I originally posted this on February 13, 2008, from India. I think I wrote it a few days earlier. Perhaps the day after Grover’s grandson, Finn was born. The exact date isn’t important, because it was about the moment.
I’m writing this from Patna, in the State of Bihar, but will post when we are back in Kolkata. I think it’s Tuesday.
I woke up this morning feeling weary. I had bug bites on my face, and my body feels like it’s had a week of overeating and too many Kingfisher Beers (it has). I even wondered a little bit about why I was here. But the cars came for us at 7:30, so I had to stop wondering and start driving.
It took us about 3 hours to drive 41 kilometers. As we were leaving Patna, I thought to myself, “So this is really poor.” And we drove on, and my understanding of poor changed. And we drove some more, and I had to make another change. This happened four times, as we drove into the rural areas. It seemed so overwhelming, watching these families by the road, working and walking…and using the river bed for all matters of personal business. We hit a dog, saw a chicken being skinned, and watched a pack of dogs chewing on a skinned cow. I sat in the car, taking this all in, and committed to myself that if my career is to mean anything, it is to help people understand that they really can make a difference. While the idea of ending hunger seems impossible, we have a responsibility to humanity to do what we can. I felt resolve and focused, and was ready.
And then…we came to the village. Once again, the entire village (about 35 families) were waiting to greet us. They were sitting against a wall, the women in the middle and the children and men around the edges. For their visitors, they had placed wooden chairs before them. The rest of the village stood behind us.
So I sat, and took in the moment. One woman made eye contact with me, and we both put our hands together in recognition. An incredibly old woman sat directly in front of me, squatting down, without flinching. And I questioned, “What have I promised myself? I can’t possibly do this work…What makes be think I can actually serve these women?” I fought back the tears and watched the scene in front of me and tried to find the hope in it. It was overwhelming and I didn’t feel professional or competent or strong. Just humble.
This was only the third meeting for this group, and their first training on the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The Field Agents gave them pictograph handouts about how to ask for the work card. They role played a woman going to the government (and the officer being resistant). I tried to assess how many of the women were really grasping the information. A few. I think they will need to do it again, with the women alone.
After the demonstration, Chris and Amber interviewed the women in the group. I stepped away and tape recorded what I was feeling, and then I did cry. When I looked up, about six children had surrounded me, wondering what had made me so sad. Awkward moment! So I gathered my composure and rejoined the group.
I am guessing we spent another hour and a half at the village. Amber and Chris went into two women’s homes to interview them, and Grover and I were the decoys, entertaining the rest of the community. Both of the women had lost two children to malaria. One didn’t know how old she was. They eat mostly rice, and a few vegetables. Three or four times a month they went without food, so their children could eat. Can you imagine?
I found myself surrounded by the children, with Sunil (from the local NGO) by my side. I pulled out the tape recorder and asked the children their names. Two girls sang for me, followed by a boy about six, and then followed by a ten year old boy. They asked me to sing, and after my rendition of Happy Birthday, Grover clapped (alone!!). The women then sang. And then a young man, who had been patiently waiting took my recorder, held it in his hand and sang a song that must have gone on for ten minutes. He was so serious and earnest, I think he thought it was his Bollywood moment. For me it was another overwhelming moment, but happy, rather than humbled (well, still humbled, but happy humbled).
Finally, I found Tappan and Grover and we filmed Grover (our Chairman of the Board) doing a testimonial. He was wonderful, of course, and I tried to grab some of his optimism. (2010 note: Grover asked to sit on the ground, with the children of the village. One little boy, the son of one of the women we interviewed, was covered in dry poo. No clothes, just caked with dirt and poo. Grover put him on his lap. He was unphased. I think he was wearing a yellow Ralph Lauren shirt, and I was more worried about it than he was.)
I saw that they had an alter for Saraswathi, left from the Puja the night before, and asked if I could see her. The children took me over and instructed me to remove my shoes and showed me how to enter, hold my hands together and bow my head. I took a few photos, and they brought me some fruit they had placed before her the day before. I politely declined.
They took me on a tour of the rest of the village. Women were up on the roof cleaning (which means sweeping the dirt, so they have clean dirt) and wiping out pots. An old man took me into his home, which was a mud hut, opened on both sides, no bigger than a child’s play house. When we came out into a courtyard, two women wearing beautiful bright blue saris were cleaning and cooking.
I asked Sunil if this village was typical for the Self Help Groups they serve. He said, “Oh, no, this one is better off than others”. He explained that they were close to the road, they had some farm land, they would not be impacted by floods, and most important, they had a sense of community.
I’ve been trying to reconcile this with the other villages I have seen. I think this one may have felt even poorer, because the women have not yet truly come together as an empowered center for the community. When we have seen groups where the women have experienced the Collective Courage that a group, new knowledge and the opportunity to save or borrow money brings, there is an energy and sense of pride that extends to everyone in the village. That moment is still coming for this community.
Our visit was cut short because the local media had shown up. Sunil explained that the government is suspicious of visitors, fearing that we are bringing religion with us. They interviewed Ramesh and Sunil, and we worked to stay off camera.
On the way home, we stopped at the office of the local NGO. He explained to us that he has groups where 100% of the women have been able to get their work cards. He is committed to this methodology of teaching, where the women are participating, and learning how to help themselves.
We ended the day at a local handicrafts store, and a hysterical dinner with our film crew and a few Kingfishers.
We leave again in about an hour, for our last day of field visits. Today I feel a little more confident that I am up to the task, but it’s still daunting.
Wednesday evening: It’s about 11 pm and we are back in Kolkata. Today we saw the poorest of the poor. We were in a village where even a child singing is difficult to imagine. I will write more about it tomorrow. I am feeling sad and more helpless than I’d like, and I need to come out the other side by tomorrow morning.