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.
Luckily, we went straight into a Garba dancing celebration—which my fellow SEWA group members jumped right into. Vivid blues, yellows, pinks and greens flashed and swirled. Sequins sparked in the dusty sun, and everyone was smiling widely. The dance seemed very nuanced to an outsider like me.
I stayed on the outskirts, feeling at odds, again off balance and very amused. The young women dancing chatted up Siobhan and M.J. and asked Hayley for her BlackBerry Mobile pin number. They were entranced by us, the Westerners, dropped out of space to join their dance. The warm welcome we sought with SEWA was provided by these young dancers. They laughed and dragged our group members into the dance, with red and yellow flowers strewn about, and a shrine with candles burning in the centre of the swirling girls.
It wasn’t quite so easy for me to leap into the dance. I needed some time to process our first SEWA meeting, and figure out this whole India thing too.
I had precious few moments to do so as well, as a solitary creature I struggled mightily with sharing a room with a roommate, being a city that is literally packed with humanity, and trooping about with 30 students daily. Every fibre of my being was confused and crabby. Also, I was unaware or more likely simply forgot Ahmedabad was a dry state. Not that Indian wine is really anything you want to seek out (ugh), but not having the option of a drink was maddening and may have contributed to the downfall of my roommate situation.
On the funding note, we also got ‘hit up’ by our greeter and initial companion. She, quite forwardly, asked us about funding on our first day. It was awkward. Turns out she is quite possibly the ‘axe woman’ who does that sort of thing for the gracious members of SEWA, because they do not seem to want to do it themselves. That sort of directness was basically unheard of, and when we shared our strange interaction, it shocked you, our professor.
I felt unprepared for this bluntness, partially because with my readings, I’d been led to believe Indian culture is heavily into face-saving, and therefore this sort of interaction would be unheard of. I was also very wary, as we’d had a run-in with an Indian police type at the Ahmedabad airport who was clearly fishing around for something to wring some cash out of us–we scooted out quick. These interactions made me feel misled and concerned. I’d heard about the ‘slipping cash/baksheesh’ thing but also how hospitable and generous Indians were. It was hard to reconcile these instances with what my readings had said about India.
Gudjarat University Garba
It was during this first meeting I knew instantly that my primary learning objective was foolish. My primary learning objective for my time with SEWA focused on my need to develop communication skills in different cultures, and reflect upon those skills. I wanted to learn and develop skills to communicate in a challenging cross-cultural developmental environment. To do so, I attempted to be an active listener, and one who presented myself appropriately for the cultural norms. This, reading back, felt cocky and artificial.
True, I listened far more than I spoke when interacting with SEWA, but I felt that my reflections were barred by a barrier of both language and attitude. This was disappointing, but it allowed me to take a step back and let the information SEWA chose to share wash over me.
I was able to say in our class presentation that SEWA members have firm goals. They struggle for each and every milestone, for example, gathering funds to develop their founding bank, but they achieved it. Even if it means going door to door gathering rupee by rupee, SEWA members are proud of their accomplishments, and rightly so. It felt disingenuous to say we could come into an organization, learn from them for three days or less, and then turn around and offer them solutions to their problems. SEWA would not welcome this, because their foundational members are strong and they solve their own problems—note: this does not seem to apply to funding. That is welcomed.