Friday, 22 July 2016

Learning to learn

When I came to India with Debora, I did not know a lot about the culture and what to expect from Indians and their country. As a SWASH intern, many people in my country told me that India is very dirty with trash everywhere on the streets and that people do not respect the environment. However, I did not want to come here with assumptions and I was sure of one thing: this experience would change me and open my mind.

The beginning in the village was intense. We wanted to change everything as we had thousands of ideas to improve what we were observing - people burning their trash as well as throwing packaging on the floor, open drains where trash was floating, some trash in the fields and the cows eating it. I thought that the community were unconscious and we would have a lot of work just to make them realize what they were doing. We stayed for a week in a homestay during Induction. We shared all our evenings with the family, playing with the kids, learning Hindi, eating like crazy and of course discovering them. Thanks to these links that we’ve kept, I got a good opportunity to observe the way they are living and relate it to our SWASH project. We saw how they deal with water and trash, thus introducing us to the trash-picker of the village and helping us understand the different systems in India.

As an intern, you also travel a lot! We already went to Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Jodphur and Agra and there are still so many cities to discover. Everywhere you go, you can observe the habits and the ways of dealing with the waste in the different cities; people cleaning the open drainage, bins in the corners, men and women brooming in front of their doors - because their house has to be clean even if it means throwing everything in the streets - and even poor people collecting the trash such as hard plastic, glass, cardboards to sell it and earn money. You also see good habits like using reusable plates and glasses instead of plastic items, washing them in the shop without anyone thinking it’s unhygienic. These concrete examples made us picture the whole trash system outside of our small village and also gave us some ideas to develop, even if it is more difficult to initiate change in their way of thinking. Travelling is also a good way to understand how Indian people think as it is easier to meet English speaking Indians that we can communicate with, which is not always easy in our village with our poor Hindi. 

The more I meet and talk with people and the more I realize that they hate trash on the street and having to burn it because they feel it’s harming them as well as others. They would love to have a clean village and good health. Before globalization, they were using leaves and biodegradable materials to pack and transport items whereas now plastic is everywhere and in huge quantities. It is really hard to create a system and adapt it, especially in such a big and populated country! But the government started a campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, to clean the country and it will take time but you can already see the impact on big cities. This can be a tool and a way to sensitize people in the village even if they already know that plastic is bad and have implemented their own system.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleaning the road to launch the campaign Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

After 3 months here, I realize how the assumptions I heard were wrong and that Indian people are every bit as smart as us. It is not because trash is everywhere that they do not care but they do not have other alternatives for now. It is exactly like in our Western countries some decades ago and honestly, do you really know what your trash becomes after the garbage man takes it from your house? We are here to help them develop a sustainable system but, since it will take time, we need to find alternatives in the meanwhile. EduCARE India's interns have many ideas such as reducing the plastic coming into the village, recycling soft plastic by filling sofas or pillows and still more innovation is to come. I still have so much more to learn from all the research we do on the Internet and in the field. I realize I did not know much when I arrived here and you could say I still know nothing but I’m learning every day and Indians opened my mind so much and most importantly, they taught me how to listen to people.

Camille Cristophe - France
SWASH Project Manager and Centre Project Coordinator in Gajner

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Photovoltaic Solar Panel System Project

With EduCARE, some interns already did few projects in alternative energy to have a way to produce clean energy, and without harmful effect on the environment and the people, like biogas station, solar heating water system, windmill system... Studying electrical engineering in France, I wanted to provide to Educare a new way to produce energy (and especially electricity), that Educare still didn’t have implemented. So I it’s all naturally that I proposed a small PV solar panel project, to provide electricity to the Naddi ReStore.

Why in ReStore?

The ReStore in Naddi had no way to have electricity power, and therefore, no way to have light during the night, or to run electrical cooking device. With the PV solar panel system, ReStore is now fully electrical autonomous, and able to run cooking device such as blender and so facilitated the work of the girls, to charge small device such as Smartphone or small speaker, and so make the job for girl more comfortable, and to run an LED light and so open lately in the day or also during the night. For the future we are also thinking to provide a free internet Wi-Fi to ReStore customer to attract more people. 

PV solar panel installed on the roof of the ReStore

For whom this project is it for?

