The end of an Indicorps year

My year in India has finished, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Indicorps staff and Fellows past and present, and of course my adopted family, friends and colleagues at Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal. This blog contains reflections on ethics in grassroots development, knotted with anecdotes and stories. It is a testament to my Fellowship year.

To skip to Indicorps content, click here for a review of my year in India. I’ve also collated my favorite content from the year below.

What is an Indicorps Fellow?
What have I done this year?
India’s problem-solving problem
Facing the heat
How Indian am I?
Karnatakan Expeditions
International Day Against Homophobia: Who is fighting for you?
Ten things I’ve done this year, but haven’t told you about
Ode to a hearing aid
A message home
My agenda

I’m currently in Washington, DC where I’m studying towards a Masters in Public Policy at George Washington University. I’m sure through study and by reflecting on changes after my Fellowship year, I’ll have plenty more to write about.

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Indicorps’ year in review

Why Indicorps? Why India?

I find passion in service, in work that is rewarded by wider values and in the gratitude of others. I yearn for adventure. I am motivated by challenges. I’m like a thousand other would-be do-gooders. Why me?

Before Indicorps I lacked purpose. I wanted to be engaged in work that made a difference, in work that provided change and opportunity to people who sought it. But I didn’t know where to find it. I was no longer rewarded by my work in gay equality. In honesty, I didn’t invest in it the way that I knew I could. I was distracted; distracted because this work was not what I was looking for – I was not challenged nor was I reaching my potential. I wasn’t achieving. Indicorps promised to push me, mentally, physically, emotionally. So I chose Indicorps.

I’m a huge advocate for equality, for social justice, and for the empowerment of marginalized, discriminated, and neglected groups; especially those I identified with. My mother questioned my commitment to gay equality when there are so many wider problems in the world that I could relate to. Her question made me uneasy; I had chosen the most comfortable conscionable way to exist. I wasn’t challenging myself. I had lost perspective and I was losing my purpose. I was questioning my identity. India would help me find some perspective, a purpose, and my identity. So I chose India.

India and Indicorps’ presented an opportunity to face my problems face on, and I would emerge from the experience with purpose and perspective, and an identity.

When my perspective needs a healthy dose of reality, I think of the children I live with. I think of Manish, who for all his boyish charm and energy, faces a lifetime of challenges – further compounded by stigma – because his disabilities prevent him from communicating. I think of Sonu, who is abandoned at the hostel by her parents and despite being educated, faces an isolated and barren future because she was born with cerebral palsy, and because she is a woman born in Rajasthan. She’s one of the lucky ones.

I think of the people I work with; Ramniwas, a strikingly handsome and well-natured young man who excels at cricket and wood-crafting. He’s also afflicted with polio, an unnecessary, irreversible, and inexcusable disease. He’s inspirational. I think of Sagar, a dear friend who is bound by brotherly duties to live out only a fraction of his potential; I’m torn at my inability to reason with the patriarchs of his family. My perspective is shaken.

These people live and work in the village of Chachiyawas in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, where my project – Inclusive Education for All – is based at the campus of Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal, a non-profit working towards social justice for marginalized and discriminated groups. My project is based in an inclusive school; co-educating children from local villages with children with developmental disabilities, and preparing young adults for employment.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal has roots in relief work after successive disasters (a flood in 1975 and drought in 1987) created the need for organised community action. Originally seeking the services of women to provide relief, it matured into an empowerment unit for women across the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, providing training, education and health care.

Rajasthan regularly ranks among the poorest and most deprived states in India and its education record narrowly beats that of Bihar to come second from last. In the heavily rural local population there is a strong legacy of repressed gender roles, caste hierarchies and agrarian tradition. Subsequently, there is a growing need to tackle social inequalities and re-frame prevalent attitudes towards diversity, as well as provide improved and innovative education. For marginalised groups and harder-to-reach populations, like children with disabilities, this need is more pressing.

My school doesn’t reach a fraction of them. But the inclusion pioneered by teachers at the inclusive education school run by Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal ensures that those we did reach are given a good opportunity. At the school – Minu Minovikas Mandir – I worked in classrooms to improve teaching methods. I enjoyed my work, living with my community, sharing their lives, their problems and their joys. But my project lacked challenges; I was being as comfortably conscionable as possible.

One bitterly cold November morning I wandered across campus to get chai. I lived in the hostel with thirty-five children with disabilities, every one of them a unique gift. Outside the hostel, I found Devinderbhai and Bhagchandbhai heating water over a crude and rudimentary rock fire. Bhagchand explained that the children couldn’t shower with cold water, they’d get ill. I asked why we couldn’t use the gas stoves from the kitchens.

