Let’s Chaat: A Story of Connection

If you missed the Lost & Found episode of the AIF Fellowship Podcast, Let’s Chaat, check it out here.

As a fellow, I was placed with TYCIA, Turn Your Concern Into Action in Delhi. My project involved measuring and communicating impact, as well as creating a girls’ education campaign called 1000andyou. This is a story from one week in early March, where I went on a trip with colleagues to visit our field team in rural Madhya Pradesh. Our group spent around 10 days visiting Korku villages – each day in a new village, camping under the stars and holding meetings in the community chopal with villagers. 

One of the early days of the trip we were deep in the forest, hours from the closest village and I found myself needing to use the bathroom – if you know what I mean. Surprise, this story is about open defecation.

Just kidding – but that is where the story starts.

Imagine, me, nervously hustling as far away from our camp as humanly possible, getting a little lost in the forest. Stomping on leaves. Trudging down and up and over a hill. Checking over my shoulder nervously, before crouching through a barbed wire fence to head down into a private-looking ravine area.

When I was finished, perhaps you know the feeling, but I just had to get away from the scene of the crime. I had to compose myself. So I quickly started heading back the way I came – hustling – and as I crouched through the barbed wire fence for the second time, my flip flop caught the fence and I was sliced right between the toes.

Don’t worry, my foot is fine now. But, my sandal filled with blood and, embarrassed as ever, I headed back to the campsite partially limping.

I didn’t want to seem weak, so I rinsed my foot off with water and didn’t tell anyone – I’ll be fine, right?

Two days later, the small cut between my toes was puffy, red, and painful. I hadn’t showered in close to a week and my feet were filthy which wasn’t helping. I was limping and getting a little anxious, but still trying to prove that I could handle myself in the field. Yet, while showing my injured foot, I did casually tell Mohit, my supervisor, “I tripped over a barbed-wire fence, no worries, silly me.” However, he did not find it funny at all. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Jessie health in the field should not be taken lightly, a lot of things can happen” – and making his suggestion into a question in true Mohit style – added, “if you want, we can go to town and get a tetanus shot.” I took his suggestion and spent an hour on a motorcycle to Roshini, the closest town.

We did make a pitstop somewhere on the outskirts of town, and paid a guard to let us into a massive compound to use their bathrooms and showers  – which was glorious – but I’ll skip to just after that, when we pulled into the government hospital.

We hopped off the motorcycle right in front of the hospital doors – no one was outside. Walking in, we were greeted by two women, both nurses who worked at the hospital. Before I realized it, Mohit quickly explained the situation. Within minutes, my foot was cleaned and wrapped – and I had a bandage from a tetanus shot in my bum.

The hallways were empty, there weren’t any other patients. It was all smooth, and the wildest part was that it was absolutely free. The experience was so easy and positive – I can’t tell you why I waited two days before heading to the hospital – but then again, I’m so stubborn I’d probably do the same thing all over again.

After stocking up on chocolate and biscuits – absolutely essential – we got back on the motorcycle, and at that point, it was after dark and the evening breeze was chilling. Without jackets, we had a freezing hour-long ride to the next village. Funny enough, for the first time during the trip, that village had a local government clinic. After hours of chasing the local kids all around the village and completely ruining the bandage on my foot, I went to the clinic before dinner just to pick up some extra bandaids. In the village, the clinic was the only place with power, so although the clinic seemed closed, the doors were open and dozens of phones were plugged into each outlet. Folks from our group were hanging out in there, looking repeatedly at their phones despite having no network. Connected to the clinic was a house where the women who ran the clinic lived. It took some prompting from the group, but I timidly called into the corridor leading to the nurses’ house, and almost immediately I ran into Seema.

After spending days with an all Hindi-speaking group that I was constantly trying to understand, all the while trying to prove myself, Seema made me feel instantly comfortable. She was in her mid-twenties, like me, and effortlessly we were sharing about our families and ourselves long after she rewrapped my foot. Over broken Hindi and English, we bonded easily which just doesn’t happen often. Seema is from Maharashtra not Madhya Pradesh, and doesn’t speak the local tribal language Korku, even after living in the village for years, she still faces days where she feels like an outsider. But — sitting on Seema’s bed, drinking chai and sharing stories, together we didn’t feel like outsiders at all. She made me feel at right at home.

Jessica is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with TYCIA Foundation in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi, NCR. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a campaign for educational facilities to increase enrollment and retention of girls from the Korku tribe by incorporating life skills into the curriculum and training teachers. After completing her undergraduate studies, Jessica taught technical theater in the Performing Arts Department at Santa Susana High School. In addition to teaching, she designed a new curriculum, built community partnerships, and secured internship opportunities for students. Jessica participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, studying Urdu in Lucknow. Furthermore, with a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship, she continued her Urdu studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison South Asia Summer Language Institute. Jessica is excited to join the AIF Clinton Fellowship to work with girls. Raised in Southern California, Jessica has always had a knack for storytelling, which has woven together her experiences in theater, research, and data science. Jessica looks forward to tackling her Fellowship project and building upon her studies in urbanization and quantitative research experience.

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