Unlearning And Relearning To Work

by | Feb 17, 2020

During a resource map activity with a group of women

“Why is that in every conversation we have, you talk about not having done any work in the last two months”? My co-fellow pointed this out to me recently and I didn’t have an answer for him. It did feel like I have not been contributing in my organisation, like I was lagging behind. There was no “work” that I had done since I joined Centre for Social Action (CSA) in November.

On introspection, I realized that maybe I feel this way because I have known only one definition of work. I went from institution to institution where work meant meeting targets, writing assignments, constantly having something to show. It came from someone above in the organization’s hierarchy assigning me tasks weather it be power point presentations, spreadsheets, proof reading content for websites or writing original content. This was what ‘work’ looked like to me.

So when I was told to just go sit in an SHG (Self-help group) meeting and observe how the meeting progresses, I didn’t have anything to say or give my two cents on any topic. I repeatedly told myself that I was not doing any work and was not contributing in any way. Sometimes, I also felt like I was adding on to other people’s work as they had to incorporate me in their meetings, often times translate from Marathi to Hindi only for me.

Why wasn’t I speaking? Where were my tangible contributions?

I often found myself asking these questions at the end of each day

A lot of my days are spent just visiting, observing and monitoring the livelihood activities of SHGs. These groups of women make various food products including ladoo, pickle, papad and turmeric powder. Everything from making the products to packaging them is done by them. I laugh with these women, have conversations about their children, their homes, the movies they like to watch, all the while they are busy making ladoos or pickle. Since my focus area is WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), I talk to them about water supply and sanitation practices while sharing a cup of chai or having lunch together. In my head all throughout, this was not work. I was not doing anything. Where were the power point presentations, the spreadsheets?

My idea of work largely comes from the institutions I have been in, before joining the fellowship. Also, having seen my father work with a bank, as he leaves for work at 9am everyday and comes back home by 9pm. All I have heard him talk about are meetings where they discuss big numbers, presentations and excel sheets showing profits. I’ve always seen work interlinked with money and financial outcomes. Here, even though I was working towards better livelihoods, I couldn’t see any of it. After sharing my concerns and thoughts with my co-fellow, he said that my idea of work might not fit here but that doesn’t mean that I’m not doing anything. Maybe I need to change how I view work. So now I had to change my idea of work, unlearn what I thought it meant and relearn it according to my new role here at CSA. For this, I went back six months in my head and reminded myself why I decided to join India Fellow in the first place.

I wanted to understand grassroots realities, be with local communities, see how things work outside of air-conditioned offices and that’s exactly what I was doing now. What’s the worry then?

Attending SHG meetings, visiting villages, talking to people about everything from their goats to where they go to wash clothes and simply being there when women were making products, was teaching me so much. Looking back, now I feel if I had initially just gone with a to-do list to be checked, I wouldn’t have gotten the insights I got, by observing my surroundings. The focus would have been only on finishing the so-called ‘work’ and calling it a day. I have now started to build a relationship with the women. Don’t they say – building relationships is the biggest work. I recently facilitated a Resource Map Activity with one of the SHGs where they were really interactive and creative while mapping out their village. They told how everyone has toilets and I assumed that they have one each in their houses but got to know that there are three common ones which all forty households use. I also understood what women consider as resources such as the pond as that’s where they wash their clothes everyday. If I would have done this activity in the first meeting itself, I couldn’t have unwrapped these layers.

Vinita Tai* with the resource map of her Wadi (hamlet)

Familiarity has comfort attached to it and now that my community and I are becoming more familiar to each other, it seems like we are progressing at the work front too. Time takes time. Sometimes you have to first unlearn, to learn more.

*Names changed to protect identity

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