This day at India Fellow induction training began with us watching a rather interesting Ted talk by Ernesto Sirolli, the moral of which was to ‘Shut up and listen’! We, as humans, find it easy to underplay someone else’s problems and are so easily convinced of our abilities to go be their ‘saviours’. In the process of wanting to ‘help others’ we devise our own idea of the problem and run with our strategies. In his narrative, Ernesto tells a story where his team from Italy is easily convinced that a piece of land by the river basin in Zambia is exceptionally fertile and immediately decides to cultivate the land, begin by sowing tomato seeds keeping in mind the appropriate weather and the soil conditions. In about a few months from sowing the field, big ripe tomatoes begin to appear and the team is feeling heroic about having achieved this feat.

However, only a few days later they noticed that all the tomato fields were eaten and destroyed by hippos. Devastated, they went to the villagers, who reverted and said the reason they don’t cultivate the river basin despite its fertility is because of the hippos who feed on their fields. Had this conversation been initiated earlier, this whole tragedy could have been averted and perhaps they could have actually worked on an issue the community actually needed assistance with, in this case, probably the hippos. The lesson to be learnt here is the sheer importance of not just an initial dialogue but a continued one, with the customer.

Don’t let the hippos in !

Thus, the biggest takeaway for someone like me, just knocking the doors of the development world is to understand this basic rule of listening and asking the many whys and questioning the many whats. You can arrive at the solutions for problems you understand and comprehend, not just by your interpretation of it but by that of your target audience.

With this forming the basis of our day, we delved into a discussion of our notions and stereotypes of urban poverty. All our assumption-laded ideas began to surface, none of us realizing why or how those perceptions had taken shape and had remained undisturbed for years. It ranged from the infrastructure of their houses, to the food they ate, their habits, the language they spoke and the stories they told. We also touched upon alcoholism, domestic violence, theft, drug abuse and on further thought, we pointed towards overpowering stenches, the dilapidated buildings, lack of hygiene, and the immense prevalence of religious faith within these communities.

However, apart from these apparently negative connotations we also agreed on their magnificent celebrations, togetherness and unity as a community, their optimism and sheer zest for life, which most of us seem to lack. Addressing these and now being aware of not letting these notions cloud us, we set out for Day 1 of our field immersion activity, obviously with the added anxiety of the pandemic riding over our heads!

Our first day of immersion in the local colonies of Mumbai was divided into two parts – one was to just observe and the second was to interact with a few people. We began our walk around the areas close to our training centre, passing through the shanties, the small kirana stores and bidiwala thelas to the bigger grocery marts and street vendors along the way. We were asked to watch not just with our eyes, but observe with all our senses. The idea was to absorb as much as we could without any verbal interaction.

Next, we were to talk to a few people and get a better sense of their lives. Until then, we had only heard and read of the tragic impact of the pandemic on livelihoods, but owing to this interaction, we now had real perspective. The vadapav seller and the tapri-wala I spoke with, were so welcoming of a stranger (me) walking up to them in the middle of a flooded rainy day. The stories were similar, the lack of funds with their business taking a complete halt and now the staggering revival. However, what did bring some delight to these otherwise harrowing tales were that their kids continued to study and they ensured the best technological aid within their means.

The sheer honesty of those conversations made it evident that they did not want someone to just come hit them with solutions but just wanted a listening empathetic ear. Even on that dull showery Wednesday evening while narrating his difficult lockdown bout, before we left, Rajeev*, the vadapav wala, bid me adieu with a pleasant “Aapse baat karke bohot achha laga, aaiye kabhi vada pav khaane.

This, with more insightful conversations with the local residents in the area, led us to the drafting what we call an Empathy Map, which is essentially a representation of someone’s life as seen, done, felt and thought by them. We tried to bring exactly the situation as observed. Using this visualisation tool requires all of our senses to be 100% active and receptive.

Empathy is one of the more important values to inculcate within us during the course of fellowship year and thus, the immersion was a crucial glimpse. The importance of just listening and thus absorbing, especially for someone like me who happens to be more of a talker was best learnt only due courtesy to this encounter. There are learnings from this experience that we will take to our field areas and ensure that the hippos don’t eat into our full grown fields. It was an extremely humbling experience and a much needed first step before we could deep dive into our communities. And as rightly put, if you actually wish to do some good to someone, lesson numero 1 is to just shut up and listen.

*Name changed to protect identity

%d bloggers like this: