DukeEngage in Visakhapatnam

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

Today, I worked with a real community leader…

In the end of my last post, I wondered whether the stark difference between Haripuram and Bhogapuram would make working in Bhogapuram easier.  Turns out, it did, thanks to one guy: M. Dharmaraju.

Photo after Kolattam

Some of the kids I talked to today. Back row from right: Dharma, his father, Chinna, and myself.

Dharma is a remarkable fellow.  The guy has done so much for his village already, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will continue to change Bhogapuram for the better.  The most amazing thing about the guy is how modest he is.  I already talked about how, when the government wouldn’t clean one of the village’s dirtiest streets, then filled with garbage to knee level, he told the village youth, and ultimately the whole village, to do it themselves!  He didn’t leave for a post he was offered in Hyderabad because he wouldn’t be able to serve the community anymore.  He got into fights with his family because he would do tutoring for free on his house’s rooftop.  I really look up to him, and I’m glad he agreed to take up the battle with me.

Me and Dharmaraju

Dharmaraju and me. I blinked awkwardly and didn’t notice until I was home.

All the problems I ran into in Haripuram were avoided.  He knew the kids, he got them into a line, he got them to listen, and he told me at the end when I asked him how he thought we should continue, “Don’t worry, if I say they should do it, they will.”  I don’t think his equivalent exists in Haripuram.  There are a couple of guys who took up the responsibility there, but not to this level.

I’m glad Dharma is guiding me.  He said that he’s happy to have a new project to work on, and that he’s glad I brought this to Bhogapuram.  That in itself made my day.  I’m glad I found some support after feeling a little isolating the past couple of days.

Tomorrow’s going to be fun.  As a side project, we’re making a short film about BCT’s educational initiatives, so I’ll be running around getting footage.


Defining the community-Ani relationship

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships, in the context of social work.  I’ve been thinking about what my role is in all of this and whether I’ve taken the right track in approaching the problem I came to try and do something about.

I befriended children when I came.  That much is clear in the rest of the blog.  I wanted to get to know them before I started to work with them so I wouldn’t seem like an outsider.  I accomplished that aim, the kids love me. However, I’m now questioning what I did – did I go too far?  Did my befriending the kids get in the way of teaching them about sanitation issues?  When teaching yesterday, my friendships with the children got in the way a lot.  They struggled to see me in an authority position, since I had spent three weeks getting to know them as a friend.  Getting them to listen and sit was a huge challenge.

nani son

The kid is very cute, though! (Posted with permission)

Another issue comes up when I deal with adults.  While I have great, respectful conversations with them, sometimes they make requests of me that give me the painful feeling that I am being used.  I blogged about Nani Gaaru and his child a couple of days ago.  Yesterday, I took a picture of his baby at his request, and soon, everyone wanted pictures of their children.  Is that what I was there to do?  How can a single, (seemingly) innocent action change how everyone sees you?

What relationship do I want to form with the community?  I tried my harder not to come off as a foreigner, and I’m certainly not trying to say I have all answers (I don’t know if I have any), but one of the greatest challenges of this trip has been how to present myself to the people I meet.  Maybe they have little access to cameras, but I can’t take photos of everyone I see and give them prints.  Ultimately, the relationships I form and the first impressions I make are all influence how my work plays out.

That’s the most interesting thing about the relationships I’ve made here.  My connections with the community are so vastly different in Haripuram and Bhogapuram that the outcome of what I’m doing is going to be different in each village.

Well… it could have been worse.

I learned a few valuable lessons after my experience in Haripuram last night.  First, never take anything for granted, and second, you cannot do anything alone.

When thinking up the lessons, I had banked on having the traditional Kolattam activity to get everyone in a mood where they would sit and listen for a few minutes.

That didn’t work out too well.

kids after lesson

Some of the kids who I talked to afterwards (cropped for decency standards)

I even had coordinated with Nokaraju, the gentleman in Haripuram who puts together Kolattam and other social and cultural programs for children.  He had told me that if I came to Haripuram around 6 pm, he would arrange a Kolattam practice so that I could see and maybe even learn some of the dance.  When I arrived, I couldn’t find Nokaraju anywhere, and none of the kids seemed to think there was a Kolattam practice that evening.  When I finally tracked him down, he told me that one of the girls in the program had “matured” and so her family wasn’t sending any kids.  This was, apparently, reason enough to cancel Kolattam for the foreseeable future.

Trying to make the most of the situation, I asked him for his help in rounding up some more children.  He said he was busy, though, and left.  I did what I could, got 21 kids to sit, and talked to them about these issues.  It didn’t sink in, though.  They correctly answered my questions about when to wash hands and how to do it, they practiced with me, and they even told passing adults, but ask them today, and I don’t know how many of those children could tell you what we talked about.  It’s repetition and practice that’ll drill it into their heads, though, and I have a few weeks left to do that.

Hanging out

We all went to Giri’s house afterwards to hang out!

I think that’s one of the hardest parts about independent projects.  When someone, especially a community member, drops you in the middle of the ocean leaving yourself to swim, there’s no one to turn to.  Even at BCT, they suddenly left me to myself a couple of weeks ago.  I won’t lie, it is pretty frustrating.

I’m hoping today in Bhogapuram will be better – I know the guys arranging the Kolattam much better, and I feel more confident that they will not flake on me.  Still, to make sure this doesn’t happen next week in Haripuram, I enlisted a couple more guys my age to help out.  I’ll be sharing lesson plans with them early next week, and hopefully things will be smoother.

