Posted by: lilyhamburger | February 15, 2010

Tribal Titwa and the Gandhi Fair

Ok, now I will try and describe my latest adventure. Basically I was just chillin with my tribal friends that I share my guesthouse here with – Madhu ben and Bupendra bhai, a married couple who work basically to make the world better for tribal people. They are tribal by background but have spent most of their lives out of the village and are more educated and stuff, and they are some of my closest friends where I live – actually they are a pretty big part of my life. On Wednesday Bupa and I drove to meet Madhu in their village, and we stayed overnight and the next day I accompanied Madhu and of her several female friends to a festival celebrating Gandhian lifestyles (more coming on that) where they were running a program on women’s issues. We stayed overnight, then went back to the house, then went home w fun stops along the way….

First, the house: as per tradition the land has been passed from eldest son to eldest son for generations. Today, it’s a cement structure painted blue and home to Bupa’s parents, older brother and fam, and Bupa’s eldest son and wife. And 4 cows, which get a lot of attention 🙂 They farm rice, sugar cane, peas, and a species of egg plants that are GIANT. And grass for the cows. One of my favorite things about the place was the fruit trees surrounding the fields – oranges, limes, star fruit, guava, coconut, sweet brown balls that I don’t think exist in English, and smaller sour balls that I also don’t think exist in English. We had fish – a non-veg treat! – bought from a man down by the riverside who gutted it on the spot for us – and ginger pickle for dinner, sitting around on the kitchen floor. I watched Madhu and Himansu, their son, milk the cows, and then accompanied Himansu to the milk collective office where it was weighed and they got a receipt for what they’d delivered. Bupa showed me the biogas system he’d made himself, which had served the kitchen for 25 years without a single failure! We made an appearance at the neighborhood volleyball court (I sat out they were too good), I slept under the mosquito net with their daughter-in-law, Pinki J I the morning I had tea made from the cows’ milk and a delicious sweet brown tribal mush called “seero“.

Ok so the festival was about Gandhi, who is this great big figure. But he is still more than a memory in India, and I learned that his philosophies about India being self-sufficient and stuff (born from the movement to oust the British) are connected to tribal rights today because celebrating Indian culture means celebrating indigenous tribal culture. (At the fair I saw group after group of kids – some absolutely tiny and adorable – in traditional Gujarati garb doing the “garba,“ the tribal dance of the region which involves clapping and/or hitting two wooden sticks together on the beat.) ALSO being self-sufficient means using the land and natural resources wisely, which are totally applicable to today’s environmental movement and natural resource crunch (thanks to the incredible ability of us Americans to consume consume consume). Land use issues are also tied up with complex histories of propriety that many tribal activists are consumed by in this area – compare to Native American land rights issues in the US. But also add the caste system and British rule for a while… Some of the issues that came up in these women’s speeches (which I understood in Gujarati how cool is THAT?!) touched on familiar issues – organic farming, using cloth bags instead of plastic, and considering the source of your dress material. The Gandhians wear “khadi,” the homespun cotton that the dude used to spend hours spinning daily – and insisted that others do the same. Synthetic polyester and processed cotton uses a lot more water and other resources to produce. But seriously, what they were talking about bore uncanny resemblance to what all the crunchy and khaki Middlebury environmentalists beat their dead horses for, and what is being talked about around middle-class dinner tables across America.

Around the fair people were selling kadhi and locally produced sweets and treats. Ice cream from a dairy coop, cookies made from a millet popular in this area, etc. (I got a sari for my mama.) Ironically, just outside the fair there was another sort of fair which sold only trashy plastic kids toys and all kinds of your typical Indian street food – behl, pani puri, fried spirals of sugary dough, fried balls of this and that, and fruits of every shape, size and color. (To make Gujarati behl in any American home, mix rice krispies cereal with your favorite sauces, diced tomatoes and potatoes, and sprinkle potato chip crumbs and cilantro on top! The sauces are key…choose wisely.)

Another part of the experience was seeing Madhuben in action – overseeing payments to women from a micro-banking program she runs, and running into co-activists and friends, and women who she’s helped through her community organizing work. (Her phone rings non-stop because she works with so many women in various villages, setting up income-generating activities, saving schemes, and helping solve local problems of child care, electricity, husband issues, etc.) We stayed overnight with one woman who’s name sounded like “Baby” to me – which means we called her Baby Ben! Hahahaha! She lived in an apartment and made us a delicious meal which we ate at a table (NOT customary – obviously just because of me) while she watched us….she slept in her gorgeous sari on the floor with her daughter while Madhuben and I slept on the beds-that-double-as-sofas, and then men in the family slept in the other room. She was super nice to me and I loved her house because it had a bathroom and soap, which I’d gone all day without…In the morning we left around 7:30 and had tea by the side of the road with another tribal activist while we waited for the bus. In broken Gujarati or translating through Madhu’s fragments of English I asked lots of questions and thought about how rad my life was as the day unfolded on that street corner…barber shops, washing store fronts, tea stalls, camels and bullock carts heading to the fields, vegetables heading for markets, trucks heading back to the highways…

We were soon seated on a bus – gloriously uncrowded, a rarity in these parts – with a sunny breezy window seat. We watched fields and rivers and villages roll by, and comparing crops in America and Gujarat…soon I pulled out of Madhu ben this incredible tragedy of her childhood: she is the eldest girl and second child in a family of 8. Her mother died when she was 14, and the youngest sibling was just 2 months old. They left the farm and moved to the city, but her father soon remarried a woman who refused to care for his children, which left Madhu in charge. One year she didn’t attend school because she had to take care of the baby, but she stayed enrolled, studied from home and passed her exams anyway. With help from sympathetic neighbors who helped out, all the children in the family went to school, stayed clothed and fed (most of the time) and worked in other people’s homes (cleaning , etc) to make money.

Attach that beginning to a picture of a woman who now must be close to 60 who has raised 2 sons who are fully educated (one of whom also works at an NGO teaching computers to tribal students) and who works tirelessly to help hundreds of women solve their problems and teach them about collective action through “SHGs” – self help groups. Respect, Madhuben, respect. And those were the only words I found for her as she wiped away the seeds of tears and we opened our bag of banana chips and a newspaper roll of cashews.

As if things hadn’t been intellectually and emotionally intense enough already, I learned more back at Bupa’s family home. I sat on the porch swing with his niece and him and heard the family history as bullock cart drivers descended from their towers of sugar cane to drink from the well in the yard – their water is notoriously sweet. Somehow we got to talking about philosophies of rural development in a tangled Gujarati and English mix, a conversation that lasted late into the night. We discussed the materialism of America, the threat of capitalism to indigenous cultures worldwide, and what “good” development looks like. (Bupa believes in communalism but not socialism, and he thinks the best education comes from outside the classroom. He hates school.) Madhuben gave me a kadhi bag from the fair that had a list of save-the-earth practices, which I practiced reading in Gujarati.

Side-adventures on the way home included visits to another NGO, a natural hot springs, outdoor kitchen appliance market, visit to distant relative where I was peer-pressured into drinking lemonade made from unfiltered water (no diarrhea! I’m officially Indian!), and the most delicious roadside snack stand.

