Since taking the plunge several years ago and deciding to once and for all go down a new career path, my work has taken me from the high rises of Manhattan to Mombasa, Jakarta, and now to rural Andhra Pradesh, with a few blissful years in sunny California in between. Following a whirlwind orientation in Delhi, just as I was beginning to get a feel for the city, I found my bleary-eyed self and my hastily repacked luggage stuffed into a taxi before the light of dawn, bound for the airport to catch my flight to Bangalore. From Bangalore, it was another two and half hours before the taxi made its way up the bumpy, winding road to the campus of the Rishi Valley Education Centre.
I have been in the Rishi Valley for barely two weeks now, but reflecting on how I have filled my initial days, in some ways it feels as if I just arrived—I’m still having trouble keeping track of names and occasionally get lost on campus—and in some ways I feel as if I have been here for months, as I tally the individual highlights of my time thus far. I have gone on several hikes with spectacular views of the valley, gone bird watching, tried rock climbing for the first time ever (albeit on a relatively small rock…but still!), jogged on a dirt path crossing through fields of sugar cane, and taken Iyengar yoga classes led by my mentor. I’ve had numerous invites to afternoon tea, I’ve been dressed up in a sari, danced (badly) with the senior students during their Sunday evening folk dancing session, have happily become a vegetarian, led a class discussion on the WTO and the environment for my mentor’s 11th grade class, and have done a number of village visits.
Overall, the pace of life in the Rishi Valley is unlike any place I’ve ever lived before. Since the majority of the teachers, staff, and students live on campus, and the nearest town is about 15 km away, there seems to be more activity on and around campus at 5am than at 10pm. I’ve learned to shrug off the frequent (read: several times daily) power outages, and I’ve come to enjoy washing my own clothes in a bucket to spare my precious few kurtas from getting roughed up by the on-campus laundry service.
For regular readers of the AIF blog, you have already heard quite a bit about the Rishi Valley since I am now the third AIF fellow to be based at the Rishi Valley Education Centre (RVEC). However, each fellow has had a distinct focus area, and between the three of us, we’ve covered education, health, and livelihoods. The co-existence of activities devoted to these varied disciplinary areas is in my view what makes the RVEC such a fascinating place to live, learn, and work. For new readers, a brief overview is in order, to hopefully set the stage for future posts referencing my project.
The centerpiece of the RVEC is the Rishi Valley School itself, a boarding school for grades 4-12, in a rural campus nestled among the looming hills that surround the valley. The RVEC umbrella also encompasses a number of units that have been created over the years as a means of outreach to the surrounding rural communities, which are populated mostly by marginal farmers, shepherds, and goatherds. My work pertains most directly to the Rishi Valley Special Development Area (RVSDA), which was designated by the Andhra Pradesh government with a stated objective “to protect and conserve the ecological integrity of the area while promoting sustainable and inclusive growth of all the stakeholders”. In this drought-prone region, there are both short-term and long-terms risks to food security and livelihoods from resource scarcity (particularly water) and the anticipated impacts of climate change. Broadly speaking, the goal of my work is to research the connections between ecosystem services* in the Rishi Valley, health, and livelihoods, drawing on work done by a fellow last year with the Rishi Valley Rural Health Centre (RVRHC – enough acronyms yet?) on pesticide use and health. The ultimate goal is to document our findings in a manner that can both inform planning at the RVEC as well as benefit the local communities, with the latter expected to be the most challenging. The dilemma of how to strike a balance between rigorous research methods and the output that will prove most meaningful to the community members is likely to be a common refrain of my work for the next 10 months…
*expanding on this term will be the subject of a future post, but essentially, it refers to the benefits drawn from the local environment