Backpacking Trips

Volunteering with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity: where innocence hits brutal reality 

By S. Bedford
Photo by Dennis Jarvis

Her shaved head bulged from her skull in a manner so staggering it conjured ludicrous cartoon references in my mind—Toad from Mario Kart, the newscaster from Futurama. Her swollen scalp was riddled with holes of various sizes, the smallest and largest equivalent to opposing sides of a flathead thumbtack. When I first saw her, I was so flabbergasted that my initial reaction was (of all things) to count the lesions. I reached 50 before the nun and registered nurse, Sister C, snapped me out of my daze and prompted me to get to work.

That was three days prior. Now, Sister C was tending to matters in another Missionaries of Charity home, leaving me and the young Spanish doctor to continue tweezing out the plump maggots that writhed beneath the woman’s skin like pulsing veins. Today we had the added challenge of a power outage and our only light source was a pair of wind-up flashlights. As the woman shrieked in agony, the doctor and I dug for maggots beneath the fading blue glow like the proverbial early birds hunting for earthworms, pausing every few moments to crank our torches.

Every traveller has instances where we suddenly find ourselves in a situation so unlike any we have ever encountered that we’re rendered emotionally winded, struggling to recall how it possibly came to pass. Yet I could not afford the pause of contemplation while this woman was suffering with a head full of bugs. I once again recalled her first day when her howling provoked me to halt with my tweezers in midair, a squirming, partially bisected maggot pinched between them.

“What are you doing? Keep going!” Sister C implored, in her popping Bengali accent.

“But she’s screaming.” Officially I knew I couldn’t cease simply because somebody was in pain but it was a challenging rule to follow.

“She is screaming that they are biting her. Now get them out!”

After an hour, the doctor and I decided we were finished for the day. We wiped the woman’s head with saline solution and Betadine and gently applied bandages. She gazed at us with tears streaming from her panicked eyes and managed a thin smile. We smiled back, then helped her out of the room and set to cleaning up.

“I can’t believe she’s still alive,” exhaled the doctor. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her say that in the few days she’d been at Kalighat. “She’s so tough—she must be in so much pain.”

“Don’t get me started,” I growled. “It’s locked now but the room across the hall is brimming with local anesthetic. I’ve seen it.”

“That’s one of the first things Catholic hospitals donate.” She shook her head. “Working in the ER back in Spain is nothing like this. Okay, who do we have next?”

When I departed Toronto for Kolkata, I never fathomed such extreme circumstances. Having volunteered for two weeks at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity the year before, I’d prepared myself for laundry duty—which in itself seemed daunting enough, for reasons I will explain shortly.

Yet for the last two months I had been assisting in the surgery at Mother Teresa’s original home for the dying, filling a vacancy left by an Italian nurse who fell seriously ill and was forced to return home. I was also working at a Missionaries of Charity-run dispensary located next to the train station. At both locations I performed medical procedures that I was direly unequipped to handle in terms of training as well as supplies.

I had arrived in India hoping my elbow grease and gumption would in some paltry way contribute to the ongoing humanitarian effort in a drastically impoverished metropolis. Two months later, I was gut-wrenched over how naïve I’d been, and the notion that despite my best intentions I’d dedicated eight weeks to serving an organization that is inflicting unnecessary and extreme physical suffering upon those it claims to be saving.

Backpackers are primarily observers, seeking to explore and understand but never alter their host surroundings. This sentiment is eloquently summarized by the famed travel proverb: Take only photos, leave only footprints. Volunteering, however, differs drastically as it is defined by the goal of making an impact. With this comes an incredible responsibility and accountability that I in my eagerness overlooked—a grave blunder made all too often by well-meaning volunteers who are so keen to lend a helping hand that they do not question exactly what said hand is helping to accomplish.

Despite having abandoned all pretenses of religion years earlier, I had (up until this experience) held Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the same regard as when I was Catholic. As a preteen, I saw a heartwarming documentary on the organization and decided then and there that volunteering with the Sisters in Kolkata was on my bucket list. In addition to its global notoriety, Missionaries of Charity is one of the few international charities where you can show up without preregistering, stay as long as you’d like, and not be required to pay any fees. It is therefore a popular destination for those backpacking through India.

As mentioned, my inaugural volunteering experience with Missionaries of Charity had occurred one year earlier.

My best friend and I were in the midst of a year-long ’round-the-world trip and (like many travellers) stopped in Kolkata for two weeks to wash bedding and distribute meals at Kalighat as well as Prem Dan, a long-term care facility that Missionaries of Charity also runs.

At the time, it seemed to fulfill my every preconceived desire. I worked with my hands and came away with an agreeably simplistic perception of my accomplishments: I cleaned linen so that the Sisters didn’t have to and could henceforth spend their time more efficiently. I even donated $1,000 when leaving, with the idea it could go towards a washing machine, thus relieving volunteers to likewise tackle alternate tasks. (I later discovered that most departing volunteers donate money with identical sentiments in mind.)

Had I researched Missionaries of Charity beyond their homepage I would have learned from my bedroom in Toronto what I later realized firsthand (and with horror) 12,000 kilometres away.

Firstly, Missionaries of Charity is fairly wealthy, the report Mother Teresa: Where Are Her Millions? published on September 10, 1998 in Stern magazine cites their annual income as $100 million. Yet conditions in their homes are dangerously negligible. When I was there, Kalighat was undergoing renovations and so temporarily housed in a wing of Prem Dan. Patients slept on army-style cots in a dank, concrete room. The squat-style toilets were often flooded, forcing patients to walk or crawl (as there was a dire shortage of wheelchairs and crutches) through urine and feces. There was no paper for the examination table in the surgery, and I instead wiped it down with Betadine. The only gloves available were size extra-large so I purchased my own from the marketplace; Sister C often disregarded her gloves entirely and did not always wash her hands between patients. With many patients suffering from HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and typhoid, the risk of cross-contamination was incredible. (Conditions at the dispensary were parallel.)