In general, I am constantly becoming more comfortable in my oh-so-obviously-temporary Indian life, and constantly deepening and shaping relationships with people around me. Living here can be challenging, awkward, and sometimes uncomfortable, especially with the language barrier, but mostly I am incredibly truly happy. As the initial shock of landing myself in a place so different from the reality I formerly knew, I am seeing the commonality in all humanity in spite of all the different ways we have found to live our lives. India is showing me the incredible duality of simplicity and complexity: within Gujarat alone (itself alone the size of France) there are so many layers of wealth, education, language, religion, family structures, geography, etc. that it makes my head spin. I am SO lucky that I have the freedom to choose where and how I live my life, and I picked up some important lifestyle ideas this week. Making mango chutney straight from the tree while you’re still in your pijamas and singing ain’t a bad addition either.

pictures are going on picasa – but here are a few to give you a taste:

Posted by: lilyhamburger | January 28, 2010

The End of the Earth and Other Special Things

Today I went to the end of the earth. We packed my new slideshow with all the basic hygiene messages into the jeep with a projector, screen, car battery and a slew of extension cords and headed to a region called Vavar, which I’ve been to before. We stopped at the usual tea stall before heading into the “interior” and then started down a new road. The pavement became spotty and then disappeared entirely, and I kept presuming we would arrive soon. But we just kept driving….across a river, past fields of sesame, peanuts, sugar, peas and grains, people making bricks or repairing thatch, wells and bore pumps, peacocks, schools, an occasional temple and a completely abandoned and dilapidated government health center, stopping only for cows and goats that temporarily blocked the way.

Finally we got to Malgar, the village where one health worker lives. His name is Chendar and I’ve gotten to know him a little through planning these health education sessions. Now that I’ve seen where he comes from, my respect for what he’s doing has at least quadrupled. He had only practiced giving this presentation once before today, and that was perhaps the first time he spoke in front of a large group of people. This time he was operating in two languages: he spoke Gujarati to us and read the Gujarati titles on the slides, then explained about scabes, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, etc. in the local dialect of Maharathi (the language of Maharastra, the neighboring state which is visible from Chendar bhai’s house).

First, we set up: a slew of men navigated the mess of loose wires that connected the electricity (when the power cut out in the middle of the presentation I was grateful for the car battery-inverter back-up! We have needed that system each of the 3 times we‘ve done this presentation now.) I got the laptop up and going and helped hang ARCH’s old primary disease posters on a string around the porch where the presentation was held. My new posters are going to be printed in Mumbai next week!

Though this meeting had been designed for “selected leaders” in the village, about 100 people piled onto this veranda (which is a Sanskrit word!) to see the show. Chendar bhai gave a great intro describing why we were there and how we are planning to do health education sessions in the village over the next 6 months. He talked about how much money they spend on treatments for illnesses, and a representative from each “falia” (neighborhood) stood and introduced himself. None of the women did that. Chendar presented the slides gracefully for someone with so little public speaking experience. He had a little help here and there from Sarad, who also speaks the tribal language, but one of the rewards of this program is seeing the development of leadership skills in this one enthusiastic and broad-smiling health worker.

We had to skip the health song Madhu ben wrote because it’s in Gujarati and they wouldn’t understand, but we asked the villagers to sing one instead to open the meeting. (By the end of the meeting when “nasto” (snack) was served on scraps of newspaper to each participant, Madhu had translated a few verses and taught the song anyway.) When we asked who had a bathroom, no one raised their hand. No one had nail clippers or towels or hankies (like every other Indian person I met!), and about ¾ said they had soap at home. When we walked across the fallow fields of sugar and grains and watched men, women and children carrying water, firewood and crops across great distances just for a daily meal, using a ladle instead of your hand to scoop drinking water seemed like a trivial thing to worry about. Mosquito nets to ward off malaria? Yeah right. I wonder how easy it would be to get some leafy greens growing here when there is water … nutrition deficiencies (like anemia) and resulting conditions like blindness, goiters and body aching are rampant.

Chendar’s house is beautiful, though, swarming with children of all his relatives and baby chickens, cats and cows as well J It’s a mud house with traditional tribal architecture and cooking utensils. They use some of their precious water to grow cashew and mango trees out front, and we had a wonderful sesame-peanut salsa with our potato-eggplant meal. Maharathi music wafted over FM waves, and we laughed and talked until we had to hit the road…I mean….bumpy path back to the highway.

Since I titled this post “…and other special things,” I will list em here:

1. One evening, groping desperately for any form of exercise, I walked to the school next door and found Bupa teaching Rashad bhai how to play volleyball. I joined in and so did Saroj ben and Mayur bhai. Soon I had invented a game of keep away w basketball style dribbling. We were wailing with laughter and soon about 35 high school girls were on the sidelines giggling at the ridiculous group of “adults.” Great exercise!

2. I took several trips to the district police station in Valsad for a particular lesson in Indian bureaucracy. Some of you may recall that before coming to India I had a little trouble getting my visa in a timely manner….déjà vu! Only this time I found myself face to face with a humble Guarati-speaking man who, like everyone else, is all smiles in spite of spending his day buried in stacks of unorganized papers, charts that he draws himself with a ruler, and a basket full of enough rubber stamps to feed a small village (if people ate rubber stamps)!

3. On Sunday, a free day for once, my advasi (tribal caste) guest house mates took me out. I didn’t really know where we were going, but we took off in Bupa’s rickety van through the usual gorgeous scenery of yellow fields of grazing buffalo, green irrigated plots, and bursts of colorful flowers that absolutely reach straight into my heart and pull the strings. We drove for a few hours and stopped for fruit and to watch a mini train go by…through a nature preserve (didn’t see the tigers), and eventually arrived at a gorgeous ravine and waterfall! Not only that, but – of course this is India afterall – a temple. Yes there was the usual temple above ground, but below the waterfall there was a little cave where minerals were forming elephant-shaped drizzles from the ceiling. The gods also reside there. Because my friends are not Hindus, we could all observe the temple from a secular point of view. But we all wanted to pray in this cave – apparently it’s where young people come to pray that their boyfriend or girlfriend will love them very much! Ha ha! They joked that when I come back with my boyfriend I will have them to thank for bringing me there 😉

4. Jan 26 is Republic Day in India, the commemoration of the ratification of the constitution. Basically offices close and every primary school puts on a big hooplah of cultural programs and “garbas” (performed dances). Dharampur got decked out. Christmas lights (I wish there were another way to describe them but you might not get it if I wrote “republic day lights”) were strung from rooftops along the main road into town in stripes of orange, white and green, the colors of the Indian flag. Also, there were lighted peacocks whose tails flashed like some kind of Times Square fixture. I spent the day in Valsad with my German friends who are here for another month. We climbed to the top of a hill (temple) and went to the sea beach (temple there, too, of course) where there is a hilarious smattering of food stalls (grilled corn, coconut w a straw in it, shaved ice – not for western stomachs, fruit, pani puri, roasted nuts, and the usual packaged chana, chips, biscuits) and men selling cheap plastic toys. I was so tickled by this scene on the expanse of black sand! There was a group of guys gathered around and when we got closer we saw it was a version of potato sack racing….without the race….just knocking each other down! I really wanted to ride a camel…next time.

i put some pics up. check em out.

Posted by: lilyhamburger | January 21, 2010

henna pics as requested

henna is called mehndi here. its usually put on for weddings – all the women in the family put it on – but the girls at the school next door love to do it for fun – lucky me!! these photos are from my channukah/christmas celebration with some german folks that lived next door for my first few months here but left before the new year.

today there was a big camp at ARCH where specialists from america (eye, dental, pediatrics, oncology, etc.) treated hundreds of patients….but they were all indian americans. i remain the only white girl for hundreds of kilometers, but as time goes by it all feels less and less foriegn…!

