It’s almost midnight and our meeting is somehow still going. It’s been going so long that now we’re back at my supervisor’s house with two trustees. One of them fell asleep on the sofa but has woken up re-invigorated and is now tackling strategic matters with renewed vigour. The other one has just re-joined us after changing into his pyjamas (pyjamas are Indian, after all). Last night we sat under the mango tree until very late, accompanied by the noise of peacocks, finessing a funding proposal for something that could radically improve young people’s opportunities in life. Complete strangers on the bus invite me for dinner without knowing my name. I don’t exist as an independent female in my own right – I have to give my father’s name just to get a SIM card. I calmly shove gigantic bulls out of the way to get into the supermarket. People hold their children up in my face to look at the ‘foreigner’. Every time I go for dinner I’m paraded around the neighbours and extended family and can easily meet 25 people.
This is the parallel world of Bhavnagar, or perhaps just of India. I had visited several times before starting my placement with 2Way Development, but nothing prepares you for staying and working here for longer. Especially not in a provincial conservative city tucked away in southern Gujarat. I decided to volunteer with a child rights NGO focussing on the right to education and the right to protection. I wanted to get some experience with a focus on project management and organisational development. I certainly got that, and more.
As someone who had no previous experience of development work, the Western guilt becomes bewildering. Every day on my walk to work (before it got way too hot to consider any unnecessary movement) I passed displaced tribal families living under tarpaulin in the middle of the city. The wildest kids, unwashed, un-brushed, sometimes naked, ran up to play with me every day, pulling on my arms and shouting ‘hi’ endlessly – so the first thing I did when I go to my child rights NGO was to wash children’s dirty hand prints off my arms. I couldn’t compute where that left me on the hypocritical scale of ‘rich people attempting to do good’ but it was enough to make my mind explode.
On my return, everyone asks me why I have no tan. You don’t sit in the sun when it’s 45 degrees. I have incipient anaemia – vegetarianism is not for me. My trousers are indelibly encrusted with mud, animal and no doubt human waste from splashing around town during the monsoon. It feels like it might have all been just a dream, but then I have 3 notebooks full of confused lists and endless question marks which remind me what I actually did.
I feared I might be stuck at a desk re-writing other people’s funding proposals – not a great career move for me in my early thirties. But luckily the Shaishav team had much more in store and I was trusted to become their interim Comic Relief programme manager for a new project. This involved lots of monitoring and evaluation work, including building a new framework in collaboration with Childreach International, one of Shaishav’s key partners. It wasn’t really an M&E or a project management task though – this was just the stuff we ended up with on paper. The real challenge (as always) was in getting the change in approach embedded in everything Shaishav did. This meant plenty of out-right arguments with my supervisor, who welcomed challenges to her work and engaged fully with all her volunteers. Despite feeling like I was losing the plot and incapable of making myself understood, eventually we got there. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this in a short placement, so I was glad to be there for 6 months and would have been pretty frustrated if I’d left earlier. Never underestimate how long it takes to get your head around things and start being able to give back to your host organisation.
I knew I wanted a placement that would stretch me – not just life in a big city where I could have lots of western friends and get everything I was used to. Provincial India certainly provides that. On a bad day, this means being so overwhelmed by people staring that I wanted to dig a hole in the street and stay there. It means that your best friend on your block is one of the street dogs who looks a bit less savage than the rest. On a good day it means living a life you couldn’t dream up even from the best-written guide books, travel programmes or your own imagination. I’m grateful to Shaishav for providing that opportunity.
See Ali’s previous blog post here.