One of the main goals of this project is to make the job more pleasant and more comfortable for the girls. But with this project, my objective was also to show and present this mean of electricity production to the people and the community, create an interest in people for solar electricity production. The last goal of this project is to provide a base of documentation for other intern who would do this type of project in other center for future project, and therefore not have to have strong knowledge in electricity to install a PV solar panel system. 

But how does it work?

About the technical part, the system is very simple, the solar panel transforms the solar energy in an electric energy, and the energy is store in a battery. To control the flux of energy between the PV solar panel and the battery we use a small controller/regulator. And then we can directly use the energy thought the battery to run light and small device, or use an inverter to use bigger device (220V).

Synoptic of PV solar panel system

Thomas Lecomte - France
Alternative Energy Project Manager in Naddi 

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Women of Gajner

The first thing that strikes you when you come to a rural village in India is the people. People that look so different, that dress so different and whose habits are so far from yours. But then, you get to meet these people, to talk with these people in your broken Hindi and share moments with them. And you understand just how similar you actually are. And it is beautiful. 

As fervent believers of cross-cultural exchange and mutual learning, we wanted to know more about the stories of the people who constitute Gajner. Its people, its traditions, its soul. We wanted to give them a platform to share their stories and inspire each other the way they inspired us. So, we decided to create a project named Humans of Gajner. Similarlyto the famous Facebook page “Humans of New York”, we wanted to capture the soul of Gajner through pictures and stories of its people. 

We started to think about the stories we would like to showcase and really define the aim of this project. There, we realized that, from our personal point of view, the stories who needed to be told the most were the women’s. In Gajner, men are everywhere outside, they can talk, they can decide and they can share. The women, who are often kept in their houses, can be undermined and forgotten when you walk through the streets of Gajner. But, as you are welcomed inside their homes and their intimacy, you realize just how big a role they play in their household and therefore in the community. All the women and girls we met here, whatever their religion or age, have taught us something and have a unique role in making Gajner what it is. 

So there, Humans of Gajner became Women of Gajner (at least for now). We decided to start with the women of the community we know. The stories and pictures will be showcased in a safe, women-only space that we want them to make their own: our Vikas Center ECRC. As our center’s Girls Club is held there, these stories can inspire young girls and women to be proud of who they are and find their path to happiness and accomplishment in a society dominated by men. Also, as more women come into the ECRC, this will hopefully create links between them as it is a platform for them to share and discuss. 

We planned very carefully our schedule and stories/pictures to take. But, as everything as India, it did not go according to our plan. The first obstacle was how to explain these notions, very common in our Western world, in simple and down-to-earth words so that the women can understand. For this, we were lucky to have in our team Meera, our favorite Indian brilliant doctor intern. She perfectly understood where we wanted to go with this project and adapted it to words and notions that the women here will respond to. Also, she is our translator for our encounters with the women and our project greatly benefits from the relationship she easily establishes with the women.

We chose women that Educare has established relationships with. Obviously, we wanted every single woman and girl to tell us their story as there is so much to learn from them, but we needed to choose. We wanted women that are emancipated and have found a way to be powerful in the community, to be role models for younger girls. But, we also wanted to showcase women who may seem like regular “underpowered” housewives. Indeed, many girls will unavoidably get married and have to stay in their houses, and many will be restricted in their lives by their in-laws, so we wanted to give them examples for hope. To show them, at a very young age, that society will not get to decide how strong and powerful they are. That, even from home, they are central to their family life and that they are not weaker than men. That, whatever society tells them, they matter, deserve respect and can achieve great things. 

The second obstacle we faced is the paternalist family rules. Many women/girls needed the authorization from the men in their family. This was really tough because 2 key women we wanted to interview and photograph were not able to participate in this project. The most frustrating for us was to see how enthusiastic they were when we presented the project. And then, just because their husband/father did not want to have their picture in the ECRC, we could not showcase the great role they play in their family and community. And still, there is nothing you can do as you have to respect their authority. However, we expect that in the future, when the men will see that the picture will be seen by women only and how careful we will be with it, they will be less skeptical and hopefully there will be less restrictions from this. Also, a part from their authorization, we also needed to handle their presence during our interviews with the women. For one of our stories for example, the man was the one speaking the whole time, even if we were directing our questions to the woman. So again, you cannot say anything, smile and think how you can still make the woman the center of the story. 