Posted by: lilyhamburger | January 17, 2010

picasa page for pictures


i came back to d’pur this week after the most intense adventure – i travelled around gujarat with 50 young teachers, none of whom spoke english. for 5 days we did a whirlwind of educational facilities, NGOs, ashrams, temples, natural wonders and historical sights. i learned a ton and saw so much, reaffirming the incredible diversity of life in india. at the end, completely exhausted, i met up with some other AJWS fellows and spend a day with them in Ahmedabad where – like all over the country – utatrayan, the national kite festival was celebrated. Mostly, I was simply thrilled to let loose with people who speak my language! Phew!

before i sit down to blog all about it, i want to tell you that i am going to use a picasa site to post pictures, simply because it lets me upload several at a time and this site doesn’t. so check this out:

More to come soon, but it’s time for tea 🙂 oh quickly, though, the highlight of my day yesterday was doing the hokey pokey with 15 10-12 year olds who were on my campus for a math training. the teacher asked me to come teach them head, shoulders, knees and toes (which i had done before) and after i did so they shared some songs with me in hindi, gujarati, and kognii, their tribal language. they had a hindi version of the hokey pokey that involved acting like a monster with horns at some point. haha! so i couldn’t resist telling them what it’s all about… 🙂

Posted by: lilyhamburger | January 9, 2010


HAPPY NEW YEAR! I celebrated the turning of the decade by making 150 ladoos (yummy sweets made from gram flour) on the kitchen floor, and then watching a little lunar eclipse on the roof while eating “chana” and “dhana” (dried chick peas and peanuts) as a full moon prayer service echoed in the distance. Before the adventures – culinary and otherwise – distract me, I want to tell you a little bit about the work I am doing here at ARCH. I’m teaching English to the staff, and hoping to start work on the website ASAP, but mostly I’m helping with a community health project. It’s like a dream come true for me. But I’m about to get serious, are you ready?

Before I arrived, community health staff here had started doing direct education sessions in the villages to teach people about basic hygiene and preventing common illnesses like scabies and diarrhea. But they were going out and giving a slideshow lecture that lasted over an hour, and villagers weren’t really inspired to change their behaviors. So they asked me to come up with ideas to actually get people to change and adopt behaviors like washing hands, bathing with soap and a clean towel, washing clothes, covering food and drinking water, etc. When this project idea was first outlined for me, my brother reacted as a brother only should: “YOU are teaching about hygiene?!” Yes.

As you can imagine, explaining the reasons behind these behaviors to people without any concept of germ theory and a completely different outlook on the world, not to mention personal hygiene, is difficult. It requires a lot of creativity about communicating new concepts to people with zero education and a very short-term view of actions and consequences (i.e. no concept of prevention, only “I am sick so I need medicine”). I could not come up with a way to teach villagers without input from people here who know more about their perspective than I do – experienced staff and people from the villages.

First, I made this up using some hints from similar projects I read about online:

Steps to creating an effective behavior change program:

1. identify ideal behaviors

2. identify current behaviors

3. identify constraints for each ideal behavior (beliefs and logistics)

4. identify possible solutions

5. develop communication strategy for introducing solutions

I talked these steps through with the ARCH community health higher-ups (spontaneously, one Sunday that I thought was a day off…there is NO advance planning in my work life it’s slightly insane). Here is what we came up with – mostly it’s a reorganization of what they have been working with already:

Common Illnesses Ideal Prevention Behaviors
A. Skin Infections

– scabies

– lice

– ringworm

– boils

– daily bath with soap and plenty of water

– separate, clean towel

– clean clothes daily

– closed bathroom

– head bath once per week

B. Gastro-intestinal

– Diarrhea

– Amoebiosis

– Worms

– Abdominal pain

– Acidity

– toilet

– safe drinking water = safe source and safe handling

– safe food = fresh and covered; clean kitchen

– hand washing (before and after certain activities)

– cutting finger nails

– hydration for diarrhea

C. Malaria and fever – no open stagnant water

– spray DDT

– gambuzi fish

– mosquito net

– chloroquine at monsoon

D. Respiratory

– Cough and cold

– Pneumonia

– ventilation of house

– avoid kitchen fumes

– separate handkerchiefs

– hand washing

– immediate treatment

E. Deficiency diseases

– Anemia

– Night blindness

– Goiters

– Child malnutrition

– nutritious diet rich in iron, iodized salt (yellow fruits and green vegetables)

– grow vegetables at home

– treat worms

– iron tablets for women

– identify anemia as illness

– vitamin A supplement

– breastfeeding from day 1 and supplementary food at 5-6 months

– infant immunization

– immediate treatment

F. Oral hygiene – brush teeth twice per day

– rinse mouth after meals

– eliminate bad habits such as tobacco and sweets

– treat problems

They picked out three villages to pilot this project in based on where the most competent field staff are. We drafted a plan for a program that involved teaching key messages for one health topic each month. I was then asked to plan a meeting to discuss the plan as well as communication strategies with supervisors from the villages. I brainstormed all the strategies I know about communication and motivating people. Guys I was thinking back to my 9th grade CAP classes (don’t put too much text on one slide) and all the way up to coaching Takoma Fire softball (positivity motivates!). It was so invigorating to feel like my education, my personality, and my professional experiences had all provided me with skills to contribute substantively to this effort. I have never felt that before.

At the meeting with the village supervisors, first we went through the ideal behaviors and barriers, which yielded a lot of insights from the village supervisors! I was so happy that they felt comfortable talking and had things to contribute because a lot of the time the health workers don’t. And I felt like ARCH staff was running the meeting but using my methodology and it was working. Don’t get me wrong, the language barrier was agonizing, but we learned a lot from each other I think and came up with some good strategies for the program. We listed activity ideas for teaching about health topics and engaging villagers in the messages instead of lecturing them. The revised program looks like this:

Community Health Awareness Program 2010

Timeline and Plan Outline

(Revised 28 December 2009)

This pilot program will be conducted in 3 villages over the next 6 months. After evaluation and revisions are complete in August 2010 the program will be repeated in other villages in ARCH project areas. The pilot villages and staff are as follows:

1. Malgar – Chandar Bhai (HW) and Sarad Bhai (coordinator)

2. Mamabhacha – Purvi Ben (HW) and Ramesh Bhai (coordinator)

3. Nagariya – Madhu Ben (HW) and Mayur Bhai (coordinator)

Program outline:

1) Meet with key persons in each village

a) The HW and coordinator will select influential villagers to attend an introductory meeting in the first month (Jan 2010).

b) All ARCH community health staff will attend, including all HWs from the area.

c) At this meeting, the Ideal Behaviors – Practical Solutions dialogue activity will be conducted, and all primary disease prevention messages will be summarized using posters and picture reading as an overview of what is to come.

d) HWs will practice conducting this meeting when the HW meeting is held at the beginning of the month. Then all HWs will be introduced to the communication methods.

