Rather than just writing about the “big” events that have happened here, I’m also going to try to blog about the little treasures that have made this experience so wonderful… here’s one of them:
The other night we took a walk after dinner, down the kilometer-long “driveway” leading up to Search. This small road is surrounded on both sides by dhan (rice fields), which look beautiful at almost every point in the day. This time, it was well past nightfall. Partway down the road, the light of a small campfire flickered in the darkness. I was saying how if I understood Marathi, I’d go out and say hi to whoever that fire belonged to. Luckily one of the guys, Venky, does speak Marathi, so the two of us picked our way through the dhan. Two men were resting on empty rice sacks, with their fire throwing off warmth and light underneath a blanket of stars.
And just like that, we started talking. The conversation unfolded completely naturally, as though the men felt there were nothing unusual about these two strangers, one a foreigner, just walking up to their fire. Pretty amazing 🙂 The lack of “awkwardness” allowed us to skip over artificial barriers and connect as human beings, which was wonderful.
The men had spent the last two days harvesting rice, and were spending the night keeping watch over their ten-bag harvest. They were from the neighboring village just down the road. We sat there for some time (I love these periods where time seems to stop; you don’t really know how long you spent somewhere). They asked questions about what I was doing at Search, etc. and with my very limited Marathi I tried to answer back. And then eventually we said goodnight and walked back, leaving them and their fire under the stars.
I felt so lucky to be so much closer to the people our health programs are serving; if I were here for longer, encounters like these could really help me understand the realities of living in villages. You can get some of that understanding from formal program surveys, but some of the less concrete lessons are probably better learned through just talking with people. I heard that when Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang first started Search 25+ years ago, they spent many evenings around campfires with people in the villages, learning about their lives. And now, combining that with their strong academic knowledge, they’ve designed programs that are both scientifically sound and culturally relevant. The founders of another NGO in Maharashtra, the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, took a similar approach when they started their NGO by living on the salaries of local people for a few years. It was only then that they realized why none of the local people were buying soap, despite numerous health promotion campaigns – because soap cost 4 days’ worth of salary! So they redesigned their programs with these lessons in mind.
In Malawi, not only was I living in the capital city in a country where 85% of the population lives in rural areas, but because it was such a “nice” house, with its high walls and security gate, it was physically cut off even from the average Lilongwe resident. I did my best to connect with people wherever I went, but these physical and socio-economic barriers made that task harder. I hope that as I go into public health program design, I’ll have more opportunities like this one at Search to live a bit closer to the average person’s realities. I won’t say it’s “necessary” for a good program per se, but for me it just feels better!