My Father’s Name
One of my first overnight field visits was in the Bellary district of northern Karnataka where my team oversaw sanitation initiatives in several schools. Driving from one village to the next in our mechanically challenged Sumo, we spent hours on the region’s signature red dirt landscape with regular stops for chai near Jindal Steel towns.
When we arrived at the schools, I conducted general hygiene workshops for the younger children in between menstrual hygiene workshops for the older girls. It seemed like every other little boy was named Shivakumar – my father’s name. Some decades ago, in another district’s village not too far from here, my dad attended a similar government school. When not in school, he spent his time developing a love for agriculture. I thought of him often on this trip – childhood stories he told me, scenes I imagined, how much his life has changed, and how much the things that bring him joy have not.
Though I had not been to Bellary’s villages before, I felt a profound sense of familiarity to the area. This may have come from calling my dad’s name when I was trying to encourage a little Shivakumar’s participation or discipline. It may have come from the particular depictions of gods on the wall, less common in other parts of the state or country. Perhaps it was the linguistic ease of northern Karnataka’s dialect and idiosyncratic vocabulary that came more naturally to me than feigning a Bangalore accent. The trip foreshadowed feelings that would arise many a time during my Fellowship – a discovery of belonging and familiarity.
Orientation just ended and I was looking forward to beginning my 10 months of service. But right before the other Bangalore Fellows and I finished repacking, we were told that we might have to postpone our flight due to potential conflict in the city. While our travel plans went on as arranged, I soon learned more about the dispute between two states concerning allocation of Kaveri River water and corresponding Supreme Court rulings.
The animosity, tension, and suffering that results from water conflict is a scary reality. On the macro level, these moments are harsh reminders of an ever-increasing population and finite resources. On a micro-level, I look to my own experience working in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Water crises could be nothing more than an interesting dinner table conversation in affluent parts of Bangalore, conveniently forgotten when in the shower or washing a car. But in the government schools I regularly visited, toilets would be closed days, weeks, and months at a time, essentially nonfunctional without water. In these times, drinking water needs took clear priority over sanitation needs. And despite my obsession with sanitation development, it would be foolish to advocate for the reverse.
Water makes us up. There is nothing more important to our existence. The seeming vastness of the world’s water and historical and political complexity water issues make it preferable to not think deeply about water. This year has changed that for me in many ways and I hope to approach water with more intentionality in thought and action moving forward.
I used to spend hours listening to and making music as a teenager. As a child, I would regularly write poems and stories and share them with my family and friends. But as time went on, a critical education, political engagement and social priorities left no time for creative development. Of course I had peers who were able to continue and even strengthen their creative outlets. Unfortunately, that did not happen for me.
Being surrounded by my co-Fellows encouraged me to change that. There are the dancers whose energies are contagious. There are the painters and drawers who sketch beautifully, giving us a lens into how they see the world. There is the filmmaker whose movies I cannot stop watching. There is the poet whose words melt me. There are a handful of singers who bring musicality – everything from Broadway to Bollywood – to every dull moment. Even our Fellowship Director has a theatrical inclination she shares with us all.
Observing these talents and the meaning behind them convinced me to reclaim my own creativity. It is not an easy task. But every mosaic I make, musical event I attend, and improv activity I take part in bring me closer to my creative self.
Unlearning Critique Beyond Resolution
Development, public health, and social justice work have a dangerous tendency to be complicated, sometimes overcomplicated. With potentially alienating vocabulary and hyper-analytical approaches, they can be at risk of missing their purpose and target beneficiaries. As a philosophy major, this was a challenge throughout my fellowship. How does one balance the generating useful outputs in development issues and an inclination to critique beyond resolution?
Working everyday with teenage girls and primary school children helped me begin to answer this question. They exercised critical thought when we discussed menstrual stigmas and gender issues, of course. But at the end of the day, they were eager to prioritize actionable solutions to their sanitation problems, aware of the urgency of their schools’ and larger communities’ needs. Prior to this year, I was trained to question relentlessly. In courses intended for direct, real-world application, evidence-based research contributed to somewhat idealistic plans – even this felt far-removed from the reality of logistical limitations and failures that happen in the field.
I do not mean to minimize the value of a philosophical and academic approach to development work at all. Development priorities and efforts would be nowhere without that. But much of this year, especially my fieldwork, compelled me to find the often imperfect balance between thought and action.
Deliberate and Restrained
One of the biggest adjustments to working in India’s development sector was learning to be measured in expressing certain frustrations. While so many people I met were overwhelmingly inspiring and wonderful, there were the odd unpleasant encounters. Imagine an unofficial local leader intentionally stalling a toilet construction project because they were not given undeserved credit for cooperating. Or a school administrator who discourages well-meaning teachers and makes students run his personal errands when they should be in class.
These sorts of things certainly happen all over the world. But before this year, I would have reacted to them differently. I probably would have been quick to express my disapproval or avoid working with the people in these scenarios entirely. But this year, I learned the value of being more deliberate and restrained in such moments and the cost of failing to be.
It is not just about choosing our battles to prioritize self-care, although that is often reason enough. Being uncooperative with people in power would only shut us and our public health and education programs out of schools and communities. A façade of gratitude or feigned respect is definitely worth the opportunity to continue working with children and hopefully improving their health and education outcomes. It may be ethically contentious and require some internal emotional work, but I have found that the ability to practice such measured restraint is invaluable in the development sector.
I attended my first water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conference earlier this year. I expected to hear some interesting speakers, present Reaching Hand’s work, and return to Bangalore to carry on with my project. As expected, I learned a lot. Not just about content, but I learned how necessary these information-sharing platforms are in WASH, and I assume, most development work.
Engineers described the most effective technologies recently developed. Urban planners discussed the allocation of sanitation infrastructure. Social justice advocates provided social and political insight. Corporate representatives revealed funding priorities. And I shared my experience in the field. The event not only allowed for learning between this diversity of approaches to WASH. It also demonstrated the similarities and differences of WASH efforts, challenges, and solutions across different contexts all over the country and the world.
There is a growing number of such WASH collaborations and alliances in South Asia and globally. And if done well, I think these groups have a tremendous potential to make WASH efforts more effective by reducing the replication of mistakes, informing people of evidence-based best practices, and actually partnering on projects when mutually relevant and beneficial. With time, money, and people’s lives at stake, WASH progress cannot afford the cost of disjointed information.
In The Mountains
At the end of our ten months of service, the entire cohort came together for the third time at Endpoint. After a flight to Delhi, a train to Uttarakhand, and a beautiful and slightly scary drive up the mountains, we arrived at Sonapani. The serenity of the Himalayan village was well worth sharing my cabin with a plethora of arachnids. There could not be a more perfect place to reflection the past ten months.
One of my favorite parts of Endpoint was hearing each of my co-Fellows give brief presentations on their Fellowship journey. I had a general sense of everyone’s projects, but it was fascinating to get a better sense of the great challenges everyone overcame, relationships they formed, and incredible work they had done over the course of the year. It was equally exciting to watch the crowd during these presentations – to see that in just ten months, we were so proud of one another and deeply interested in each other’s work. I trust that Endpoint is only a foreshadowing of the strong sense of community in our cohort.
And then there were the simple moments of less consequence, but still profound. Like eating at least half a dozen plums every morning and knowing everyone’s plum ripeness preferences. And going back and forth between feelings of annoyance and admiration when someone started singing. And on our final day, just sitting and looking at the snow peaks of the mountains, not wanting the moment to end.