Telegraph, July 2, 2010
By Leah Hyslop
British expat Susie Price left London for a new life in rural India, and hasn't regretted it. Her only wish is that her "necessities" - toilet paper, deodorant and tuna - weren't a bumpy 12 hour journey away
Voluntary work abroad has long been a staple of the British charity scene. Every year, hundreds of people leave our shores to build schools, dig wells and teach children around the globe.
A lot of the time, these projects are of short duration, favoured by fresh faced gap year students hoping to incorporate something worthwhile – and potentially CV worthy – into their travel itinerary. To give up a stable job in London at the age of 46 to do charity work in rural India, however, is rather more unusual.
In 2008, Susie Price did exactly that, and ditched her marketing job in the City to work for a small NGO in eastern India, dedicated to improving the lives of remote tribal communities.
Looking back on why she made her decision, Susie says simply that she had become tired of London life. “I had worked very hard to get a good salary, and once I had it, I felt rather directionless.
“I swapped jobs, but every time I just seemed to be doing the same thing. Finally, I decided I wanted to go away, and do something totally different.”
Susie applied for charity work with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), and soon found herself offered the NGO position in a small town called Bhawanipatna, in an area notorious in India for its high starvation rates. "Not only is it poor, but it is also extremely remote – a 12 hour bumpy journey to Bhubaneswar, which is the nearest place you can buy what I think of as necessities, like deodorant or toilet paper.”
Once in Bhawanipatna, Susie’s task was to use her skills and experience to try and streamline Antodaya, the NGO she was assigned to. “Antodaya exists to help local tribespeople produce more food,” Susie says. “Most of the time they have only enough food for six months of the year, and the rest of the year end up either starving or indebted to moneylenders. The charity helps them to farm more effectively, as well as fight for their land, much of which has been taken from them over the years.
“I've worked hard on producing things like brochures, websites, and annual reports, a real must if you want to get any foreign funding. And I’ve also encouraged my colleagues to use social networking tools to publicise the charity – they’re very into blogging now.”
The work is rewarding, but also frustrating. “There’s an incredibly slow pace of life here, compared to what I was used to, and I’m sure that what I’ve been doing in the last two years would have been done in six months at home. I do feel that some important changes have been introduced, but getting people to do them is very tiring.”
Susie’s difficulties were compounded by an inability to grasp the local language, Oriya. “I’d had some training in Oriya, but when I arrived I realized it was a totally different dialect – the difference perhaps between BBC English and what you'd hear in the backstreets of Glasgow.
“I’ve never mastered it, and it makes life hard because I’d say only five to ten per cent of the people here have conversational English. Most can speak a few words, but I’ve had to become very good at hand gestures."
According to the World Bank, India has the highest percentage of underweight children in the world, with around half the world’s malnourished children living there. Susie was initially shocked by the extent of the poverty when she arrived. “People ramble on about how India is a great economic superpower now, but clearly none of that wealth is filtering down to the remote villages."
Though poor, the community has been very friendly, “always offering me cups of tea, even when they can’t afford it”. Susie thinks, however, that she’ll always be a little bit of an outsider.
“I knew I was the only white person in the area as soon as I arrived, because people started asking me if I knew ‘Martin from Germany’– who apparently left over five years ago! You get used to it though – the other day some aid workers came, and I found myself staring at them with everyone else.
“I am careful about trying to fit in though. Sometimes I’m desperate for a beer, but as the locals don’t approve of drinking, I tend not to. And I try not to come across as too bolshy. Usually in India, if a woman moves to another city to work, let alone to another country, her mother will go with her – they couldn’t get over for a long time that I was completely on my own, and I think they were a bit shocked by how assertive I was.”
Though she’s mastered the art of administering the charity, there are some elements of life in India Susie still can’t get used to. When I ask how she’s adapted to the local cuisine, she says dryly that her diet consists largely of tuna. “I’ve never been much of a cook, unfortunately, and I go to Bhubaneswar to stock up on tuna. The people here are always appalled to see me eat something out of a tin.”
Indian office routines have also failed to become a norm. “It’s incredibly hot here, so lots of people go home in the afternoon for a five hour siesta, then come back to work in the evening. I do understand why, but it’s never really worked for me.”
When desperate for British company, Susie will travel to meet other VSO volunteers, and has the “blessing” of an internet connection which lets her keep in touch with home. At the end of her two years, however, she is planning to return to Britain.
“It’s been a good few years,” she says, “and it makes me sad to think I might never return to the friends I made here, but it’s been enough time.”
She plans, however, not to return to marketing. “I’m going to look for something charity or international development based. At the end of the day, it’s far more satisfying.”