those were the early days of adult education! We lived in a small village and my parents helped out as volunteers in a library which was started in an old school. I have memories of sitting on the back of my father’s bike in the cold of the winter and arriving at the library which had a large iron stove with a roaring fire. It gave me a love of books from an early age.
In our rural life we were far from shops and most other amenities so we had not only the milkman, the butcher and the fishmonger coming to our door but also a variety of other door-to-door salesmen. Once when I was about thirteen a bookseller came and he had a book about Buddhism. We had talked about Buddhism at school and I found it very interesting, so I bought the book. I read it several times because it wasn’t easy to understand. I think it was then that I first decided that I wanted to travel and in particular I wanted to go to India.
My education was very different from my parents and I went on to do matriculation, or the equivalent of A-levels.
The 1950s and `60s was a time when the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in people’s memory. It was also a time of improved media and news reporting and therefore an increased awareness about the plight of people in other countries, where there was war and famine.

My first ‘international experience’ was in the early 60s when I went with a school friend to a work camp in Norfolk in England during the school holiday. It was organised by the National Union of Students and turned out to be both educating and enjoyable. The summer after I had finished my Alevels I went to Israel to work in a kibbutz. Again I met people from other parts of the world but also learnt about life in Israel, both from Jews and Muslims. The kibbutz was along the Jordan River and the work was agricultural. It was my first experience of a war zone. Every now and again, when there was an exchange of fire across the river, we had to go and sit in bunkers. The noise of machineguns was excruciating and I remember wondering how people could survive, not only the war but also the noise of it.
When I came back from Israel I worked the autumn term as an unqualified teacher in a small fishing village. In my class I had thirteen 9 year old pupils. Feeling the need to promote international exchange I had my class draw pictures and write a story about themselves which we then sent to the school on the kibbutz. It was with great excitement they received a reply with what they thought very exotic drawings of among other things orange-trees!
I finished my nursing training in the spring of 1969 and my first job was at The Serafimer Hospital in central Stockholm.

Travelling to India

I had not been long in Stockholm when I started to try and find out about working in India. Eventually, through the Indian Embassy, I got in touch with Bharat Sevak Samaj and Major Ramachandra who offered to find me voluntary work. I also had some contact with IAL, the Swedish branch of SCI but they were a rather small organisation with limited resources. However, one member, Jan Simon, had travelled to India and not only put me in contact with another member, Lena, who wanted to go to India, but also gave me Valli Seshan’s address. Little did I know then how valuable that last piece of information was going to be!
We tried in vain with the help of Major Ramachandra to obtain visas to go to India and work as volunteers for a year. It wasn’t really possible because we didn’t have a specific job to go to. In the end we decided to travel on tourist visas which would last for three months and could be extended another three months. Lena had friends in Delhi, a young Sikh couple, Gurmel and Harnek Dhillon, who had offered us initial hospitality on arrival.
We arrived in New Delhi in September 1970. The day after our arrival we went to meet Major Ramachandra who had a small office behind the public toilets in Connaught Place in Delhi. He welcomed us to India and told us about Mahatma Gandhi. During my time in India I got to know Major Ramachandra quite well. Initially Lena and I were two restless Europeans who were trying to acclimatise ourselves to life in India and his advice was: “Be happy and keep smiling; there are many lives to come”. It has followed me through life!
We were soon introduced to Mr Kaul who was in charge of the SOS children’s village outside Delhi. They needed a nurse for a month to run the dispensary and we were happy to have our first task as volunteers in India. We would work for food and lodging. The village consisted of a group of houses and in each of them lived 6 – 8 orphaned children with a ‘mother’. These women were either widows, divorced or had refused to marry. There were also a number of ‘aunties’, who went to the different houses and helped the mothers if they needed help or time off.
Lena became a temporary auntie and I was working in the dispensary with Surya, who was a lab assistant from Bombay. Surya was happy and easy going and taught me a lot. I had my first Hindi lessons from her and she also lent me books on tropical diseases, in particular on intestinal worms which were quite common among the children. She also introduced me to, what she called ‘Indian thinking’! She was a Christian but said God is one. Sometimes we went to puja (a ceremony) in one of the houses and then Surya would add a picture of Jesus to the Hindu gods and we gave sweets and then sang hymns as well. I remember thinking it was very generous to just include everyone!
We also met Mrs Pohl who was an Austrian lady who had helped set up the village and who was going to Nepal to start another SOS village. The work in the dispensary was mainly cleaning up little injuries, putting on plasters and giving worm treatments. Sometimes we had to take children to hospital in Delhi for more serious complaints.
In the evenings people from a nearby village would come to collect rations of milk powder and also for medical help and we tried to help as best we could. Our month was quickly up and we were sad to leave ‘our’ village. What we found so amazing was that we had been accepted straight away. We were two foreigners and people trusted us and included us in their lives just like that. We felt we were leaving old friends behind when we left!
Mrs Pohl had invited us to come and visit her in Kathmandu. Since our time (visas!) was limited and there seemed to be no other voluntary jobs available in the immediate future, we decided to do some travelling and see India before we were forced to leave. While waiting for visa to go to Nepal, I visited The Delhi College of Nursing, all through Major Ramachandra’s good contacts! I was introduced to a nursing tutor, Miss Haque, who invited me to a couple of lectures and I was then asked to talk about nursing training in Sweden. It produced some interesting discussions! Besides everyone wanted to know about the snow!
We travelled via Benaras to Kathmandu where we stayed for a few days with Mrs Pohl. Then with a list of people and places to visit, supplied by Major Ramachandra, we travelled by train, third class, to south India. We went to visit a school in Tambaram and a Leprosy colony in Warda. In Seva Gram, Gandhi’s ashram in Warda, we tried our hands on the spinning wheel. We stayed a few days in Madras and then continued to Bombay from where Lena, who had had a lot of ill health, decided to leave. She caught a flight from Bombay to London.
I wanted to go back to Delhi to say goodbye to all the friends that we had made. I also had a doll with a Swedish costume to give to Valli Seshan’s daughter Subi from Jan Simon in Stockholm.

