Mango Season and Learning to Let Go

Mangoes in the tree

 

I am officially changing the name of this month to Mayngo. It is mango season here in India! And it’s amazing! May is the month of over indulgence with anything containing this fruit – mango chutney, mango pickle, mango juice, mango and rum, and of course fresh mangoes, which I eat an average of 5-7 a day. In fact, as I write this I look down on my kurta and I have a fresh orange stain from a post lunch snack (twice). They are rather messy, but oh are they delicious. I guess it should actually be May-n-go, because I am wrapping up my time here at RIVER and in India. In three weeks, I will be leaving Rishi Valley and in two more weeks, I will be leaving India. It is bittersweet to think it is over. It is astonishing to believe that 10 months has flown by, and that in a very short period of time I will be back home enjoying American things like cheese, traffic laws, and air conditioning.

Mangoes in the market

Unfortunately, due to organizational constraints and limited funding, my original plan to return for another 10 months will not come to fruition. Heartbroken is not even covering my range of emotions. I wish I could have stayed. There was so much more that I wanted to do with my organization, my teachers and students, my co-workers, and throughout India. However, after several sulky weeks, I have chosen to view this as a learning experience. In the realm of development and education, things can change very fast; funding is always tricky, and competing interests and outcomes may not always work out in your favor. I don’t agree with the decision that was made or the limitations I faced, but it is reality and I have chosen to face it, learn from it and move on with some extra endurance.

Mangoes going into my mouth!

Yet, as I face 5 weeks of India left, what does one say when parting with a new home? How can I thank India for all it has given me this year? How can I wrap it up into words? What do I say to the goat herder I pass on my nightly run who used to not acknowledge me, but now smiles a not so toothy grin and waves with a “Hello Akka!” What do I say to our office maid, who greets me at anytime (including afternoons) with a sing-songy “Good morning Akka!” She plays with my hair every day, pinches my chin until it turns purple, and she genuinely cares about me and how I am doing.

How do I leave my students who invigorated me and gave me strength when nothing else could? I will miss their smiles and their bright eyes which open so widely when learning something new. The flowers they pinned in my hair over the months have accumulated in a vase in my apartment. Our special handshake is something I will treasure. Their hugs are filed neatly away in my head to be pulled out in future times when I am struggling. How do I face my teachers next weekend when they return to their classrooms? How do I say good bye to my teachers who eventually welcomed me into their classrooms, who hold my hand when we converse, who bring me food from their homes, and who work so tirelessly for our students. I can say ‘our’ because they have allowed me into their schools, and they have wholeheartedly shared their students with me.

I will miss the colors, the chaos, the spices, and the constant sensory overload. I will miss the peace I find in the middle of a crowded market, and I will miss the exasperation I feel in that same crowded market. I will miss Duranta and Scar

My best friend, I will miss her so much

terribly. I think Duranta knows I am leaving soon. She barely lets me out of her sight. She even camps outside of my office now. I am spending my last few weeks in Rishi Valley soaking up as much as I can. I go on long hikes and explore new areas. This past weekend, Abha and I ended up being invited into someone’s home in a nearby village for a delicious breakfast of idlys. After our long hike, I ate 8 huge idlys with spicy peanut chutney. These random moments will stay with me.

To those who I have grown close to here in Rishi Valley, please know that I love you dearly, and you were my anchor. To Roopika, Abha, and Sri, thank you for the countless tissues, hugs and understanding you gave me throughout these past months. To Asvini, thank you for the laughs, the entire series of Always Sunny, and a place to be my true self completely. To Bhagya, Anil, Naga, and Omkar, thank you for supporting me professionally even when your workloads were large and your priorities were not necessarily English. You always took the time to help me. To Nimi, thank you for taking care of me when I was sick.

Project Conclusion

My project has been to create an English as a Second Language curriculum for grades three and four, as well as the revising of the curriculum for grades one and two. This curriculum has become part of me. I eat, think, dream, and sleep ESL activities and training. It is such a large part of my life, that I have also become quite possessive of it.

It has been a difficult balance for me. I haven’t received much support in terms of development, direction or methodology, but as I am not a permanent fixture on this staff, there has to be a transfer of custodianship. Since March, I have been including some of my co-workers more to the work, and have gladly accepted their ideas and direction. However, it has been hard for me because when there is confusion or questioning of the curriculum or the reasoning behind a decision or structure, I immediately go on the defensive. To me, it is so obvious why I made these decisions, or in some instances, it was out of my control; for example, the structure of the themes or the learning objectives. They were given to me as is, and I was told that they were approved. No other explanation was given, so I made it work.

So I have found myself being questioned on decisions that were not mine, but I now have to own, or things that I have decided on, that make total sense to me because, of course, I made the decision. These questions are not negative or being asked to thwart me, they are simple questions and demonstrate that I must have structures in place so the curriculum makes sense to whoever takes over the project. They have also pushed me to learn how to better communicate. The decisions make sense to me, but they are complex, so I am learning how to deconstruct the curriculum so that others can also understand. The deconstruction is also assisting in editing, as I am able to see mistakes or pedagogical gaps. I am learning patience in my communication as well. While English is predominately used in the office, my accent and speed can sometimes lose others.

However, to go from largely working independently with little guidance, to now meeting an air of urgency given my impending departure has been stressful for me. I wish that the project and I had been managed better from an organizational standpoint. I don’t think I would feel quite so stressed or as guilty for leaving. As I said, I have been roping in my co-workers to the curriculum so that there is continuity in development and accountability for implementation and teacher training. My co-workers are extremely intelligent and committed to excellent education for our students. They also possess strong project management skills, and given their integration into the Rishi Valley community, are in a better place to advocate for what is needed for our students and teachers to be successful.

A few days ago though, I reached out via gmail chat to ask my co-worker a question and was then informed that without my input, a major decision had been made about the ESL curriculum. They had changed the structure and deleted activities. A new schedule has been made to roll the curriculum out, and a teacher training session has been scheduled for next week. I sat at my computer and stared blankly at the screen. It felt like someone had kicked in my chest. This was my project, I had put a lot of thought and tears into the structure and creation of the activities. Like I said, I have become extremely possessive of this curriculum, and it is the purpose for my being here; and in one fateful gchat window, I had lost ownership of my project. In just 15 seconds, it was gone.

I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. I don’t know what I was more upset about – the major decisions made without my input, the fact that I had seemingly been displaced from control of the curriculum, or the avenue in which I was informed by. I couldn’t help but internalize the gchat announcement as a bit callous. The countless hours I had spent creating activities, their correction keys, the scripts for the future Mp3 players, and the corresponding teacher s’ manual seemed to be for nothing. I went on a long run that night to clear my head. The next morning at breakfast someone made a comment to me about how quickly my time was coming to an end here. I realized that although I am wrapping up and moving on, the project and the need for an English curriculum is not ending just because my time here is. I realized that my co-workers were not trying to undermine me or make me feel that my input hadn’t been valuable. Instead, they were prioritizing student and organizational needs, and in that mix, the tact in taking over custodianship of the curriculum was a little lost.

But while I may have been initially hurt, I would rather my feelings be sacrificed if it means this curriculum will continue after I leave. I am actually relieved that

Our teachers’ commitment to excellent education and our English curriculum!

my co-workers stepped up and have taken ownership of the curriculum. This is one of the downfalls of doing a program or fellowship. You are present at your organization for a specified amount of time – you have a leave date. The projects my fellow fellows and I have been involved in are larger than we are. They require longevity, sustainability and we must ensure, as we wrap up, that we have structured the projects so our hosting organizations can continue with them long after we leave.

This curriculum is larger than I am, much larger. And the priority is not me or my feelings. The purpose of this fellowship is creating sustainable solutions for India’s marginalized peoples. My students here in Rishi Valley come from poor, isolated villages, and they have a grave need to learn and master English in order to create a better life for themselves and their families. The priority of the curriculum is the students. I have faith that my organization will take the necessary steps to make this a reality. It is important for me to learn to let go. I am sure that there will be multiple times in my professional life where I will create something that I will not be able to see through to completion. In order for programs to be successful in development there must be input from various stakeholders and communication and vision must be clear. I am working on viewing the end of this fellowship as a positive, rather than dwelling on being sad.