2) Introductory meeting with each hamlet

a) In the second month (Feb 2010), HWs and coordinators will conduct an introduction to prevention and improving village health in each hamlet of the village (or those which are accessible).

b) ARCH community health supervisors will attend the first of these orientation meetings, and the subsequent meetings will be conducted by the HW and coordinator alone.

c) At this meeting, a foundation of dialogue and open communication will be established. Few messages will be delivered, but the concepts of prevention and improving health should be discussed. HWs and coordinators should clearly state their role so villagers do not get the wrong impression of why we are coming.

3) Topic-specific meetings each month

a) At the beginning of each month, one primary disease is introduced to each village with 2 to 3 key prevention messages.

b) This presentation is conducted by the HW in each village, and ARCH community health supervisors are present for the first meeting of the month.

c) Interactive activities are used to engage villagers and explain the key behavior change messages.

d) One activity each meeting will focus on germ theory and/or the concepts of clean and dirty.

e) When a key behavior is introduced that may require a new household item, such as soap, towels, a ladle, etc., ARCH should sell items at a subsidized cost at the session, and inform villagers that these items are always available with the HW, just like the medicines.

4) Follow-up activities each month

a) In the weeks following the introduction, the HW and coordinator will conduct follow-up activities – planned in advance for each village – to reinforce the focus messages of that particular month, and to personalize prevention solutions for villagers.

b) HWs try to reach as many villagers as possible through these activities, and will visit each hamlet to observe behaviors.

c) HWs are compensated for their efforts.

5) Reporting and planning meeting

a) At the end of each month, HWs and coordinators report back to ARCH community health staff about their experiences. Together they record barriers as well as progress in each village.

b) Using the experiences of the last month, plans will be made for the next month’s activities.

In this pilot program, health topics will be introduced according to the season in which they are relevant. The calendar as it stands now:

January Introduction for selected people
19 Nagariya
25 Mamabhacha
27 Malgar
29 Reporting and planning (all at ARCH)
February Hamlet-wise intro meetings
Nagariya (first day)
11 Malgar (first day)
17 Mamabhacha (first day)
March Skin and oral hygiene
April Respiratory
May G.I.
June Deficiency diseases
July Malaria
August Evaluation and planning next phase

If you’re still reading, I can’t believe it. Hopefully you skimmed some of that…. Anyways I have been working hard on some visuals – refreshin the ol’ Photoshop skills – to use at the introductory meetings. I got them ready for the supervisors to practice on the health workers this week. Watching the ARCH staff coach this 40 year old on public speaking was not only a reminder of the incredible quality of education I take for granted, but also of the little moments of empowerment that come to individuals in unlikely places.

It’s a whirlwind of unplanned planning sessions, transferring files from one computer to another on a pen drive, and trying to strategize for this impossible task with people who barely speak my language. But it feels like everything in my life as someone who dreams of adventures, improving people’s lives, communicating across cultures, and learning about the world has lead me to this. I can’t believe how lucky I am.

That’s all for now, I’m off on a 4 day tour of Gujarat with 50 teachers tonight and ending at the national kite festival in Ahmedabad with my American friends!

Posted by: lilyhamburger | December 28, 2009

a day in my life…2 weeks ago

In lieu of writing about every one of the millions of incredible moments I wish I could post to the internet in all forms of interactive media, I will tell you about one great day in my life recently. I think it was last Friday.

I had been up late the night before (late = 10:30pm) discussing my ideas on improving communication strategies for a community health awareness program to preventing common primary diseases, so I slept in (until 7:15) rather than getting up earlier for yoga or a walk around my village. I had tea and heated up some leftover chapatti for breakfast, and got in the jeep around 8:30am. Saeed bhai drove Jaya ben and I into Dharampur town where we filled up with petrol and picked up Paresh bhai at his house. Paresh hadn’t had his chai yet – probably because he was taking extra time to look super fresh in a bright purple button down and pressed slacks for the day’s activities – so we stopped right outside the town gate to have the usual sugary milk with a tiny bit of tea in it (we drink this concoction out of the saucer, not the cup, just in case you were presuming otherwise). We were on our way to Mamabhacha, one of ARCH’s project villages, for the monthly mobile clinic.

We arrived about an hour or so later at the home of one of the village health workers. Before setting up shop in her front yard, the health worker’s husband showed us the main attraction in their neighborhood: inside a shack made of cow dung, woven strips of wood, and sheets of re-used plastic there was a giant loom, and about 16 people were behind it working on a carpet. Jaya ben, a nurse at ARCH, jumped right in with a little scythe and listened to the dude calling out color-by-number codes to direct the creation of the intricate patterns of this woolen masterpiece. It will take 10 months to finish that rug.

At the healthworker’s house Paresh bhai, who is not a doctor, set up a little desk and carefully placed his stethoscope on it. That marked the examining room. On a bed, Saeed bhai and Ramesh – the coordinator in Mamabhacha – spread out their mobile drug store. Not a single patient walked away without drugs. Finally, Jaya ben was in charge of registering the patients as they showed up, and she greeted people through a window in the front porch and entered their names, ages, and village names into a notebook in Gujarati. Throughout this process Jaya ben and the two female health workers present translated for people who spoke only Kognii, the local tribal dialect. Patients of all ages showed up, but many complaints were the same: a lot of people suffer from malnurishment, so there are a lot of old people going blind, adults with body aches, and women who feel weak and tired. It’s not malaria season, but a lot of kids have respiratory problems this time of year, and dystentary is a chronic problem for patients of all ages. People were examined and told what to do, sent to the “drug store”, and asked to pay an extremely nominal fee (basically just on the principle of not providing services or medicines for free).

The whole scene was quite a hoot. As the day wore on we had more tea, and peacocks strolled in and out. Clouds moved over the fruit trees and drying piles of rice and grains surrounding this little hamlet, and the sounds of babies, cows, and birds dotted the peace of the hilly countryside. Most striking about the whole situation is that there was not anyone with a medical degree for about a hundred kilometers.

On the way home Saeed wanted to give the jeep a wash, so we drove straight into the river. I got out and played around on the rocks as men worked on a dam nearby, and other trucks came and went through our little stream. My three co-workers were so much fun, making fun of each other and playing around with our language barriers and the task of cleaning the jeep. As we were getting ready to leave, a big diesel truck pulled through next to us. As if he had timed it with my pondering, just then Paresh bhai said, “this water very clean.”

We got back to ARCH just in time for my 5:00 English class. But first I had to wade through a gaggle of health workers in extreme-pink sarees, who fondly “remember you!” from our meeting in their village about 10 days prior. At that meeting they had told me amid giggles that I was the first American they ever met, and they were psyched to take a rickshaw ride around the bumpy roads of their village with me. Today there were about 50 of them – men and women – gathered for a training, and whoa how the energy of our quiet little campus changed! I could barely break away to teach my class and join in the subsequent volleyball game, which has become the most consistent event in my life. The male health workers joined that night (I am used to being the only female out there – a lone burst of colorful dress among button-downs and slacks), and it was fun to have a full court for our nightly double-header.

