I fear that in waiting two weeks to post I’m going to have to completely disregard the guidelines for “blogging” etiquette and just write a book instead. I am dividing this entry into installments which you can either skim or skip entirely depending on your interest. They weren’t written all at once but strung together from journal entries of mine. If my three teenage brothers are reading this (doubtful), rest assured that I’ve learned nothing from the keeping of my last blog and am ignoring your complaints about writing too much about topics that don’t involve things that are gross, funny, or grossly funny.
Here goes it.
Inebriated Honey Hunters
So the honey hunting study that I wrote about in my last entry had some context I failed to mention. Part of the reason I came to India was to expose myself first-hand to the state of education in rural areas, particularly tribal regions where Naxalite insurgency is rampant. Though I’m currently working on those issues now in several studies, of which I will broach later in this entry, SPS needed more immediate research done for proposals with quickly approaching deadlines. Hence, my experience with the honey-hunters of Madhya Pradesh was not born of my coursework/general goals for being here, but necessity. Disclaimer: I am not an alcoholic despite how the following story may read.
For about four days before our first planned visit to Jhuladar, I was reading every bee-keeping report and apiculture related article I could get my hands on. I was versed in their Latin names, tree species they like, dodgy pesticides, and bee politics. I’d even begun fashioning myself a rope from goat hair to belay myself from hives in the forest canopy in my spare time (insert obnoxious winking emoticon here). Honey hunters, dammit, I was ready for you. Unfortunately my nectar enthusiastic friends also have a penchant for the bottle. On the several mornings that we called them, letting them know we were on our way, they couldn’t pronounce their own names, let alone string a coherent sentence together. Since they live deep in the woods and the monsoon has arrived, it’s been incredibly difficult to reach them and unless we could ensure a decent interview would take place, didn’t want imperil our lives. We told them to call us when they’d dried out.
I should have anticipated this, as in my research I’d found a recipe for honey beer in my Bee-Keeping 101 Guide (thank you United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – fine piece of literature that was) and was pretty excited to ask them if they had any fermented honey stashed away somewhere. Honey varies in moisture content as well as “maturity”. Should moisture content rise above 23 percent, that honey is considered spoiled and not sellable on the local market. Spoiled it may seem, but this type of honey is perfect for honey beer. The content is also largely determined by responsible honey-harvesting and storage practices. Ha. I’ve found that hunting honey with an equally high blood alcohol level doesn’t necessarily yield quality products. Surely the honey hunters would have some for me.
When we reached the village I was disappointed to find several staggering men but absolutely no honey. The honey hunters had brought their entire season’s yield to SPS and were currently subsisting off of some kind of rice liquor. No thank you honey hunters of Jhuladar– I’d been down that road before at a Chinese birthday party and have no plans to go back. Of course our interviews produced findings of an academic nature that people who like bees might find interesting (you can read the 15 page report if you want but I thought I’d keep limit this discussion to alcoholism). Yet much to my dismay I won’t be making honey beer in a bucket in my bathroom for personal consumption. My colleagues also didn’t take my plans seriously (who could blame them – it’s hard to take me seriously) and only laughed at me. Sometimes after a long day in the field I wonder why more people aren’t seeking out high-moisture-content honey for home brewing. The only people who might take me up on the offer are the honey hunters – too bad that my follow-up visit minutes read “8:10am: Meeting suspended due to acute village intoxication” so I couldn’t pitch the idea. Come on people, isn’t SPS a poster-NGO for sustainable livelihoods? How about thriving honey beer industry right here in MP’s dry-lands?
Indore – A Tale of Malls, Hospitals, and Convents
After a month away from strip malls, last week Keena, Jyostna, and a few interns from IIT Bombay made our way to Indore for a Sunday junk food binge. Indore is an unplanned, sprawling, cluster%^* of a city, but it is home to the great Treasure Island, a shopping complex of 250 stores and the great paneer-burger serving McDonald’s. I cannot tell you what a dream it was to sit in a quasi-air conditioned building with passable wireless service, eating a hot-fudge sundae, and browsing Amazon’s sunshine deals on my Kindle for trashy romance novels. I know it’s only been a month but when the most eventful thing that happens in rural India on the weekend is a herd of cows passing by your room to and from the fodder pit on Saturday night, ice cream and a shameful book are a big deal.