‘Those are for cooking, we can’t use those’.

My dismay was palpable: we lacked something I considered a necessity, and there was no excuse for it.

It was that morning that my day-to-day work with teachers in classroom died; I realised that with a little initiative I could contribute more to tackle problems my community faced.

Before lunch I drew up plans for a wood-fired smokeless chula, using resources on campus. It invigorated me, I am a tinkerer at heart. I got permission to start building, and produced a painstakingly manicured chula that provided the foundation for my year. I began to innovate, experiment, and explore. And I spent too many mornings heating water for the children, tinkering with my grand design.

I wanted to inspire people to think creatively to solve problems. I wanted them to understand what could be achieved, with a little innovation. My next project was to paint a large map of the world across a barren wall of the hostel. It was the most simple of tasks that required hours of labour, but it inspired and made people ask questions. The teachers started to get ideas. We produced more displays, using photos, art, and the work of children. We turned the school into a space that the teachers felt was theirs. I wasn’t directly implementing inclusion, but my project had started to get people thinking and was promoting personal responsibility, pride, and ownership. I felt useful.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal has several projects that work with children with disabilities, and at Christmas I wandered unwittingly into our community-based rehabilitation program, where I came across a reality that I’d theorised about at school.

We educated and trained children so that they could find employment and support themselves and their families. This was about empowerment, but what jobs were these people doing? Where did they go when they left Minu Minovikas Mandir?

When I began working with the community-based rehabilitation team, I realised that finding employment was a significant problem for these young adults. Together with Naveenji, Punitji, Zakirji and Bhanwarji, I interviewed fifty-two families of young men and women who were looking for employment, young people our rehabilitation program was trying to place with employers. They couldn’t find work; there was no work available for them, particularly in the agrarian and service sectors in and around Ajmer district. But their families needed them to work. For our work to be sustainable, I decided ensuring work opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities needed to become a priority.

I live with Mukash, a 16 year old boy who is mentally disabled. He is friends with Karnheyia, a 14 year old boy with Down syndrome. We play cricket and badminton together, I dance with them, they teach me Hindi and Marwari, they give me headaches; and I love them. But these two boys and the remaining thirty-three children I live with face bleak prospects. Despite their strong work ethic, the stigma associated with their disabilities would make it hard to fit into a work environment without adequate support. They wouldn’t be able to support their families when they returned to their homes, however much they wanted to.

I’m deaf in both ears, but I’m lucky. I have access to technology that helps me to hear. Without it, I doubt I would be in India, I doubt my career would have followed the same path. The children I live with are not so lucky; their disabilities are permanent and they must learn to live with them.

When my mother asked me why I had chosen the most comfortable way to live with my conscience, advocating for gay equality, I had considered advocating for disabled rights instead. But I never considered that by doing this, I would end up ridden with guilt; there was nothing I could do to solve their problems in the same way that mine had been solved.

The projects of Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal are heavily influenced by government schemes run by the National Trust, a government organisation mandated to provide services to disabled people. The National Trust recently launched Arunim to support the development of enterprises providing employment to disabled people.

In February we entered Arunim’s inaugural E3 business competition, seeking to find the best sustainable enterprises across the country that would empower and employ disabled people. I was asked by my mentor, Kshamaji, to prepare the entry, and we went on to win first place as best emerging venture.

Victory in the competition went some way towards easing my guilt, and it was guilt that led me to spend sleepless nights meticulously crafting the competition entry – a business plan – before the strict deadline. But I remember speaking with my Indicorps mentor, Geetha, prior to submitting the proposal.

‘Think about sustainability, have you considered letting Rajeevji or another member of staff write the proposal with your support and guidance?’

In the interest of sustainability, this made sense, and I knew Geetha was probably right. But I was adamant I should do it. Any information that needed to be passed on could be done after the competition was over; this was a rare and timely opportunity to provide employment opportunities to those children whose future I had agonised over. Turning this into an experiment in sustainability wasn’t an option; success in the competition was paramount.

When the phone rang I was sat on an unbearably hot and crowded government bus crossing the Rajasthani desert. Rajeevji ecstatically conveyed our victory to me; tears streamed down my face. But they weren’t tears of joy at our achievement; this proved nothing about what we had done or were capable of. Those tears came from the realisation that I had helped liberate children I felt helplessly bound to. I cried for Mukash and Karnheyia, I could sleep easy knowing that they might be a future for themselves and their families; that I may have provided them with the same opportunities I had taken for granted.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal’s greatest achievements come when it practices innovation. Victory in the E3 competition cemented the organisation’s position as a leader in rehabilitation efforts, and the grant and intense business consulting that was rewarded means that the new business, Daksh, has plenty of support to develop into a sustainable and successful enterprise. Our Delhi-based consultants, Start Up!, are contentious and have held both myself and the new management team accountable to our business plan.

