We can glean it [information] from the pages of a book or the morning
newspaper and from the glowing phosphors of a video screen. Scientists
find it stored in our genes and in the lush complexity of the rain forest.
And it’s always in the air where people come together, whether to work, play, or just gab.
– Business Week (special issue on “The Information Revolution”) in 1994
The walk from Valad town to Prasanthigiri is roughly twenty to thirty minutes depending on ones pace or the fickle Kerala weather. On some days a short rickshaw ride up the hill allows for a more convenient commute up to my host organization Profugo. However, on other days I find it most gratifying to stroll up the twisty-dirt road – step by step in hopes of bypassing small uniformed children going to school, grazing goats, women lugging metallic milk containers, and occasional clusters of men returning to the rice paddy fields or heading back down-hill to the village cafe.
A few weeks ago moving on foot, I came across Anema Chechi a gentle older lady that lives just two houses down from the Profugo community center. I had met Anema Chechi for the first time just a week earlier at the center assisting with a mock-interview to help train our local field staff on how to conduct effective household surveys. Between her unruffled replies to the extensive questionnaire, the revered grandmother of seven occasionally peeked over at me to share a gentle smile. And so, after immediately recognizing my site-mate Camila and I on the rocky path, Anema Chechi eagerly waved to greet us and pointed up the hill.
Granted that I normally delight in brief encounters with people in the community, I sensed that this time was going to be different as a result of my inadequate language skills in Malayalam. I became slightly tense thinking of the distant climb and the hefty language barrier between us. In the first two minutes of our trek up-hill I impulsively regurgitated all the words I knew in Malayalam and looked over to my site-mate for back-up. Instead, Anema Chechi slowly gravitated towards Camila and grabbed on to her arm. Feeling fairly humiliated, I discretely looked down. But then, unexpectedly, I felt a soft hand lightly clutch onto my right arm and Anema Chechi started to speak. She motioned out to the crop fields, and made a few comments. Now and again someone would pass by and she would enthusiastically introduce us. Smiling proudly, she showed us the tiny drop of black ink on her fingernail indicating and explaining to us how she had gone to vote in the local elections the day before. Comfortably sandwiched between my Camila and I, arm in arm, I soon realized that for almost 30 minutes Anema Chechi had somehow had a conversation with two foreigners without any reluctance or uncertainties that she would still get her points across.
I have come to recognize that communication and the process of exchanging information (in various forms) can be the most rewarding and effective means of understanding and relating best with others. In the past two months, my host organization has conducted household surveys in Valad and Parasanthigiri to understand the best ways to reach out, support and program for the community. Going door to door, sitting with different families and listening to their stories has given me a deeper appreciation for the people in our town. I have witnessed that the process of research, sharing, and collecting of such private information can be very daunting particularly for those being interviewed. Having observed the Profugo field staff professionally interact with the selected families during the household surveys, I now know that if applied correctly and with the right intentions, this particular exchange of information can also bring people together and could ultimately create a positive impact in the community.
A third instance that I have faced recently in the proficiency of sharing and gathering information has been my experience working with Mary Chechi, the tailoring instructor for the Profugo tailoring center. Often, Mary Chechi and I have had to exchange ideas on fabric materials, shipmate orders, and other work duties with the looming language barrier. Remarkably, with constant practice, patience, a few words and gestures we have established a singular but effective way of understanding each other in our work relationship. In the case of Anema Chechi and Mary Chechi I cannot exclusively accredit our easy interactions completely on my own disposition, but maybe to a certain extent to the former Field Fellows in the community who initiated and paved a sense of familiarity with the information they were able to exchange about Americans. Information, stored in the hearts of the locals and information that has allowed myself and others to integrate a little faster and a bit easier today. Then again, I also believe that my site-mate Camila who has Chilean origins and speaks fluent Spanish and myself having African-Ugandan origins are an exceptional addition to the list of Americans our community has hosted. Essentially, Camila and I have had the opportunity to share with people like Anema Chechi and Mary Chechi a piece of American culture, information about its diversity rarely seen in person here apart from the random and limiting misrepresentations that flash on television screens and other media outlets about Americans/people of color.
In conclusion, I recently learned that the Malayalam language is composed of the largest number of letters among the twenty-two official languages in India. Along with accepting that I might never grasp Malayalam fully as a linguistic skill, I continue to value it and other forms of communication particularly in cases where they become a strong medium for initiating connections and interactions with others. Information is a precious commodity that conveys various representations to all of us; I anticipate that in the upcoming months I can continue to experience more memorable interactions in my host community and other places as I did with Anema Chechi on that twisty-dirt road.