Why am I actually in India

By Max Johnson 

Delhi Belly got me. Full on too.

It’s given me a bit of time off and with it a good chance to reflect on what the hell we’re doing here and the merits of chipatis vs rice (chipatis seem the clear winner at the moment).

I’ve tried to explain to a few people about the projects, what the work is exactly, but usually cop out with an easy explanation that fits snugly into a short WhatsApp message about ’empowering’ or ‘educating’ people in rural India, promising to explain properly when I get back. In reality, I’m not really sure I know how to explain it myself.

I guess what we’re doing is similar to the age old adage, give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life (or until he runs out of fish).

Though its slightly different here. Firstly there’s nowhere to fish, Rajasthan is landlocked on all sides, and secondly most of the population are vegetarian and so wouldn’t do much with the fish after catching it anyway. Not much point in teaching them to fish.

Instead, we’re having a dialogue and discussion with the people about what their major issues are and then supporting them to identify their own solutions and to go out and do it themselves. In the process we empower them to tackle new issues and to actively seek out information which will help them solve the problem. We’re asking them to ask why, to question the status quo and understand that they can change the world around them. We’re not teaching them to fish, we’re teaching them to learn how to fish, or anything else they so wish.

By doing this we’re empowering people to take ownership of their own destiny and their own community and to understand that they aren’t powerless bystanders who just have things happen to them, instead they can be active citizens who make things happen. It’s about connecting with those individuals in the community who are disenfranchised by society (youth, women etc.) and challenging and changing the way they think about their world to a point where the way they think about their world changes. We don’t give them the answers, we support them in reaching their own solutions and their own conclusions.

This approach means that measuring our success or explaining our endeavours when we return home will likely be met with blank stares or confused smiles. We’ll have little tangible evidence of our presence in the community and won’t have added to the physical infrastructure in any noticeable way. But digging a well for example, while a worthwhile, noble and tangible task, is more charity than development – it places responsibility on the volunteers and not the community for their own village infrastructure.

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Max Johnson with his teammates and Program Supervisor. Picture credit: Mubarak Vazhakkad

It’s about finding their own answers and active thinking instead of teaching or preaching. After all, who are we to tell them what will benefit their community? A conclusion reached by yourself is much more effective and powerful than one handed to you by another. A step against gender inequality by members of a community instead of outsiders has the same increased power, and allows those individuals to continue making positive change long after we’re gone.

Our effect on individuals unbeknown to us will be felt for years to come as they continue to challenge and question their own world and themselves. Saying no to child marriage, to caste discrimination, to inattentive local government officials, and passing these same beliefs to their children, extending our effect far beyond our short three month stay. Even if only a handful of youth group members or our host homes are touched by this experience its still a strong positive impact which they can then pass on to others too.

It’s exactly the same journey every single volunteer out here is on. It’s as much about our own personal journeys as it is those of the individuals in the communities we’re working and living in. Challenging our own stereotypes, broadening our understanding of others and connecting in a real tangible way with the relationship between development and our own lives at home. Because in reality we’re much more similar than we think.

This blog was originally published here: https://maxymils.com/2017/03/17/too-much-spice-and-everything-nice-why-am-i-actually-in-india/.

(Max Johnson was a Team Leader with Pravah ICS from January – April 2017 and was placed with partner organisation Jatan Sansthan in district Rajsamand.)

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