It’s been 8 weeks since I arrived in Ahmedabad, but I can still distinctly remember the drive from the airport to our homestay as if it were yesterday. I remember our homestay host, Divya, welcoming us into her home at 4 AM and treating us to breakfast with a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice that morning. I did not usually eat breakfast at school, and I remember thinking to myself how kind it was of her to adjust to our inconvenient schedule and how I appreciated her effort to accompany us. Divya instructed us to call her “auntie,” as it was customary to refer to others by family titles. Locals would add “-bhai” and “-ben” (meaning brother and sister) to the end of friends’ names to show respect. This was different than many of the formalities that I was used to at home and helped make conversations feel comfortable and natural. We thanked auntie for her kindness, but she would always tell us:
“Don’t thank me all the time, you can thank me after your last meal.”
Throughout the next 8 weeks, she would continue to coddle us with freshly squeezed fruit juice each morning, delicious home cooked meals, and desserts after dinner. Auntie always made it a point to make sure that we left the dinner table full and happy.
At the office, we took Hindi lessons every morning to help us communicate with locals. Our Hindi instructor, Shikha, was patient when teaching us, and helped us grasp concepts in a way that we could understand. More importantly, Shikha was our friend and was someone who we could talk to about our homestay gossip and weekend ventures. Shikha eventually left Saath to pursue other opportunities, but she would return to the Saath office every morning to chat and teach us Hindi. The staff at Saath was always kind to us and made us feel welcomed. We had the luxury of working in the conference room, the only room with air conditioning, and were treated to chai every morning and afternoon.
Since I was working with Saath’s microfinance division, on most days I would go to another office after Hindi lessons, where I would respectfully turn down an offer for a second cup of chai. The staff at the microfinance office were very cordial and took the time to explain to me their roles at the office and what their jobs entailed. My task for the summer was to design a customer classification system to categorize clients into 4 groups based on many different criteria and to make specialized savings and loans products for each group of customers. My project mentor, Divyang, was friendly and helpful despite his busy schedule. Divyang gave me advice on how to proceed with my projects regarding topics that I had minimal experience with.
On a field visit, I went to a village to meet some of Saath’s clients in order to brainstorm products for my project. The villagers were excited to see us, and some of them explained to us how they had never saved money before, but were motivated to save through Saath’s microfinancing programs. The visit to the village inspired me, and I particularly liked the idea that the work that I would be doing would directly help Saath’s clients in some way. I had met so many kind people, and I wanted to make a change.
As week after week passed, however, it felt like I had hit a wall. I was frustrated that my project was moving slowly, and disappointed that I wasn’t able to do more with my time in India. I began to feel like I was taking a lot more than I was giving. I felt drained after catching a stomach bug, and I was tired of constantly getting mosquito bites. I was easily irritable and hated when locals targeted us to sell their products because we were tourists. When things get tough, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and forget about the positives.
On our last weekend trip to a bird sanctuary, I witnessed an ant colony. It was interesting to see how the ants interacted with each other. I witnessed a queen ant tapping the ground with her antennae to instruct multiple worker ants the directions to carry food. It was astounding to me how the ants worked together to accomplish a simple goal. After reflecting, I think my role here in Ahmedabad is similar to that of a worker ant in a network. I’ve accepted that I can’t make a huge difference on my own and that my work serves as a small part in the big picture. (Saath has been around for almost 30 years and I’ve only been here for 2 months!) Throughout my stay in Ahmedabad, I’ve always felt welcomed as part of a family and although I hadn’t done as much as I had wanted to, I am proud of the things that I’ve accomplished to help the organization and the communities it serves.
So as my time here comes to a close, I would like to thank all the kind people that I’ve met—for your hospitality, your kindness, and your wisdom. Thank you for accommodating us, and for making our stay special.