How I learned not to settle for a single story in India
Want to help someone? Step 1: Shut up and listen.
When I left my home country to spend 8 months in India as a Global Citizen Year Fellow, I told myself that I would approach this experience and challenge with open arms - no limitations, no expectations, no biases. I would let my mind free, be a sponge to everything India had to offer me.
And then I actually started living here - and realized that’s nearly impossible.
A part of the Global Citizen Year program is to develop a project within our apprenticeship to test our leadership skills. I was apprenticing as a teacher. The project was meant to be beneficial for one or more stakeholders, be a relatively long-term project, and be well organised and executed.
When I heard this, a dozen ideas popped up in my head. All of my ideas shared the same origin--they were all based on the same, single story and inspired by the ideas of the same storyteller. In other words, I was trapped by my story, the narrative of my life.
I was building my project from elements of my own life, letting my perception, observation, and experience be limited even further because I was hunting for similarities and patterns. I was getting lost in translation, as someone so famously put it, and by doing so I enforced a possibly false reality onto my students.
And that is the problem, isn’t it? At the time, I didn’t even know.
I saw needs on the basis of my own system, my culture, my expectations. Wonderful ideas about student democracy and fair representation. The need for international exposure by talking about who invented the cheese slicer, and why India is having difficulties getting a permanent seat and VETO power in the UN Security Council. Surely these ideas would fill all the aforementioned requirements for a project. They tested me as a leader - but, as I soon learned, not a good leader. Why? Because I got caught up in the moment, and forgot the simplest and most obvious step of all - I forgot to ask.
Realising that my ideas probably weren’t as important and life-changing as I initially thought or liked to believe, I started questioning everything. I wanted to know - is there anything I can do that will actually be useful at this very moment for the kids? The most urgent need is the evident lack of teachers. In this newly realized context, I felt useless. I could not magically fill the teacher deficit.
I was left with questions of "What else do they truly need? Can I help them in any way?"
Still, somehow, I forgot to just ask them.
I knew that the upcoming exams were essential. One misstep and they could drop out of school, losing perhaps the only opportunity to drag themselves out of the black hole of poverty, for them and their families too.
I kept feeling doubt - Who was I to barge into their lives as this foreigner, fed with the white-saviour complex, who is only familiar with this one single story?
And I am certainly not the only victim of single stories. I was also met with the expectation that I could do something. That I had the arsenal to confront high-priority issues, especially in terms of money.
I see how impactful poverty porn has been on both ends, and how ignorant I have been to pretend like I had some super immunity against such manipulation.
But this is what I DO know, after finally asking: Even with good grades, or just graduating from high school, it is almost impossible to get into a good university. The demand and lack of spots make the requirements ridiculously high, taking away what little incentive most of them have left to attend school. Tuitions are obviously another issue.
And even when they do attend school, their health tends to get in the way. Diarrhoea is the third leading cause of child mortality in India, and if you ever got to use my school’s toilet you would see some reasons as to why.
Recently the school got absolutely flooded after a heavy monsoon rainfall, way after it was expected to stop.
So not only are the school grounds a place rife with disease; they are now also the ultimate love nest for dengue mosquitoes that seem to be bloody resilient.
The bottom line is: the power of a single story is not to be underestimated. I am lucky to be here long enough to ask for more stories, told by a variety of storytellers. But many are not as lucky. Many don’t see the value of it. And this is how foreign aid becomes flawed and inefficient. This is how we often end up doing everything except helping those who need it. How we seemingly give them everything, but then leave them with nothing.
Want to help someone? Shut up and listen, as Ernesto Sirolli so earnestly put it.
Stop being satisfied with one single story and your own expectations.
Or else you will miss out on all the other mind-blowing stories out there.
This article was written by Chantal Tonnessen Smeland, a 2016 Global Citizen Year Fellow living in India. Read more about Chantal's experiences with her apprenticeship and homestay during her bridge year on her blog.