Midpoint at Anandwan, by Sophie Namy

I feel fortunate that it falls on me to write a touchy-feely blog describing our midpoint retreat at Anandwad (Forest of Joy). While life the past few months has been marked by the expected ups and downs and inevitable frustrations, midpoint—and I think I can speak for most of the fellows here—was a time for connection, reflection and rejuvenation.

Over 50 years ago, Baba Amte founded Anandwad to create a living-working community for Indians living with leprosy and other disabilities. This beautiful, peaceful and yet vibrant ashram (over 450 acres) provided an inspiring space for AIF fellows and staff to get together and share our experiences thus far. Outside of somewhat formal presentations from every fellow, we spent our four + days exploring our placements (personally, culturally, professionally) in greater depth, questioning assumptions and/or expectations, listening to one another, offering advice, laughing at the strange predicaments in which we sometimes find ourselves, contrasting the diverse landscapes and people we interact with, and, in general, sharing insights about the realities of “Development” in our respective regions and organizations.

We were also fortunate to have two leaders in the field join us for special presentations — Dr. Ramki Ramakrishnan of SAATHII (Chennai) and Mr. Rajendra Joshi of Saath (Gujarat). And of course we devoted plenty of time to something that our group truly excels at: enjoying each others company. Over delicious, wholesome meals (made from organic ingredients carefully harvested from the grounds of the ashram itself) and while getting to know the artisanal workshops, fields and communities of Anandwad, we continued to come together as this year’s unique cohort of Service Corps fellows.

On a personal note, I spent the train ride back to Delhi reflecting on new perspectives about my work thus far, the opportunities for improvement over the next several months, and how our cumulative experiences through this fellowship relates to the larger story of the NGO sector here in India.

Residents of Anandwad, many of whom unequivocally embody Baba Amte’s message
that “confidence must rest in your wrist” as opposed to the charity of others.

In the last post, my fiancé (Matthew) shared experiences from our placement in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand. Our organization works in several aspects of rural development, including livelihoods, health, technology and education. While professionally we have faced several obstacles and have yet to make real progress implementing our individual projects, we have been exposed to many of the ground realities (often misunderstood in project planning and by larger funding organizations) that make working in this region so challenging. Outside of our work life, the culture of the mountains itself offers many interesting lessons. The following excerpt describes some of the day-to-day in Pithoragarh, the larger of our two field locations.

All Walks Lead to More Chai…
(An Excerpt from the Mountains)

Pithoragarh is certainly not the sleepy mountain town I had expected. In fact by 6AM the traffic has started and by 8 “ba ba black sheep” “three blind mice” and other American favorites are being (loudly) broadcast from an English medium school a few blocks away. This is a transient place, with many laborers commuting daily from Nepal—creating a somewhat tense atmosphere not unlike that of other border towns I have visited. The place embodies an interesting mix of a “big city” (though the population of approximately 100,000 is still relatively small by Indian standards) with a conservative social ethos reminiscent of much smaller towns in rural India: people in the streets frequently stop to touch elders’ feet; women do not venture out alone after dark; dalits must worship outside of temples; hierarchical relationships permeate family, social and work relations; festivals provide the majority of community entertainment; and women are constantly fasting for their husbands, children, gods, etc. There is a lot to learn, and people are eager to explain all the idiosyncrasies of their pahari (of the mountains) existence, which is physically isolated from the rest of the country. And although Matt and I no longer inspire the curiosity-bordering-bewilderment that we did upon arriving… all walks still lead to chai. Occasionally we make a conscious effort to set off exploring without entering into anyone’s home — and yet a few steps out of town, someone will inevitably call us over, grab us by the hand, and (with surprising strength and purpose) ensure that we sit and join them for tea. This is part of the rhythm of life here, and provides a commonality despite differences in gender, age, nationality, class, religion, etc. And on a cold day in the mountains, what could taste better than a strong cup of milky, spicy chai?

– Sophie Namy

Sadhus we met at two nearby mountain temples,
and me and a local SHG leader after an interview.

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