Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Indian workcamp introduces residents to an entirely different way of life

A group of 20 intrepid Warrane residents travelled to India during the Christmas break to carry out an ambitious building program at a struggling school in the rural town of Oghna, situated in the north-eastern province of Rajasthan. The workcamp took place between 23 November and 15 December 2013.

The workcamp centred on the Assunta Bhavan School, run by missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) which operates both a day school and a boarding school with a total of 160 male students. Led by Warrane workcamp veteran, carpenter Mike Greenwell, the group managed to improve the students’ living conditions by building a new toiletries block featuring five showers and five toilets.

Those who took part funded their own travel and expenses and contributed most of the cost of building materials. In all, each one donated $3000 to the project, but they insisted that the experience was worth every cent, giving them an insight into life away from luxuries taken for granted in Australia.

“The camp introduced us to an entirely different culture and way of life,” one of the participants, Thomas Ryan said. “We learnt to truly cherish what we have in Australia, but also to detach ourselves from Facebook and Twitter and to grow and learn more about how we work and what we can work on and improve.”

Thomas said the group found it hard to go without the creature comforts which we all take for granted, getting by with a very basic diet and making do with bucket showers.

“The building site was also a challenge, given the lack of the usual building equipment,” he said. “For instance, the slab for the building had to be laid using only small bowls to carry concrete, and laying tiles with neat cement nearly burnt off our fingertips!”

Workcamp organiser and Warrane staff member Joe Watson explained that the school struggles from a shortage of funding, partly because it is open to everyone, including boys from the lowest castes who would not normally be able to get an education.

“Many parents would prefer their children to work on the family farm,” Joe said. “And because the school takes in the poorer boys, upper class families in the local village refuse to send their children there.”

School was still in full swing when the workers arrived in late November and the children were very excited about the international visitors. Although they spoke little English, they did their best to communicate.

“One of the boys, Rohit, approached us wearing a piece of paper around his neck on which he had written: ‘What is weather like where you come from?’

“We always answered in English and the boys often seemed to get the gist of what we were saying. But the main form of communication was through the sports we played with them in the afternoons. As soon as we produced a soccer ball or cricket bat they would go wild with excitement and we would all have a great time.”

Although the workers laboured hard, the weather was relatively pleasant. Because it was winter, the days were warm rather than hot and the nights were cold, with temperatures getting down to around 12 degrees.

The group ate meals prepared by a cook they brought in from Mumbai and slept on classroom floors on mats and sleeping bags.

On most days they worked from 8.15 am to around 5.00 pm.

“Living such a simple life for three weeks was a new experience for most of the participants,” Joe said. “It helped us to get away from things like Facebook and concentrate instead on direct human interaction.”

The group managed to fit in some sightseeing along the way after touching down in Delhi and taking a 16-hour overnight train ride to Oghna. On the way home, they took an alternative route via Mumbai, which also involved overnight train travel.

They said the train trip alone gave them a real insight into life in India.

When the hard work was all over, the school’s students performed for the builders, singing songs and presenting them with flowers.

One of those who took part, Warrane resident Steve Jerkovic, commented: “It was an amazing experience. Being able to complete the work camp project and to live among the local people we were helping gave us all a truly unique adventure. I would highly recommend a work camp to anyone.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of past workcamps are available here]