Thoughts from the Baba Amte People’s Empowerment Centre

I must admit, prior to leaving for India, I was freaking out. Like,
really freaking out. My closest family and friends can attest to that.
But since I stepped off the airplane in the New Delhi airport, hopped
in the car with a man whose name I couldn’t remember, and pretended to
understand and converse in Hindi for almost an hour, I haven’t looked
back.

Delhi was a blur. I pulled up to what I thought was going to be a
cramped hostel, but instead an extravagant hotel that exceeded all of
my expectations. Our days were filled with shopping for new Indian
clothes, bargaining in the markets, autorickshaw rides and my (first!)
bite of Indian food. Our trip to the big city ended before we knew it,
and Becky and I were left to get ourselves on the train for an 18-hour
trip to Indore. In the essence of time, I won’t go into that bit, but
let me just say, the train experience was one I will never forget. As
Becky described it, it was one of those-
now-that-I’ve-survived-that-I-can-do-anything- type experiences.

But life at SPS is one I could have never imagined. It is no doubt
difficult; the employees who work here full time tell us that even for
them, this is a demanding environment. Becky has given you some
background as to what we have been up to the past few weeks, so I
won’t inundate you with those details. I will say that, although the
previous 3 weeks have been informative and eye-opening, they have
undoubtedly been the most fun (and funniest) moments I cannot forget.
From eating our lunch in a hut made of cow dung, learning to eat with
our hands (I have yet to see a knife or fork since arriving), or
trekking through the mountains with our new friends, Becky and I find
ourselves constantly looking back and laughing at the moments we’ve
had along the way.

Today, especially, was a good day. Not just because of the actual day,
but because I think it really captured the essence of what this summer
has been, and what is to come. The day was filled with ups and some
downs, excitement as well as frustration, but in the end the ups far
outweigh the downs and the excitement makes the frustration seem
trivial, and I am only left with the moments of awe and elation that
remind me how wonderful and lucky it is that I am here.

Though both Becky and I have been assigned specific internship
projects for the summer, there has thankfully been lots of time to
explore other aspects of SPS’s work. Both of us were especially
interested in the Right to Food program, so we arranged to go to Bagli
(a town 30 kilometers away) for the day to meet with the RTF program
officer, Diekey. Diekey took us to a elementary school in a village
about 15 kilometers away from Bagli. She recently learned how to drive
a scootie (girl version of a motorcycle), so that wasn’t worrisome at
all as I sat on the back of her bike watching her navigate through the
roads (which I don’t think qualify as roads if they are just tracks of
dirt). Diekey taught us about the government schemes that provided
food rations, health check ups and vaccinations to children at school.
We were left with few words when we arrived at the school, a one room
concrete block, where only 10 children were present with no teacher
and breakfast still had not been served. We sat on a blanket in the
classroom and observed as children were weighed and measured to check
for malnutrition. Thoughts of my childhood flashed in my memory, and
then did I feel a hint of guilt and shock. Guilt for the comparatively
cushy childhood I had experienced, and the shock that this was a
certain reality for children living here.

Later, Diekey took us to the kitchen to see the women who were making
the midday meals for the children. The “kitchen” was an even smaller
concrete block, and three women sat on the floor repetitiously making
roti by a wood-burning stove. I could barely breathe when I walked in,
as smoke filled the poorly ventilated compartment. The women spoke in
Hindi about how the conditions were harsh on their health, but they
generously and relentlessly offered us roti and daal until we finally
accepted and sat down. The five of us managed to carry out some bits
and pieces of conversation, with Diekey as our translator, until
finally I asked if we could learn to make roti. I will admit that I am
not the best roti maker out there, but the women kindly laughed as I
tried my best to imitate their effortless actions. “What do you eat if
you can’t make roti?” one of the women asked. Finally, we made
promises to visit again, thanked them for their kindness and headed to
the secondary school located just next door. This school was for 1st
through 5th grades, with only two rooms for all the students and an
opening between the two for one teacher to oversee all 5 grades. The
conditions weren’t ideal, but in a place so remote and given the
resources at hand, it was better than nothing.

