I originally wrote this on February 12, 2008 and posted it on the 14th. It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had, one where I felt hopeless and alone. What I saw and felt, I didn’t think I would ever forget. For a long time, I thought of Fula Devi everyday. I keep a photo of her on my desk. But I realize now, reading this, that part of me has forgotten. I have been caught up in my own recessionary world and while I would never to use the word “poor” when referring to my own circumstances, I have thought of myself as “not rich.” I was wrong. I am rich, indeed.
My work has evolved in the past two years. I continue to work with Reach Global, though they are now an independent organization. We are focused on training adolescent girls and moms, as the path to long term change. It’s a long path, and I am still on it.
February 14, 2008
It is 6:00 am Thursday morning and I am awake in Kolkata. I have hot tea, clean sheets, a lovely bathroom, and breakfast downstairs. When I go home on Saturday, I will enter a home with multiple cupboards full of food. Cupboards so full with food that eventually some of it will be thrown away. Kate will be deciding if she will study art history, photography or creative writing. Alex will be dividing her time between music, softball and cycling. We may spend $200 for a day of family skiing. There will be so much laundry that it will take the entire weekend to finish it.
I have no pictures from yesterday, because it just wasn’t possible. It took us 2 ½ hours to drive 27 miles. While we did see some beautiful landscape, mostly rice fields, we had people pressed up against our car, and certainly not far from our car for most of the trip. There’s no relief here. Again, my perception of poor has been challenged.
I remember when I first started this journey, five years ago. I celebrated my 45th birthday in a village in Costa Rica with Global Volunteers. The village had no hot water, the road was dirt, the school was small and basic, and the health center was smaller. I thought that was poor.
We visited the rooftop office of the local NGO. Here, they continue to work as volunteers, focusing on the untouchable castes, and the handicapped. And yes, the manager did look a little like a young Gandhi to me. They are excited about the training modules, but struggle to find the funding to purchase them and go through the training themselves. The Malaria training would cost about $150 dollars, which is a huge amount of money to them. They would be able to train over 100 self help groups (with added personnel). An average of 15 women per group. Four or five people per family. That sounds like a powerful return on the dollar, certainly more useful than the suitcase full of gifts that perhaps cost the same.
We drove, and then walked into the village. We were quiet, and I heard Chris say, “Wow, this is tough.” This is from a man who has lived in India and loves this country. As has happened everyday, everyone was out (including the cows, pigs, chickens and goats). They brought a wooden table for us to sit on, and the women sat before us.
The Self Help Group here is about a year old. It is mainly a savings group, and they have only received the one REGS training. However, no one here has been able to get their work card. They tried, but the local government wouldn’t give it to them. There was no laughing, no excited chatter. They just sat and waited for us.
After an introduction, we asked a few questions from the group. The women seemed to argue between themselves, and we didn’t see the “spark” we have experienced in the other groups, including the one yesterday. The folks at Reach know this group isn’t functioning well. It’s important to see the struggling groups, as well as the successful ones.
We then split up for individual interviews. Chris and I followed Fula Devi to her home and sat in a very sweet little courtyard. It felt like the entire village was climbing the walls, watching every move. Sunil translated for us. Chris sat next to her, and I sat across from her. We had photographers too, but I felt very present and still. I wanted to remember every minute of this moment.
Fula Devi was lovely, and spoke well, so I was certain we would find hope here. She shared with us that she had three children, and two had died. One from a cold. She didn’t know how old she was, she didn’t know what caused malaria. She is a day laborer in the field. In the morning she wakes up, sweeps her floor, and goes to the field. No one looks after her children. At night she brings home 1 KG of rice and feeds her family. Rice, two meals a day, every day. When someone gives her a potato, she will add that.
I tried asking my “hope” question every way possible. What is she proud of? What are her dreams for her children? Where is her small joy? What would make her smile? She always answered that the group helps her with her savings, so when she can’t feed her children, they can make the loan. She said, “I don’t see any happiness in my life.”
This is as close as we came to a hopeful quote. “When I go for the meeting with my SHG group, we are happy, laughing and sharing, and then I go back to my home with my sadness.”
Chris was right, this was tough. I can not imagine to be so poor, in such deep despair that when asked what brings you joy, one doesn’t automatically say, “My children!” have interviewed many mothers in many poor countries, and every single mother, every single time, says something like “I am poor, but when I look into the eyes of my children, I want more for them. I will save so they can have an education.” I am certain than every mother in the world feels this way. Fula Devi may feel this way, but she didn’t say it.
Chris reached out to touch her hand, to comfort her. Sunil warned him that he must not touch her, certainly not in front of the eyes of others. That made us each feel more helpless. (I am speaking for myself, but I think it was that way for him as well.)
I had a backpack full of every kind of energy snack and powerbars. I had money, lots of it. I was certain that if I told my family I had no gifts for them, because I gave my money to Fula Devi, they would understand. I looked at Sunil, and he knew what I was thinking. He told me, “If you give her anything, you will cause a riot.”
Amber and I joined the large group again, while Chris did his video testimonial. The women were unhappy we had just focused on two different families, so this was a “keeping of the peace” interview. Amber asked some food security questions, and I once again tried to reframe my hope questions. They did say they liked the training, because the story helped them learn a lesson, and see how they can solve their problems. But the voice that stands out for me was the woman who said “Who can we have any happiness if we don’t have money to feed or educate our children.”
If you have read this far, I am grateful.
I am humble. Sad. Questioning why I got the good life, and she got her life. This day has been a defining day for me.
I am inspired by those I’ve met who work with these women. I had one short meeting….they keep at it, day in an day out. They keep seeking new ways to help them help themselves. They haven’t given up, so neither can I.
There were some fun moments yesterday. Today was the last part of the Puja for Saraswathi. The children would place her on a cart, make a procession down the town, and dump her in the river. While this village had no Saraswathi, we saw the “downing” several times, and we probably saw 100 processions. We ended with coffee, and yes, shopping. I bought stickers from a vendor selling them out of an open umbrella. The flight back here was tiring and I had dinner in my room. I didn’t finish all of it.
Today we go to the Reach office, and I am excited to meet up with our colleagues here again. I need to feel what they feel, and gather some strength for the journey ahead.