Just as it did with inclusive education, Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal was proving that developmentally disabled young adults can participate in economic growth, and the organisation was pioneering a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

Creativity and innovation combined with leadership to form the theme for the final leg of my project. I returned to inclusive education and my work in the school in time for the summer holidays, where I planned to run a lengthy and intensive training for teaching and rehabilitation staff. I’d spent a year loosely supporting them; I wanted to solidly invest in them.

The teachers wanted to know how they could include the child with severe autism in their classrooms. They wanted to know how they could provide inclusive learning to children with behavioural problems. They wanted solutions to the problems they faced every day, and they were solutions I’d worked all year to offer them but had fallen short. But Geetha’s words remained true; I needed to provide sustainable solutions to help them solve their own problems. What’s more, Geetha had provided me with a quote early in the year that I couldn’t forget. It reflected my understanding of Indicorps philosophy and I held myself to it.

Go to the people.
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When their task is accomplished,
Their work is done,
The people all remark,
‘We have done it ourselves.’

My two weeks with the teachers pushed both my limits and theirs. My training, ‘Fostering Leadership in Inclusive Education’ – introduced a new style of learning. The content of the training was set in stone; inclusion, the social context of disability, classroom management, and teaching methodology, but the medium of training is what I wanted them to take away.

I was able to use my training as an anecdote for what I was teaching them, about creativity, innovation, initiative, leadership and inclusion. It taught them new ways of approaching problems, how to persist in solving them, and how to work as a team. I encouraged them to take on personal projects and invest in their work. It ensured participation.

I sought to build a team of leaders that were best placed to continue the work that Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal is so good at; to pioneer their own methods of inclusion.

And in the process I empowered myself. The training was daunting; the participants were friends and family that had adopted me. Kshamaji had trusted me with twelve days of training for fifteen staff. I had no experience running this sort of event. It’s strange how the year has pushed me to throw myself into these challenges head-on. It’s even stranger how often I’ve surprised myself.

I learned from it. I learned about leadership, initiative, problem-solving, and about the quest for sustainable solutions. As one person with one year, I cannot solve all the problems that face my community; but I can empower them with skills they need to face problems themselves.

Empowerment and sustainability, they’re no longer buzzwords that I hear about in lectures.

My work in rural Rajasthan gave me perspective, and that’s something I cannot take from any education. Being here in the hard reality of my community, sharing their pain and joys and experiencing the frustrating inability to undo their challenges; it gives you perspective that you just can’t find in the most convincing of portrayals, in any medium. It sparks a greater purpose.

The space that Indicorps provides is both intimidating and honest. Sharing my fears, worries, and failures with even myself is daunting, but that honesty provides a clarity which with reflection can be the greatest learning tool. Indicorps philosophy pushed me to immerse to the maximum, and the Indicorps experience went on to extract the most from an already intense year of service. I’m exhausted, but the relentless and indefensible assault of questions – questioning my character, my beliefs, and my way of living – has fundamentally changed me, for the better. And it’s changed my way of thinking in a way that no study or lecture ever could.

The most daunting prospect I face is leaving this space, but I’m not concerned about where I’m going. India and Indicorps gave me purpose, perspective, and an identity. India chose me.

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What is an Indicorps Fellow?

In December 2009 I began my Indicorps’ adventure. A friend linked me to the application pages for a development experience unlike anything else out there.

I wanted to volunteer abroad. On first impressions, Indicorps’ seemed the perfect opportunity. I go to India, I can choose a project, I live in the community, and I don’t have to worry about money; I get a stipend!

In December 2009 it wasn’t about Indicorps; it was about getting what I wanted, development experience and a trip to India.

‘Hi, I’m Simon, I’m from England!’

‘What do you do here?’

‘Well, I’m an Indicorps’ Fellow!’

Unless I continue, that normally ends a conversation. It means very little to most people, and people have important things to be doing. I might add,

‘I’m here to do service.’

Service is a pretty universal term for everything, like when someone tells you they’re a consultant. Someone else will normally intervene to avoid confusion.

‘He’s a volunteer; he’s doing research; he’s on a gap year.’

An Indicorps’ Fellow will do anything to avoid being called a volunteer. Let me put this straight, we’re not volunteers. Nor are we doing research (that would be more convincing if I wasn’t writing a thesis). The gap year thing, well, it’s more like a gap decade. I’ve assured my parents I’m on the last leg.

