A mother’s home: The Indian NGO Maher

My first time working with mentally deranged patients in the Indian NGO Maher was in 2010, just after I finished my masters’ degree. I had time, I had a ticket to India and – having heard much about it from my parents – I spontaneously decided to stay a month with Maher. Because why waste a month travelling, if I could use that time to really make a difference?

That is how I arrived to a very kind welcome in Vadhu, a small village outside Pune: Young girls and children everywhere, eager to chat with you, so many activities going on at the same time. A very happy home which made culture-shock almost a non-issue. And I was amazed to learn that Vadhu is only the happy tip of the iceberg. There were so many projects in this NGO in India to go to, so many people to help. Since I only had a vague notion of what to do anyway, I decided to go where a hand was needed the most. In my case, that was the home for mentally challenged women in Vatsalyadham, a rather new facility at the time.

Vatsalyadham-Frauen und ich

The women at Vatsalyadham with Marietta.

Working with mentally challenged women

When I arrived there, the contrast to life in Vadhu couldn’t be more striking. Women where sitting around, staring emptily into the distance, not recognizing any human interaction. Some wondering around in their nightgowns, others smiling like infants, not able to speak. At first, I was shocked: One deranged woman even slapped me in the face on my first day! Another embraced me and I felt her saliva drenching my dress. I didn’t know how to cope with this situation. What was I supposed to do? Most of the women didn’t speak English and even then not all of them made sense.

I seriously thought about leaving right then and there: Going to some other branch of this project in India, working with happy children, running away from my own fears of how to interact with mentally disabled, schizophrenic and depressed people. But I decided to try. I promised myself to hold out until the end of the week, and if I couldn’t do it, I would allow myself to go somewhere else.

More than meets the eye

But during this week, something changed. I started to see how they were happy if I just took the time to sit next to them. How they opened up to me, asking me about my family, why I was not married yet, and where I came from. It took me a while to see the individuals behind their outward behavior. But once you see it, you can never unsee it – in the most positive way possible. It took me a while to look behind the bleak facade and to understand. But the week past and at the end of it, I decided to stay.

I learned in Vatsalyadham, in this Indian NGO, that you have to use your heart and not your eyes to see the beauty of each and every individual. And there was so much to see: The always happy girl whose favorite pastime is hugging each and everyone. The aggressive closed-off patient who had slapped me, who suddenly comes to sit calmly next to me every evening. Because she finally realizes that I mean no harm. And the manic-depressed girl sitting huddle on a shelf who could be persuaded to calm down and smile with a cup of chai.

The language of the heart

My daily worked included mainly small chores. Sometimes helping the staff working on case files, giving a hand in cooking or doing homework with the children who live upstairs from the women. But most of the time, my main task was just being there. Walking around and talking to them – sometimes just with hand and feet, sometimes even in German! – because it was human interaction and kindness that many of these women had not experienced in a long time. And you need no Marathi, Hindi or even words to communicate that.

Talking to these women and learning about their fate made me realize the grim reality. One of abandonment, of discrimination and abuse  – all because of mental illnesses and disability, which still  exists out there. But in Vatsalyadham, all of these women finally find a happy end in a home that truly accepts them. Even looking back at my time at the Indian NGO almost three years later, I am happy I went there. That I stayed despite my initial shock. It truly changed my perception of mental illnesses, of what real human interaction is all about. And it remains till this day one of the most important experiences in my life.

Read more about Marietta Gädeke‘s insight into intercultural experiences: