It’s been about two months since I was in India and I’ve been most hesitant on writing this post because when one has an incredible life-changing experience, it’s difficult to articulate. I’m sorry to say that if you’re looking for travel advice, you’re in the wrong place. This post is more a reflection on the experience of fieldwork in a rural Indian village, humanitarian engineering and reconciling my preconceived ideas on what poverty might mean. But first things first, a little bit of context for you.
By the end of 2016, I had finished my third year of my engineering undergraduate degree. Looking for something to do in my three month break, my friends suggested that I sign up for the “Design Summit” which I had heard of but didn’t know too much about. The logistics were all a bit of a whirlwind but I was very lucky to get the program covered by the Australian Government in a New Colombo Plan scholarship. With flights booked and my bags all packed, the reality of the upcoming experience didn’t quite hit me until the night before. If you had read my last post, you will know that I kept as much of an open mind as I could about the experience and I was nervous because it was my first time travelling by myself into a country unlike any I had been to before.
Shout out to Air India for upgrading me to Business Class on a Boeing Dreamliner (perks of travelling alone), you could say that the trip was off to a good start. 😉 The 12hr flight was quite enjoyable and gave me lots of time to catch up on the reading I was supposed to do the previous few weeks. The program is run by the international organisation Engineers Without Borders who partner with local community partners to give us hands on experience with humanitarian engineering. Yeah I probably could’ve napped the entire flight but the case studies and literature led me to understand one key concept that I’ll probably carry through the rest of my life: if you want to help someone, communicate with them. I know it seemed simple but it surprised me how many organisations take an unsuccessful paternalistic approach to aid.
This lesson seemed perfect for the experience we were going to have. I think a lot of people may have the opportunity to go to big cities like Delhi and see the Taj Mahal and do all that stuff, but I think if you genuinely want to see what a country’s culture is truly about, you have to live with them. So away from the bustling city of New Delhi I flew on my connecting flight to Ahmedabad (in Gujarat) and then proceeded to take a 6 hr bus ride to a village, pretty much in the middle of nowhere (Mangadh, Halvad).
In coming to Mangadh, I came to expect poverty but found the exact opposite. If you do a quick google search of the village (do it!) you’ll find that there is very minimal infrastructure and services available for the community. Thankfully I did this search after my village stay and did not panic as our bus drew into the village town centre where we were greeted by pretty much the whole town (~2000). It was definitely overwhelming to say the least, as overwhelmed as you can be in a village that was only 600m in length. The village had one primary school that taught students from grades 1 – 8 and was surrounded by farms (cotton and even dairy!). I was making my bed at night to find 15 women in my room and while we couldn’t communicate, I understood that they had curious but hospitable intentions. This village was the most welcoming place I had ever been to, with many of the families offering us chai in their homes as we walked across the village. Our meals were very communal and full of lively conversation.
For the large part, we were mostly there to ask questions and to learn more about their lifestyle to see if there were any design opportunities. As I said earlier, communication is key to helping people (if they need help at all) and that was the first step in our fieldwork. And I think the biggest thing I got out of listening to their responses was their pride in their small village. The sense of community and family where people invite themselves over to each others homes without a second thought. The unity in the prayers sung by the children in the school and in the temples. The economic infrastructure they had developed when establishing their own village dairy initiative/collective. We came to Mangadh expecting poverty but instead found people with the richest hearts. If you’ve ever visited a developing country, often there is a kind of gratitude and appreciation for your own luxuries. But for the first time, this trip was the opposite – it gave me an appreciation for the simple village living of Mangadh.