Sunday, 27 April 2014

Himalayan Experience

When people hear about India, some of the first adjectives that come to mind are; hot, chaos, and noises. But these kinds of characteristics describe only half of the sweet and sour madness of India. However, in the north of India everything changes, especially in the Himalayan area.

The first impression I had when I arrived in Naddi, was to wonder whether I was going to wake up to this landscape every day, and yes, fortunately my thoughts became real. Next my thoughts wondered to what beauty I might discover and what I would see around the area. For sure there must be a lot of places to trek and relax in peaceful areas! And I was right.

One of the first treks I did was to the river and waterfall that provides water to the villages in the surrounding area. The water in India is not known as the best water in the world, especially in Delhi (the famous Delhi Belly that nobody would like to experience). One of the main questions that you might wonder about is where the water from the pipes is coming from? You can see many pipes everywhere. All kinds; thin, thick, leaking pipes, etc, so we tried to find the origin of this water and see how it looked. First we went from Naddi to Galu temple. Galu temple is one of the starting points for the trek to Triund (one of the most popular treks of the area). During this first stage of the journey, we went in the direction of the waterfall instead of Triund. When we reached the river (amazing area by the way) we decided to go further, and followed the big pipe. It was pretty tough but funny at the same time, especially when my friend Nigel had to slide down to the wall. It was very easy to slip in that area, I could see the fear on his face. Finally we reached the source of the pipe, the water was very clear, pure, and fresh, but there is one thing you never know in Himalaya Mountains,what is above this river? There will always be something else, so you better be even more aware if you are not Indian. So, at the end we decided to sit on a huge rock staring down at the valley and relaxed our minds for a while.

On the second trek, we went to Guna Temple, surprisingly more people than I expected came. It was really motivating to gather a big part of the Educare team and people from Sheini together. Everything was fine until we arrived to the steps which were pretty steep. You could see the faces of the team slightly change. On this trek we could see the international school on the top of the hill, it looked pretty isolated. After one hour and thirty minutes we arrived at Guna Temple, one of the most traditional treks from Naddi. I tried to organize this trek since I arrived, but something would always show up and mess up my plans. You never know what the weather’s like in the Himalayan Mountains, but finally we had good weather and enjoyed this special day.

The last trek was one of the most looked forward to by the team. For the past two months, the weather and the snow have been a big issue, especially in Triund. Triund is 2900 meters high and the level of the snow on the top is most likely going to be twice as much as in Naddi. The day was perfect; no cloud was going to disturb our view from the top. After three hours, we arrived at Triund. We were excited to reach this place and to enjoy the beauty of the area with these specials landscapes. Meanwhile, we started to take all kind of pictures, jumping, meditating, team picture, etc. It was one of the best feelings that you don’t want to forget. Breathing fresh air and being away from the pollution of the cities was so nice. And that moment is when I reflected on my point of view about India. Was it how I thought? Definitely not! In spite of overcrowding of people in India, there are still places where you can relax, lose yourself in this incredible environment, and feel free for a while.

Oscar Carrat, Spain
Eco Volunteer Travel Project Manager, Naddi

Monday, 21 April 2014

Steps towards a sustainable future

Just a short walk away from the main square in the village of Naddi lives a small community that we refer to as the “Shanney community”. It consists of eight families, about 40 people and although they are only a short distance away from the main village they tend to live their daily lives somewhat removed from it. Like every person around the world they have basic needs and wants with regards to their health and sanitation but due to a lack of a sense of empowerment, education and finances they don’t have the sense of responsibility, the knowledge or the organisational skills to implement ideas that will help to give them a better standard of living.

This is where EduCARE India comes into play. An old Chinese proverb springs to mind that might best explain our intentions;

                              Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.

We intend to teach the Shanney community “how to fish”. Our programmes involve sustainable community development that will help empower the community and teach them that they can take responsibility for their lives, health and environment. We want to show them that they are not entirely dependent on the state to organise infrastructure that pertains to their health, safety and sanitation.

On Saturday the twelfth of April 2014, we had an informal meeting led by Mr B (EduCARE India’s Chief Project Director) with seven of our project managers by his side and seventeen members of the Shanney community (each family was represented by at least one person) to discuss what measures we can take together to help them improve their quality of life. Representatives from different generations of life in Shanney were present and they all expressed their intent to continue living there long into the future. For them to stay there in good health habits need to change, education needs to be improved and infrastructural systems need to be developed.

Before we revealed our own agenda with regards to areas that we think they need help with, we wanted to know what issues they felt needed addressing and what it is that they thought they as a community could do to make improvements. One by one they were asked the same question and they all replied with the same answer. That solid waste is a major issue, plastics and paper litter the surrounding area and the only infrastructure that they have is a few bins for paper and plastics which EduCARE had previously placed in their community and have been collecting. Initially these bins raised awareness to the practise of separating waste, but now they are ready for an upgrade.