The heart of my experience… my other fellows

I joke with some of my closer friends here that sometimes I don’t feel like I am part of AIF. Being placed where I am, and given I haven’t had any real crises at work AIF isn’t as involved with my project. While maybe I don’t always identify organizationally, my favorite part of this entire experience are the other fellows.

Orientation that first week in September was overwhelming. This group is rather intimidating – well traveled, highly educated, and confident. I spent most of that week questioning my own reasons for being included in such a group, and watched the other fellows moving with seeming ease through Delhi and cultural situations. I walked away from that first week firmly convinced that I wouldn’t really bond with anyone.

I am glad that I kept myself open to making friendships, because my other fellows have been the support I have needed. I also know that at the conclusion of this program, I have many lifelong friends. This past month I even played host to several friends coming to visit me! It was fun to share Rishi Valley with new people, especially my north Indian or city placed fellows.

At the beginning of May, Gayatri, Sridar, Jilna and Ragini came to visit. We ate lots of fruit, hiked and “enjoyed” the sweltering temperatures. Duranta even decided to show off. While demonstrating her protective nature by barking at a herd of cattle, the bulls started charging at Ragini, Varsha (a RV staff member’s young daughter) and me. We had to run for our lives with me throwing Varsha over my shoulder because she did not want to leave her beloved bike behind. As I explained to her later, “your parents will forgive me if your bike gets ruined, they will not forgive me if you are ruined.”

Being blessed by a temple elephant

After enjoying Rishi Valley, we took off for Madurai in Tamil Nadu to visit Ted and Brian. It was Ted’s 30th birthday, and I was beyond excited to celebrate with him. Ted and Brian work with human rights organization, People’s Watch. This organization, led by Henri Tiphane, is world known and pushes and advocates for those who cannot do it for themselves. Their passion has led to difficult times for the organization as currently the Indian government has frozen their status meaning frozen bank accounts as well. Henri sir is a formidable presence in the human rights sector, and it was an honor to meet him.

Madurai is known as Temple City, and we enjoyed all that the city had to offer. We went to their most famous temple, Meenakshi Amman Temple. I was blown away by the detail and history of the temple and its vast grounds. We enjoyed an afternoon of good food and swimming at the pool. We rode on a temple elephant! Our birthday dinner for Ted was amazing, and was a perfect end to the weekend. Check out the rest of the photos here!

Priscilla, Arunima, and JC visit one of our schools!

Last week, JC and Arunima, my wonderful hosts in Darjeeling, came to visit me! It was a great exchange as our work is closely related, and they are just fun to travel with. They brought their co-worker Priscilla along as well. We had a fabulous time – enjoying Mango season and hiking. I was able to share my work with them, and bounce around ideas regarding our organization and work in the education sector in general. I was sad to see them leave after only two days, but as we have about 3 weeks until end-point, it just makes me more excited for our upcoming time in Shimla!

Last month’s post

My post last month garnered many personal emails, Facebook messages, and comments. My post fulfilled its purpose in my eyes, to raise awareness of the sexual violence epidemic here. If you missed last month’s post and are curious, click here to read it.

Words of encouragement from various people in my life have helped me heal and become stronger despite the unfortunate incident that transpired for me. Unfortunately, yet again, I witnessed first-hand the turmoil and aftermath such violence can inflict. This experience however proved the changing attitude in the general population, while also showing that sexual assault does not just affect the victim, but affects her family and community.

Upon returning from our trip to Madurai, my driver and I pulled into Madanapalle, our nearby town, at around 11:30pm. Normally at this time, Madanapalle is a silent ghost town with only cows, and the occasional camel, present on the roads. Tonight, it was extremely different. The road you drive on when entering the town is Annie Besant circle, and it dead ends at a government hospital. As we turned left to continue through town, we were met by an oncoming mob equipped with flashlights, fire and stones. Before I even had a chance to process what was happening our van was surrounded and angry shouts of Telugu were echoing.