Volunteers are not immune to the hazards—particularly those performing laundry duty, as the use of disposable diapers is not implemented. Washing is done in a cramped concrete room with a drain at one end. The Sisters brush chunks of feces off the soiled garments into said drain with brooms, then dunk the clothing in disinfectant. From there it is passed to volunteers stationed at three basins (one with soapy water, two with clear) to be scrubbed, then wrung out and carried to the rooftop clothesline. Feces is often found at every stage as well as floating around on the flooded ground. Volunteers regularly work in flip-flops and are not provided with gloves nor masks. The autumn I was there, seven volunteers were hospitalized with illnesses one can only assume they acquired at Kalighat/Prem Dan.

But such deplorable hygienic conditions are not what disturbed me most. Rather, it is the fervent refusal to distribute proper painkiller, such as local anesthetic, despite the abundance regularly donated to Missionaries of Charity by Catholic hospitals worldwide. Tragically, the woman with the holes in her head was not an exceptional case in terms of what I encountered in the surgery.

I worked on a young man with both his thumbs missing, one digit gone entirely and the other rendered to stark grey bone, both sites infested with maggots. His feet—blackish green and wet with rot—housed heftier larva burrowing through his flesh. I witnessed Sister C amputate part of his second toe with an Exact-O knife, and caught the tip in a plastic tray.

I also assisted in treating a former rickshaw-wallah with a missing kneecap, a mentally handicapped man with his shinbone exposed from knee to ankle and likewise crawling with maggots, and an 11-year-old orphan named Abdullah whose toes were absent and whose foot was also stripped to the bone. In all of these circumstances, I was tasked with removing maggots and slicing away blackened tissue with a razor blade, then cleansing the area with Betadine (a topical disinfectant known for its excruciating sting) and saline solution, and finally administering bandages.

Traditionally, these patients would be heavily and mercifully sedated—yet at Kalighat they receive only diclofenac, a comparatively mild analgesic painkiller often used to treat menstrual pain, arthritis and gout. It numbs very little, as is apparent by the patients’ constant screaming for their gods and their mothers. Male volunteers are often recruited to restrain the larger men. By the end of such sessions, the patients are understandably in deep physical shock.

If Missionaries of Charity is so wealthy and (seemingly) committed to helping the poor, why are conditions so unsanitary and patients suffering needlessly?

When I posed this question to Sister C, she explained that Mother Teresa’s aim was to serve Christ, not her fellow man. To distinguish such goals may seem like hair-splitting—until it comes to painkiller.

Christopher Hitchens’s The Missionary Position cites Mother Teresa speaking at a press conference in Washington shortly before her death in 1997: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of poor people.” This statement implies Mother Teresa thought a person’s agony heightens their sanctity. “[T]he world is being much helped by the suffering of poor people” specifically demonstrates her belief that physical anguish equates to holiness as the latter is considered to “help” the world in the same grand, ambiguous sense. This notion of the destitute being hallowed is also suggested via the phrase “[they] share it with the passion of Christ” as by Christian definition one would have to be divine to share something with Jesus. This concept has evidently been adopted by Missionaries of Charity in a very literal manner, which is why patients at Kalighat are allowed to suffer despite it being wholly avoidable. Congruently, the austere conditions reflect the vow of poverty to which all Missionaries of Charity nuns adhere.

In short, the world’s most celebrated Sister was an extreme Catholic fundamentalist whose (Missionaries of Charity’s) practices have been called out countless blogs, articles and books written by journalists, volunteers and even former nuns which contribute to the sizeable movement demanding Missionaries of Charity be brought to book. Hemley Gonzalez is a past volunteer who was so appalled by his experiences at Missionaries of Charity that he started his own Kolkata-based organization, Responsible Charity, as well as the activist group STOP Missionaries of Charity.

(In fact, Kalighat was closed for renovations following an article published by FORBES India regarding Gonzalez’s first-hand account of the severely negligent conditions. According to the article “We Demand Doctors, Nurses and Medical Equipment at the Home for the Dying” published on Facebook by STOP Missionaries of Charity, the renovations resulted merely in a “basic facelift,” improved bathroom facilities and larger nuns’ quarters while the area for patients remains essentially unchanged.) I wouldn’t have had to dig deep to uncover this information: Google’s third search result for “Missionaries of Charity” is STOP Missionaries of Charity’s Facebook page.

Had I known then what I know now, I never would have donated my time and energy (let alone my money!) to an organization whose fanatical religious ideals directly and intentionally result in potent and avoidable suffering. Furthermore, I dare assume a significant portion of Missionaries of Charity volunteers would likewise reconsider their choice, if they looked too beyond the NGO’s homepage.

There is certainly a spark of exhilaration when it comes to travelling without a plan, allowing the rivers of chance and chaos to buoy us to a sea of possibilities. While this can of course result in adverse experiences, we are (generally) the only ones standing to lose.

But when we volunteer abroad, we commit ourselves as cogs in a grander machine, with our actions (in)directly affecting the lives of others. It is true we all have the power to make a difference—what difference that is, however, may not be what it seems at first glance.


S. Bedford is an indie traveller who has trekked, motorcycled, wandered, bussed, hitchhiked, boated, tuk-tuk’ed and stumbled through more than 50 countries in the last decade and lives by the notion that home is where you lay your backpack. Follow her on Twitter: @SBedford86 / Instagram: @sbedford_86

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