This project has been full of ups and downs; coping with people’s personal schedules, running after women to take their picture when they are available, having men telling us that we cannot tell their wife or daughter’s stories even if the woman seemed very enthusiastic, the cultural and language barrier… But we can definitely say that every single step, obstacle, encounter has been worth it. The road to the 4 final stories we have has been bumpy and tough but it has given us so much more than we expected. These 4 stories, written solely from what they told us, give a glimpse of these women’s pride and individuality. 

In the future, we wish to continue with this project as it is a great platform for exchanging but also deeply understanding these women, their vision and their role. We don’t know the whole of Gajner, and are actually very far from it, so this project aims to discover even more these beautiful and strong women. And for us, this project represents exactly our role within the community: build platforms for the community to express their potential and take leadership on their own and village’s path.

Women of Gajner Making of

Costanza Burstin - Women's Empowerment Project Manager and CC in Gajner
Debora Cortez-Miranda - SWASH Project Coordinator, P. Manager and CC in Gajner
Meera Suresh - Rural Health Care Project Manager in Gajner

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Experiencing India

They say that anything is possible in India, and most of the people that spend some time here would agree with that. Some days you will ride on top of a bus to your destination or you just go out to buy some milk and before you know you are in someone’s house with a big family eating dinner together. You can definitely say that life in India is not boring, anything could happen here at any time. But life is not always easy, there is a lot poverty, heat, immense crowds and a lot of pollution. With pollution I am not just talking about the dirt in the street, but as well the air or dust your breath and the noise pollution, which can drive you crazy when you just need some peace of mind. For most people it will be surprising that my country is denser populated than India, well it is for me too! Here there are people, people really everywhere, the trains, buses and even Harike! , it does not know what quite means. One day I was just sitting down at one of the fields at the back of our house looking for some peace and I saw a man walking to me from hundreds of meter away, he came gave me a nod with his head, squats and kept staring at me. At these moments you just have to let go, and enjoy your peace… together.

Some serious amount of people during the Holi festival

A thing what you learn here, well you have to learn, is to lower some of your senses or use them in a different way, as soon as you arrive in Dehli, you will be stunned by what is going on, the smells, the noises, the colours and all the things that are happening around you. I am also speaking about all the holiness and beliefs they exist here, you can find a God on every street corner and rituals happen daily. At first it is hard to adapt, it took me two weeks to finally say: I feel relaxed in India. But when you do and you learned to have some patience, you can notice some order into this chaos. 

A thing you can really notice in India is the dramatic change undergoing, it is developing fast. People with create and innovative ideas put a lot of things into action, sometimes for the greater good sometimes for the own good. People build everywhere, a lot of people are well connected to the whole world with their smartphones. On top of that, this country is filled with young people and children, who will soon make India a different place. But a thing you cannot escape from is the poverty, the slums, the homeless and the beggars, which some of them are not even 3 years old, this can be a difficult thing to deal with. Soon you realise how lucky you are, with food, shelter and the clothes that you wear. 

Educational workshops to the new generations in Harike's schools

I remember the moment I wanted to do something about the inequality in this world, I just came back from Nepal, had travelled through the mountains and stayed with the locals, who lived the simplest lives.They were the most warm-hearted people you can find, from there I landed in Dubai, a city build in the dessert, wasting all its energy on the biggest indoor ski-slope in the world and everything is golden and about spending money, it was a shock. I decided that day, I have to do something about this, and I am glad for this moment, otherwise I would not have chosen this path in life and have lived this experience in India.

Despite the almost daily power cuts, the dirt, the noise and the heat, you can find the most generous, kind and warm people here, and people who have almost nothing to give, they are willing to share their last piece of bread with you. You can make friends here without being able to understand each other, the Temple’s welcome you to eat and sleep for free. The easy and simple life that some people have and are so satisfied with. There is just a lot of wisdom were I think that ‘the west’ can definitely learn from.

Living in India has been some experience, also the house in Harike where we lived so closely together, I had no idea if I could do that before I left my home. This was completely new to me, but it was a wonderful experience, I came across awesome people, made new friendship and had awesome food and the best discussions about life. I am very thankful for the great people I lived my experience with.

So yes, this place, is an incredible and magical country, I think people share with me that you just sometimes hate this place and the next moment it is the best country that ever existed. Life here is something you will only experience here, in this beautiful and crazy country. Sometimes you will be so caught up in the moments you live here that you will start wondering and asking yourself how is life back home? But then again, when you will get home will you be able to put this experience into words? 