I watched as the majority of the crowd jumped the low cement wall surrounding the hospital and began throwing stones at the windows, shattering glass. Then I witnessed the stones being used on the police officers that were attempting to break up the crowd. I have never seen an actual stoning, and I saw the intended targets bleeding. I screamed at my driver to get us out of there, and as I looked down the road I saw a larger wave of people sprinting towards our position. To be honest, I did not want to be the white American girl in the middle of the violence.

As we drove away, I really had no idea what was going on. We continued to see people running out of their homes to the crowd and the sounds carried to the other side of town. I figured it was a politically motivated rally as Andhra is known for a staunch separatist movement, and as of recent, Madanapalle has been littered with newly strung Communist flags and posters.

The next morning, the mystery was solved. After internet research and talking to some better informed Rishi Valley residents, I found out that a young MBA student had been gang raped by a police officer and two of his associates. The girl and the police officer were acquaintances, and he had offered a ride home after dark on his motorcycle. The mob violence had been initiated by two events. First, it was perceived that the police were protecting their accused comrade and the crowd, led by the victim’s mother, demanded vigilante justice and literally had rope to hang the men. The second event was the mysterious and unexplained transport of the girl from the private hospital to the government hospital where she was declared dead on arrival. Our timing could not have been more precise. The girl has just been declared dead as we pulled up to the hospital, and we witnessed the initial outrage at the announcement.

Apparently, only a few minutes after our escape, the girl’s family brought her body out for display during the protest. I am so thankful I missed that part of the demonstration. I do not condone the violence that erupted, but I do support the demonstration led by the people of Madanapalle. Supposedly the men accused are being dealt with legally and effectively. I have to think that the protest had a direct impact on the men being held accountable. There should be more outrage and more pressure placed on government to ensure they fulfill their recent promises to protect their women. Right now, it seems that they have been nothing more than empty promises; and women are still subjected to incredulous violence. It must end.

Finally,

Beyond the usual lessons learned when living abroad for the first time or working in a developing country, my project and the challenges surrounding it, although exhausting and frustrating at times, have further cemented my belief that I have chosen the right career path for myself. I believe in the power of education; and the possibilities for all students, especially those from a lower economic background or from geographically isolated places.

I have learned so much about leadership and my own capacity as an agent of change. I have learned how to manage multiple expectations that span cultural boundaries, to manage large scale projects as well as multiple smaller projects, to show true initiative and motivate myself when no one else is there to manage me, and finally to push the boundaries of comfort and position to advocate for students. Most importantly, I have learned the power of a true vision and the communication and structure needed to ensure that vision comes true. Without a vision, there can be no direction and no progress.

This has been the most challenging experience of my life; which I didn’t think was possible after teaching for two years in the Louisiana Delta. It was also the most rewarding experience of my life. As I figure out my next steps, crash at my parents’ house and recuperate after a lengthy time in extreme heat and an unusual diet, and reconnect with friends, I know that I won’t feel whole for awhile. India has a huge chunk of my heart, and I know I will return to this amazing country.

My favorite place in Rishi Valley

So I conclude this post with a belly full of mango, and I find myself eyeing another one that is sitting on my shelf. It is fitting because as I conclude this fellowship, my heart is full, and yet I find myself looking down the road for the next opportunity with a new sense of purpose and drive. And I know one day, I will come back to wonderfully insane India. One of my favorite bands is Radiohead, and a song of theirs speaks to the incredible journey I have been on here. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, and I don’t know what will happen when I return to the states, but I know that every day here in India has provided me with countless rich moments. I have had endless perfect days here, even when they were challenging. They served a purpose that has profoundly affected me. This fellowship has reestablished my belief in the power of people.

No matter what happens now

I shouldn’t be afraid

Because today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen

– Radiohead

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