22nd February 1971 – first meeting with Valli Seshan

By the second cup of coffee it felt as if I had known Valli all my life! We seemed to have a lot to talk about! Valli told me about Nangloi Jhuggi Jopri Colony and how SCI needed a nurse there. It sounded very interesting but I only had one month left on my already extended tourist visa! I went to visit Nangloi the next day and met Rik and Liz Rottger with their son Inder. Rik was building the second floor of the dispensary; Liz was helping to run the nursery school. SCI also wanted to start a child health programme with baby-clinic, childhood vaccinations etc. That would be my field. Liz and I also dreamt about starting sewing and batik classes for the women in the colony. It was all very exciting!
There was one big problem of course, – my visa. Everybody tried; Valli and Major Ramachandra wrote letters and UNICEF was approached to assist but to no avail! The Foreigners’ Registration Office gave a blank “No”! I was advised to leave and apply for a visa outside India. However, by this time I had very little money left and it wasn’t really within my reach. During these uncertain days I spent a lot of time in Nangloi, participating in week-end work camps and getting to know people. Then Bhuppy called me to the office to fill in yet another form which he took to someone in a government office. Suddenly I had permission to stay on, no questions asked! Bhuppy maintained, of course, that it might send us both to prison but he would make sure that we could share a cell! That was fine by me!
I moved out to Nangloi to join the team. The first task was to set up the baby-clinic. My last job in Stockholm had been in an intensive care unit for myocardial infarctions with, at the time, the latest of technology. Not much use in Nangloi, however, I had done paediatrics in my training. It was decided that I should visit baby-clinics in hospitals and see how they were run and organised. I went both to Irwing hospital and Kalawati hospital. I also visited UNICEF, Catholic Relief Service and The Family Planning Centre to ask for supplies that we needed to start off with. We were advised to apply to Oxfam for funds and were eventually given a grant for 35,000 rupees for equipment, vitamin drops, printed weight charts and teaching aid for teaching ie nutrition and family planning.
It was a busy time and there were also work camps both in Nangloi and Shahdara. In the good spirit of SCI it was a time to try one’s hand on jobs one hadn’t tried before and also to socialise, exchange ideas and discuss a variety of issues.
The break up of East and West Pakistan meant that the Indian army was mobilizing troops to the borders and we watched army vehicles coming past Nangloi travelling east. It was both frightening and depressing. We often talked about it in the evenings, how to stop the madness of war! Then there were the good times, like when Chandru came from Delhi with his guitar and we would all sit on the roof in the evenings after work and sing Joan Baez or Bob Dylan songs, not to mention, We shall overcome! It wasn’t just the singing but the feeling of friendship which is still with me today.
Prior to starting the Baby-clinic I went out with different Indian volunteers on home visits in the colony. We talked to the women about vaccinations and how these were important. For a lot of these women it was a difficult concept to understand. Why give an injection to a baby who is well? An injection is something you have when you are ill, to make you better! They were so poor and they would rather have food, money or a job. Eventually the baby-clinic started in the beginning of May with the help of the doctor who was already working in the dispensary. Arya had also joined the Nangloi project as a mid-term volunteer and was by that time my regular interpreter and co-worker. In our first clinic we had 25 babies but could only vaccinate three because all the others were ill and their mothers wanted treatment. We struggled on. Then came Radha to help out, during her holiday from university. She was wonderfully artistic and creative and knew exactly how to communicate with the mothers! She made up her own story of how the injection created a little army in the body so that when the horrible disease came along the army could fight it and the baby wouldn’t get ill! Of course this made much more sense and a lot more mothers brought along their babies when they were well! Radha also helped with our school. One day we made colourful paper birds with the children. The birds were attached to strings so that they fluttered in the wind when they hung from the string. The children loved it and it was so good to see them laughing and enjoying themselves. I always felt they had so little childhood and had to grow up so fast.