They all suggested and agreed that they are responsible to do a mass clean up of the surrounding area which we have volunteered to organise for them on the first day of the following month. From this idea a new community based initiative was developed. On the first day of each new month we shall organise a community based activity that directly addresses important issues that the people in Shanney face.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the fact that waste which litters the valley is so obvious to the eye; this was the only issue that the meetings participants were comfortable enough to mention. This demonstrates either a lack of awareness to the conditions that affect their lives or a lack of confidence to speak up about problems that are not so evident. Either way, it is clear to see that we have a lot of work in front of us.

Following up on the community’s primary concern, is the first item on our agenda; solid waste management. A newly developed solid waste management system has been implemented in the EduCARE staff houses. Although it is not a perfect solution to the waste management problems that people face in rural India, it has been designed in such a way that the foundations of the system should be relatively easy to replicate within the community. Waste can be separated into 4 main categories then brought by volunteering member of the community to our waste storage facility where it is collected and repurposed or sent away for recycling. For example; soft plastics can collected for making Ubuntu-blox (google this if you don’t know this simple but ingenious way of dealing with the plastics problem in the developing world); plastic water bottles are being collected to make a greenhouse; paper can be recycled by the community or turned into burnable briquettes producing energy and lowering the dependency on gas; fabrics can be reused to make clothing for the ReStore (ReStore is an empowerment program which we run where local women make clothes and crafts that they sell in a shop which EduCARE runs)...

These solid waste management initiatives are for us to teach the people from Shanney how to implement and operate, not for us to do everything for them. We help with the initial development of a system, but eventually they will take over. We want them to learn that they control their surrounding environment and that the less waste that they produce the better and that whatever waste is produced can become a useful resource. Very little “rubbish” is actually dirty!

Next up on our agenda is their water supply. Poor infrastructural development has left many leaks along the waters’ pipelines as well as the rampant dumping of waste around the water sources and the leaks have left the water contaminated. Although we are not exactly sure to what extent it is affected, we are certain that water-borne parasites are prevalent, causing many illnesses in the area. A laboratory is being set up for the purpose of testing the water, but this will take some time. In the interim, other solutions must be found. A simple provision would be to boil the water before drinking it and using a water filter, the hard part is getting people into the habit of using these precautions and for them to truly understand why it is they are taking them.

The third issue we addressed is our initiative to raise awareness on health issues. Little education is given with respect to health related practises which we in the developed world take for granted. For example; drinking dirty water or having an indoor fireplace with no ventilation. To counteract this void in learning, we are developing a health centre where the community can learn about the factors that affect their basic health such as; good / bad nutritional practises, basic first aid, causes of respiratory problems, causes of illness such as dirty water, sanitation and hygiene...

There are no local doctors in Naddi and only when someone is very ill do they undertake the forty minute journey down the mountain to the hospital. We hope to be able to arrange having a doctor come to our soon to be developed health centre once a week; to provide basic medical care for relatively easily treated illnesses, which if left ignored might become dangerous.

We then moved on to discuss “the clay oven project”. The houses in the community have open fires in the kitchen, but they do not have any form of chimney to ventilate the smoke. All of EduCARE's staff spend their initial two week induction period staying with certain families in the community which take part in our “homestay” project (similar to a guest house). One of the negative aspects that is always mentioned by the new interns is the problem with smoke inhalation caused by the open fire in the kitchen. We notice this immediately but the families either aren’t aware of the hazard to their health or feel like there is nothing they can do about it. They have learned to live a certain way and for them it is ok, but they seem oblivious to the massively detrimental effects this is having on their health. To combat this, a model for a very cheaply made clay oven and chimney has been developed. Our hope is to eventually have one of these in every house, but it is up to the potential recipients of the oven to help us make them.

There are no ovens in Naddi, hence there is no bakery. The clay oven project also provides an opportunity for business, whereby fresh baked goods can be sold in the Restore shop providing a supplement to a household’s income and fresh bread to a village (this will please many who work at EduCARE).

As an eco-friendly organisation, trees were always going to be mentioned in our meeting. Deforestation is one of the biggest problems that the earth faces. Many of us know that the main effects of this are reductions of global oxygen production and massive losses in wildlife habitats culminating in mass extinctions of species.

These effects are also prominent in Naddi, but there is another pressing issue that the people of Shanney face. The community is built on the steep valley leading down to the river where they experience large snowfalls in the winter and heavy monsoon rains in the summer. The stability of the soil that rests above them is in jeopardy because there are no more trees to keep it in place. The possibility of a landslide will someday become very real. These missing trees should also act as natural groundwater filtering system for the water that flows down to the river which feeds the villages below us. Instead it flows through dumped solid waste, contaminating the water source that supplies neighbouring villages.

We already have projects underway in which we are working with the community and have created a tree nursery. Many of the trees have been planted by the children of Shanney and the life giving favour will eventually be returned when the trees bear fruit for them and their new children whilst keeping the soil above their houses intact.

These ideas are not quick and easy solutions to immediate problems. They require time, patience, persistence and optimism. We want to change the way that people view the world, their place in it and the control they have over it. It is our hope that we can learn from these projects and eventually develop replicable solutions to common but important problems that people face across rural India. When the meeting in Shanney finishes, without anyone mentioning these last points on what it will take to achieve our goals, it feels as if the people of the community understand the problems that lie ahead of them and that they are looking forward to engaging with us as much as we are with them.

Alex Moran, Ireland
SWASH Project Manager
Naddi (Himachal Pradesh)

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Queen of the Road

It has been now 2 months that I’ve arrived to India and more specifically Punjab, enough time to get to know the camps, the neighbours, the village and region and not enough yet to still be fascinated by little things of everyday life here. And surprisingly my heart has settled down to one thing, the bus.

They just look like beauty pageant competitors, to who will have the most patriotic painting, the most elegant name as Queen of the Road, the most flowery decorations, the most colourful neon’s. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I usually get particularly silent on bus rides, might they be for 10 minutes or 6 hours. I watch what is going out around me. You can meet anyone on the bus, the neighbour with who you start a meaningless conversation about weather, the students having a last look at their manuals before class, the lady and her child with who you share a warm smile, the ticket guy in great performance of his balance skills as the bus goes through rough roads, the old lady who will thank you for let her your place so many times it becomes uncomfortable, the shadow of workers hanging huge bags on the roof, the old man who will talk continuously despite your interrogative and lost looks.

But mostly, it’s outside that I’m staring at. I try to grab a glimpse of the so many landscapes we go through. Nothing is more captivating for me than seeing people in their daily routine for the quarter of a second. And nothing empties more the head than seeing the landscape scrolling through the widow from the fields and jungles of Punjab to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, from villages as Dholbaha to cities as Hoshiarpur, from the waste dumps and migrant camps around Hariana to the breathtaking view of Naddi.

So now you are warned, I’m a terrible travelling buddy!
Claire de Nale, France
Microfinance Project Manager, Punjab

Sharing Responsibility for the After-School Programme

In the past month, fun club has become increasingly interactive, providing a glimpse into how quickly it could progress into a truly holistic programme which will thrive on the enthusiastic participation of both interns and children alike.

As I prepare to leave EduCARE in the next month, I have recently been concentrating my efforts on assuring the smooth continuation of my projects after my departure. In order to do this, I have been more actively seeking out other interns to lead lessons so that they can become more comfortable with the format while I’m still here to assist and so that they are scheduled to prepare and run classes in the weeks after I leave. While some interns were definitely excited to have the chance to work with children, others were apprehensive, not knowing what to plan or how they can relate it to their projects. I sent around a project manual I had written up to address this problem of confusion or hesitation and met with quite a few people to discuss potential ideas and my experience up till now. In order to meet the children and gain a better understanding of how the programme works, several people decided to tag along to the next lesson (there are also only a handful of people here who knew where the fun-club room was, so showing them the location was a pretty vital first step!).

Expanding fun club to include other interns began last week when Emma ran a finger-painting activity. We had around another 5 interns show up as well…which outnumbered the kids 5-0. There was no one there and the town was strangely quiet for such a beautiful day, so I wandered around trying to round up some of the regulars. They were nowhere to be found, but I did find some children I didn’t recognise who decided to come along to see what we were doing. It turned out the children in Naddi are on holiday right now and many have gone to visit relatives; I believe the ones we did end up teaching were here from out of town because they spoke very little English. This shows the challenge of an unpredictable group – we were lucky it was an arts and crafts focus this week because they could all enjoy the hour without understanding much of what we were saying. Emma had brought paint, paper, some examples of finger-painted peacocks she’d made as inspiration, and – crucially – a big bucket of water for washing up afterwards! While they didn’t seem all that interested in painting the national bird of India, or any other animal, they certainly were excited about using all the colours and by the second sheets of paper colours were blending together and everything was beginning to become slightly brown…

Because we were unable to communicate well with the children this week, there was little educational about this activity, but it was a great chance to interact with some new kids, for interns to become more comfortable with the idea of fun club, and it was a really fun way for us all to spend an hour.

Lucy Di Santo, USA
After School Program Project Manager

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

First day in Naddi: Culture shock is a rite of passage

It’s 7 am on a cold and cloudy day in the middle of January in a small village named Naddi at the foothills of the Himalayas. The time of day coupled with the overnight bus from Delhi make the vague outline of the mountains seem surreal. A local teenage girl approaches me and my new colleague, she has a sweet demeanour and a kind face (I will soon find out this is a common trait amongst the villagers). She knows our names and introduces herself as Milan. I don’t know how she found us or whether she was even looking for us at the time, but apparently she’s been expecting us for over a day. Our lack of respect for the rush hour traffic in Delhi two days previous had cost us our seats on the bus. She brings us to her home where we meet her family, they feed us Chapatti (a local type of fried bread) and Chai tea. 

