Linda (Rogers) Whitaker
I grew up in England in the 1950s and `60s when it was still the norm to attend church and Sunday school. The influence of this, with that of parents, school and movements such as the Scouts and Guides encouraged love for and service to others. It was a time of great freedom and opportunity for many young people from all levels of society following the war. There was opportunity for education and for travel. As a teenager I was very interested in geography and travel and partly due, I think, to my Christian upbringing I developed a desire to live and work in other countries and also the hope that I could be of some help to others.
I liked sport and wanted to work with people so I decided to study Physiotherapy which seemed to combine the two. The course I chose involved two years training in orthopaedic nursing first. This meant that I could start my training at the age of seventeen and didn’t need to stay on at school. I couldn’t wait to get started! The nursing skills and experience turned out to be extremely valuable when working overseas in isolation from other medical professionals.
My first job on qualifying five years later was at the University College Hospital in London. Whilst there I met another physiotherapist who was a member of IVS and who had worked in India as an SCI long-term volunteer. Through her I got in touch with IVS and joined a local group in London. We worked on various community projects, particularly helping the elderly with visits, shopping, gardening etc. I also worked as a volunteer at an International Hostel, near where I lived in Earls Court. I enjoyed the interaction with young people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Although I only had one year’s professional experience I applied to go as a Long Term Volunteer with IVS and was accepted. (It was only later that I realised how much more I would have had to offer if I had gained more experience first – but as usual I couldn’t wait to do what I had always wanted to do).
LTV to East Pakistan, 1969 – the first project
Following work camp experience, in France (building gabions to stop the erosion of a river bank in Ariege) – a great learning experience – and orientation at the SCI centre at Oust I flew to what was then East Pakistan via Karachi in September 1969. I was met by SCI friends including ‘Minto Bhai’ Chowdhury, then Secretary of the local SCI branch. I stayed with his family for the first few weeks, his younger brother and sister patiently teaching me Bangla while I came to terms with living in what felt like a Turkish steam room full of mosquitoes. Once acclimatised I loved the climate and the people and the mosquitoes ceased to bother me. I was working in a Day Centre for children with disabilities which was run by a charity and in which the local SCI group had some involvement. My experience in this field was quite limited but I worked alongside a local physiotherapist and did my best to treat the children who attended and to pass on some skills to the assistants employed at the centre.
I soon began to realise that I was learning far more than I was able to teach or give to anyone there. Being a member of the local SCI group was tremendous. It gave me instant friends in an alien environment. Friends who, although from a different culture and religious background, saw things in a similar way to myself, wanted the same things, such as peace and understanding between peoples, and wanted to give service to others. To them it was important that I was there, not for what I could do in a brief 2 year period, but just to be there as a fellow member of the group and working alongside them on work camps etc. My presence also made the work camps feel ‘international’. The work camps I attended in this period were some of the best times we had. I remember weekend work at the Children’s Centre, decorating and making a garden, and also weekends away in other parts of the country – river banks again! I am a practical person, not given to expressing my feelings at length in public so I found the discussion meetings which were always part of the weekend and longer camps a little alien to me, but very interesting especially as they seemed to bring us all closer together in thought as human beings. I have a strong memory of one occasion when Bhuppy visited the group and inspired us all. I also remember times when committee members fell out with each other as committee members do all over the world!
The country had a strong Muslim culture and it wasn’t always easy for people to know what to do with me when visiting their homes because although I was a foreign volunteer I was also female and females didn’t tend to sit and discuss things with the men in Bangladesh, they served the tea and stayed in the back rooms. Frequently I ended up in a bedroom with the women of the family, (this could be just as interesting but sometimes frustrating), or sitting in the front room with men who felt unable to converse as they normally would do. However, I have to say there were several women in the SCI group and we were generally included in meetings and discussions. I think this made the organisation fairly unique in Bangladesh at that time.
Later in 1970 I was joined by another IVS volunteer, Carol Barnshaw, who was attached to a school for the blind. In November 1970 a devastating cyclone hit the southern part of Bangladesh, the Ganges Delta. Carol and I were seconded to assist the Red Cross, with which the local SCI group had links, providing volunteers etc. We worked mainly in Dhaka at the HQ and warehouse (outside our project duty times). I made one trip to the affected area with supplies and later Carol went to the SCI project at Moudubi, set up to help the local people on this island make a raised area with defences to protect animals and people from floods and cyclones.
In March 1971 came the war of Independence for Bangladesh. Carol and I were living in a student hostel near the university. All the students had gone to their homes as the tension was mounting, so we were alone apart from the hostel cook/caretaker and his family. We had been registered with the British High Commission due to the situation. We found ourselves under fire for 2 nights and a day and then were told to leave the hostel. We joined a stream of hundreds of refugees fleeing the area. We just went with what we had on and a few personal things. Suddenly we saw a familiar tall figure pushing his way towards us against the flow of the crowd. It was, of course, Minto Bhai who was coming, at great risk to himself, to find us and make sure we were alright. He took us to the house of a British couple who were our High Commission contacts. I shall never forget that selfless act of care and friendship. Carol and I were evacuated to Singapore by the RAF where we struggled with the sudden shift into an expensive western hotel. The food was too rich and too much and we couldn’t work the showers! We met up with Navam who was then Asian Secretary and living in Singapore with his family.