After sitting with the health workers (on the floor) for dinner (rice, dal, vegetable stew, and chapatti), a broke away to keep an appointment with some friends. At the girls’ school next door to ARCH, all 85 teenage students wanted to adorn me and the two German volunteers there with henna (known here as mehndi). So I escaped the health workers’ cultural programs of the evening and snuck down the path to KD School, where Suzie, Sabrina and I sat for hours while the girls – and one teacher – covered our arms and legs in endless henna. As it was drying, the teacher ordered someone to mix lemon juice with sugar and apply it to the designs. I have no idea why, but what a sticky mess! The girls at KD are incredibly sweet; I always leave them with my face aching from smiling J

I came back to my room and climbed into my mosquito-netted bed, which is hard as rock. Somehow, at the end of every day here, I am so exhausted that it doesn’t seem to matter. Even if there are 50 singing middle school children practicing for their science drama comptetion in the room next door…

Posted by: lilyhamburger | December 7, 2009

Peeling back layers


1. getting peed on by a baby at a health worker meeting

2. car rides to and from villages through rice and sugar cane fields with my awesome co-workers

3. playing simon says (sans simon, that was way too comlicated)

4. one of the kitchen women asking me what the TP in my room was. "tissue" i replied. then she wanted to know what it was for…

5. field trip to giant temple with huge statues and a cave that made it feel like a hindu mini-golf course

The big event in Dharampur this week is a gas line being laid along the main road to town. I think the villagers are doing the labor themselves…it’s quite the operation!

Every day of the last 2 weeks has been packed with new words, sights, people, concepts and experiences that I feel like I’ve been here way longer than only 2 weeks. I have settled into my little perch above the offices, and my co-workers and I have grown accustomed to smiling at each other through the language barrier, and helping each other along. It still feels like a thrill to wake up every morning in India, but the more time goes by the more layers of India I peel back to reveal the complexities of Gujarat, southern Gujarat, Dharampur, and each of the three areas of villages that ARCH works in.

I cannot describe how exciting and inspiring it is to be observing the health education programs that ARCH is performing in these villages. In order to prepare myself to create an effective health education program of my own – that I will design with the directors of the organization – I am observing all the activities that ARCH conducts. I have seen direct health education sessions, where we drive out to a village and give a presentation to a group of gathered villagers on topics such as hygiene and preventing illnesses, menstruation, and the reproductive cycle. I have seen health worker meetings where the supervisors check in with the workers regarding what they are seeing in the villages, their treatment procedures and questions they have. It’s amazing – the health workers have high school education only and they are the primary health care providers in these extremely remote hamlets. ARCH is struggling to keep them on top of correct diagnoses, treatments, and record-keeping, as well as convincing people WHY they should wash their hands and vaccinate their children. One important health issue is anemia, especially dangerous to pregnant women, and its caused by nutrient deficiency. One ARCH staff member told me that the iron tablets they give to treat anemia is the best solution to this common deficiency disease since its cheap for ARCH to provide, and patients can’t afford the necessary fruits and vegetables to prevent the illness.

Finally, I have to tell you about the training I attended for daiyen, the traditional birth attendants. About 20-25 old women showed up to the home of one of the health workers in a village in Mancunia, an area where ARCH is partnering with the government and some other NGOs to improve mother and child health. These women were such a hoot. Their broad smiles were often toothless and their skin was leathery and weathered. They jingled with jewelry and they were dressed in a rainbow of saris and traditional Maharathi sari-tied-into-pants get-up. Many had tattoos on their faces and bright red bindis on their foreheads, and their silvery hair was braided, sometimes with a bit of cloth weaved in. They were super chit-chatty and smiley, and Sarad Bhai, who was conducting the training, had to shush them repeatedly. The session felt like a Baptist church service at times because women were constantly shouting out affirmative responses or repeated Sarad’s words as he showed posters of babies in utero and held up models to explain birth. The dayen speak only Kognii, their tribal dialect, but through broken Gujarati I was able to communicate to a health worker who then translated so I could have a little conversation with a few of them. Because of the visual aids I could get what Sarad was telling them, and I learned how to deliver a baby in a village hut! Who needs med school?!

These old ladies conduct births with zero knowledge of anatomy or what’s goin on in there, so there are many misconceptions about things that lead to unhealthy outcomes for mothers or children. For example, they think lower birth weights are better because delivery is easier. They think a mother shouldn’t eat many things while pregnant because the baby will get too big, or turn the color of the food she eats. So no milk or curd (yogurt). The delivery process is definitely not sanitary – no hand washing, etc – and there are different beliefs about when the proper time to bathe a new-born is. ARCH is working on convincing mothers to use the hospitals for deliveries, or at least get a trained dai to attend the home-births. But changing practices like these that are so rooted in habit and in culture are hard to change.

One of the things I think I am going to be able to contribute to ARCH is some ideas for reaching people based on my experiences doing educational campaigns and community organizing stuff at home. I realize more and more every day things I take for granted about my education – critical thinking skills, confidence in speaking in front of a group, the ability to analyze a situation and draw conclusions, etc. Even motivational strategies from coaching are going to come in to play I think. The process of teaching people these basic health things is complicated – we are replacing old practices with new ones, and who are we to be telling people what to do? Many of the health issues they face are accepted as a part of life, God’s will, etc., so why should they now become concerned about them? There is a moral question constantly in the background of this work, I think, about respecting tribal people while simultaneously trying to change them. In the face of people’s “misconceptions” about health, and sometimes a strong aversion to adopting new practices or beliefs, we have to be sure of our fundamental mission that basic health is necessary and good, and that learning basic science of the human body and reproduction is something people should have to improve their lives.

Posted by: lilyhamburger | December 2, 2009

My contact info:

Lily Hamburger
c/o ARCH
Nagaria Dharampur
District Valsad
396050 Gujarat India

to call my mobile from USA (when i have service…it works in my room!): 011-91-957-448-1264

Posted by: lilyhamburger | November 26, 2009


Today is the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, so Mayur Bhai asked me to postpone my celebration of Thanksgiving. However, when he came to greet me this morning he said "THANK YOU LILY!" with a big smile on his face. I was confused. "It is Thanksgiving Day!" He said. Tomorrow I am going to see what I can whip up American style. Maybe i will try the solar cooker!

To commemorate the attacks, this morning we all gathered in the training room and Mayur spoke a bit (in Gujarati), and then we all prayed. We say cross-legged in a circle and sat staight up and "om"-ed. It was powerful. Then everyone was really emotional and I couldn’t understand what was being said, but afterwards Mayur explained that they had decided to have all-staff meetings for 10 minutes each morning. Every day. I think that’s awesome…we’ll see how long it lasts. If my daily English class is any indication, interest will only grow as days go by.

The routine here has not become routine. Every day is different, and new people come and go. Yesterday Modu Bena and her husband showed up, as well as another German dude doing environmental education at the girls school next door. I went out for "soda" last night with Modu and Saroj, a teacher at the school. Ew. It was lemon water with tumeric and salt thrust into a barely functional carbonation machine in a roadside cart. Blech.

I am getting used to some things. At breakfast every morning Umaa Ben, one of the cooks puts a Bindi (red dot) on her daughter’s forhead, and then on mine. Madvii, the 5 year old daughter, and I cannot use words to communicate but we just giggle and smile at each other while I am served chai and something to eat. The mush is my favorite, but one morning Umaa literally picked leaves off a tree, deep fried them, and served them to me on a plate.