Returning to Sweden

I went back to Sweden in December 1971. It was a difficult decision to make and I would have liked to stay longer in India. I was torn between my desire to stay and my parents who wanted me to come back. It was a cold, dark and miserable winter and it seemed worse than any other I had known. I got a job in Stockholm and connected up with old friends but felt very depressed. Everyone seemed so materialistic and I found that I looked at my own society with different eyes. It was more difficult than the culture shock of arriving in India. I expected India to be different but Sweden to be the same, which it was. It was I who was different!
In the summer there was some relief when I went and did a textile course on the island of Öland in the Baltic. It was somehow very healing to be engrossed in lovely colours and absorbed with weaving them together. However I was determined to travel more and in 1973 I was accepted on a course in tropical medicine at The Hospital of Tropical Diseases in London.


The six month course in tropical medicine went very quickly and I didn’t feel ready to leave London. I was again involved with SCI, attending meetings and trying to be supportive to Indian LTVs. It was also good to meet up with the English ex-volunteers who, like me, found it hard to readjust in western society.
In 1975 I went with Oxfam to The Ogaden desert in Ethiopia during the drought and famine. It was a short term emergency relief programme for nomadic Somali people.
It was yet another war zone and another lot of human tragedy.
Working in areas of poverty and other environmental hazards to health made me feel the need to educate myself further. My specialty was really acute medicine so I applied to do the Health Visitor training, which included more on nutrition, psychology and sociology.
I qualified as a Health Visitor in 1979.

The effect of the SCI experience on my life

My introduction to SCI was really via Bharat Sevak Samaj and Major Ramachandra and the spirit of Gandhi’s teaching. I hadn’t been selected and briefed like the other LTVs but I felt a kinship with the SCI people straight away. It was as if I had found my ‘international family’ and I belonged there. We all wanted to make the world better! It also taught me a lot about cultural understanding, not least looking at my own culture with different eyes.
I still work as a Health Visitor in inner London and in our case load we have about twenty different ethnic groups. My colleagues are also of a rich ethnic mix. I may visit a Pakistani family, a Polish family and a Somali family all in a morning’s work. I spend my time communicating with people from different cultures and I think the skills I have developed were first initiated in those early days with SCI. Maybe that is why I have ended up living in London, you can stay here and meet the world!