(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
When I boarded the plane from Dallas, I had expectations for absolute success. The plan for my project was to create a partnership between IPHD and Let’s Be Well Red (LBWR). By bringing LBWR’s model iron-rich “Gudness” bar production unit to Bhikamkor, I had hoped to provide a means to ending iron-deficiency anemia in the rural village while also broadening LBWR’s scope into Rajasthan’s borders. I was a motivated individual with a plan approved by IPHD, LBWR, and Duke University. What could go wrong?
After landing in India, I stood at the baggage claim, watching as the endless unfamiliar suitcases spun past me. Is it that black suitcase? No. That one? No. (Never buy a generic black suitcase, they all look the same). The airlines lost my suitcase.
Life is hard.
So what did I have? One pair of pajamas, one pair of street clothing, two pairs of kurta pajamas that Madhu bought for me, and two pairs of underwear (one used). My host family washed a pair of my clothing every day, but I didn’t know that I needed to wash my own underwear. On day 2: flip them inside out? They’re fine for another two days right?
Life is so hard.
And then it hit me on day 4 when my host father screamed “NOOOOO MICHAEL.” I was washing my face with the bar of soap my host mother gave me when I first arrived. Turns out that that was laundry detergent. I bathed and washed my face with laundry detergent for four days.
Life is soooo hard.
But in the meantime, my project kept me motivated right? Wrong. On day 7, it was clear that IPHD and LBWR’s partnership was not going to work out. Bhikamkor wasn’t ready for LBWR’s model, and LBWR wasn’t focused on Bhikamkor’s community development. The project thus fell apart.
Life is soooooooooooo hard.
So why bother even staying in Jodhpur? Maybe because the airlines held my luggage hostage? Maybe because plane tickets are crazy expensive? Maybe because DukeEngage mandates that I must stay? Or maybe because we kept laughing. I, Madhu (the director of IPHD), and my fellow interns could not stop laughing at my misfortune. Along with the laughter came the learning and the soon-to-be-better life. First, Madhu taught me how to wash my underwear. Two weeks in, I received my luggage, but not before I went shopping for clothes. That clothes was reimbursed by the airlines that lost my luggage. I got paid to not have my luggage (Why is this not a profession?).
Because the project fell apart, Madhu and I did a workshop on the needs/skills of Bhikamkor and myself. Within the next hour, I had a new project in mind. IPHD’s ongoing health scans (conducted by Uma Gaddamanugu and Ryan Loong) showed that iron-rich foods were already accessible to the village, but these foods were not being consumed due to social and economic barriers. Several people had no concept of nutrition due to a lack of education; many villagers did not know that eating food provided energy or even what energy is. Furthermore, women serve other family members first, thus eating inadequate amounts of nutritious foods despite being most prone to anemia. The high anemia prevalence noticeably stemmed from upstream cultural and economic barriers. On top of these barriers, the villagers themselves did not believe the iron-rich bars would be consumed, nor did they care for the bars to be implemented. What Bhikamkor needed was not another product on the market, but rather higher education in nutrition and anemia. I thus began focusing on educating the Saheli women and high schoolers in nutrition and anemia. I then sought to increase the social status of women by teaching ideas such as victim blaming, advocacy, and accountability in the local high school.
So what happened by the end of my ten weeks? My project was a huge success; the Saheli women and high schoolers showed high enthusiasm in increasing the lentils, chickpeas, spinach, and sesame seeds in their diets. Presumably, they were eating more iron to combat iron-deficiency anemia. Furthermore, the majority of high schoolers ultimately believed in gender equality and were belligerently promoting a safer and less harass-y environment for girls to learn. Lastly, I became so close with my fellow interns, host family, and Madhu’s family. Knowing that I had to board a plane to leave these people and my life in India, I immediately thought…
Life is soooooooooooooooooooooooooo hard.
Despite the fact that the original project took an entire academic year of planning and preparation, IPHD and I stayed true to our purpose: community development. Although endless misfortune came my way, my jovial attitude and the contagious positivity surrounding me kept my spirits lifted. I came to love this culture and the daily five cups of chai tea. People invited me into their homes, I played sports with high schoolers that I can’t even speak to, and I experienced more than I could have ever imagined. Everything seemed to be going wrong at first, but maybe that’s what was needed for everything to go right in the end.