The only downside of going to Indore on Sunday was driving back to Neem Kheda only to have to turn around unexpectedly on Monday morning and return. Jyostna, my esteemed colleague, was not feeling well and has been suffering some symptoms that are associated with hyper-thyroid. Naturally this is the case because I too have hyper-thyroid. Between our families, backgrounds and now this, pretty much everything but our DNA matches. We arrived at the hospital only to find an apocalypse unfolding before us. I kid you not, Monday morning in the outpatient ward of an Indian hospital would lead you to believe there had been an international nuclear meltdown and this was the only functioning medical institution left in operation. People were running back and forth, lying in the hallways, wrangling with administrators to have their appointment schedule, and the doctors were seeing 15 patients an hour on average. Luckily Jyostna just had to have a blood test and we were out of there – otherwise my malaria meds may have quit on me.
Following our visit to the hospital we went to visit Jyostna’s auntie, a nun at a convent on the far side of town. Though I’m not a pious Catholic, as evidenced by the past several paragraphs, I always find it interesting to visit Catholic institutions in other countries, particularly in Asia. I won’t get into the unsettling reasons, but the fact that Christ is always a white guy with a beard never ceases to amaze me. Jyostna’s auntie, as well as the other nuns, were absolutely lovely and stuffed us with sweets and coffee. It’s comforting to know that even here they host Hospitality Sunday (one Sunday per month that kids go to church because they serve doughnuts afterwards). They also wore white saris with orange dupattas – so much more stylish than the black, airway obstructing habits American nuns have to wear. There was an orphanage, school, and a chapel. The nuns were kind enough to let us rest after our sugar levels dropped. Since I don’t nap I started one of my new books – Chelsea Handler’s “The Horizontal Life”. If anybody knows her and her comedy then they know reading one of her books with a shrine of Jesus at the foot of your bed isn’t the most Christ-like thing to do.
Failed Jokes and Cultural Faux Pas: A How-To Manual
Let me just preface this manual by saying that Keena and I are blessed to live this beautiful place and have had formed relationships with the kind people we’ve. We are unequivocally lucky. However, one of our biggest issues here is our mobility. Maybe it’s not our mobility so much as there’s really no place to go when your room is surrounded by jungle and fields and a road 2 km away (and by road I mean, blocks of chipping gravel that attempted at one time to be a road…scratch that, what road?) that only takes you to the nearest paneer-burger institution after 5 hours of organ detaching, spine deteriorating turbulence. Did I mention I love motorbike rides? Therefore on Sunday I decided that I was going for a hike up the mountain in our backyard. Me and nature. Nature and I. Me, nature, and I. The villagers here don’t know who Annie Oakley is, otherwise they would have been really impressed with my in my tevas, cargo pants, and flaming red bandana. The story from here isn’t that interesting. I climbed the mountain, admired the view, and came back.
Though my learning curve, despite my limited intelligence, has been pretty steep here, there are some lessons I learned before I came to India yet continue to get reinforced. For one, I’m not funny. Two, continued efforts at lame jokes rarely help my situation. At dinner I told my colleagues Puja and Jyostna that I’d climbed the mountain that afternoon. Their eyes wide they exclaimed, “Kyo?! (English: Why?!”) I explained that I needed to take on the great Indian outdoors, get dirty (well, dirtier than I am most days), and be independent. Surely sitting in clipping their toenails on a Sunday afternoon bothers them too? Jyostna looks at me and goes, “There is a leopard that lives on that mountain. You really shouldn’t go alone. What the hell is wrong with you?” I paused, turning over what she said in my head. I think she was expecting me to apologize, vow to never go anywhere again without supervision as the ripe age of almost 26. Instead I said, “Well Jyost, I can’t agree to that. You see, if there is a leopard and two of us, aren’t we both kind of in trouble? Should I spare my partner the painful death of being torn apart by a forest beast? Where would our cash flow studies be without both Keena and I?” Jyostna looked back at me, completely straight faced and said, “You’re not funny,” and walked away.
And it’s that simple. I’m not.
WARNING: THE NEXT SEVERAL INSTALLMENTS ARE LONG, SERIOUS, AND POTENTIALLY BORING FOR THOSE NOT INTERESTED IN FOOD SECURITY. BARRING THE LAST ONE. Read selectively.
Patriarchy, Malnutrition, and Grassroots Democratic Institutions
Now that I’ve exercised purged myself of pent up sarcasm, I’ll be momentarily lapsing into some more serious material. Forgive me.
