A great way to plug into the community.
“Volunteering in Auroville is incredibly easy,” says Scott, a young American who is working in Discipline Farm. “And very informal too,” he adds, “as in many places you can just show up and you'll be given something to do.” Before Scott left the States, he had enquired about volunteering. “But it had seemed so complicated then as I didn't know where I would be, so I didn't want to commit myself to anything.”
It was a friend who brought Scott to Discipline. They found work for him planting trees and now says Scott, he is having a great time. “Next week I may go and make bricks, or help in the villages,” he adds enthusiastically.
There is no central body in Auroville which organizes the volunteers, and so no one knows how many there are at any given moment. In mid December, the estimates vary between 130 and 200. Shivaya at the Unity Pavilion says that there are plans next year to have a set-up to coordinate volunteers, but it will take a lot of work to put together.
Helmut, an Aurovilian architect gives his perspective. “Because of the pressures of work here, many of us here have found we cannot give enough time to volunteers who are seriously interested in some facet of Auroville.
“Auroville is supposed to be a place of unending education yet it is very sad that we do not offer more training skills for people from the outside. I get at least 2 enquiries a week from Indian architecture students who want to come and volunteer in Auroville, but I have to refuse them. I am so overworked myself that I just don't have the time for them. When I did have them here, I found them a burden as they took up so much of my energy. It is a great pity we cannot offer inspiration and a glimpse into Auroville's aims and ideals to young people.”
At the Guest Service one can see an impressive list of volunteering opportunities stuck up on the wall – 62 in all! Quite a number are related to farming (about 20); education follows next with 12. But there are many more to choose from – disc cleaning at the Matrimandir, or helping with Auroville Radio (experience only), or even horse-brushing.
Many of the volunteers are out on the farms, planting and digging, especially out at Sadhana Forest which is a very different environment from the usual lush green of Auroville. The place can host up to 70 volunteers at a time. They are stashed in various open keet-roof dormitories, almost nose to nose, but nobody seems to mind. At Sadhana Forest, the volunteers have to contribute 80 rupees a day towards food and everyone works in the mornings. The young people love the experience of working outdoors and living so “informally.” They enjoy meeting Tamil people and the feeling of doing something worthwhile.
Farming is a popular choice: volunteers harvesting salad greens at Solitude farm.
Photo courtesy Krishna.
The experience at Buddha Garden, an organic farm run by Priya Vincent, is quite different as it is much smaller. Ideally Priya prefers to take research students who will stay up to 6 months and are seriously involved. “If they are only here for a few weeks I can't expect them to get involved with the farm.” Buddha Garden has at least two volunteers throughout the year, while during the season the numbers can get up to ten or twelve.
“At first,” says Priya, “they used to drain a lot of energy from me. For example they'd turn up in the middle of the night.” But now she has got the system streamlined. Priya has put out all the information on Buddha Garden 's website with photos and explanations. “This makes the organizational side much easier,” she says.
She, however, makes it clear that Buddha Garden is not a guest house, and that she is “not on 24-hour call” for the volunteers. “I work with them from 6 a.m. till 9 a.m.,” she explains. “Then we have breakfast together which is nice. If they want to work longer, that is also welcome.” Volunteers are requested to contribute 100 rupees a night to stay at Buddha Garden , which says Priya she is desperate for as “this place eats up money”.
Volunteering can also be an excellent way of getting experience in one's particular field. Tanjay from Germany is volunteering at New Creation School for 6 months. She has trained as an occupational therapist and this is her first professional experience. She found the school through its website and is now busy engaged in setting up the space to offer her therapies.
“I want to support the slow learners here but I am finding it rather difficult as there are absolutely no materials,” she confides. “The way I've been trained depends on high quality equipment so I am having to do a lot of quick thinking. Everything here seems to be so disorganized compared to the German way of doing things, but actually I love it. I realize this is a unique opportunity for me as I have full control over what I will set up and the experience will be invaluable.”
Today New Creation School has four volunteers who come in part-time and some of them are lucky to live in a New Creation house that is kept especially for them.
Age not a barrier
Not all volunteers are young people in search of fun and adventures. Mike and Sue, an English couple in their late forties, are highly-trained teachers looking for a way to use their years of experience when they retire from stressful jobs in England . They stayed and worked in New Creation School for two years.
Professor Heidi Watts, who must be in her early seventies, comes from Antioch University in New Hampshire , USA . She has been visiting to Auroville since the early 1990s and her help in education has been inestimable. Heidi spends about three months over the winter season in Auroville, often bringing some of her teacher-training students with her.
On Sunday mornings, up to 25 volunteers from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram can be found weeding in the Matrimandir gardens after their session in the Chamber. The acres of grass always need large numbers of volunteers who enjoy the quiet meditative work in the morning.
Twenty-five volunteers stay at the Mitra Youth Hostel, tucked away behind the Town Hall. Amongst those are six girls from the University of Minnesota , all biology students on a 4-month research project in India. They are now spending their last month volunteering in Auroville. “We had a choice of where to go in the world and most of our friends chose Europe , but we felt that's a place we can go any time. India seemed a wonderful opportunity for us to experience a very different society and do something of value.”
The group does not have a professor with them which is quite unusual. “So we have to be self-motivated and organize everything ourselves, which has often been a great challenge, as you can imagine.”
They talk of the amazing time they are having in Auroville. “We still cannot get over the fact that the temperature here is 30 degrees above while back home it is 30 below!” The previous day they had been following the EM (Effective Micro-organisms) men in blue-uniforms on their bicycles evaluating the effectiveness of the EM spraying against the mosquitoes.
Like most other volunteers they complain about having to contribute to the Auroville Fund. “We're already offering our work, so why should we have to contribute financially too?” they ask. Money can become an issue for those who stay longer, and they feel they should be helped more if they are in difficulties.
There are always a few young German volunteers here who had the choice of joining the German army or else of doing ‘social service' either at home or abroad. A member of Auroville International Germany organized this Auroville connection several years ago and the programme seems to be very successful.
Not all volunteers are foreigners. Neelam and Vijay for example, are from Varanasi in North India . They are on a 22-week volunteer programme at Upasana, the garment unit run by Uma. They found Upasana through the internet and wanted to find out more about its design philosophy, the beautiful clothes it creates, and the attitude towards its workers.
The two have been especially looking for ways to learn about simpler types of weaving so that they can re-train weavers at Varanasi . They explain that over 50,000 traditional silk weavers have now lost their jobs due to cheaper imports from China . “So far we've already trained 40 weavers on different types of looms, and our aim is to retrain 1,300.” And about their time in Auroville: “It has been incredibly valuable. We're very impressed with the social concerns and the creativity of Upasana.”