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Five minutes with... Jennifer Ryan, Human Resources Adviser, India

Limerick girl Jennifer Ryan, who is currently working as a VSO volunteer in India, chats about her placement as a human resources adviser in Orissa.

Whereabouts in Limerick are you from?

I’m originally from Bruff, but am a resident of Anncotty.

What brought you to India?

I have wanted to volunteer for as long as I can remember but never actually did anything about it until I was made redundant last year. I didn’t actually choose India. India chose me. I was accepted by VSO as a volunteer through their interview process last March (2009) at which point my CV was put in circulation to be matched against a role that may come up. I was offered this role in May (2009) and having read the placement outline and done some research on the NGO, the location and India in general I was happy to accept. I have never been to India before and consider myself very lucky to have been offered this placement.

How long have you been there?

Every year VSO has three intakes of volunteers into India. I came with the group that arrived last November. Now that I have been here through the summer season I appreciate how lucky I was to come in November during the Indian winter. It gave me an opportunity to build up to the heat and the humidity that I have been experiencing for the past few months. Since March my bed has been right under the fan in my bedroom – the only possible way of getting any sleep in the summer months. No air-con out here!

Has anything surprised you?

India is very different to life in Ireland. I live in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of the state of Orissa. Orissa is the second poorest state in India and is classified as a starvation state. Bhubaneswar has a  population of 1.6 million, a large proportion of these people live in the city slums (unofficial figures are around 40%). I walk past some of them every day going to and from the office. It’s not unusual to see people collecting water from road-side pumps, washing children in the street and even children walking around naked.
The slum-dwellers are mainly tribal people who have come into the city looking for work. The tribal women in particular amaze me. As well as being the home-makers, they can often be seen working on construction sites carrying the bricks on their heads, mixing the cement. Within the tribal culture there is an obvious gender divide. The roles of men and women are very clear, something I personally find quite frustrating.
This is a vast country and as I get opportunities to travel around and see some of it, it is very interesting how different people and their circumstances are from place to place. I can’t say that anything surprised me, really, except the level of poverty. I have listened to many speeches by Indian politicians in my time here mentioning how India is a world economic super-power. I don’t see any of that here in Orissa. And of course the caste system is more obvious than I thought it would be.
Everything was new and interesting, and very often frustrating. But over time I adapted and got used to it. For example, being stared at as I walk down the street, men urinating on the road side, cows walking through the traffic, eating rubbish. I have had to learn to understand and accept that, although it may not be acceptable behaviour in my culture, it all happens here for a reason.

The trickiest thing was getting used to eating with my fingers when out with Indian friends or in remote locations. It took me a while to master it and sometimes left me hungry, but I eventually cracked it. It’s also been challenging living on a mainly vegetarian diet. I have also gotten used to telling people I don’t like spices. I do, just not the level of spice they put into dishes out here.

What activities have you been taking part in?

VSO’s motto is ‘Sharing Skills, Changing Lives’ and that is what volunteers do. I’m currently working with two NGOs. I’m here as an HR (human resources) adviser, so most of the time my job is quite similar to what it was in Ireland. Since my arrival I have been working with CYSD (the Centre for Youth and Social Development) in Bhubaneswar. CYSD is a large, well-established NGO working to improve the lives of poor tribal and rural people in Orissa. My role here is mainly assisting them with updating their HR practices to bring them in line with best practice.

In recent weeks I have also started working with a smaller NGO, Adhar, in a remote part of the State of Orissa called Balangir, seven hours from Bhubaneswar by train. Adhar focuses on  social, economical, political and cultural inclusion of the excluded social groups like children and people with disabilities. My role here is foundation HR, developing basic policies and procedures with them. I’m very happy working for both as I get to see two different levels of NGOs.

The pace of work here is very slow compared to Ireland and this can be quite frustrating, but I have to get used to it and accept it. After all, I am a guest in India. I have recently also been able to spend time in remote Orissa meeting some local tribal people and learning about their lives, traditions and culture. An amazing experience which I would recommend to anyone. I even learned to sew banana leaf plates.

I’ve made an attempt at learning some of the local state language, Oriya, but am not very good at it. Thankfully most of my colleagues speak some English so we get along fine. Even the local auto-riskshaw drivers quote their prices in English, but from time to time at the vegetable stalls we have to resort to ‘sign-language’.

What is the single biggest thing you will bring back to Ireland with you?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. I have made some very good volunteer friends here in Bhubaneswar, some of whom will be finishing their placements in the next few weeks. So, this is a popular conversation topic right now.

I’m very conscious about the difference in the cost of living and am determined not to mention it too much when I get home. I’ve been thinking about how I will describe my experiences to family and friends without making them feel guilty about what they have. This experience has definitely made me appreciate what I have, so much so I will probably volunteer again next year – home for Christmas first though.

I’ve found I have become a very patient person. Indian people are not famous for their time keeping so I have learned to not expect anyone to arrive when they say they will. 'IST' is no longer Indian Standard Time, but Indian Stretchable Time. I’ve also decided that I’d like to stay working in development or in the charity field and have recently been researching some distance learning courses to give me a more rounded understanding of the main areas.

What is your educational background?  Have you completed a degree, or are you taking part in one?

I have a post grad diploma in Personnel and Development from the National College of Ireland and am a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Chartered MCIPD)

Did you travel to India alone?

Yes and no. Yes in that no friends or family came with me. But no in that I knew a few other VSO volunteers on the plane as I had met them on the pre-departure training courses that VSO run. When volunteers first arrive into India we spend a month in Delhi on an in-country orientation programme and in this I also got to know two other volunteers who were coming to Bhubaneswar.

Could you see yourself working full time in India eventually?

I don’t think so. India is an interesting and colourful country and I am very glad I came out here. But I think the culture is too different for me to live here permanently.

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