We felt terrible leaving all our friends in such dire trouble but in that situation, if we had stayed, we would have been a liability and extra mouths to feed.
We arrived home in April 1971 and I worked for a year as a physiotherapist in Bristol. This was fairly near to my family as they had had a worrying time before they knew I was safe. Carol was in London and I frequently went there at weekends. We attended marches and demonstrations – some about Bangladesh and others about other injustices around the world. I was very unsettled and desperate to know what was going on in Bangladesh (I wish we’d had the internet then!). I did an overland trip to India, spending a short time there but eventually managed to get myself posted to the Orthopaedic Hospital set up in Dhaka after the war, again through IVS.
The second project, 1972-1974
This was a very different experience. I travelled with a Belgian SCI volunteer (Micheline) who was a physiotherapist also and was to replace me at the Children’s Centre. This time the flight was via Delhi and we stayed a night or two at K5.
We were met in Dhaka by several old SCI friends who by now were getting very used to meeting overseas volunteers. There were many more international agencies than there had been before in the country and as a result much more begging and crying. I missed the self confidence and pride the Bangladeshis had in their own culture, that I remembered from before, and resented the foreign agencies who were creating a culture of dependency, though much aid was needed. Was I one of them?
The aim of the project at the Orthopaedic Hospital was to provide treatment for those injured in the war and also for the local population. Many of the trainees being taught to make artificial limbs and appliances were freedom fighters who had lost limbs themselves. The physiotherapy team, of which I was a member, set up a training course for physiotherapists. There was a major problem with getting recognition for the course and consequently a proper remuneration for the graduates. I was working with volunteers from Australia, Canada, Europe and India as well as 2 other IVS volunteers (Maureen Thompson and Helen Preston) and we lived together in a hostel near the hospital. Although this was a more international group of volunteers it was not at all the same as my previous experience – it was too easy to slip into western ways with so many westerners together. There was less interaction with the local population and although we had contact and went on some weekend work camps we weren’t as close to the SCI-B group as before. We were also at that time involved as volunteers for WHO on the final campaign to eradicate smallpox, vaccinating the population surrounding some cases of smallpox in one of the refugee camps in Dhaka.
Although I was glad I had been able to go back once Bangladesh became independent and especially to see for myself that old friends were alright, it was not as good or as life changing as my first experience had been.
After my return to England in January 1974 I decided to live in London and do further training in physiotherapy for children. Having worked with children in Bangladesh I knew there was a lot more I needed to learn. I shared a flat with Carol and made contact with a local IVS group in South London. Again we did community work and some weekend work camps.
There were a number of returned volunteers in the group as well as local people and a lot of enthusiasm and dedication. It was also great fun and gave me much the same feeling of togetherness as we had had on the SCI – Bangladesh local activities.
During this period I visited Ireland – visiting VSI in Dublin and joining (for a weekend) an international work camp at Glebe House in Northern Ireland. I also started assisting IVS with weekends held for the selection of long-term volunteers to work in Asia and southern Africa.
Then, in 1977 it was off to Central America for me with another voluntary agency this time (CIIR). The organisation had asked me to help with the selection of a volunteer physiotherapist for a school for children with disabilities in Honduras. I liked the sound of it so much I decided to apply!
On my return in 1979 I worked in Doncaster, South Yorkshire developing a new community physiotherapy service for children sponsored by the Spastics Society (now SCOPE). My experience overseas was invaluable for this job. I remained in contact with IVS through the Leeds office where Martin and Juliet (Pierce) were then working, and also continued working with IVS national office, on selection weekends.
Since then I have stayed in Britain working in the NHS as a paediatric physiotherapist, eventually becoming a clinical manager. I retired in 2002, but worked part time as a clinical paediatric physiotherapist till November 2005.
The effects of the SCI experience on my life
How have my experiences affected my life? I guess they have shown me firstly what true friendship is and how human beings can meet on common ground in spite of different cultures and religious backgrounds. I have always tried to remember this in my working, social and political life.
The project at the Children’s Centre in Dhaka gave me the desire to learn more about working with children and I have worked in the field of paediatrics ever since. I am thankful for this as I feel I was good at my job, I enjoyed it and I feel I helped a lot of families. My rusty Bangla was useful in breaking the ice with my clients when I worked in an area of Manchester with a large Bangladeshi population for the last 16 years of my career. I hope my past experience gave me some insight into the situation of Asian families living in Britain.
In writing this, having to look up old papers and photographs, speaking to former colleagues and friends, it is only now I realise how much my early SCI experiences have influenced my life. I had also forgotten that I was actually involved in SCI/IVS for nearly 20 years from 1968 to the mid to late 80s.
Since my retirement I have joined the local Volunteer Centre and am back doing voluntary work again. The Centre initiates a lot of group and individual work towards self help and social inclusion and there is very little boundary between clients and volunteers – we are all part of the same community. I am involved in shopping for the housebound and fundraising but no river bank work this time!