I often wonder about this, but I think this is an experience you just have to live, and if you do, you would have grown a lot.

Joris Slotboom - The Netherlands
SWASH Project Manager and Centre Coordinator in Harike

Saturday, 9 July 2016

A love story called Gajner

India as we all know too well is the place of diversity. And my experience with EduCARE India is indeed characterized by a continuous traveling from a state to another where I am all the time challenged to adjust to the traditions. While the scenery evidently changes under our eyes while traveling by train or bus, so do the people and places. It is hard to describe the immense variety of Rajasthan, Punjab or Himachal Pradesh particularly because I have not had the chance to explore those places thoroughly. 

I am very grateful to be given this unique opportunity and to see a side of India that perhaps few people have witnessed. The desert plains of Rajasthan where the sun is uneatable and sand gets up to your panty. The green and lush plains of Punjab which a rich wildlife of buffalo and birds that enriches the landscape. Lastly, the hilly Himachal, a notable tourist destination where the curvy roads make transportation slow and the climate gap between valley and hill is tremendous. Perhaps in few weeks the chilly Kashmir with the stunning Himalayan range and the notoriously astonishing views.

However, since the very first time I felt in love with Rajasthan and with the little village where I spent the first two months of this incredible experience. The simplicity of life of Gajner and the warm heart of its people will be forever with me. I am currently back to Rajasthan for some annoying and boring bureaucratic paperwork, however, beside the much more intense heat which leads fewer people out, the village and the life here has not changed a little in the past months. The shops where I used to go grocery shopping are still there, the myriad of dogs and cows, tons of garbage littering the streets (SWASH’s nightmare) and the intern’s house. All this with only one thing that differs from before, everywhere is blue boxes, the coolers that will rescue people from the 45-50 degrees Celsius.

Typical alley in Gajner 

I visited my ex host family and their surprise when they saw me after all this time is priceless. I was invited for dinner and they pulled out the best food and drinks: loki with chapatti, mango juice and sweets. A royal treatment. Then as usual the moment of catching up and taking picture came and we all collected dear memories for the future.

Me and my hosting family during my first week in Gajner

Talking about food again (because you must know a big part of our life and work here in India revolves around food), I finally ate again to the local dabha owned by one of the best cooks on earth, Manoj. He welcomed me warmly and started asking questions and we laughed and had amazing time together while devouring kachori and samosa, which are by far the best! The coziness and familiarity of that place, which at sight does not look appealing, is the sweetest memory I have from Gajner. 

Similarly, the interns welcomed me in the best way possible. We talked for hours when I came and we had delicious dinners all together. We slept under the desert stars and combated the heat by making juices and sharing for the cooler (which by the way abandoned us by setting on fire spontaneously). Luckily we are left with fans!

My visa trip to Bikaner was unexpectedly smooth, considering the burden of this procedure and the obstacles encountered such as rude police men and slow internet connection. I got some reward by standing in the A/C of a bank while waiting to pay a fee and at the end of the long tiring day two fresh juices and a delicious late lunch/early dinner.

Many things here in Rajasthan would suggest this is not a place for a white girl, starting from the harsh climate to the insistent gazes of the men. However love means accepting the good and the bad in anything and anybody, and I must say I LOVE GAJNER.

Playing kabaddi during Induction in Gajner

Martina Fraternali - Italy
Education, Training and Development Coordinator 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The girls of Gajner and their path.

When I first arrived in Gajner, I was deeply fascinated by the number of beautiful and interesting girls in this rural Rajasthani village. From the very beginning, my aim was to get to know them to understand a part of their world. I wanted to interact with them to comprehend their interests and dreams to explore their role within the community. 

After I have lived with these girls and women for 6 months and sharing countless chats, dances, chais and dinners, I began to learn some small but significant aspects of their lives. What intrigues me most about their roles are the distinct steps they tend to follow at defining junctures of their lives. Their religion, castes and social status are generally irrelevant in determining whether or not they pass through these stages. Whereas timing and methods may vary, the path remains more or less the same and is characterised by 3 phases:

1 Carefree schoolgirl

2 Responsible young woman at marriageable age

3 Respected wife and mother

In line with my observations, the first phase is the period that occurs from childhood until adolescent, which is attained between 12-15 years. In this period of their lives, little girls go to school and roam freely around the village by bicycle, crossing main roads and visiting the bazaar. They are not required to adhere to a specific dress code and permitted to play outdoors, interacting with other girls (and occasionally with boys) from other neighbourhoods and communities. 

