August 07, 2011

Working in the Slums

This is going to sound odd, but I truly mean it---I have been so blessed to be able to work in the slums. Despite the harsh conditions that all of the people there live in, they are some of the most kind, generous, and inspiring people I’ve ever come across. I went into this fellowship intending to learn and research water and sanitation, but I feel like I am learning so much more than I could have ever expected to.
Most of the people I’ve been able to interview have been women. In Kanpur, Shramik Bharti has been able to improve water and sanitation conditions in the slums by helping women in their perspective areas organize and pool their efforts and money into issues that are most affecting their own communities. I’ve been able to talk with many of the different community members about what these issues are—in some cases its needing community bathrooms, in others its wanting water handpumps, and sometimes it the desire for a better sewage system to help ease the flooding that the monsoon causes. These women meet in groups of around 15 and each contributes a given amount of money to the group fund. Then based on the need decided by the entire group, it is loaned out at an interest rate of 1.5%. This rate is exceedingly lower and more manageable then the 10% rate that money lenders give. Additionally the close proximity that these women live in provides them with an easy way to hold each other accountable for when individuals in their group do take out loans. What they have been able to accomplish for themselves and their communities is so impressive. They have shared how their involvement in Self Help Groups have given them peace of mind to know that there is money available to make necessary changes in the community and emergency situations, and how it has helped lessen the domestic abuse that many of them face. I feel so honored that these women were willing to share such personal information with me and I know that the lessons I have learned will not be forgotten.
India has been a challenge because it is so different than everything I know and am used to. Although it was difficult at times, I truly think that all good things are. It is hard for me to believe that the summer is coming to a close and I will be returning home soon. Although I am excited to return home and see my friends and family, I feel like I have a new found appreciation for things that I had so often taken for granted before I left. My experience working in the slums was truly priceless, and I can't think of a better way I could have spent my summer.

Posted by smusman at 07:32 AM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2011

My First Full Week in Kanpur

This week has gone by so quickly. Its humorous now looking back at how I felt Monday morning and realizing I didn't need to be nearly as nervous as I was. I was informed on Friday that my direct supervisor would be gone this week for a business trip to Kenya and I wasn't exactly sure how I would be able to get my questions answered or who would be giving me my assignments for the week. Luckily, everyone in the office has been so kind and helpful and I've been able to get by just fine. The beginning of my work mostly entailed researching the history of Shramik Bharti's work and the progress they have made in Urban slums, and I was given three huge packets of information on all of their Water and Sanitation work from the past four years. It was slightly intimidating at first because I wasn't instructed exactly on what to focus on and there was so much information in each packet. Prior to my arrival, I didn't realize how large of an organization Shramik Bharti was. Not only do they have offices in multiple cities but they simultaneously run so many programs related to the different issues impacting the people in the urban slums. These include things like women's rights and gender inclusion, community health, livelihood promotion, adopt a Grandparent and others. I felt so fortunate to have met Ms. Usha Varkey and Mr. Ganesh Pandey, two of the founders of Shramik Bharti. They are so humble and relatable and I am extremely grateful for them because they have made me feel comfortable enough to ask them any questions I might have. I also discovered that Shramik Bharti's work with water began in the last four years when their partnership with another nongovermental organization, WaterAid, began. WaterAid is a big funder of Shramik Bharti and their relationship is really important because of the resources that WaterAid has access to. After I familiarized myself with all the information, I was asked to fill out the Project Self Assessment Reflection document to the WaterAid India Liaison office. Although it was difficult because of the length and detail of knowledge it required, I was able to complete it with the help of people in the office. My next assignment has been to fill out an application for the Japan Water Forum Fund. In the application, I am supposed to discuss the upcoming projects that Shramik Bharti is planning to use the money for. These involve, assistance for the blind and their families, and the construction of households toilets for the elderly population in the slums.

Next week when my direct supervisor, Mr. Rakesh Pandey returns, I believe my fieldwork in the slums will begin. Although I am slightly anxious for how it will go, my nerves were really calmed after I met two other American interns that Shramik Bharti has. Although their programs are different (Maternal Health) they have already traveled to the slums and worked with Shramik Bharti for a month. They only had positive things to say and they have given me some helpful advice about who I should talk to specifically if I'm having computer problems, or what I should wear in the slums, and other things of that nature. Although today is their last day, it was really great to have one of my work weeks overlap with theirs and be able to get some advice and help from people that are coming from a similar background and culture that I am.

Outside of the work front, things have also been going really well. Although I have been struggling a bit with the humidity, I am absolutely loving eating mangos everyday. They have quickly become my favorite fruit. I am also happy to say that I am starting to pick up small Hindi phrases and I get so excited when I understand what people are saying. Communicating with autoricksaw drivers has become increasing easier and I am just really enjoying mindset that so many of the people I have met here have. The other day for example, one of the leaders of the Community Health programs, Ms. Sandhana came into the office and asked the group of people I was in the room with if we wanted to go get ice cream. She said that we had been working all day and week long and that we needed to take a break sometime. Thats exactly what I mean. The people I have met and worked with really seem like they want and try to take the time to enjoy themselves and get to know the people they work with. I guess I just really like their attitude and mindset. They are so appreciative, hardworking, and happy despite all of the hardship that they see everyday.

Posted by smusman at 03:25 AM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2011

Delhi at a Glance

I am in India. I can't even fathom how good it feels to be here. I have been wanting this to happen since I first heard about the Summer in South Asia program in December; and now its actually happening. Although I'm used to traveling getting here was difficult and I am so happy that I have been able to make the journey with a friend. Michael, a good friend and fellow intern in Turkey, is also interning at Shramik Bharti this summer. We left on Thursday June 30th around 11pm from Ankara to Istanbul by bus and although I had been fortunate enough to have pretty good health for the majority of the two months we spent in Turkey, I randomly got very nauseas and threw up on the bus. It was quite terrible because it was the middle of the night and the bus ride was 6 hours long. The journey was terrible since I felt so sick I also couldn't sleep and unlike some of the other buses we have been on in Turkey the service wasn't very good. Fortunately for us however, we arrived on time to Istanbul, around 6am and then took the tram all the way to the airport. I was so happy that I had begun to feel better and that it was easy to navigate our way to the airport, particularly considering how confusing Istanbul can be. After that we spent around 8 hours in the airport waiting for our plane to arrive and tried to spend the last of our lira.

We flew on Etihad airways which had extremely nice service. We had a layover in Abu Dhabi and we were even able to eat with a friend of ours family that lives there. After that we had a short flight to India (around 3.5 hours) and arrived in the airport completely exhausted but excited. The airport was just as gorgeous as everyone said it would be. It was also interesting because going from Turkey to India was such a transition. Aside from the lack of English speakers in Turkey, parts of it seemed like the US. I think that is partially because we spent a lot of the time in the major cities, but regardless I felt very comfortable traveling there and didn't experience a lot of culture shock. India has been pretty different, it is truly unlike any other country I have ever seen, and so completely opposite of what I'm used to. I have stood out before but never like I feel like I do in India. Luckily having family in both Kanpur and Delhi has helped make the transition so much easier and I was able to go to some markets and pick up some Kurthas (Indian style shirts that are made from very light cotton material) that help me blend in a little more. Going to the markets I realized I needed to brush up on my bargaining skills. It helps that I have read a lot (and been warned by my family) not to carry a lot of money around because of pick pockets, so when I don't have a lot on me I end up window shopping and the vendors realize the have to lower the prices or I won't buy anything. Its amusing and slightly overwhelming how much attention we unintentionally attract. People ask to take our pictures, and where we are going, do we want to see their shop, go on this tour or that, do we need help, take this ricksaw, etc. etc. Walking through the streets of Old Delhi is quite the experience. Its remarkable how different Old and New Delhi are. Its as if they are in different centuries almost. The latter has large buildings with gardens, trees, and nice cars while the former is extremely crowded and filled with rickshaw drivers, people lying in the streets, vendors and small shops, litter, and cows and dogs in the street. I am equally impressed and terrified of the driving in India. I wonder how people learn to drive without using their sideview mirrors or lanes. I also think that honking has a much different meaning here. People honk all the time and I think that it is an indication of where a car is (as opposed to being angry at something a driver nearby did like its commonly used for in the States) but I don't think I will ever figure out how drivers don't get confused by all noise. With so many cars that are constantly honking, its easy to get lost in the commotion even as a pedestrian or in the passenger seat.

I was really fortunate to hear about this new tourist bus (its called HOHO as an acronym for Hop On Hop Off) where there are tour guides on the bus that come around to stops every 45 minutes and tourists can just get off at the attractions they want to see and spend as long as they'd like because the bus services goes from 8am to 715pm. I got to see the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, the old fort, Humayan's Tomb, Dili Haat, Connaught Place, Chani Chowk, Qutab Minar, and many others. It was truly wonderful and I enjoyed myself a lot. It was nice to be able to see things on my own tempo, and then go on an air conditioned bus while traveling between places (it was around 102 F when I took the day trip). One thing that I learned the hard way is never to travel without an umbrella during the monsoon season. While visiting the old fort, it started to get cloudy and as Michael and I were waiting for the bus to pick us up it started pouring. Saying that it rained cats and dogs would be a vast understatement. Even though we were only outside for 10 minutes or so we were completely soaked, and it was the only time I didn't enjoy the air conditioned bus. Aside from that I also thoroughly enjoyed myself in Janpath, a smaller portion within Connaught Place, where I was able to find a lot of small handicrafts. While walking down the streets I saw a monkey eating McDonalds fries on the street. I stopped to take pictures and pretty soon after it ran up to a street vendors cart and grabbed down a bag of lays and doritos, ran back up to the building and climbed all the way up to the rough where it ripped open the bags and started eating the chips. Walking through the streets is so crowded and busy, and it seems like everyone has places to go--but for five minutes a large crowd paused to watch the monkey and the street was full of laughter at how sly he had been.

Delhi was great but I was excited to leave for Kanpur and begin my fellowship. I took a train from New Delhi to Kanpur and the ride was quite enjoyable. I had a samosa for the first time in ages and got to see some of the countryside as we drove past. The only major struggle I had was finding my cousin when we reached the train station in Kanpur. It was extremely crowded and there were no foreigners around so we both became a big spectacle. None of the people I asked for help spoke English and I was having a hard time finding a public phone. I was beginning to get really nervous because it was late and I didn't have many rupees on me but fortunately after an hour we found my cousin. Things have gone very smoothly since then. I had my first day of work today and it primarily consisted of familiarizing myself with the history of the water aid programs that Shramik Bharti (the NGO I'm working with) has implemented in the last three years that it was worked with another international organization WaterAid. The facilities are nice and everyone we have spoken with so far has been very accommodating and helpful with any questions I have had. I am excited for what the following week has to offer. For right now I'm just enjoying the food (especially mangos) and chai and trying to pick up some Hindi, I'm hoping by next week I'll have made more progress!

Posted by smusman at 02:53 AM | Comments (0)