Yesterday was a rough learning experience.  I thought I had it figured out, but everything fell apart in the span of minutes.  Lemonade from the lemons, though.  Bhogapuram update later tonight.

Big day! and also electricity problems…

This is the halfway point!  Honestly, I thought I’d be able to get more done by now, but there’s no use crying about – I’ve just got to move on.

So, after a few weeks of slowly getting to know everyone in the villages, I start my sanitation/hygiene discussions with the kids today.  When I came, I thought there was a little more set up, I thought there were going to be doctors working here, and I thought that I wouldn’t be working alone, so it took a little longer than I thought to get in there and get to know people, but I think I’m there.  I’ve become good friends with the guys my age in Haripuram and Bhogapuram, and I’ve gotten to know the kids really well too.

UPS power

The fact that no lights are blinking on this backup power source means no computers and no Internet when the power goes out (like 4 hours/day). Gotta get work done the old fashioned way!

Now I approach a critical part of the project.  Tonight, I’ll be attending a Kolattam (traditional dance) practice at the local temple in Haripuram and then all the kids, a lot of youths, and some of the elders are going to come to hear my discussions with the little guys.  I’m a little anxious, because if today doesn’t go well, the rest of the time is going to be harder – I have to sell it well so that people keep coming!  I’ll definitely write an update tonight before tomorrow’s first lesson in Bhogapuram (which is going to be tougher since I don’t know the folks there as well).

Generator room

This lovely generator room (when it has diesel) keeps our work going when the power and the backup power fail.

Meanwhile, the power situation here has been terrible.  The backup power source blew out the other day, and sometimes the generator runs out of diesel, so there are now frequent breaks in getting stuff done where everyone throws their hands up and sits outside.  It’s a little frustrating, but hey.  Just learn to roll with it.

The big picture

Now that the novelty of being in a new environment has worn off, I am starting to notice the big picture a little more.  After a month here, I’ve just started to get a feel for what life here is really like.  All of this has been coming from talking to people.  They have been kind enough to break down the wall and offer me a look at their lives.

A great example of this came last week in Haripuram.  I stayed late that day, and was still there well after dark.  I had a very interesting conversation with Nani Gaaru, a truck driver who was home on a two week vacation.  We met when he asked me to take a picture of his daughter son since it was her his first birthday (I ended up attending her little party!).  My camera didn’t work (I ended up replacing it…) but he invited me to his house to meet the rest of his family.  Eating biscuits and sweets, we soon got into a discussion about our differences and similarities (something everyone wants to talk about).

Before long, he asked the uncomfortable question that everyone asks for some reason: “do you like India or America better?”  Right before I answered, Srinu, one of the kids I work with, threw his candy wrapper on the ground.  I told him he should put in a trashcan, and asked where I could find one since I had a wrapper, too.  They said there was no trashcan and that I should throw it on the ground as well, since someone would clean it up.  I told them that it was okay and that I’d get rid of it once I got back to BCT.

After saying how I loved the family values that came with Indian culture, I mentioned this as an issue – the trash.  Nani Gaaru put it quite nicely saying, “Well that’s our problem, isn’t it?  We always have this idea that someone else will take care of it.”  That’s when it hit me.  These problems that I’m working with aren’t going to go away by just teaching kids to throw things in the trash or to wash their hands (though it may definitely help!).  The root causes of these issues go all the way to the core of how many Indians think about their lives.  Sanitation and hygiene isn’t the bottom line.  It’s a broad-based attitude generations in the making.

I’m still going to keep on doing what I’m doing, because I honestly think it can make a sustainable difference.  Still, though, thinking realistically, we’re a long way off from bridging the gap here in India.


Edit: Nani’s one year-old is a boy!  Oops!

Week 4 Adventures

It’s been about a week since I last updated the blog, and what a week it was.  I’ll have to tell it through several installments.

My project moved forward, but in the process, my camera broke, I got sick, and my bathroom was ruined.

I was initially concerned at the start of the last week because I knew the older folks in Bhogapuram better than the younger children, but over the course of Week 4, that situation was rectified.  It has really been quite an experience, though, just strolling into a village and suddenly introducing yourself to everyone you see.  The thing is, no matter how much I do it, it never gets easier (though maybe that’s just me).  I have to swallow that nervousness and jump in every time.  Sometimes it goes horribly wrong, people telling me I should not be teaching the village children these “Western ideas,” but most of the time, it goes very well, and I make a new friend.

This week brought up some obstacles, which are more irritating than real roadblocks; they’re all just lifestyle issues, not project problems, so I’m not too concerned.  My camera’s lens broke, which was annoying, but luckily I was able to pick up another when I went to the city this past weekend.  Electronics are so expensive here.  I paid around $100 for a camera that is not as good as the one I had gotten for less in the States—confusing.  I also got sick this week with the last thing I expected to catch here – a cold.  Thanks to shortsighted mid-May Anirudh, I have no cold medicine, so looks like I’m going to learn some basic Telugu medical vocabulary!  Finally, there were some torrential downpours last night, and this morning had quite a surprise for me.  Everything was filed with insects—the sinks, the bathrooms, even the toilets.  I’m not squeamish, but this was a bit much.  I have no idea what this is about, but if the whole rainy season looks like this, I’m a little concerned.

In my spare time, BCT asked me to make a short film for them about their educational initiatives.  The folks I’m working with, though, are very busy, so the project is moving glacially.  Overall, though, I’m very optimistic about my project.  Updates to come!

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.