“The first rule of fieldwork is that you have to be genuine and come in wanting to be a part of their lives; thus we wear very simple clothes that don’t stand out or make us look like we consider ourselves better than this space”, said my colleague, when I asked her how she had gained the trust and respect of the community over the years. I looked at my pristine Anokhi kurta and understood what she meant. It was suggested in the most innocuous and respectful manner, but I understood the implication that I wasn’t going to win any hearts, floating into the slums of Kumbharwada wearing my upscale clothing. This was my first lesson in fieldwork and humility that the work required from me.
Working in the field was much harder than I expected it to be. The first week in the field had me wheezing and coughing, physically and mentally drained and exhausted. The naive me had imagined it to be like the stereotypical pictures one sees of the developmental world: impeccably dressed outsiders and the community people shining their pearly whites at each other. The reality, though, was very different. Reaching the Kumbharwada slums required two shared auto changes, squeezing between other passengers wherever one got space and waiting for long spells for the shared auto to reach its maximum passenger capacity. Swirls of dust flying all around (as Bhavnagar is in the desert region after all) and bumpy rides that would require holding onto anything stable in the shared auto.
My routine included buying the sturdiest pair of closed shoes, wrapping my face with a Dupatta to ensure no dust stuck to my face, wearing long cotton gloves to protect my hands from the piercing sun, and carrying my sturdy rucksack packed with my staple water bottle.
Unlike the photographs I’d seen, mine had me arrive at the Balsena children’s collective points with a shiny face and hair coated with dust (despite the dupatta), mismatched kurta-salwar set, shoes caked with grime, and sweating profusely. Nothing about it felt glamourous or soul-stirring. It was a hard work, day in and day out.
Going to the field gave me my biggest learning: Change takes time. It doesn’t happen over the course of ten months or even a year. It’s a slow process which requires patience and a strong ability to adapt to the needs of the community you wish to work with. Working at the grassroots level involves working with people, whose needs and wants can change. I hold immense respect for each and every colleague of mine who has worked tirelessly for years, working with their heart and soul. The naive me had come in wanting to make and see a tangible difference, only to understand that the extraordinary lies in the mundane everyday routine, which delivers outcomes which may or may not someday show an impact. It’s the journey that needed to be taken and not the end result. For the end result is the goal which may or may not become true.
I can’t stress enough on how important it is to understand the needs of the participants over one’s own agenda. A seven-part counseling session I conducted with the Shaishav staff brought this back home for me. My first two sessions followed a let-me-tell-you- about-different-conditions kind of format. It was an engaging lecture, built with videos, cartoons, and quotes. I talked and people listened. It was after the second session that my senior colleagues informed me that I needed to slow down. “It’s good”, they said when I asked how they felt about the session, “but you don’t engage anyone to talk and connect it to their life”.
Reflecting on that, I figured people weren’t willing to open up and I was too scared to push them to do so. I understood the need was not to throw information at anyone but to help them navigate with that information in their personal and professional lives. So, through role plays, debates and discussions, I learned how to encourage each person to share their thoughts about what they had seen in the field. We debated on how symptoms manifested, what course action was appropriate, what could we do as people working with children etc. The UNICEF video on “What It Means to Live with a Black Dog Called Depression”, dubbed in Hindi, led to hours of discussion on how people had been through or seen loved ones go through depressive episodes. People cried. Others supported. Where I couldn’t handle the situation, my senior colleagues jumped in, bringing closure and a sense of acknowledgment that I have yet to learn to impart.
An organisation builds itself by the sheer hard work and commitment of its team members. It’s their often unacknowledged and strenuous work over the years that bears fruit. Thus, high staff turnovers can directly correlate with the success and failure of the programmes.
Watching us grow as a team through my counseling sessions made my last few days seem like an excellent parting gift. With my minuscule bit, I had hoped to bring in the trust and team ownership within the organisation and was slightly successful. As a team, we learned to acknowledge our shortcomings, support each other where we individually lacked, recognize our strengths and begin to collaborate from there on. What else is a good working relationship or this Fellowship cohort all about?