Since the honey-hunting study I’ve been engaging in some research more closely aligned with education with the Right to Food Program (RTF). RTF is a government program encompassing nine schemes that I fear I will never do justice to in this limited entry. Ask any Indian and they will refer to RTF as a brilliant attempt at addressing food security in this country, but also a sprawling, Pandora’s box of a policy that would take (and has taken) several dissertations to justly capture. Basically there are 9 schemes attached to this bill, all of which attack food security malnutrition from a different angle. The three I’ve been closely connected with in this study are the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program, Public Distribution System (PDS), and Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). To be irresponsibly brief, the MDM program looks to offer one meal per child per day for students studying in a government school, the PDS offers supplemental grain rations to families living below the poverty line, and the ICDS scheme offers health and education services for mothers and children who are suffering from malnutrition in angondwari centers and National Rehabilitation Centers (NRCs) across the country.
In the past two weeks I have embarked on three studies, each of which relates to RTF, malnutrition, and grassroots governance in some capacity. The first study was of a food security committee of 12 men in the village of Pantutalaub that was appointed at a gram sabha meeting of the village Panchayat. One of the major problems that plague the implementation of MDM, ICDS, and PDS is corruption. The story is not dissimilar to implementation stories of any bureaucracy. What is interesting about this committee is that it’s the first of its kind and that in demanding accountability of government officials and other villagers engaging in the corruption, food security has improved dramatically in this village. The men meet once per month but schedule weekly meetings with officials from each of these programs. The men were elected by their fellow villagers on the basis of character. Their committee has become viral and other villagers are modeling their RTF monitoring mechanisms after this village.
My second study in interested in documenting the efforts of several SHG women and their families to adopt children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM). The angondwaris, or centers that cater to the needs of mothers and children, distribute food supplements to pregnant women and monitor the health and weight of all of the children in the village. Unfortunately angondwari workers are overwhelmed by the onerous number of responsibilities they must attend to, are underpaid, and often must pay part of their salaries to their superiors who write their evaluations. Additionally, malnourished children who qualify to be sent to National Rehabilitation Centers (NRC) for 14 day therapy programs also have limitations. Parents cannot afford to spare the time or lost productivity to journey there. Once parents return home with their children they often cannot afford to feed their children the foods recommended to them by the doctors like milk and calorie-rich foods.
The problem of malnutrition also isn’t limited to just scarcity of resources in families. Ingrained cultural practices also hamper efficacy of both communal and government efforts to overcome village malnutrition. India is a patriarchical society (I would make the argument that most societies are to some degree) and in families, particularly in remote villages, the value placed on husbands and sons is quite high. In a study conducted in Rajasthan several years ago in a drought-ridden area where malnutrition was a huge problem, they found a specific district that had maintained its health despite the famine. Returning to find out how the villagers had managed this feat, the researchers discovered that only the men of the village were coming out of their homes to talk to them. After pressuring them men to bring their wives out to be weighed, they found some of the women to be so severely malnourished many of them were close to death. The lesson to be extrapolate from this study is that women in the village were feeding their husbands and sons first and eating whatever was left. When food rations are sparse, women will go days without eating anything. In turn, female anemia and malnutrition have critical implications for the development of the children they carry (especially daughters) and their own as well.
To compound the problem, many families do not take advantage of the health services available through the ICDS. The ICDS compensates one member of the family to attend to their child for the 14 days they are confined to the care of the NRC. Unfortunately many of the fathers I talked to had to be convinced by SPS officials working for the RTF program to send their wives and children to the NRC. They were worried that their wives wouldn’t be there to cook for them. How would they eat? Meanwhile their child (inordinately a girl) is on the cusp of death. My interviews with these men have been the hardest and those which I feel most conflicted. In my qualitative research courses we discussed this issue often – how do you interview people on controversial topics where you feel their views harm the wellbeing of others. What is the moral imperative in a situation like this? I don’t have any concrete answers at the moment but I acknowledge that my reaction was less than neutral (at least internally).
Now getting to the inspirational part. Approximately 6 months ago at a federation meeting for the SHG women, a collector of the district suggested that to combat the malnutrition epidemic, the villages take it into their own hands through the adoption of SAM children who a) couldn’t for some reason or the other be admitted to an NRC b) parents could not afford to purchase the provisions necessary to sustain weight gain. A list of potential families who could provide the Rs. 200 per month needed per child for extra milk and a banana each day was compiled. From this list the idea was pitched and 19 children in two villages were adopted by the families. Let me remind you that Rs. 200 is an extraordinary amount of money for some families surviving on less than Rs. 10,000 every year. Again, their generosity not only improved the health of SAM children, but the families saw these children as “our own” as they told me. They felt that without the community’s support, programs like the ICDS and MDM could never realize their potential.