Mayur wakes up at 5:30 or 6 am, and one morning I got up to do yoga with him. Today I opted for walking with Modu Ben instead – and I set the time for 7 instead… At 8:30 i go down and wait for the kitchen to open, and at 9 work begins. I have been spending some time organizing the collection of DVDs about health topics, which, despite being disorganized, are quite impressive teaching tools. Since people are often illiterate in the villages, or not Gujarati speakers, they are interested in creating more audio-visual health education material. I have seen it in action – it’s amazing.
Imagine: you walk into a dark room in a hut made of cow dung and mud. There are two rustic beds and a chair, and then in the far corner a shiny DVD player and little TV. Hilarious Maharati music videos streaming on TV, and then villagers begin to pour into the room. The TV shuts off and the strangers are introduced. Mayur Bhai uses posters to introduce sensitive topics like menstration and family planning. Then two DVDs are played – one on how to deal with complications during pregnancy, and the next on debunking myths about menstration. It was incredible to see how riveted many people were – most were hearing some of the info for the first time. Of course, there were giggles from adolescents and the young men JETTED from the room as soon as the lights went up – haha. Took me back to 6th grade health class… 🙂

There are child development classes held at ARCH in the morning, so I am surrounded by the pitter patter of little feet and little voices screaming out songs about numbers in Gujarati. One morning Mayur sat me in the preschool class and told the teacher I was a new student. I learned 3 colors!!

Each day at 5 I teach English class, which is fun. I make the staff practice by conversing with each other and we laugh and laugh at people’s mistakes. It is helping my Gujarati, too 🙂 After class, at 6, Mayur and I walk up to the highway and back – about 30 minutes. Then we eat dinner at 7:30 and talk for a bit. Communicating through the language barrier is a fun challenge, but Mayur and I have had some pretty good conversations about development, India, religion, etc. With others we do some grunting, pointing, smiling, or just sitting in silence… and trying to understand each other through about 15 words of each others language…

Another fun challenge is trying not to laugh hysterically when people belch, which they do all the time. Also fart. The one cheek sneak is no secret here…

You can hear the hilarious sound of peacocks – a sacred bird – (Mayur actually means peacock) at dusk and dawn here. They sound like a cross between a dying cat and a cow. Who knew.

In mango season I will be able to pluck fruit out my window.

I have to go – time for English class. EAT SOME TURKEY FOR ME!!

Posted by: lilyhamburger | November 22, 2009

new worlds open up

This is one of those moments where I cannot think how to write about the people, places, and concepts I have seen, thought about and encountered since I last tried to capture my life in words. I feel like I have finally delved into the meat of this experience, and life seems to have unfolded hidden layers over these last few weeks. I feel like I live in India, I am more Indian, I understand what is going on around me, and little exotic nuances are becoming norms (I am still thrilled every time I see a camel, don’t get me wrong).
Things that have happened here in Gujarat will only make sense in chronological order, but I hate to jip you of details and only write the headlines of what happened, so get ready for a longy! If you’re not up for it, here’s an outline:
1. the fun, interactive, moving ways in which I learned about international development and social change at orientation – and how I bonded with the other American/Canadian peeps 
a. topics discussed: untouchability and the human rights atrocities therein; the women’s movement in India and gender and development; globalization
b. most incredible site visit to school and women’s group in villages near Ahmedabad, organized/led by Navsarjan, an AJWS partner NGO which focuses on Dalit (untouchable) rights.
2. Goodbyes in Ahmedabad:
a. Tour of the old city at night
b. My hindi teacher is a riot. Sunita ji tells her to lose weight.
c. I got super sick from south Indian food made by adorable people from the university
3. EXCITING: the NGO partners join us at the Ashram for the last 2 days of orientation
a. All the amazing places my friends are going to work!
a. Day 1 travel to meet his family and sleepover (!)
a. Saying goodbye to my new friends and how awesome our support staff is!
b. Mayur Bai continues to be the smiliest cutest man on the sub continent
c. I think sleeper trains are the shit
d. I am in love with all of India
e. Arrive at sunrise and settle in
f. Health education session in a village
g. Visiting rural school
h. Dharampur and ARCH
i. I am living a dream. One that is nestled deep in my soul that I didn’t even really know was there….?

Ok, so here I am, sitting in my new home – when was the last time I stayed in one place for 9 months?! Backtracking to a week ago at orientation is like travelling to another life. I have seen and learned so many new things since then that I can almost feel myself expanding as we speak/I type. Maybe that’s just the chapatti… Anyways, orientation got serious ya’ll. I felt like I was in school for everything that I wanted to learn – international development, social justice, advocacy and social change, non-profit management, India!, volunteerism/ethics, cross cultural communication/exchange, etc. But it was cooler than school! We had “sessions” which were led by AJWS staff and also by fellows which addressed various topics (including Judaism and group bonding stuff), and each sessions was super interactive and creative and FUN. (I led one on globalization and development with one of the other fellows, Toma. We created a scenario and had our fellow fellows act out an international debate over the building of a teleportation device.)

Many of the things we learned about came together when speakers from the Gujarati NGO community came and spoke to us about specific issues. One lady came to talk about the women’s movement and she spoke about it in the context of Indian history as well as contemporary development theories. One of the things that stuck with me from her talk was the concept that empowering women in rural India gave way not only to women’s rights but also development. Starting in the 1980s women began meeting together and taking on community issues such as drinking water or improving schools, and these things started happening. In the process of encouraging economic development, women were being socially empowered. They were mutual. Today, however, the “development sector,” which is based more on the end-goal of economic growth, has co-opted the empowerment of women into a new paradigm that de-emphasizes social change and overcoming oppression. She said women can been freed economically through microfinance, etc, but still not be socially free.