After visiting the schools, we rode back on the motorbikes and Diekey
took us to the NRC, the Nutrition Rehabilitation Center. This is where
severely malnourished children were sent for a 15-day stay at the
hospital in an effort to improve their health. Other interns have
spoken about their experiences at Indian hospitals, so you have a good
idea of, or lack thereof, the sanitary conditions. This hospital was
no different. It was a stark building; eerily quiet and masked in
darkness, with potentially one of the foulest smells I have ever
smelt. Surely, it did not seem like any place I would want to go if I
were sick. But this was the reality for the people living here in
Bagli and the surrounding villages. We walked down a dark corridor
until we reached the NRC, a room with only ten cots and mothers with
their babies laid out on each. It didn’t feel right being there,
foreigners strolling in to observe what is the reality for these
women’s lives, a severely malnourished child, no nurses in sight, and
confined to horrible conditions in which to get better. The government
has to pay these women just to bring their children to the NRC,
because most women either don’t trust hospitals to get their child
healthy or have too much work in the field or can’t afford to stay at
the hospital for two weeks.

After the NRC, Becky and I went back to the Bagli office to meet
Divyesh (one of the young employees that lives with us a few villages
over) and take the bus home. To no one’s surprise, we ended up waiting
nearly three hours in the office to catch the bus. And we thought, of
course, Diyvesh, our trusty Indian friend, was surely responsible
enough to get us on the right bus home. We ended up missing one bus
because he was chatting with his co-workers, and the second bus
because he really wanted to get chai. We will probably never let him
live that second one down. Alas, three hours later, we managed to hop
on a crowded bus home. Now, I have been really working on my tolerance
for the bus rides here. For anyone that has been in India and ridden a
bus, you can understand my sentiments. Becky is a super star compared
to me about riding the bus, so I take cues from her and pretend to
coolly navigate my way on the bus. I thought there was an open seat in
the back, but upon further investigation, the seat was actually
occupied by a kilogram of mangos situated next to a man with no right
hand and smoking a cigarette in his left. The man with the mangos
eventually moved and Becky and I maneuvered our way to the seat. A
small girl who spoke no English also sat on Becky’s lap for the
hour-long bus ride home.

Finally, we reached Neemkheda, our village, and I was exhausted. It
was nearly seven o’clock and we had been gone since nine thirty that
morning. Despite the hour, it was still sweltering, we still had about
a half mile to walk to our house and Becky and I were still
half-jokingly upset at Diyvesh for making us miss two busses. As I
dragged my feet back to the campus, Diyvesh redeemed himself and
hitched us a ride on the back of a bullock cart. (Picture two bulls,
pushing a wooden cart filled with bags of wheat, and two men sitting
atop steering the animals.) We politely introduced ourselves in Hindi
to the driver and spent the rest of the ride relishing in the fact
that we FINALLY got to ride a bullock cart, laughing at the absurdity
of it all, and blissfully riding off into the sunset.

It had been a long day, for sure. I had barely eaten lunch (do Jim Jam
biscuits qualify as lunch?), I aimlessly waited around a lot, and I
sat in a sweaty, crowded, uncomfortable bus, but I also met three
amazing women, I shared conversation with new Indian friends in which
laughter was our only means of comprehension, and I sat next to a man
named Govin on top of two bullocks and five bags of wheat.

The following pictures are of Becky and I, expert makers of roti, with
our new friends who couldn’t stop laughing at our Hindi accents, and
alas, atop a bullock cart.

Natalie

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One thought on “Thoughts from the Baba Amte People’s Empowerment Centre

  1. Ah Natalie! Your experience sounds incredible and I am so happy and relieved to hear that you are absolutely loving it! We used to joke that when I made roti, each looked like a different country (and nowhere near the neat round circle that they were supposed to)….so you can start naming yours too.

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About Natalie Volpe

Class of 2013, majored in Environmental Management and Sustainability, minored in International Development. Intern at Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Summer 2012. Philadelphia native, currently living and working in SF in cleantech. Always missing Aparna, Professor Kapur, my SPS buddy Becky, and Neemkheda.