Girls at the end of the school day in Gajner

Girls celebrating Holi with the interns in Gajner

The onset of the second stage comes with puberty when girls start to be viewed as potential brides, generally between the ages 15-18. In this stage, their freedom is slowly reduced. Their access to the outdoors decreases and they are no longer allowed to pass through the main streets of the village, other than to go to school or attend tuition classes. Simultaneously, their role within the house increases and they are required to manage housework and contribute to household tasks. Assuming a modest and responsible attitude within the public sphere is essential in preparation for marriage. Their attire in this phase is restricted to wearing tradition Punjabi suits and they are expected to behave appropriately in the public eye.

Young girls carrying wood to their homes

The third stage comes when a girl is arranged to be married to a suitable partner, usually between 18-20 years of age. In this stage, the young women leave their family home in order to move into that of their husband’s as the new daughter-in-law of the family. Their role in the public sphere undergoes another change. They wear saris and anklets to distinguish them as married women. They learn to respect the rules of their new home and family and assume a domestic role as wives and soon to be mothers. 

Mothers and daughters in Gajner village

To conclude, my observations have led me to identify these stages in the lives of these women who continuously occupy various roles in the community. At first, a young bride entering a new family may find that her agency is limited and her freedoms are curtailed but as time passes and she progresses further into this stage it must be noted that her importance and self-confidence increase. As they become mothers, they assume higher position of control within the house and gain an important role not only in daily decision-making processes but also in the children’s education and the transmission of values. 

Costanza Burstin - Italy
Women's Empowerment Project Manager and Centre Coordinator in Gajner 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Atithi Devo Bhava

The reason for me to come to India for the fifth time within five years is not the delicious food which you can eat on the streets, the authentic handicrafts that you can buy in most of the places, the perfect weather all year around, or the beautiful landscapes you can enjoy across the nation. No, the reason why I love this country is the hospitality of the Indians. Atithi Devo Bhava is an often heard saying which can be translated as: guest is equal to God. For the Indian community, and especially Hindus, this saying is one of the main rules which has to be followed at all times. This rule means in practise that when visiting locals, you are immediately offered at least one or two glasses of water and a chai. After that, another chai. And another chai. Many locals that I have visited in the past 4 months also offered me to have a meal with them, which is very normal. Having a meal with locals means that you are served first, others are not allowed to start eating before you have started, and that they will keep serving you food until your stomach hurts. There is just one way to let them stop serving you: put your hands over your plate so they cannot put more food on your plate. This may seems easier than it is; it is not just covering your plate, it is defending your plate with your life! This whole procedure of Atithi Devo Bhava does not only happen in people’s homes, but also in the train, bus, on the streets; well, actually everywhere! It is therefore normal when going to the shop to buy some groceries, you will be in the shop for quite some time drinking water and chai. 

When visiting the house of the principal of the local government school, we were literally welcomed as God. Not only by him, also by his 45 MBA students which gathered outside the house, waiting as a celebrity would pass by.When stepping out of the car, a garland made out of flowers was hang around our necks and a tilak was applied on our foreheads. Besides that, as everyone was seated on the floor, we were seated on some nice pillows. Also here, we were served food first and others were not allowed to start before we did.

As Gods, adorned by flowers and a tilak, seated with 8 MBA students

If you think that I came to India just to be treated as God, then you are wrong. Atithi Devo Bhava is also expected, what do I say, it is not expected, it MUST also be observed the other way around. When people visit me, they expect me to offer them at least some water and chai. Especially on my birthday party this was obvious: I told people they could serve themselves but people did not get up to get food. They remained seated and I had to take their plates, fill it with food, and give it to them. While they were eating, I had to keep offering food until they were totally full. 

Maybe the Atithi Devo Bhava practise in India might a bit too much for the Western world. Nevertheless, I am sure that if we would copy just a small bit of this practise, our society will function much better and we might be able to tackle many problems like discrimination and bullying. For me it is obvious; I am definitely going to integrate this hospitality practise in my daily life back home, besides the many other incredible things I have already learned in India so far!

Even in India a birthday is not complete without a birthday cake!

Ivar Stinnissen - The Netherlands
Microfinance Project Manager and Centre Coordinator in RangMahal