Sunday, January 28th, 2018 was an unseasonably warm day in Banswara, Rajasthan. The morning began predictably cool, but by 11 am the sun was blazing. Since Sundays are holidays here at VAAGDHARA, I woke up without an alarm and eased into the day. I planned out my day as I sipped on homemade honey lemon ginger. The warm mug steaming in my hands slowed down my thoughts and obligated me to think about recent reflections at midpoint and thematic conferences. As I recalled motorcycle rides to Kushalgarh block in October and November, I remembered spotting a pathway of chiseled steps on a mountain about 20 kilometers outside of Banswara city. All of a sudden I realized what I had to do that day. I needed to go climb those steps.
I gave a local friend a call and we headed towards the mountain. As we arrived to the base of the staircase we noticed groups of people slowly working their way towards and up the pathway. The women, dressed in brightly colored saris, sang unfamiliar tunes as a couple of the men walked behind them, beating on large drums draped around their necks. There were children too; they were scattered around and in-between the men and women. We all shared the pathway as we trudged upwards on that increasingly scorching day. As we climbed higher up, I would occasionally stop to take photos of the serene view that the mountain offered. On one such occasion, I gazed down towards my feet and noticed the woman next to me was barefoot. I glanced at my own feet and felt my sweaty toes squirm within my large brown boots. My insides became squeamish as I thought about climbing that blistering stone pathway without shoes. Barefoot.
Summers in Florida are hot, humid, and sweaty. I generally wait out the torrid daytime heat in my parent’s chilly, air-conditioned home. Sometimes if I get too cold, I step outside for a moment. I enjoy stepping out on to the pavement in front of our driveway. I particularly enjoy taking these brief breaks without shoes. Barefoot. I cherish those moments as the warmth blesses my naked feet.
Later, I felt a sense of guilt as I repeatedly recollected both stories. In both situations a person was outside on a hot day and stood on warm pavement, barefoot. Why was it that one situation brought me joy and peace and the other made me squeamish? Am I geared to look down upon and feel bad for the communities I am working with in India? Is that a sensation I can overcome? If so, how?
I was entangled in a web of confusing thoughts following that hike. Perhaps what made the two situations different was an element of choice. When I stepped outside barefoot in Florida, it was brief, and it was because I chose to do it as such. Definitively, choice lies high on my value chain. However, with the situation in Banswara, I immediately reached to the conclusion that there was no element of choice. In India, people often remove footwear when walking to places of worship. On this pathway there was a designated place to remove footwear atop the hill, immediately before the entrance to the temple. However it is still possible that people chose to walk up the pathway barefoot. Despite this, in the moment I quickly began imagining ways to provide shoes to the woman standing next to me. This was prior to asking any questions. Why are you not wearing shoes? Do you desire shoes? Have you worn shoes before?
Sometime later, the story came up with a co-worker at VAAGDHARA and she informed me about an interaction she had during a field visit with local women collecting firewood in forests. During the visit my co-worker noticed that the women were wearing seemingly thin and flimsy slippers while trekking through the rocky and uneven forest paths. She asked the women if their feet hurt from the hot surface or the rough terrain. Finally, they went onto inform her that there had been occasions when some of the women had previously come wearing shoes, but that they would get teased by other village members and that they didn’t find them terribly comfortable. The point of this narrative is not that the women in this situation did not need shoes; rather, interactions in new environments–particularly in the development sector–require communication, exposure, longevity, and most of all input from the beneficiaries to properly determine the needs of and the forms of engagement with a community.
Additionally, I realized that these thoughts are reflective of the broader questions that I have regarding the outside agent working with communities in the development sector. How do we become aware of the preconceived notions which we carry? Furthermore, how do we suspend those preconceived notions? We receive training at universities from skilled professionals about interventions, policies, environment, economics, and sustainability. Our creativity and ambitions help us develop innovative solutions to problems which we identify from our sometimes-brief interactions in the field. The majority of the organizations I have been introduced to this year have emphasized “community-based initiatives”, but what does that mean? How do they come about? What does that look like in the field?
I will delve deeper into these questions and thoughts regarding forms of engagement in part two of this post. On a related note, please find co-fellow Drew Kerr’s writing on ethics of engagement here and Prashant Anand discussing a client oriented approach to development here.