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Surprises…. : Seoni 5

July 17, 2013

Many things surprised me about the villages. Perhaps they shouldn’t have but they did. I had heard before about the lethargy of the teachers, but still visiting a school where the teachers were sitting outside reading the paper and the children were sitting silently inside, paging through books I wasn’t sure they could read was a bit startling. For a while, Agrini was trying to convince the local government to put in biometric sensors so that the public would be able to tell if teachers were actually doing their jobs. This idea was met with resistance. Teachers are allies of local politicians and put in much time during election season getting people ready to vote (and potentially to vote for certain candidates over others). They are seen as an asset and to put pressure on them would risk losing their support. “It never does well to get involved in these kinds of conflicts.” Pradeep told me. “Again, they can distract you from whatever your goal was in the first place.”

There was a health centre there in the village, but it wasn’t really used. Supplies were sent there each month by the government, but many of them expired before anyone asked for them. And don’t get me started about the condoms!

“Oh, please start. That sounds rather interesting.”

The centre tries to hand them out for free, but few will take them. Either for religious or other reasons, the men don’t feel comfortable using them. But now, lots of women are taking them and using them for something entirely different.

“For what?”

They light cooking fires with them! Especially in damp conditions, wood can be very hard to light. The oil in the condom catches fire really quickly. “I’ve seen them do it before,” one of the Agrini guys told me. “There’s a bit of a smell at first, but then it’s fine.”

I also saw a man throwing rocks at a cow’s head. A cow he owned, to be precise.

“Why?”

The cow was going to drown otherwise. Coming back from a village to Seoni, we found our passage blocked by rushing water. The road had partially flooded. In the middle of water, I saw a cow’s head. Disoriented, it was swimming against the current. This was where the stones came into play. The villager used sticks and stones to frighten the cow into turning around and then a friend of his grabbed it and hoisted it out of the water.

It was strange. I felt more free in the villages and in Seoni than I had in Bhopal (I chalk it up to wider streets and more green space), but at the same time, the stares I received were harder. I would smile and receive nothing but an even more intense stare in return. I seemed always to be the only woman in the room or present for the discussion. Gaurav told me later that there are female volunteers and female teachers. It just turned out that when I was around they were not there.

On the second day, we had breakfast at Mahendra’s (one of Agrini’s main people. He works in the health centre, actually) house. He and his wife live with another couple, a doctor and an MBA grad. The doctor was curious about why I had come to India. I told him briefly about starting an OASiS-style social innovations laboratory. Pradeep joked that the only way for similar things to happen in India would be for it to be seen as a foreign idea (or at least an Indian idea affirmed and validated by a foreign institution). “Why is that, though?” the doctor protested, clearly frustrated. “Why do we have to look down on things that are Indian and up at things that are foreign? We are carrying this colonial mindset with us. We didn’t even do yoga that much until Westerners started taking it up.”

I don’t know that it is as simple as thinking that things from the West are good and things from home are bad. I think that familiarity, being too close to something, can breed a sort of contempt and a sort of blindness. And you don’t have to look across national lines to see it at work. Maybe, if handled in a kind and careful way, countries can help each other see themselves more clearly. This, for me is the value of travel. 

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