Of the abysmal conditions at the Mother Teresa orphanage

9 Dec

This is a belated post regarding my experience volunteering with the Missionary of Charity in Kolkata, India the summer of 2009.

I was just thinking of how people might donate unwanted items to orphanages a moment ago. And whether the orphanage conducts a filtering process after the donation to make sure it’s usable. One thing I’ve noticed about the clothes that kids in orphanages wear: If they’re below the age of being able to put on their own clothes…etc, most of the clothes tend to have elastic waistbands. The two days I was in the orphanage in Kolkata (named Shishu Bhavan, House for Abandoned Children) one of the challenges was putting shoes on the toddlers. Apparently somebody had donated a bunch of shoes that looked exactly the same — and had the same annoying buckle-thing. It was all in a box and there were no individual shoes. We were told to grab kids haphazardly and start to shoe them so they could all go outside for some fresh air. By the time we got to the last of the kids the first kids had either taken off one (or both) of their shoes, or the last kids were faced with shoes that just wouldn’t fit them. All the while they were clambering on us, crying for attention. The hired caretakers (called masis) there had kept motioning towards us to not hug the kids. But it was hard not to. And when the kids saw that we were huggable they were clambering all over us to be hugged, and some of them were screaming and crying and punching us when we couldn’t oblige them all.

Then outside in the playground. God it was like a deathtrap. Somebody had donated a jungle gym to the organization, which was all well and good, except that the corners were unrefined, so that a careless child might very well run into a beamer and get splinters or split his/her head open. There were also broken off tree limbs that the kids would grab and try to whack their playmates with (I chased this kid around and tried to get his weapon away from him). There was a compression on the ground that could very well be a ditch with broken tree limbs lying inside.

An Indian mother had shown up with her daughter dressed in a pink tutu. She said she celebrates her daughter’s birthday by bringing her here every year to play with the children, so she could appreciate what she had. As a treat, she had her daughter dispense little toy whistles to the kids. Within half an hour of absolute cacophony, half of the kids were coming up to us holding their broken whistles (the seed thing on the inside would fall out). The nuns and caregivers watched this general Lord of the Flies scenario with little disapprobation, not at all considering the fact how the kids would feel with this little pink princess and her doting parents in their midst. I believe the parents are very generous donors to the facilities, otherwise why would there be an exception to the rule of : No visiting the facilities or taking photos unless you’re an approved volunteer.?

Once monthly group birthday party we happened upon.

There were so many things that were inefficient in that Missionaries of Charity orphanage that we saw these three in just the two afternoons we were there.

1. The system is not transparent. The existence of the different facilities and it’s functioning are not information readily available to the public. Perhaps there are security issues concerning such a free volunteering program – anyone who showed up could volunteer, basically. But the existence of such a secrecy system in this day and age raises questions about its operations. Also, such a large charitable operation should have absolute transparency in its book-keepings – something that would not have been difficult to meticulous, orderly nuns. I have not been able to find anything in that order.

2. There was only 1 caregiver (a hired hand, not a nun) for every dozen children. There was no sign of gentility or care for the children as individuals. The caregiver we met was clearly overworked and emotionally unresponsive. No thought at all seemed to have been put into the safety of their environment or future. The goal of the entire operation seemed to be: “Keep them alive, on the minimum amount of funds possible.” An apathetic environment is as bad as an abusive one. Several of the kids showed signs of emotional and behavioral difficulties that can be attributed to lack of affection. This made me extremely worried about their future – and these kids are only toddlers! It made me anxious that they should be adopted as early as possible and taken out of this loveless environment.

3. On the one visit we took to one of their care facilities for the elderly and disabled (as a half-a-day volunteer), we witnessed a wound cleaning. The nuns surrounded a patient with a very large bedsore (a hole half the size of my palm), dumped iodine into the wound, and proceeded to scrub it (what looked like very vigorously), with a cotton ball that was pinched on the end of a long, evil looking pincher the length of my forearm. It looked like a scene from a Florence Nightingale picture. The Taiwanese nursing teachers who were with us said it was an extremely outdated method of dealing with bedsores that would be counterproductive to new tissue generation. I was just glad the guy in the bed appeared to be in a coma. I do not believe that in all the years their facility has existed there has never been one modernly trained health care professional that has passed through their facility who has noticed the medieval method of care (and equipment) present.

It would be unfair to say all bad things about the Missionaries of Charity facilities. So here they are – Good things: the facilities were clean and spartan, the regimen was very efficient and clear. But based on the prestige they have, the amount of charitable funds they must certainly receive and people wiling to donate time and expertise to their efforts, they certainly could do much, much better.

Update: It was only recently that I heard about Christopher Hitchen’s expose on Mother Teresa. You can see the documentary Hell’s Angel here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WQ0i3nCx60 or read an interview of him here: http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/hitchens_16_4.html

The time I was there I felt an innate recalcitrance of the system to any suggested changes to their modus operandi, or willingness to expend further funds on upgrading their system. The only recourse I can think of as an outsider is to make large donations on condition of better performance, or offer services (updating their jungle gym) as a donation. Otherwise one must hope that someone in the administrative chain will eventually see fit (with enough clear-sight or political pressure) to improve the service that they provide there, so that it is not “just good enough for poor people”, but truly humane and conscientious.

ps. During the time we were in Kolkata we were mainly working with another transient organization in their wound care service to street people at the Sealdah train station. While we were there, we encountered an albino man with leprosy who was wandering around in a hospital gown. Several of his toes had been amputated and his wound was crawling with maggots. We tried referring him to a Missionaries of Charity wound care station in the vicinity. The sisters there arranged for a time for him to be picked up by some of the brothers from their leprosy home at a certain time. However, he did not show. I do not know if that was a reflection on his sense of responsibility or his willingness to go to the home, since we were unable to communicate with him effectively in his own language.

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