A leader from the Dalit – untouchable – community came and told us about the caste system and how he got started fighting for Dalit rights. If you can imagine the most horrible things people can do to each other – physically and emotionally – that is what upper caste people do to Dalits even today. In modern India many people are in denial about discrimination and untouchability, but it is still taught to children by their parents and reinforced by teachers in government schools. Equality and non-discrimination is in the Indian constitution, but it is not enforced. What complicates the issue is that the caste system has a religious foundation and a Dalit person might spend their life cleaning toilets – for a mild example – and not think twice about it because they believe that they deserve to be there spiritually as well as socially.
Anyway, things are complicated, but we got to visit some of the things that Martin Bai’s NGO is doing. I got to visit one of the many schools that Navsarjan has set up for Dalit children in villages near Ahmedabad. The kids are 10-12 (5-7th standard) and they were so amazingly adorable and clearly bright. We met with the teachers (all from Dalit communities in Gujarat, all trained by Navsarjan), and then with the students. The kids – after the cutest most incredible edible song and dance show – asked us questions like “Do you have discrimination in your country?” and “Why did you care to visit our school?” and when I asked through 2 translators (English to Hindi to Gujarati) what they want to do to fight discrimination they said “Get an education.” That afternoon I also got to meet with a women’s group started by Navsarjan and they told us the story of how upper caste men did horrible things to Dalit women who were washing clothes too high up stream according to caste rules. All the women in the village banded together to fight for justice – in that case in the courtroom – and then continued to advocate for drinking water for their whole village. They got water piped in from the gov’t and when it came no caste discrimination occurred at the pump ( historically Dalit women could not touch their bucket to the well water so they were at the mercy of other castes to fetch water and give it to them without touching their buckets.) These women were a colorful (literally) and rowdy bunch, beaming with smiles and laughing loudly, all the while shielding their faces from the men with their saris out of engrained modesty. One of the things Navsarjan provided was a camera and photo printing, and we got to see pics of them picketing for their water and talking to government officials. It was the most brightly colored photo I have ever seen of a political conversation.
So there is an old city in the center of the city. The architecture is kuku and there are all these secret passageways and abandoned mansions and cozy little corners of apartments. The coolest part of my wandering around there at night – besides the brightly colored birdfeeder towers in each neighborhood – were the musicians who play on top of one of the darwaza s (gates) to the old city. It’s a tradition centuries old, dating back to the time when the music served as a warning to people that the gates were closing for the night. 11pm. The lower castes lived outside the gates. We also saw the king’s tomb and women weren’t allowed inside. We walked around outside where the queens and other subordinates were interred and we were guided by a dude and his son who claim to be descendents of said king.
There is no way to sufficiently describe my Hindi teacher. Let’s just say it’s hard to see around her when she’s standing at the blackboard, and she loves to talk about herself. She has lived in the US for a while – she taught Hindi at Columbia and Stoneybrook – and she tells us about a new profession she’s had every day almost – poet, journalist, screenwriter, singer…. Towards the end of our classes she became “famous” and told us about her fan mail. Anyways, she insisted on having us over to her flat for brunch. Her husband is still in the US but her 2 daughters are with her. They are 11 and almost 14. “We are 2-country people,” she says. Anyway highlights of that cultural exchange came from her nephews who are our age who came over just as we were trying to sneak out the door. The first chatted us up about his studies in London and then taught us Punjabi dance moves to Indian MTV in the background. His brother then showed up with a guitar and belted out American songs he knew such as Radiohead’s “Creep” and he was not afraid to improvise!
Second important event was a wonderful meal with a family we know through AJWS and their cute cute mother who is 82 (nothing on Ruth!). Because we all bowed and touched her feet she loved us and showed us all her gods – the in-house temple.
India hospitality is irrefutable. I ate enough to last the rest of the fellowship at those meals!
You could feel the excitement mounting in the air at Kochrab Ashram. We made welcome signs and planned sessions, but we also were anticipating the moment of departure from the safe haven of our American orientation bubble into the reality of what we’d all signed up to do – go out into the great expanse of India all on our own?! What?!? To me, though, the moment of transition was the one I’d been waiting for.
I can’t tell you how exciting it felt when we were all sitting around Gandhi’s library conference table with our NGO counterparts at our sides. It became this bigger picture of all these incredible people doing incredible work to improve lives and save lives and repair the world – all seated in a room together. Wow. Here is a list of what people are up to:
1. Toma will be working for SNEHA in Mumbai. They do public health – services and ed – with people in the famous slums there. It sounds like amazing work and one project Toma will be working on is a mobile clinic.
2. Dave is going to Mumbai also with Sankalp, a rehab and vocational training place for IV drug users. He’ll continue a previous WPF project on computer skills for rehabbing users.
3. Alana is working for Drishti, a media collective NGO in Ahmedabad. They are SO COOL: they train people in marginalized groups – including youth – to use cameras and edit their own films. They use the films to education and mobilize the communities they come from, as well as distribute to outsiders. They partner with a lot of NGOs around India.
4. Caroline and Gabe are both going to work for KMVS, a women’s empowerment group in Bhuj, Kuchh. This org does a TON on development in Bhuj.
5. Talia is going to Pune in Maharashtra to work for EcoNet. Its name is a little misleading because their work is mostly about economic empowerment of non-pastoral nomads. The environment obviously has a lot to do with it, but it’s really a complex issue of cultural shift due to globalization!
6. Marni will continue a survey of sex-workers for Vikalp in Baroda. Vikalp is a sex-worker support NGO with off-shooting organizations to support gays and transgendered people. They are NOT socially accepted in India.
7. Andrew is also going to Bhuj and he’ll be working with Hunarshala, an international NGO (in this region) that works to rehabilitate communities struck by natural disasters. (Kutchh was hit by the earthquake a few years ago). Hunarshala is invested in creating green and beautiful places for people to rebuild their lives, and Andrew’s project has to do with teaching entrepreneurship to artisans by getting them involved in construction.
8. Hannan is going to work for Saathi, an organization that is trying to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in India. There are so many programs up and running and Hannan will be in their newest office in Nagpur, smack in the middle of nowhere India.
So we did some sessions about the expectations we all have of each other and some get-to-know you stuff. We talked about different work environments in US v. India, and some practicalities of the jobs. Mayur Bhai, my dude from ARCH, struggled the most with English. He told me he could understand about 80% of what was said and he could speak about 50% of what was on his mind. I told him his English was fine and he replied, “But can’t speak frankly.” We were able to bond a little anyway, mostly because this man has the most adorable, crooked teeth, happy little smile that he flashes unhesitantly. He is a small, dorky dude with glasses and a comb over. He’s got the nerd giggle, too  We just smiled our way through the language barrier…Here is the best part: in the evening of the first night of being together, there was some free time before dinner and everyone was awkwardly deciding what to do with each other. Mayur Bhai had told me that his family lived near Ahemedabad so I thought I was off the hook for awkward hang out time. Welllllll… when I was giving him some sweets to take to his kids, he suggested that I come along! (I’m pretty sure that he had invited me earlier but I hadn’t understood what he meant.) So, I packed an overnight bag (including TP!) and we rickshaw-ed to the bus station reviewing his kids and wife’s names: Achal, Riddi, and Beena.
On the 1.5 hour bus ride to his hometown of Nadiad, I felt so exhilarated by the fact that I was out on an adventure on my own for the first time since arriving in this foreign place. The bus was my favorite thing on earth in that moment, and there was really nothing special about it. But it was so colloquially Indian, and that’s what I think I loved. We made small talk and had a few silences, then Mayur said, “I have an idea. Posters about malaria for the health education. Can you do this?” And we got to talking about work. ARCH does health ed in villages (where they need audio visual and visual materials because people are often illiterate), but also lots of science classes for older students and child development for the tots. They treat patients at the clinic on the campus where I’ll be living, but I haven’t quite figured out who the patients are.
We arrived in Nadiad around 8 and took another rickshaw to his flat. It was in a quiet residential neighborhood and a 10 year old in looped pig tail braids came trotting down the stairs, beaming, to greet her “Abu.” His son, almost 14, spoke perfect English, and ran out to a birthday party. The scene was so familiar – asking mom and dad for money, arguing to get out of staying home for dinner with the unexpected guest. Riddi could translate for her mom but I think Beena Ben knew some English but was too shy/unpracticed to say anything. She and her neighbor laughed at my puri (fried pancake thingies) rolling skills, and then the 2 parents, Riddi and I sat down – on the kitchen floor – for dinner. It was a typical Gujarati meal: a lot of small portions of many things –my fav! We had beans, subji (stewed veggies – this happened to be potatoes), some sweet floury thing w raisins that I ate way too much of, pakoras, curry (spicy!), and then rice at the end of the meal. They had filtered water, hallelujah!