I recall asking Harit, one of the IIT interns working with us, on the way back from Indore last week, “How do you govern 1.2 billion people?” His answer was quite blunt, “You don’t.” It occurred to me that in a country of this size with a population of this magnitude, a government can only do so much. The people must decide at a local level what they will demand of themselves individually and collectively to contribute to the greater good of their communities. Their generosity of self is truly remarkable and I can only hope to model my own code of ethics after the one they have demonstrated.
Filling the “Black Box”
Now that I’ve cracked a few terrible jokes and described recent work, it’s necessary to relate this experience back to one of my primary goals in coming here: to understand educational development in rural India. Mekhala said to me in my interview that to take on an internship like this I would be required to broaden my perspective on education and what it means to an area like this. In an education school it is common to discuss education like it is, as Leslie Barlett coins it, “a black box”. To elaborate, education is seen as this amorphous thing that is distributed or happens in schools. We need “universal education” but do we ever consider what goes into that education? Where and what are the other institutions socializing us as human beings and what bearing do they have on our educational experience? It is in my anthropology coursework that I’ve had the opportunity to explore other areas of socialization and build a framework from which to launch questions about the institutions socializing people here, an area where schools are few and far between (specifically for women).
Defining these parameters in MP has been very difficult for me, but in the last week I have started to see education everywhere. In SHG meetings where women are learning to sign their names, build the confidence to stand up to bank managers, count their savings, prioritizes their loans, and share information on information, I see learning. When the film team shows a movie on the best practices of sowing a soybean, I see farmers eyes light up and break into furied discussion over whether this would work in their field, how they will manage it, when should they start. They are not in a school but they are learning something new. In Healthy Mothers groups where women with healthy children meet with women with malnourished children to share information on food preparation and hygiene, I see a community reaching into their own jars of knowledge and topping them off by sharing. This experience has helped me to “fill the black box” for myself, expanding my definition and location of educational processes. This past week I also read Gandhi’s views on education this past week in his Hindu Samaj manifesto an though I whole heartedly disagree with him on a number of points (which I won’t go into here), but what occurred to me is what kind of education would help these people? What kind of education do they want? What are the needs of this community? How could we ever treat education as this myopic, singular thing that is needed everywhere when we haven’t exposed ourselves to the context and through which we might impart knowledge? And whose knowledge do we value?
EVERYTHING here is interconnected. You cannot divorce education from its context and you can’t talk about education without discussing food, water, and health. This is a take away from my classes but a resonating lesson here as I watch those in poverty band together as “uneducated masses” and engage in a different kind of education that cultivates community and strengthens a values system; benefits an algebra or chemistry class would have never given them.
Inspiration from He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named
Of course, the morning following the evening I wrote that last installment, every idea I presented was refuted by one of my colleagues. I shall call this man He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, not because he’s a Harry Potter character, but because he is a Dalit of the lowest sub-caste and prefers to keep that piece of his identity private for widespread knowledge could have disastrous implications for the way he is perceived by his colleagues. His story of one of tremendous strength of character, conviction, and courage, and I am a better person having had the privilege of hearing it.
Born in a rural village of Maharashtra, his family worked as bonded laborers performing two tasks in the village: prostitution and tending to the dead. His mother, grandmother, and three sisters might not be called prostitutes because they did not receive monetary compensation for the sale of their bodies. His father, brothers, other male members of his family, and himself were responsible for cleaning up the remains of bodies after horrific accidents, guarding them before police would arrive at the scene, and tending to the dead and their arrangements. These tasks were viewed as appropriate for the “impure” or “untouchables” and when his father insisted that he attend a government school, his fellow classmates would refuse to sit in the same room with him. His father was inspired by the work of Dr. Ambedkar and insisted that only through education would his children find a better life. Ambedkar, one of the chief engineers of the Indian constitution and a Columbia and LSE graduate, was born a Dalit, and lobbied for the educational rights of Dalits across India throughout his accomplished political career. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named received a primary education and then, through several serendipitous events managed to attend college and then one of the premier institutes for social work in the country. He was awarded a research grant to do field work in the U.S. and when he showed his mother his plane ticket, she responded that she didn’t know what America was. His brother had to show her a picture of NYC in a magazine and it was only then that she told him she understood and was proud of him.
