So I’ve been in Ahmedabad “working” for four weeks, so much has happened, yet I have posted or given few details… my apologies.
Where do I begin?
I put working in quotation marks because I haven’t quite began yet. The last three weeks have been time for exploration and observation. I’ve been looking, listening and experiencing and my heart has overflowed from all of this.
Currently, I am working at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, one of the leading institutions in India in the field of sanitation. The director, Ishwarbhai (or dada) Patel has dedicated his entire life to the promotion of toilets and is known as Mr. Toilet. Ishwardada has made it his personal life objective to work for the lowest in the social structure- the Bhangis/Valmikis or scavenger caste.
Amidst many other things, I have been sitting in on training sessions that are being held for principals/teachers of schools that are about to have school sanitation units installed under the Central Govt’s Total Sanitation Campaign. Through the training sessions, I have learned more about sanitation and hygiene (and what is important to communicate) and have begun to polish my Gujarati and expand my vocabulary to include works related to sanitation (mudh means feces for those that are curious). In addition to observing and learning, I’m looking at ways to make training more effective and again have become more aware of the vast differences in the way knowledge is communicated here and in North America.
There are a few field projects coming through the pipeline that I might be tagged onto and get field experience through also.
Where I am and how it all interconnects?
ESI was started by Ishwardada and works to bring sanitation to villages and slums. Safai Vidhalaya was started by Gandhi in 1932, along with the Harijan Sevak Sangh. Safai Vidhalaya was started with the purpose of improving working conditions for the scavenger class and ultimately eliminating the caste altogether. ESI and Safai Vidhalaya until 2 years ago shared the same space in the Gandhi Ashram and the ESI headquarters continues to be at the Ashram. Two years ago, ESI opened their new campus in Sughad, a village about 10km from Ahmedabad. The facility is a beautiful learning campus set amidst fields. The building and its characteristics are a treat for civil and environmental engineers. There are rainwater harvesting systems, a toilet garden, compost pits, open spaces, passive cooling, natural shading and ventilation. The building really is a green building. Pictures will be available at some point.
Manav Sadhna is a NGO also based out of the Gandhi Ashram, started by Jayeshmama, Anarmami and Virenbhai in 1995. This organization primarily works with in one of the largest slums in Ahmedabad called Ramapir no Tekra. They have a wide range of programs targeting primarily towards children, women and youth. The aim of their programs isn’t simply to bring people out of poverty, but rather to cultivate values, love and community bonds. All of their activities tie back to holistic development. There are several other organizations that tie by to Manav Sadhna including Gramshree (an organization where women learn artistic skills like embroidery and sewing to create wonderful pieces of clothing, etc.), Uttan (a school for mentally challenged children), a blind school.
The environment that permeates all the organizations is that of love, compassion and community. From the first day that one comes to MS, you are introduced to all those present and welcomed into the MS parivar (family). Each person is deeply connected to other another. I got a chance to experience the power and love of this huge family over the last week as many birthdays and celebrations came one after another.
First, it was Sanskruti’s birthday. She’s the daughter of Jayeshmama and Anarmami and of course a ladli (beloved one) of the MS parivar. The night before 7-8 of us got together and decorated the house with streamers, balloons and a beautiful rangoli. The next morning, 40 ragpicking women were invited over for bhajan, garba and lunch. In addition to the women, there were about 25 MS parivar people there helping out. We danced and sang, ate and prayed together.
One of the major characteristics of Manav Sadhna is spirituality. A very prominent and common picture that you will see around all places somehow connected to MS is the sarvadharma picture (a picture that includes symbols from major religions). Prayer is an important part of the daily activities of the institutions. At least at Manav Sadhna and ESI, daily prayer is held with all members. Prathna (prayer) includes saying the Sarva Dharma prayer and sharing of news and experiences, etc. On all important occasions, the beginning of any good acts, everyone prays together. The power and vibrations of these group prayers cannot even be described.
After the celebration with the ragpickers, a group headed to Seva Café to decorate the place for the evening celebration with family. There was no one person in charge of anything. People worked together to decorate, prepare food and serve with guests began to arrive. One really beautiful tradition they have here when it’s a birthday is the lighting of a diya or candles. Candles/ light should not be extinguished but rather lit to dispel darkness. Following this line of thought, instead of blowing out candles on a cake, a diya is lit. Throughout the day, I couldn’t help but stop and simply watch all that was going around me. People interacting, serving, doing tasks with utmost love. It was moving to see and experience all the love that was being shared and felt by all those that were part of the moment.
Similar experiences occurred for Anarmami and Anjaliben’s birthday. People came up with ideas and then so many hands came together to make the idea into a reality. The outpouring of love was not a special occurrence, but simply a mass manifestation of the emotions and feelings of all those that call the MS parivar family. One characteristic thing that happens on birthdays and when volunteers, etc leave is the sharing of values and good characteristics of that person. It is not to enlargen the ego of that person, but rather to share our experiences with the person and to become even more aware of the role that person has played in our life. Another principle found within the parivar is that we are always learning from each other, regardless of our age or the age of the person we are interacting with. By verbalizing the good qualities of the person, we become more cognizant of the role that interactions with one another play in our life and cultivate positive energy as the emphasis is on the positive rather than negative. Even as you listen to others speak, you find inspiration to become a better person and work even more diligently and with more love towards universal good. Anjali, for example, took 11 or so resolutions on her birthday, which including giving up all sweets and chai, meditating, journaling and personal reading daily, changing the way she views the world, amongst other things. None of her resolutions are easy and she made so many. I wasn’t the only one who took inspiration from her and has made (and following) my own resolutions.
As I try to explain this family and environment, I find it very difficult to find the right words to do it justice and at the same time, I can imagine people reading this and thinking that some or all of this may sound hippyish. Words really can’t do justice to what this world is all about. Once you enter it though, its practically a guarantee that you’ll walk away a different person. Everyday, as people come and go and personally, I can see changes in the people who come into this environment. I write in an attempt to share what I’m experiencing, but ultimately it is a personal encounter which will bring vibrancy to the colours and paint on the canvas and make it real.