Before I’m aware of what’s going on another young girl takes me by the hand and leads me away to her home. Her name is Sunana and she informs me that I will be staying with her and her family for the foreseeable future. This 11 year old girl knows a lot more than I do about the “new westerners” living arrangements and I am tired enough to trust her implicitly. I am obviously not the first person to pass through here like this; the locals are very accustomed and welcoming. It seems that children are the only ones who speak any English; I am immensely grateful for this as my Hindi is severely lacking. Sunana shows me what’s to become my temporary room where I contemplate contacting someone from EduCARE but I pass out before I can even find my phone.

I wake up in a daze at around 2 o’clock, although you could never have guessed the time as it is so dark, cold and wet. What on earth am I doing here on this rock hard bed, in this freezing room, in this small community on the outskirts of this small village at the base of these enormous Himalayan Mountains? I’m daunted by what lays ahead of me and just want to retreat under the covers until the sun comes out, even if it takes a month. I tell myself I’m too tired to face making “small talk” with Indian children and “small amateur sign language talk” with Indian adults.

“Wrong attitude Alex! Stop being such a wet blouse, grow a pair (pardon my French), go out and face the day. You signed up for this, paid your way to come here and have been looking forward to this for months. I put on about fifteen layers of clothes; it probably takes me about ten minutes to get dressed. In time I will realize that everything takes longer in India, in this instance even something as simple as getting dressed...

I step outside my room into the rain and bump into my colleague that I travelled with. We comfort each other with the fact that we have been going through similar emotions of uncertainty. I make a quick stop in the toilet, as I expected, it’s an outhouse with a hole in the ground on the side of the path leading up the hill. Hearing people walk by the little toilet shed and talking makes me uncomfortable.

“Get used to it, this home for now.”

Walking up into the village we are met by two familiar faces, familiar not because we know them but because they are not Indian,. They are from EduCARE. We’re brought to a hotel for our first induction meeting where five other uncertain faces greet us. Other new interns! It’s explained to us that we are to spend two weeks in the “homestays”. These are part of the micro finance project set up as a type of guest house to help develop a small home business in hospitality. It’s not just a place for new interns to stay but also for tourists when the season comes. The aim is to encourage cross cultural learnings, for the guests and the hosts whilst making a few Rupees for the families.

The vision and philosophy of EduCARE are explained to us, but I think it passes over all our heads. We're reassured that this is normal and that it will take a couple of weeks worth of meetings and discussions before we adjust and understand what it is that we are doing here. I'm not reassured, just more uncertain.

The afternoon is coming to an end so we head back to our respective homestays for dinner. The kitchen is small, without tables and chairs, there are just a few mats on the floor surrounding a small fire with minimal ventilation. The family are incredibly nice and welcoming, even if we have to communicate through Sunana. Feeling comfortable on this floor happens very fast.

I’m the first to receive my plate of food, but it doesn’t come with cutlery. I wait and see what happens next. Sunana gets her dinner and dives straight into it with her hands. When I was her age, this would have been expressly forbidden, my parents would have told me to stop playing with my food. I would have loved to have been allowed to eat this way. Now I’m older, with 30 years of conditioning in the ways of western dinning behind me. I make an awkward attempt to grab my food with my fingers, rice, lentils and sauce pour down my hand. What’s left of the food that I hold is about to fall from my grasp. At the same time I try to throw it and shove it into my mouth. I miss. The food on my face and my jumper creates a bonding laughter between me and the family. Sunana chooses this moment to offer me a spoon. If they thought this ironic gesture would be funny, they were right.

Despite my wants to fully experience this culture, I can’t resist the temptation of what I consider to be the practicalities of cutlery. I look to my side and Sunana is already finished, every last grain of rice is gone from her plate in what I would consider record time. This is a clear lesson to me that there is no right or wrong way for anyone to eat their food.

After dinner I retreat to my icy room which has been supplied with plenty of blankets. No amount of blankets would be enough. Like in the afternoon, it takes me what seems an age to get undressed and then dressed again. For this first night I decide it would be prudent to sleep in a hat with 3 layers of clothes, a sleeping bag and 2 huge blankets. After a few minutes the bed warms up and I am actually quite cosy. I think to myself about the struggle to get out of this warm bed that awaits me in the morning and then it hits me; I forgot to go outside to the toilet before bed, Lesson learnt! I won’t make that mistake again, but there are many more mistakes to make and solutions to find as I settle into this very foreign village.

- Alex Moran, Ireland
SWASH Project Manager, Naddi