Experience of India life-changing

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The colours and people of India have left a lasting impact on Alexandra woman Sarah Hesson, who says a four-week stint working in Indian communities has changed her outlook and aspirations.

Miss Hesson (20), who is in her third year of a bachelor of arts degree, majoring in politics, at the University of Otago, did an internship through Pollinate Energy, a social business whose mission it is to improve the lives of India’s urban poor.

Miss Hesson spent four weeks in June and July in Hyderabad, a city of 10million people in southern India.

She said the size and scale of India was difficult to comprehend.

But that city provided her with both grounding and inspiration through the encounters she had with those who lived in Hyderabad’s slum areas.

Under the Pollinate Energy internship, students from Western countries travel to India to work in groups, training Indian residents to become social entrepreneurs. The interns provided the residents with skills to set up their own Pollinate Energy enterprises, which in turn provided others with the opportunity to improve their lives.

The students also spent time going to communities working out the problems those communities were facing and then creating solutions to those problems and presenting their ideas to local councils.

Pollinate Energy sells sustainable products, such as solar lights and efficient cooking stoves, to communities that have not had access to that technology.

For a family to gain either or both of those things was life-changing, Miss Hesson said.

As well as being safer, switching from using candles to having a solar light transformed a family’s capacity to work and study, she said. Children could study later and improve their education, and parents, often in particular women, could work later into the night as well, for example in a micro-business which might involve sewing.

Usually, families in the poor areas of Hyderabad cooked with kerosene or on open wood fires, both of which were potentially dangerous in flimsy, enclosed areas, Miss Hesson said. Pollinate Energy’s small “envirofit cookstove” was safer, operated with any biomass fuel, including firewood, and achieved a 50% reduced cooking time and up to 80% reduction in particulate matter.

Miss Hesson said it was great to see the confidence and skills of those receiving the training increase during the programme.

“We were empowering people, and allowing them to build confidence in themselves.”

Most of the residents spoke very little English and translators were used to communicate.

Out in the community, the poverty was abject and difficult to describe, Miss Hesson said.

“It was humbling to realise how much we have.”

The colours, sounds and smells of India were initially “sensory overload”, and for the interns to process what they were experiencing, it had been vital to talk about what they were seeing and doing and articulate their thoughts, Miss Hesson said.

In Hyderabad, entire communities lived in temporary structures made of tarpaulins and sheets, with primitive sanitation; toilets were holes in the ground shared by massive groups of people.

Only a small number of children went to school, and there were few jobs and hardly any government support. One entire community worked as rubbish collectors. Some had stalls selling food, others gained money by begging.

Miss Hesson said she always felt safe in the community, although they were advised to travel in groups and not stay out at late at night, and that is what she did.

“You’re safe if you take sensible precautions.”

She said her time in India had changed her outlook in life.

“I’ve gained more confidence and it’s made me think ‘larger’ in life, and not be afraid to set my goals high.”

Before, Miss Hesson was planning to work in a government department in New Zealand once she completed her degree.

Now, she wants to return to India and, hopefully, work for a company in urban planning and development. The skills and knowledge she was gaining through her degree were transferable, and she now realised she wanted to use them to have “lasting impact”.

“I can see the change that needs to happen. I think I can make a more meaningful difference somewhere like India than I can in New Zealand.”

There was only limited time for sightseeing while she was in Hyderabad, and Miss Hesson is also keen to do more travelling in India and explore the country further.

She encouraged others to investigate internships and consider travelling.

“Go for it. Explore and have an open mind.”