His views on SPS as an organization are quite different, and in a crowded room of non-English speakers, I was taken aback by his passion on the topic. In beautiful English (which he learned in 1 year) he explained that the only way he was able to change his lot in life was through his education. Not only did it allow him to become socially mobile, but reading books by activists like MLK and Ambedkar who pushed for equality allowed him to reconstruct his own self-image and see himself worthy of a better life away from the underbelly of caste. He is working at SPS to save money to go back to his village and open a school for young girls, in hopes that they might continue their education instead of becoming funneled into the brothels. Though he appreciates the work SPS does with SHG development, he believes that confining people to agriculture is quite minimalist and perpetuates a system of exploitation as farmers will never make money until they can organize as businesses.
Though I love how heated people get here over issues of social justice – so impassioned in fact that the often start shouting, in some situations its borderline inappropriate. While He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was talking about the exploitation of farmers in the country he started pointing at this older gentleman in the room, surrounded by about 10 other staff who were quietly working. He starts pointing at this grandfather and screaming “SLAVE! SLAVE!” The innocent Dada is sitting there wide eyed with a scarf wrapped around his head, covered only by a loin cloth, and becoming increasingly confused. I wanted to melt into the floor. The entire room is staring at us and though nobody speaks English, it looked as though I had said told He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named something about the Dada which led him to yell and point “SLAVE!”
Life Lessons with Plenty of Cheese
To conclude, I should probably reflect on some of the more salient, cheesy life lessons I’ve absorbed since my last entry. Again, they are anecdotal so bear with me.
Match #1: Pragmatism vs. Pity – Pragmatism!
Every time I go to the village I usually entertain two questions. 1) Are you married? 2) In your village, what crops do you grow? The first question alarms them and they ask me what kind of a mother would allow her 25 year old daughter to go un-hitched this long. Then I tell them that I’m still in school going for my doctorate and they usually soften and reply, “Well, ok, that buys you 2 or 3 more years. But no more.” The second question is more difficult to answer when it involves me trying to explain what the corn-subsidy does and how pretty much everything I eat has some kind of corn product in it yet I’ve never planted a kernel in my life. I guess my “village” doesn’t really grow anything except an expanding force of soccer moms and under-aged hipsters – that’s an even tougher explanation in my crap Hindi. After these questions we usually talk about an initiative, they tell me what a good looking boy I am, and I leave. This past week however, on a trip to one of the villages with a lot of malnourished kids, one woman asked me, “How far did you have to come to get here?” Jeez. Instead of responding in miles and planes-trains-taxi cab lingo, I replied, “About 3 days.” She responded, “Well it’s really good you came to visit because we would never be able to visit you in America.” As soon as she said that I was expecting a small pity party to be thrown. She was right – here I was in my over-privileged internship, spending more than her family makes in 5 years on a plane ticket to come to see her. I felt guilty. I felt indulgent. I wanted to apologize. She then continues, “I mean, there’s so many of us and only one of you. Since it takes three days to get to you, we really couldn’t have spared the time in the fields to visit. It’s much better that you made the effort and saved us the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been so happy to meet you!”
Pragmatic to a fault. Love it. Again, thank you women of MP for keeping it real.
Match #2: Complaining vs. Learning – Learning!
The last lesson luckily segues nicely into the end of this painfully long 15 pages. The IIT Bombay student interns that I mentioned earlier in the entry are really lovely kids and good friends of ours. We spend a considerable amount of time with them as they’re also here conducting a study for their coursework. Coming from comfortable backgrounds in Bombay they sometimes struggle with the rudimentary conditions here. Ironically, they seem to be more uncomfortable than both Keena and I even though they’re born and bred Indian. They complain often about the lack of electricity, heat and the food. It’s difficult for me to swallow this sometimes when I’m holding emaciated children in my lap everyday when I go to the field. They go to Indore every weekend for 2-3 days to watch movies and “recharge.”
On Friday after we said goodbye to them as they boarded the bus for Indore, Jyostna and I began talking about her experience working for SPS in this past year. Though we both agreed that we do not begrudge the interns for their aversion for an area like this and felt that every person reacts differently, Jyostna in her sage-like wisdom reflects, “You know, even when things are tough, which they have been at points in all of my social work, I recognize that every moment of my life holds something for me to learn. Treating those moments in any other way is a complete waste.” I was pretty stunned and though this was a simple message, I think it’s the most powerful one that I’ll carry with me, both in these remaining 4 weeks and in life beyond India.