There are quiet volunteers from abroad who come to serve our country in different capacities, without any fanfare or fuss. They come as private individuals, not as members of a NGOs or well-known organizations like the Peace Corps or the VSO.
It was by chance that I heard of Jeanne Argot, a retired Professor of Microbiology from Indiana, USA, who’s just completed a term as a volunteer teacher at the Logos International School in Pamankade, of which the Head is Mrs. Priyani Fernando, former Principal of Methodist College.
Petite and soft-spoken and 74 years old this year, Jeanne doesn't give the impression of being an adventurous type.
Yet she has done four stints as a volunteer in Zambia, a country and culture totally different from her own.
Moreover, she taught in a school in "the bush", far removed from the amenities (like electricity and water on tap) available in the city. It was a co-educational, fee-levying secondary boarding school. Jeanne taught science in grades 5, 6 & 7 and Biology in grade 8.
The school was originally a church school, but the government had taken it over.
However, there was no interference, although the teachers were paid by the govt. and the Principal was a Christian. Christianity is fairly strongly entrenched in Zambia, she found, despite the lingering remnants of animism - attributing spirits to plants and natural phenomena.
The "bush" folk were poor, so they had to work hard to earn the money to pay the fees for boarding school.
When Jeanne started teaching in January, there were 30 children in the class, but by the end of term the number had swelled to 70, since children were admitted as and when their parents could pay a full term's fees in advance.
"It seemed a crazy system to me and I told the Principal so. How could I help the late-comers to catch up with what the regular class had learnt? But that's how it was."
Jeanne herself had a room at a Bible College which was a little distance away from the school. She used to browse in the library there and after completing a second stint of teaching in her school in the bush, Jeanne volunteered twice to serve in the library.
The Bible College was staffed entirely by Zambians. Jeanne ate the local food and found that the staple diet was maize prepared in different ways.
Rice and chicken were treats reserved for special occasions. I asked her whether her pupils were keen to learn and Jeanne said, "Not really, except for a very few. You see, they had no prospect of a different life - few of them migrated into the city then - and it must have seemed pointless to make much effort to study. The bush folk are very poor and their life is one of hard work, cultivating their plots of land."
Jeanne's hometown was Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and her only brother and two sisters still live there.
After graduation, Jeanne moved to Indiana. She worked in a microbiology lab in a hospital for five years before joining the staff of Indiana Wesleyan University, a Christian university where attention is paid to the spiritual aspect too of the students' lives. Jeanne's roommate at Indiana Wesleyan University, Cathy Harner loved to visit Sri Lanka and constantly talked of this country, so that Jeanne's interest was aroused.
Through Cathy, she met Sri Lankan Rukshan Fernando, the son of Priyani and Dr. Kumar Fernando and he had told her about the church school headed by his mother. A committed Christian, Jeanne inquired whether there would be an opening for her as a volunteer teacher in this school for a term, and that is how she came to Sri Lanka, bringing her microscope in her backpack.
That microscope has opened new vistas for the children who used it and occasionally other teachers too have asked to borrow it for their classes.
Jeanne is a great walker. It's her custom to walk from Kasappa Road where she lives with the Fernandos, all the way to Pamankade every morning and, what is more surprising, she walks back too, in the noonday' heat!
Most evenings, she also takes a walk in the opposite direction. I did ask Jeanne whether she has been bothered by touts or beggars on her extensive walks, and she shook her head.
She has enjoyed living with a Sri Lankan family on this, her first visit to Asia. "Was it what you expected, living in a middle-class home here?" Jeanne replied, "It was and it wasn't! I was unaccustomed to having domestic help in the house - that was something new and when I wrote back home about it, my family and friends said, `Enjoy it while you are there, for you certainly won't have that luxury when you come back!' "
Jeanne is an unconventional person in more ways than one. Having retired as a Professor, she had asked to be allowed to work as a gardener on the same campus because she loves gardening! When she is at home in Indiana, that's what she partly does with her time.
She does receive some renumeration, but she explained that there is a Head Gardener in charge and she works as one of a small team of gardeners. Even in the USA, I don't think you'll find many professors who are happy to end up as gardeners!