As soon as the wheels of the train from Bhubaneswar to Bhawanipatna started rolling, my heart  throbbed unstoppable. I didn’t know what was coming my way, but there was curiosity, excitement and a bit of fear. We were traveling in a sleeper class and I kept my eyes open for as long as I could from the fear of being victimized by pick-pocketers and regular thieves. Sometime during this wait and anxiety, i fell asleep. I opened my eyes about an hour before reaching Bhawanipatna, the fear of losing luggage was still there and I was relieved to find all belongings safe.

We met our colleagues, who received and escorted us to the office. We were given a room which I found very nice, to my surprise, given the stories we had been hearing of our abode of the fellowship year – we had a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom.

Kalahandi is a district with the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in entire India. Maternal and neonatal health, malaria and tuberculosis are the main causes of deaths and the misery of people is inexplicable, or so most readings said. The Kalahandi Syndrome is notorious and starvation death to me is unimaginable, but a reality of the region not so long ago.

These facts were enough to give me goosebumps. As soon as we kept our luggage in the room we were greeted by Dr. Aquinas Edassery who is the founder of the organization where we were going to start our work – Swasthya Swaraj (meaning self-reliance in healthcare). We knew that she was nearly 70 years old and what picture we had of her in mind was totally destroyed when we met her; at 70 she is just as active and energetic as she is calm and patient. We had a long conversation with her to understand the work that the organization is doing to solve and where could we fit in. It was difficult to comprehend the extent of the issues the organization was working on, in the remotest and the poorest pocket of the country. Kalahandi is almost never reported in mainstream media.

Providing basic healthcare services in these areas is quite a hustle. Considering the recent flash floods that were extremely aggressive, it washed away most part of the cultivated lands and destroyed the bridges, making outreach services in these communities almost impossible. After Dr. Aquinas briefed us about the organization, she told about the project that i was going to engage in. In this year as a fellow, she said, I will have to extensively work on literacy in their outreach villages. To give you an idea, formal classroom education as a concept is not understood here (and please do not misunderstand that i am referring to knowledge), let alone sending children to school. To help them understand and thereby avail of education, not only the children but even the adults, those who have never had any formal education is quite a mammoth task. My project revolves around bringing out the leadership potential of the youth and the children, while also driving a sense of individualism within the community so that they can stand up for what they believe in. This presents a difficult challenge, as I have never interacted with a tribal community before, and hence not accustomed to the way of life of the people.

I have extensively worked with young people in the past to develop their leadership potential, whilst exploring my own potential, so ideally this shouldn’t be a big challenge for me. Or so I thought. But it turned out to be a herculean task, simply because the people that I have to lead this time have very different ideas from me. We have different historical contexts, cultural norms, language and even societal structures. Personally I’m looking forward to working with the community, and doing something that has never been done before – this notion is definitely something that I am attracted to. I have also been given the task to build a new school, which imparts education in the context of the tribal community I work with, which is exceedingly challenging as well as stimulating. I feel like I am on the threshold of changing some ideas around what is regarded as education – and I am going to give it my best shot.

One thing that worries me though is the level of expectation my mentor has, I’m not sure if I would be able to live up to those expectations. She has a lot of confidence in what I can do as a person, which both unsettles and encourages me. I would rather look at this as an opportunity to learn something new every day instead of letting the apprehensions get the better out of me. Opportunities like this seldom come about in a lifetime – i have it now.  This year I believe will definitely be a crucial year for me in terms of what I want to do in future, bringing about the leadership potential of the tribal population in the poorest part of India, and getting to learn how to start something from the scratch. I am looking forward to it!

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