India was the place I had dreamt of coming for several years. I had lived and worked all over Africa but was seeking out positions in India. When a former colleague of mine told me about the American India Foundation (AIF) Fellowship I was eager to hear more about it. Immediately I went to their website and was actually quite surprised I had not heard about AIF before. I was intrigued by the projects I read about them working on and the blog posts written by the Fellows about their experiences. I knew this was the perfect opportunity for me and though it would be difficult to be accepted into the Fellowship, I decided to apply.
I was beyond thrilled to be accepted as a Fellow and began the process of being matched with an organization before leaving on September first. Given my background in public health, I was chosen to be a public health fellow and matched with Healing Fields Foundation in Hyderabad, India. Healing Fields Foundation (HFF) is a non-profit organization with a mission to make healthcare accessible and affordable to the poor, underserved, and marginalized people of India. They have different projects such as their community toilet program, sanitary napkin enterprise unit, and nutrition interventions. Their work is specifically guided by a research methodology that enables comprehensive analysis of the factors that affect the health and finance of poor people in India. HFF recruits their community health facilitators through local microfinance institutions and trains them to go into their own communities to implement health education, health savings groups, and specific projects such as their sanitary napkin unit.
I had the opportunity to do a field monitor and evaluation visit to the sanitary napkin unit in Bihar. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to not only develop my skills but to get a more in-depth look at the work that HFF was doing there. The purpose of the sanitary napkin unit is to both provide the women of the village a small income for the napkins they are able to sell as well as provide affordable sanitary napkins to the young girls and women in the villages. Access to menstrual hygiene products in India is minimal and quite unaffordable for many girls and women, especially in rural areas. Additionally, I had the opportunity to visit some of the villages in both Bihar and Andhra Pradesh where HFF had collaborated with the government to finance the construction of toilets for the families of these areas.
I remember my first day at Healing Fields very distinctly. I was nervous and felt a bit awkward. Though the staff was quite nice, I did not speak the local language of Telegu they spoke most of the time. At the time there was an American man working as the COO who had only been there for two weeks prior to my coming. He was a welcome breath of familiarity and helped me to become more at ease along the way. One of the things I learned during my time in India was how to simply just be in uncomfortable situations. It took me a good month or so to feel any kind of real ease while at HFF being that I was so foreign and could not communicate much to the administrative staff. I would take my lunch each day to eat with the staff and would feel so ostracized as my meal was so foreign to them and we could not communicate much, if at all. However, simply doing this everyday with them began to build a unique relationship between myself and the staff. I slowly but surely began to feel at ease. I think this is a huge part of anytime an individual chooses to work in an environment that is not their own. It is part of gaining the trust of the community you have entered into and trust is essential to creating sustainable and effective partnerships. It takes patience and endurance on both ends but is key.
My time as a Fellow with AIF has been slightly different than most of the other fellows as I ended up changing placements about halfway through the fellowship. Since I moved to a different organization, I had to go through the process of gaining trust and building relationships with a whole new set of individuals which only magnified my learning experience in this area. I knew I would have that ill-at-ease feeling and a bit of insecurity at the beginning but I was more prepared this time. Although I had worked in different countries several times before, India felt different. It did not feel quite as welcoming perhaps because India is not a country that has as many foreigners coming to work for the NGOs as places like sub-Saharan Africa. Though it was uncomfortable and certainly trying at times, I am grateful to have learned how to be in situations such as these. I can now take these skills and continue to not only use them but be more effective in my future work.
My second placement has been with LV Prasad Eye Institute. During my time here I have been helping with the research study on barriers to uptake of services of patients from secondary to tertiary care. I think the thing I have enjoyed most about my placement with LV Prasad is my mentor, Dr. Rohit Khanna. He is an extremely dedicated and gentle individual who always makes one at ease and is eager to assist in helping me learn. Even from the very beginning of my coming to him to seek out a new placement, he was always eager to help me as well as confident in my abilities. I must admit this was a stark contrast to my time spent at HFF. However, without my experience of the mismanagement and simply not having the capacity to handle a Fellow with HFF, I would never have been able to truly appreciate the professionalism and extremely well managed NGO of LV Prasad Eye Institute.
There are so many things I have discovered about India while living and working here over the past year. Perhaps one of the things that struck me the most in terms of differences in cultures between America and India is independence verses family. America puts extreme value on independence and individualism, while India puts the same amount of value on family and togetherness. Family is everything in India. I am from New York City which they say can be the loneliest city in the world but I have found that India can be the loneliest place in the world. In certain times of solitude I found the families in the building across the way became my family. Though we never spoke, each morning, afternoon, and evening I knew I could count on them to be there to greet me. It was a really unique way of being able to see from an outside point of view the different activities and ways of living among the families here. Though I do not believe I could adapt very easily to this lack of individualism, it certainly gave me a new found appreciation for it.
As I am wrapping up my time here and heading back to the States quite soon, I am reflecting on how I have grown over these past ten month both professionally and personally. I know I cannot see it all right now and people say you learn how much you have grown more once you are back home. However, there are certain things I can already see. The two points that seem to glare at me the most are patience on a personal level and assertiveness on a professional level.
If there is one key to being adaptive in India it is patience. As a foreigner I found many things to be extremely challenging. Finding housing took us six weeks as Hyderabad is not so keen on renting to single foreign women. There is a predominant view point of westerns as party-going, loud, and “loose”. Trying to relay what we came to India for was certainly quite a challenge. Once we found housing other issues continually came up such as foreign registration, getting a local SIM card, etc. It all was beyond challenging but certainly taught me endurance and follow-up in ways I could not have comprehended before coming here. I am confident these new skills will transfer into other situations whether they will be living abroad again or in certain professional environments I will be in.
On a professional level I grew a lot in learning assertiveness and to not be so concerned about what others may think of me. My time at Healing Fields Foundation was extremely trying. I am an individual who tends to want everyone to be happy and not step on any toes. I want to believe the best of people. After giving HFF every chance to make use of me as a Fellow and realizing they simply did not have the capacity for one, I decided to take the situation into my own hands. I sought out a new placement according to the kind of work I was interested in. This was not an easy task for me as I had grown to love so much of the staff at HFF and also did not want to come across unwilling to finish out the placement or ungrateful for the kindness of the staff. Despite the struggle, I chose to separate personal with professional, stand my ground, and do what I came to do here in India. I knew I had only a bit of time left to continue to serve, learn, and lead. I found myself networking and reaching out to colleagues to set up my new placement. It turned out to be the best decision as it allowed me to see a completely different type of working environment within the NGO sectors of India.
In conclusion, though my Fellowship experience has not been necessarily what I expected, it has been an amazing time of growth, comradeship, and adventure. I know that I have developed life-long friends, a life-long network, and will take away invaluable lessons for a lifetime.