Seva – a service which is performed without any expectations of result or award for the person performing it
This November, the Global Citizen Year team joined Teach for India to Ahmedabad for their mid-year retreat. One of the events here was an evening dedicated to seva. We could choose between many different activities, like visiting a leprosy community, living with rag pickers or serving food to old ladies. Personally I choose to join a group of 5 TFI fellows for a padayatra (Hindi for journey by foot), with the focus of seva. We left our money, phones and shoes, and set off for a night in Ahmedabad city, expecting a night dedicated to seva, yet a cold and hungry one.
Our first act of seva happened when we saw a man carrying big piles of grass from a truck into a slum community. We went over and each took a pile of meter-long grass on our shoulders, before following the man through the community to the little hut where he was storing it. With 6 extra people to empty the truck of grass, the job was over within minutes. By then around 10 children were surrounding me, the strange foreigner, either staring or asking me questions in a tongue I did not understand. We talked and listened, played and laughed with the children. In the meanwhile, one of their parents had prepared chai for us, which we drank in their home.
Our second act of seva was, by contrast, at a 4-star hotel. After some convincing, the manager let us help his workers in cleaning up a banquet hall after a big, Indian wedding. We picked trash and flower remaining, vacuum cleaned, cleaned the chairs and tables and reorganized the room. It was normally a 2 hours job for the 5 workers, now done within 40 minutes (which included some gossip time with the staff). In return, we got to eat dinner in the staff cafeteria.
Our third act of seva was a more failed one. We walked past a family of wood-workers, who were making a bamboo-wall, so we asked if we could help them. They let us try, but we were inefficient, as we did not know how to handle the bamboo. We learnt the lesson that even a strong wish to help is not nearly enough. Yet the family accepted us. They talked with us, showed us their home, gave us chai and took care of us. In the end, they even moved out of their own house, and after gathering beds from neighbors, they let us sleep in their house while they were sleeping outside. From the wood-worker family I experienced such warmth I think it will be a long time until I will see again.
The wood-worker family took us with them (10 people in a rickshaw) to the restaurant who had ordered the bamboo-wall. There we met 4 engineers, all freshly out of college. They were having their opening day of their restaurant the day after, and by 1am, they still had not put out the furniture in the room. We helped them organize the place the way they wanted it, while they made the menu in the last minute. When we were about to leave, at 3am, they made sure we had food in our bellies before going to sleep.
We walked for 14 hours, barefoot in Ahmedabad city. We did not have money, we did not have food, and we did not have phones. The only thing we had was our mission of conducting seva, and not even that was done at a level worth bragging about. Yet we were never hungry, we were never thirsty, and we never felt unsafe. The strangers we met took care of us, guided us and transported us whenever needed it. And when we were cold, we were even offered beds and thick blankets. I had never even imagined that so much love and care existed in human beings towards strangers.
It has to be said that there are much more to this story. It includes people like an 18 year old girl who was the first in her community to go to college, and therefore uses her knowledge to conduct English classes back home. There was a man who was working a 12 hours long shift at the hotel, and in addition had a morning job and was running a NGO. And it includes a 70 year old man who would pack his own food when he was meeting his children, so they would not be bothered by his visit. The story also includes graveyards, dog shit, a mosque and many temples, turtles and wild dogs, trucks and busses, hospitals, policemen, and even black magic.