After dinner we all crammed into a little closet where they had a computer and I showed them pics of my family on facebook  The showed me photos on the computer from a recent ceremony for a young cousin/nephew – an Indian bar mitzvah?! Head shaving was the central event…but everyone was decked out in colors!!! I slept on the floor of the main room of the flat while the 2 kids slept in the bed that had doubled as a couch earlier. The sink for teeth brushing was outside on a beautiful-ish patio. It was funny to see a toothbrush holder tacked to the outside wall of a home and to brush my teeth under a sea of stars. We awoke around 5:30/6am and took turns in the shower room. The kids donned the most adorable school uniforms (Riddi’s short skirt was an unusual sight) and ate and scrambled to catch the school bus – another familiar scene  I was still full from the night before but, as I have come to learn time and time again, there is no refusing food in an Indian home. Since I shook my head to puri, I was served cereal. Great, I thought, frosted flakes! No, no. These were not frosted flakes. They were masala flakes – that’ll get your taste buds awake in the morning! Phew!
In the morning, back to Ahmedabad, where I actually felt a new level of excitement from my adventure. A few final orientation sessions and then packing and send-offs. Mayur Bhai and I left around midnight in a taxi for the train station. I had so much stuff! Our train left at 1:30am. While we waited in an air conditioned waiting room among sleeping people, he said to me, “I am glad to have a friend like you. I think I have gotten not just volunteer but also a friend.” More smiles.
India has the largest train network in the world, according to Mayur. My AJWS advisors laughed when they told me that Mayur Bhai had purchased 3rd class air-conditioned tickets for our train ride. This is the lowest AC class, but not the lowest class of all, and they usually travel 2nd AC I guess. Well, it was AWESOME. The train was so long I felt like we walked a mile (carrying everything I am taking for 9 months!) before reaching our coach. There were 9 beds (3 stacked vertically) in each little section, and dudes in white uniforms came around passing out sets of sheets to new passengers. The sheets say “Western Railway Authority” or something like that, which I thought was cool… We stuffed our luggage under the bed, and as soon as our tickets were checked I was out cold.
Mayur Bhai woke me at 6 as the sun was coming up out my window. Someone was sawing major logs nearby. There was a flushing toilet on the coach and a little sink. When we got out at the station in Valsad, the central city of Valsad district of Gujarat, Said Bhai was waiting with the ARCH jeep. It was about a 30-muinute ride to the campus, on a state highway. The roads in Gujarat are notoriously good because the CM here loves development, particularly transportation. I am so thrilled to be out of the traffic and pollution of the city! We passed little villages and roadside shops along the way, and civilization thinned out as we went along towards Dharampur.
ARCH was started by a husband and wife – who are on vacation until the 2nd of December – and they love gardens. So the first thing I noticed was the little plots of flowers and gravel paths all over. The campus is basically two courtyards – one focused around the dispensary and the other around libraries, offices, and classrooms. There are mango trees everywhere!! I can’t wait for mango season – starts in May I think. All the maintenance and management of the grounds are done in-house. Many of the staff stay in bigger beautiful houses across the garden from the main campus, and then there is a girls school on the grounds, too. There is a German girl woking there – and more English-speaking Germans coming I believe – who are doing environmental education. They have built a solar power system (not PV panels but these big reflective dishes on the roof), and are practicing solar cooking methods with the girls… I can’t wait to learn more about that! Behind my building is the kitchen and dining hall, where Umaa Ben and another woman cook for residential staff and also the 3-5 year olds who come to school here every day. (Yes, I am in heaven.) Umaa has the biggest smile and I can’t wait to learn more Gujrati and befriend her.
My room is on the second floor of that second court yard on an outdoor hall with 3 other rooms used for volunteer housing. I have my own bathroom with a western toilet!! There are 2 beds so I use one for sleeping (mosquito net stays on) and the other as a couch. I have a little sink and a coffee table and 2 chairs. When I opened by backpack I found a birthday present from my American friends – a beautiful orange wall hanging – which I will have to find a way to hang on my white washed cement walls. To the front of my room I see the roof and mango trees, and out the back I see mango trees and the top of the dining hall area. It’s quite sweet.
When we arrived I had a moment to rest and settle in, and then I went down for chai and breakfast. Every morning it has been this grainy mush – a bit drier than oatmeal – with some dried fruit/peanuts and a little hot chillies mixed in. And chai, which is always made with milk and lots of sugar! Then we were off to work! I accompanied Mayur Bhai and Sarad Bhai to Girnata, a village where they were doing a health education session for the first time. Sarad is the supervisor of all the village health workers who are selected by their villages and then trained by ARCH. Gongu Ben (Ben= femal sign of respect) was the village health worker there and she gathered people for the session. After it started, the men all left and the women, babies toddling all over the place, sat at attention. Mayur and Sarad set up a little movie theater on the porch of a mud house. They hung blankets to block the sun and put up a screen against a wall. Then Mayur gave a presentation with slides about primary diseases and basic sanitation practices. The primary school children were also brought in from the school house to listen, and I sat in the back with the teachers. My job was to take pictures of the event. At the end everyone practiced washing their hands, and each woman was given “tooth powder” that looked like it had been made in 1952….who knows…
The houses were clustered in a few areas, and I walked around to a few clusters. There were fields in between. I met the traditional healer who was watching TV outside with his pants undone. He didn’t want to come to the health session. As in other villages I’ve been to, the kids seem to rule. They outnumber their parents and they are far more expressive and gregarious. I could have died I was surrounded by so much cuteness!!
On the way back we stopped for lunch at a substation dispensary run by a man who I think I Peter Pan incarnate. He was helping girls with their homework when we arrived, but he is not a teacher. The dispensary where he lives and works is right next to a school and he seemed like Santa Claus to all the kids. He took me around and introduced me to the classes that were in session as others were preparing for a big event when state officials visit the school next week. They looked at me with wonder in their eyes and I practiced saying in Gujrati “Mara nam Lily chhe,” while they were asked to repeat my name. I saw some students practicing a dance for the upcoming event on the way out…cool!
The next day, after a morning of looking at some of the health ed materials and practicing Gujrati with some men in the offices, I went to another school to observe some activities with first graders (standard 1). The primary school teacher from ARCH, Pooja Ben, and the upper school science teacher came and there we met Ramesh Bhai who is the ARCh teacher stationed out there at Mama Bhacha (uncle nephew). The kids were tested individually for their reading, writing, and math skills because they are going to group them accordingly for the science activities. The point of this program is to teach science and math skills with alternative methods but also to get youngsters interested in school. That was for sure taking place! They had an animated Gujrati teaching tool that was playing on the computer while the testing was happening. (Testing was Pooja and Ramesh asking questions and having kids solve problems or write on their little slate chalk boards – so cute!) Things were pretty rowdy at the school because it was Saturday and school was out. They have a half day on Saturdays and then they clean. It’s a boarding school and there is one family that looks after hundreds of kids! The kids do the cooking and cleaning with little supervision. When the testing was finished it was singing and dancing time! I got some performances in my honor and then we learned some new ones. I taught “head shoulders knees and toes” to about 50 kids ages 5-13. Fun. Said Bhai was again our driver and he took me around the village and we communicated somehow with his 25 English words and my 10 Gujrati…he’s a nice dude.
As we drove back through fields and over rivers and past tribal homes of all shapes and structural designs, I thought about all the different perspectives I am seeing. My own, Mayur’s and ARCH’s, the kids’, the villagers’, city folk’s, AJWS’s, Sunita Ji’s, etc. As I tried to explain when one of the teachers asked me at breakfast today “what is your philosophy?” (whoa) I said that one of the reasons I am so happy to be in India is because when you see these different perspectives, you not only learn about your own, but you see the underlying humanity in all of them. I feel like recognizing these various ways of living and philosophies about life, I get a little closer to understanding the big questions. In the car rides, as my new co-workers babble on in a language I do not know, I marvel at how happy I am to be in this foreign land, and how somehow I feel like I am fulfilling a dream that I had not really expressly identified for myself. This is so great.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »