DukeEngage in Visakhapatnam

A Duke student spends a summer learning about public health work in rural India.

Month: June, 2012

Weekend trip to Tirupati/Tirumala

More rain than I can handle!

The weather was something I definitely didn’t think about.  I knew there was going to be a lot of rain during the monsoon, but the effect on my project definitely did not click in my head.  Yesterday, I didn’t ride out to Bhogapuram to hang out because I figured that kids would not be playing outside.  While that was probably true, what does this mean for my project and getting to know the nice folks that live around here?  If I can’t go when it rains, I don’t see when I would be able to go.  I think I’ll just have to tough it out, and just go as often as possible, booking it back home when the rain stops.


Not my picture, but pretty accurate.

While it’s easy to feel like I’m here just to play with the local children and correct the English in BCT’s grants and reports, I do also have a project, which is going pretty well.  We have drawn up a project timeline for a small pilot intervention in Haripuram and Bhogapuram for a six week-long sanitation and hygiene instructional period.  We plan on starting the lessons next week, so that there will be ample time at the end of my stay to look at some data and draw some conclusions.  I have finished the first three lesson plans in English, and over the next couple of days, Somayajulu Gaaru and myself will be translating the plans into Telugu.  I have set up the lessons so that each one has an interesting hands-on activity that illustrates the point of the day.  For example, in the lesson about hand-washing, I put a small amount of blue paint on my hands to simulate a sneeze and we all shake hands for one minute.  Everyone looks at their hands at the end and realizes how sicknesses spread.  I hope that activities like that can bring home the points I’m trying to make in an illustrative way.


Trying to strike a balance

I took my biweekly trip to Haripuram yesterday, and I have to say, I did not have as much fun chilling with the kids this time.  I’m fairly good at caroms, so that wasn’t a problem, but I was miserable at cricket today.  Yes, I’m not so good, but it’s because I have never really played this game!  Give me a soccer ball and I’m not half bad.  It’s very annoying how I’m treated with such care.  A lot of the kids act like they’re protecting me, throwing the ball softer at me, and in general coddling me.  I’m not sure where they sense this fragility in me, but it certainly doesn’t sit well.  The problem is that they’ve never played the games I’m good at, so I’ll continue to look like a bit of a bumbling fool.

Also, I know I’m supposed to be polite and avoiding antagonizing anyone, but some of the kids here are just hard to deal with.  These are often kids who look up to and even idolize some of the young adults in the village who are also pretty tough.  A lot of times, I do want to yell and pull them away from some kid they’re picking on.  Sometimes I do, but I’m not sure whether I should be playing policeman.  Antagonizing people is not going to help my project, but at the same time, I’m not going to stand by while some poor kid is picked on.  I’m representing BCT, Duke University, and to these folks, the USA.  It’s a fine line I’m walking between my conscience and the project.  This is something I’ve been struggling with lately, and hopefully I can strike a balance.

“Take a picture! Take a picture!”

I went back to Haripuram today.  When visiting with Naidu Gaaru on Wednesday, people were a nice, since I’d come with someone I trusted.  This morning, though, people were reserved, holding back, not as open, since I was on my own.  From their point of view, I was just some random guy marching into their town.  In the morning, I ran into a few people, said hi, and left.  There weren’t any kids – they were at school.

When I went back around 5p, though, it was a totally different ball game.  I came up the hill to Haripuram on the BCT bicycle I’d borrowed.  Riding into town, the main street seemed pretty empty except for few kids played caroms in their house.  As I came up to introduce myself, one of the kids remembered me from the day before and screamed, “Annayya! You came back!”  He introduced me to his family and all of his friends.  Before I knew it I was playing caroms (a board game) with all of these kids.  Thanks to my meager training at home, I was able to keep up.  In fact, my team was winning!

My cousin then called, and without thinking, I talked to him in American English.  All of the kids were suddenly really surprised.  They knew I was from America, but up to this point I had been talking just like them.  The looks on their faces was hilarious.  I don’t think it hit them until that point that I was really foreign.

Picture with Haripuram kids

One of like 7 photos they made me take.

When I said it was time for me to go, they were all screaming and hollering for me stay a little longer.  I told them I couldn’t, but that I’d bring them a soccer ball and a cricket ball back from Vizag.  They told me they didn’t really know how to play soccer, but that was okay, I said, I’d teach them!  They made me take another group photo screaming “Take another one! Take another one!” (they love seeing their faces on the small camera screen) and swarmed me afterward trying to get a glimpse of the shot.

Still, this was the best day I’ve had at BCT so far.  Spending time with these kids, who are so engaging, bright, and fun is really amazing.  I’m already Annayya, and hopefully I can make some very good friends.

In the field!

I went back to the BCT high school today, running again into Ganesh and his friends, who I met last week.  The first thing they asked me why I hadn’t come on Monday.  I then remembered that last week, I mentioned that I might come back on Monday.  That plan hadn’t worked out, and it looks like these poor little guys were waiting for me.  I’m going to have to remember in the future not to make promises like that to these guys.  So instead, this time, I told them I might come again in another couple of days, not giving them a definite time.

Later in the afternoon, Appala Naidu Gaaru, the CEO for Haripuram, came by and asked me if I’d like to come by and see the village.  It was an enthusiastic yes from me!  We took his motorcycle the short distance (maybe a mile) over to the village.  It’s conveniently close since BCT’s center itself is in Haripuram.  There wasn’t any business yet – it was just meeting people and getting to know them.  We sat down at the small shrine at the village entrance and Naidu Gaaru started introducing me to random folks just walking by.  One of the people I met is Nooka Raju, who is a former BCT high school student now managing operations at the local textiles factory.  He knows all of the children and told me that I should come see him the next time I came.

Some of the kids came by (a few of whom I’ll be working with, since they’re in the folk arts program), but I had a bit of problem.  Even after meeting them, they were very shy.  One of them, though, a seventh-grader named Srinu, is a bit more outgoing.  When I suggested we play a game, he sat right up and started putting together a game of tag, which here they call dhonga.  We played for a while, after which I suggested we switch games.  I started to explain freeze tag, but they already knew how to play.  They call it som.  As we played in the middle of the village, people stopped and asked who I was.  I started introducing myself to everyone that walked by – adult or child.  When I told the kids I was going to talk to the adults for a while, they were very disappointed and made me promise I’d play cricket and kabadi (a traditional Indian game) with them the next time I came.

Meeting the village elders in Haripuram

Meeting the village elders in Haripuram

The adults were a little more curious about where I came from, what I was doing here, and how I came here.  They asked how I came from America, how long it takes, how I spoke Telugu.  We spoke for almost an hour and a half.  I met all of the elders of the village, who had just gathered to sit, chat, and watch the children play.  They all seem like very nice, sincere people, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know them as the weeks go by.  Haripuram is only a short walk from here, so it shouldn’t be difficult to swing by when I take my morning walk (boy, that makes me sound old, doesn’t it?).  I might grab one of the bikes that BCT has if I’m in a bit of a hurry.  It shouldn’t be a big deal, though, since I chat with Mom and Dad in the morning anyway.  That’ll be a nice way to pass the time.

I’ve learned a little about how to not get lonely here.  Sitting in the room reading books is a surefire way to feel like crap.  Instead, I spend as little time in my small room as possible.  I come and sit out under the pavilion, sit and work in the office, or just chat with some of the BCT employees near the mess.  When people are around, the time definitely passes much more pleasantly, and I feel better being here.

Spiders in the dark!

I set up my mosquito net in the evening, but it wasn’t mosquitos that gave me the biggest fright I’ve had since I’ve come here.  Since the power cut doesn’t usually come until 8 pm, I decided to take a bath at 7:15.  As I was bathing, I noticed an enormous 3-inch long spider on the wall.  Just as I was about to do something about it, the power went out.  This is a rural place, and at night, without power, it is pitch black.  Horrified, I gingerly felt around in the dark to grab my towel and open the creaky metal door to find some candles and matches in my room.  Damn power cuts…

Moving past the fear

The past couple of days have been a little tough.  The fear of not knowing what I’m doing is setting in.  My coordinator, Somayajulu Gaaru has been away on personal leave, so I’ve pretty much been alone.  I’ve been continuing to work on the proposal, and I think I’ve made considerable progress.  The progress came to a halt, though, when I started to try to write up a “curriculum” of topics to discuss with the kids.  I couldn’t figure out how to connect with them, how to talk to them.

I was at this standstill when when I ran into one of the most amazing people here, Suryasri Gaaru.  Suryasri Gaaru has been so supportive these past couple of days.  I’ve started to get a little antsy now that I’m here on my own, and reassuringly, she told me not to worry.  She went on, telling me that no one else is very reliable and that nothing ever gets done on time anyway.  Welcome to India.  She knows what she’s talking about since she’s probably the best English speaker around (she is a former teacher at an English-medium school).  All of the Americans who come here gravitate to her because she’s so easy to talk to.  She said that since I’m on a schedule, I can’t have an Indian mentality, I can’t depend on other people, and that I’ve got to get things done on my own.

She gave me the suggestion that I talk to the ITI students, since they once used to be the very kids I’ll be trying to teach.  When I did that, I got so many good ideas from them.  Shiva, one of the students here at the technology institute, was the one that taught me the most about how to connect with kids here.  One thing is that I have to get to their level – I can’t be serious with them right off the bat.  I then resolved that the best plan would be to go and actually learn Kolattam with the kids.  Over a period of a week or two, I could legitimately get to know them.  Then, after a while, I would be able to start to talk to them about these issues.  Like Shiva said, I don’t want to talk to them like I’m their teacher, but rather their brother.

That’s it, then.  Starting tomorrow, I’m going to start being independent around here, coordinating with who needs to be coordinated with and pushing people to get things done on a schedule.

Tomorrow, I’m looking forward to going to the weekly Wednesday community education organizer (CEO) meeting in the morning and then to see some more villages and meeting people in the afternoon.  Hopefully, I’ll get to see the very villages I’ll be going to every evening come Monday, Haripuram and Murakada.

Monsoon’s here! Week 1 wrapup

The clouds came so fast, they were there before I knew it.

The clouds came so fast, they were there before I knew it.

A lot has happened in the past couple of days, but one event stood out among the rest – THE MONSOON.  It’s been in the mid-110s for the past week, and if my worries aren’t enough, the farmers around here hadn’t seen a heavy rain in eight months!  The arrival of the rains was amazing; never in my life have I been happier to see storm clouds.  I was walking along the 1 km dirt road between BCT’s offices and the lodgings when the thunder claps sounded, reverberating off the mountains that surround the region.  The temperature dropped from 110+ down to a comfortable high 80s, and, just like in the movies, I saw the wind sweep the rain down the road from the top of the hill down to where I was standing.  It wasn’t a heavy rain yet, but you could see the rain making its way down.  Later, standing in the office building, watching the rain fall torrentially, I was shocked to hear from a friend that this downpour was just chinukulu, or raindrops.  If that was just a small shower, I’m looking forward to seeing what the monsoons really bring.

Meeting Ganesh and his friends at RMHS.

Meeting Ganesh and his friends at RMHS.

I’m finally getting used to staying at BCT.  It was a bit of an adjustment, but after four days out here, I’m figuring it out.  Meeting the local kids has been a highlight of my week here.  Yesterday, I headed over with B. Sri Ram Murty to BCT’s Residential Model High School (RMHS), a high school for students that the NGO constructed in 1995.  The place is very impressive for being in such a remote area.  There is a fully functional computer lab where kids learn to use Microsoft Office, email, and other functions on the Internet, a science lab where they perform experiments to go along with their classes, and pretty nice dorms to house them.  The kids themselves are fantastic.  One particular seventh-grader, Ganesh, stood out.  He immediately came up to me, and trying to practice the English he learned in class, showed me around the whole school and introduced me to his friends.  A lot of the kids at RMHS are a lot like Ganesh: outgoing, charming, and intelligent.  I am really looking forward to continuing to work with the RMHS kids as well as the kids from around the area.

Me with BCT's secretary, Sri Ram Murty.

Me with BCT’s secretary, Sri Ram Murty.

Kids really are the way to bring about change in these communities, though.  Of that much I am convinced.  Mr. Somayajulu told me a story yesterday that made me believe this.  He told me about a small intervention BCT carried out a few years ago where they talked to a class of little six year-old kids about hand-washing and gave them little one or two rupee sample packets of liquid soap.  They didn’t hear anything or see any change for a while, but after a couple of months, a few mothers came to the village’s Panchayat (or council of elders) meeting to ask why their kids had been given soap and why it was important.  After they were told about the issues, they started to tell their friends how this could help their children, and BCT saw real change beginning to spread in this village to a degree they never saw when they targeted adults with their sanitation and hygiene education programs.  This story has really stuck with me.  Maybe I could make a change like this too…

I have to say, though, I’m still very uncomfortable with the very clear class structure in India.  I know it’s because I’m from the states, but because I speak Telugu, I can speak to the people the translators won’t translate for, like the watchmen, the sweeperwomen, and the cooks.  I treat them as equals and even refer to them with the formal “you,” and it’s sad that they often don’t even think I’m talking to them.  Now, though, I’m good friends with a lot of the workers at the farm.  I really don’t like it when some of the senior folks say it’s odd that I speak to and introduce myself to everyone.  Still, this is why I’m so glad I came here, a place where I don’t need a translator.  It’s so funny to dispell rumors about the US – people think it’s a frozen wasteland (without summers) that is some sort of utopia where the government takes care of everyone and everyone’s happy.

Beautiful morning in the pavilion by my cottage.

Beautiful morning in the pavilion by my cottage.

So that’s a wrap on my first week here.  I’ve already learned so much that I’m kind of nervous to think about what the next nine weeks are going to bring.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the beautiful mornings here – they’re truly a gift.

A change of plan

It looks as though there has been a change to my project work.  Before coming, I had agreed on a project idea and we even had a week-by-week plan set up.  It looks as if that is not something that is going to be possible.  I met today with the president of BCT, B. Sri Ram Murty, and from our conversation, it looks as though the project I will be working on is going to be radically different.

The cottage in which my room is. The bathrooms are outdoor fixtures behind the cottage.

He did raise a multitude of good points, though.  BCT already has a sanitation drive going on, and it hasn’t been that successful.  The local residents have not been quick at all to adopt the changes that we would like to see in these villages.  The community education officers (CEOs), the men and women that go to individual villages and keep tabs on them, have seen very strong relapses after these drives go through.  BCT has seen enormous successes in programs that target children, and it seems that that is the better way to go about trying to bring about change in rural India.

My room here at the BCT farm complex.

My room here at the BCT farm complex.

BCT already has hundreds of local children learning folk arts, which has been a sort of community rallying point in a time when many ancient traditions are dying out.  The idea is to have children, who are much more receptive to new ideas, be the catalyst for lasting and sustainable change in behavior.  We are going to be taking a baseline look in five villages (Somalingapalam, Bhogapuram, Vadrapalle, Haripuram, and Murakada) at indicators such as the frequency of hand washing, bathing, and clothes washing.  After that, we are going to attend the cultural arts sessions that grades 9-10 students from the BCT Residential Model High School hold to teach the traditional stick dance called Kolattam to younger children in their villages.

Using these sessions as a way to reach children, we will then give brief presentations and host focus groups with those younger children, who are in grades 4-7 and 8-10 (separately), where we discuss the aforementioned issues.  In the following weeks, we continue to develop these discussions, and interject with questions like “Did you discuss these issues with your parents?”  I will be spending the next couple of weeks visiting these specific villages, meeting their village leaders, and designing a “curriculum” of discussion topics as well as a presentation that is appropriate to give to children.  I’ve been working for the past couple of days with the amazing Mr. N. Somayajulu (see picture).  He’s the central coordinator here, and he’s given me a great introduction to BCT.

Meanwhile, I have been putting my native English skills to use, helping the folks here at BCT write grants, reports, and proposals.  At least I can do some help while I’m sitting around.

I have to admit, the heat is beginning to get to me.  As part of my introduction to BCT’s missions, I was given a tour of the organization’s teaching farms.  That was very interesting to see, but it was all outside in the sweltering heat.  It’s just past noon right now, and I’m already out of water.  I can’t go back to my room to get more drinkable water until 1 pm.  This is just one of the difficulties I’m starting to learn to deal with.  The food, though, is fantastic.  Sanyasamma, the cook at the mess here, prepares three fresh meals everyday from the delicious organic vegetables grown right here on the farms.  In the morning, I even get to look forward to her amazing coffee (which I have to drink black since I can’t have dairy).

Me with Mr. Somayajulu, the central coordinator and my field supervisor.

Me with Mr. Somayajulu, the central coordinator and my field supervisor.

All in all, though, the fear is starting to subside.  The most terrifying part of the last couple of days was that, frankly, after my other project plan was trashed, I had no idea what I was doing.  Honestly, when it comes down to specifics, I still don’t.  But now, with some sort of overall goal in mind, I have some degree of confidence that I can do something and make a real change in the lives of rural Andhrans.


I’ve finally arrived at the BCT headquarters.  The drive was pretty long – we had to get out of the city and drive into the mountains.  I have to say, it is pretty isolated out here.  The first thing I noticed was simply how quiet it was.

My field supervisor, Mr. Somayajulu, was very nice, and though a little bit reticent, he seems very glad to have me here.  He showed me to my small cottage, which is simple, but definitely enough.  There are western-style toilets in the outhouse, though there are no showers.  I will have to bucket shower.  I don’t mind any of that, but I was pretty freaked out by the giant spider in the shower.

I met Raju, who is a guy about my age who works here as a caretaker and watchman.  My supervisor told me he would fetch whatever I needed.  I have to admit I’m a little uncomfortable with the hierarchical relationship that exists between us, but I will just have to roll with it so as to come off as foreign and weird.  There’s a bunch of other guys and girls my age here who are studying at BCT’s rural educational initiative to be electricians, handymen, and a host of other professions.  They treat me with this odd reverence, though, which I really don’t like (for one thing, they use the formal “you” with me in Telugu, the local language).

There is no Internet in my room, I have to head down to the main office for that (when there is power), so even though I am typing this on Tuesday night (5 June), I have no idea when I’ll end up posting it.  There you go, the power just went out.  It’s about 90 degrees right now and the fan was all that was keeping me comfortable.  All the street lights are out too, so it’s going to be a challenge to get around. According to some of the other folks around here, the power cuts happen at least twice a day, if not more.  Once around 10 pm until midnight and again from 6 am until midday.

So, the project work starts tomorrow.  Over dinner today, everyone gave me a big welcome and a summary of the many projects they have going on around here.  There are education, agriculture, and cultural initiatives, but my supervisor admitted to me that sanitation is one of the areas they have not really delved into.  Tomorrow morning at 8 am, I’m meeting him for breakfast and then heading to a meeting with some of the cultural education officers (CEOs).  This should be a great introduction to what BCT does.  Then, he will take me on a tour of the farms.  The secretary/head of BCT is arriving tomorrow from an event in Bangalore, and I’m looking forward to meeting him (we’ve been corresponding for months now).

In any case, my goals for the rest of this week are fairly simple.  I just want to get a feel for what BCT is all about, meet the folks that work here, and maybe start putting together the specifics of my project work.  I’m heading back to the city for the weekend on Friday evening, so I can pick up any supplies I might need then (e.g. a flashlight!).