Do you think my blog post title resembles a line you would ask someone at the start of a new founding relationship? Dependent on how you define ‘relationship,’ this blog, this relationship, depicts the start of my journey, my love for social impact and for a country that I’ve visited countless times, India.
I’m often asked, ‘how and why I started working in India? how often do you travel there? what you do when you are out there? and finally, what’s it like travelling solo? This is not the exhaustive list of questions, but I’ve never realised that my passion and drive of working in international development through volunteering would raise as many questions. I can’t answer all of these questions on this post, honestly, who has the time or the attention span! But I will answer one, why I choose to work in India.
My relationship with India began in December 2004, I think I was 21, I had just finished my undergraduate degree and I was ‘reassured’ from friends and family that my mum was going to help ‘set me up’ and find ‘the one’ for me. This was all a joke and a complete exaggeration alongside all the ‘Delhi Belly’ comments. But these comments were a classic representation of my ‘preparation’ for my first trip to India as well as being armed with all of the NRI* essentials which we all know has to include Imodium. But oh my, I’m certain that anyone would be well aware and remember their first time they arrived in India. I felt like I was confronted with the biggest welcome slap in the face, one side from the heat and the other, humidity, with a strong dose of strange scents, pollution and noise levels created by honking vehicles all in desperate rage for tarmac rights. But it’s Mumbai, the streets never sleep, and that’s just how Mumbai rolls.
NRI* Non-resident Indian
I recall sitting at the back of the taxi from the airport to the hotel and I purposefully asked that I could sit next to the window so that I could observe the city. Red light hit, the car stood still and the honking of cars nearby were just relentless. ‘Knock, knock’ on the glass window of the car, I made eye contact with a young girl child, a street child, no older than 8 from my observation. She said ‘didi” (sister) and pointed at the something she was holding, in hope that I would purchase it. I was startled, she caught me off guard. I can still vividly remember the look in her eyes.
In response, the driver said, ‘don’t give her money and don’t look at her, she will eventually go away’.
I abided, but I was conflicted. Where were her parents? has she eaten? School? Home?
But this observation was only just the beginning. For the subsequent 3 weeks, my family and I spent numerous car journeys weaving between major towns and cities. I racked up hours gazing outside the window capturing and digesting as many new observations creating my own mental journal. The questions of concern I expressed in Mumbai over the young child, initiated the next set of questions through my observations on my travels. This observation looped the length of my 3 week stint which peeled away a new layer of thinking, paving a new direction and thought process that still remains deeply ingrained in my work today.
Throughout those journeys, I often wondered how remote and isolated communities along the roadside lived and sustained themselves? This may seem too primitive a question, but I’m confident new visitors to India have raised the same query. These homes or shacks were regularly made out of cardboard and tin sheets, it was common to see large families of 6 or more to a room with no running water or electricity. As my thoughts evolved, I created my own speculations how these local communities met their basic needs. It was these thoughts that planted a seed and developed my passion and love within development and India.
After my first visit to India, I navigated the next couple of years successfully achieving a new set of academic acronyms beside my name, but my thoughts, questions and mind often wondered back to my observations in India. The following years, I continued to spend my time working and supporting the lives of underprivileged children in various settings and contexts through an international charity in India and developed my own networks and connections, but my desire to work with communities that I observed in 2004 remained.
It was only until 2018 where my vision manifested during a trip to India visiting local schools in a city called Bhuj, Gujarat located in the Northwest state of India. It was this trip I had the opportunity and connections to visit a rural nomadic community. My route and only access to these communities were spent ducking and diving through traffic, off main road intersections and off beaten tracks riding on the back of a scooter. For the first time, I had an opportunity to talk to community members and ask them meaningful questions about their lives. Not only did I feel that this was my calling, it was only just the beginning. In 2019 it navigated my focus for my independent research for my Masters. My research study entitled: ‘Empowerment for All? Exploring gender differences in parental attitudes among the Scheduled Tribes (ST) towards education for tribal children in Gujarat, India. This revealed a new unimagined layer.
With my previous expertise in education and international development, I was aware of the increasing attention and marked gains of investing in girls’ education across the globe, therefore, I used my Masters as an opportunity to listen to voices from marginalised communities about their views towards education. Their responses were enlightening.
My thoughts and internal dialogue from 2004 that I dubbed too far-fetched in the beginning, has started steering in a new direction, pealing back a new layer. The only way I can describe India is like a magnet, a country close to my heart and one of my greatest teachers, continually revealing itself in layers. I now use my time to explore new education opportunities, one that is both inclusive and transformative for these communities.For me, it’s this next layer that drives my mission to deliver a new long-term change in the lives of girls from marginalised communities for their future, driven by an equity of voices that will one day contribute to change and empowerment.