Our last day at SEWA was a brief one. We weren’t funders, and certainly weren’t contributing vast sums of money, therefore our imposing on the organization was a hardship for them. Nevertheless, we sat down and spoke.
M.J. helped with a composition of a letter on the laptop, and we shared ideas for broadening their internet presence, particularly with regards to a Facebook page or internet online shop. These ideas were appreciated, but there was a wry pragmatism. Yes, Facebook is all well and good, but it takes a phenomenal amount of effort and time to update and maintain. They would need a full-time student or intern to maintain such a site or conduct online business.
So, we made no promises. It was difficult to leave that way, but we offered a small financial donation, a sincere thank-you, and continued on our way. I now have Vishwa Vyas on my Facebook, and I noticed she posts comments on holidays, friendly chats, and feminist issues. I think this sort of cross-cultural interaction is indeed sustainable, and what we need to continue with SEWA.
We left the village with waves and curious stares by the men of the village. As we were driving, we passed another village, one that one of my peers mentioned has an incredibly high HIV infection rate, so high that even SEWA is afraid to conduct outreach work there. The stigma of HIV-AIDS is constantly an issue, and we learned Radio SEWA does not deal with divisive issues, like politics or homosexuality. There just aren’t areas they can tread safely.
We set off to visit one of their communities to listen to a radio broadcast. The village was what I expected a village to look like in the 1800’s. Small stone and concrete shacks, minimal plumbing and electricity, and an unabashed curiosity from the village members. Women of all ages were crammed into a small, sweltering dark concrete room. We had plastic lawn chairs, as the guests of honour.
As we took our seats, the village women turned to face us. Suddenly we were the entertainment, the television for the women. I felt awkward and yet amused. Never have I felt like so much of an outsider. We listened to the radio program (in Gudjarati, so pretty much missed everything), fielded and asked questions of the village women. One young woman stood up and proudly told us how she was the liaison for Radio SEWA in her village. She was not shy, and she was quite young, only 22, with two children already. Her life had been changed by SEWA and she was immensely pleased with her valuable work.
We shared lunch, and at first Radio SEWA members saw apart from us. M.J. would have none of that, and we dragged office chairs missing roller ball wheels to form another circle. We spaced ourselves so everyone could sit next to someone new. They seemed to appreciate our gesture, and we communicated through smiles and gestures.
Lunch was a thalis and it was homespun and delicious. After lunch we visited the professional studio, where we were encouraged to sing O Canada for their community audiences and also record a message to be played the next day. Made to Stick never prepared me for this! Our rendition was hilarious, with a terrible high-note-low-note confusion at the end. We were lucky some of us still knew the words! The SEWA members were quite pleased, and laughed at our singing. I never sing, so this was a real depart from my comfort zone—but I was feeling fine with Radio SEWA, and everything was going well.
My second learning objective with SEWA related to the importance of sharing narratives and active listening in development communication. I hoped to improve my ability to listen actively and appreciate cultural narratives, and understand how they relate to development. This where I had dismissed Craig Storti, and slowly started to realize maybe he was right. Yes, I chafed at his off-the cuff reliance on stereotype and felt he was painting all Indians with a broader brush than needed, but honestly? Yes, I understood so much more while I was in India. The nebulous head-bobble that means yes, no or maybe, the reluctance to say no (although I did meet a ton of Indians who had no problems with it!) were all things I encountered that were certainly true. Storti, I judged you unnecessarily.
Well, at Radio SEWA we were given ample opportunity to hear success stories. Young women sat with us and told us how they used to be domestic help, before learning self-confidence and technical radio programming with SEWA. Some women were barely literate but were proud they knew how to record radio programs. Other women told us about the radio programs they scripted themselves, often about serious issues like family planning, hygiene and health issues.
They laughed as they described how they would use special effects to draw in listeners, like adding in music from the Garba celebration that week. There was an obvious language barrier, between our English and their Gudjarati. Regardless, we shared openly. It felt far more welcoming than the initial SEWA introduction, and we were able to relax.
Off to Radio SEWA. We crammed in the SUV again and goggled at the camels pulling carts, cows eating burning garbage and other novelties. It was unbearably hot, and in my mind (and probably out loud) I cursed my coworker who mentioned Ahmedabad ‘winter’ wasn’t that bad and I should bring long sleeved shirts and pants, probably a jacket. It was stifling!
The countryside was lush and held promise of clean(er) air, quiet surroundings and peace. The driving was still death-defying by our standards but traffic had thinned out a fair bit. We drove for approximately an hour out of town and when we arrived we were stunned. The Radio SEWA campus was beautiful. It was large, spacious and airy. A feeling of calm pervaded the campus, and the SEWA women who greeted us did so with smiles on their faces. We felt stiff with decorum, and then loosened up throughout the afternoon. We sat in a circle again and listened. This time, they listened to us as well. I was able to connect with my second learning objective, and this time I didn’t feel overambitious or foolish—I felt right.
We geared up for our next day at SEWA, which consisted of a visit to the community radio campus. I had no idea what to expect, but was a tad wary due to our first day’s introductions. I felt as though we were absolutely falling over ourselves to be careful culturally.
We were stifled and cautious, afraid of offending our hosts. That caution also allowed us to harp on each other for instances of perceived cultural insensitivity, and the group situation became a bit unsteady after a few interactions. That, combined with the overall edginess of the entire 30 strong class scenario, made me feel downright uneasy and annoyed.
Autorickshaws take to the street
It wasn’t an overt perception, but a creeping, steady low-grade sensation. I was seriously out of my element, not just because of the insane vividness of India, but because of the close knit relationships with my peers. I faced the next outing with some trepidation mixed with excitement. I was already tired of the city, with it’s scabby crumbling buildings, oppressive poverty, piles of burning garbage, noise and pollution. Here was an opportunity to leave the city and see things the way villagers might, experience life outside a belching, booming metropolis.