There are plenty of reasons that I’m not a volunteer. Firstly, I don’t have a manager, no one is telling me what to do; there’s no task that I need to complete, no house to build, garden to design, money to collect, etc. Unlike volunteering, there’s no finite goal. I have a loosely structured project, and where I take it… well, that’s my choice.

Secondly, it’s an intense learning experience. Everything I do is beaten around, regurgitated, pulped and fed back to me through conversations, reflections, guilt, and the reality of my impact. Indicorps’ teaches us to question our decisions, to observe our impact, and to reflect on our mistakes. We learn to make ourselves accountable for every decision we take, and it’s tough. Indicorps’ might be based in Ahmedabad, but unlike any other distance learning course, it will hit you in the face and make you cry.

And I think that’s a crucial difference; the challenging philosophy of learning that guides our Fellowship year. Indicorps’ philosophy is not light, but using it to learn from our experiences while we work in the field is an enlightening process. And that’s as ‘finding myself’ as I get, I’m afraid.

Unlike volunteers, the Fellows have formed a pretty solid Fellowship, and we’re very close to becoming ‘Fellows for life’, joining over 100 former Indicorps’ Fellows and alumni. Much like that other famous Fellowship, we’re a bunch of misfits connected by a common cause, our passion for service. Like Gandalf and his hobbits, we’ve all had our adventures; sometimes we’re together, and other times we’re alone. We’ve faced our demons and for the most part, we’ve come out on top. And like that other Fellowship, this has been one epic adventure; across mountains and deserts, through snow and storms.

Finally, to hammer a final nail in the coffin of our volunteer doppelgangers, Indicorps’ Fellows receive a stipend. Now, it’s not much, in fact, it’s comparable to local salaries; but it’s enough to make a difference. And if my arguments above aren’t enough for you, well; a volunteer – by  definition – cannot earn money.

I was offered the Fellowship in April 2010. The selection process was harrowing, the lengthy application form gave an insight into why this program was different. The criteria, I assume, is strict. Then in August 2010, I arrived in Ahmedabad.

During Indicorps’ orientation I met Indicorps’ founder, Roopal Shah. She was intimidating; I spent those few days in her company being offended by everything she said. She was pushing me and I didn’t want to be pushed.

Roopal once compared Indicorps’ to a tripartite mix of John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King; respectively, mobilizing an untapped youth, working in communities at a grassroots level, and building a social movement for change. Delusions of grandeur aside, it’s an accurate juxtaposition of where a Fellow is supposed to be. But we’re not any of those people.

Indicorps’ Fellows have their own dreams and goals, their own ambitions. We learn quickly that we’re not here to replicate others, we’re here to blaze our own trail; when you stop trying to imitate others, you really can set the sky on fire.

Orientation quickly taught me that this year is more about me than my community. And it’s a difficult pill to swallow. When you start to learn from every decision you make, life becomes a selfish endeavour. I might spend an afternoon playing games with disabled children, but at each step I’m questioning my actions. What went wrong and how can I learn from this?

What could you achieve if you couldn’t fail? That’s how an Indicorps’ Fellow strives to think. Believe me, things go wrong more often than not, there are more setbacks than successes. I’ve injured children, offended parents, broken equipment and broken trust. But being able to face those failures honestly, allowing yourself no excuses, and learning to grow from them; it’s nothing short of empowering. When you can push yourself to keep trying in the face of adversity, you start to learn what you’re capable of. I’ll be frank; as human beings, we don’t reach a fraction of our potential.

If I sound idealistic, let me backtrack. I am no saint; I can’t face every failure with honesty, I can’t force myself into action at every injustice, I most definitely cannot solve every problem. And in the face of many mounting errors, I have spent full days locked in my room, mulling defeat and making excuses, sulking around and wasting away. I curse my time here and yearn for proper food, nice clothes, and a comfortable bed. I’ll leave wet clothes in a bucket for weeks at a time simply because I can’t drag myself to wash them; why me? Outside my door, people who don’t have that choice work from sunrise to sunset to feed their families. The guilt kicks in.

As Indicorps’ Fellows we take responsibility for our actions. It’s easy for me to blame circumstances beyond my control for my predicaments, to use excuses to excuse my failures. But it’s dishonest. In such a raw and basic environment, we have control over everything that happens to us. As Indicorps’ Fellows, we learn to exercise that control; if something doesn’t work out as we hoped, we look inside, what can we do differently?

It’s clear I’ve not yet reached nirvana.

Being an Indicorps’ Fellow has been an incredible honor. It’s been about my relationships and community, my project, my impact, and the change I’ve made. But most importantly, it’s been about me.

During orientation each Fellow was gifted with an Aloe Vera offshoot. They are near invulnerable but I struggled to take care of mine. I was distracted, busy, indifferent and lazy. But it persisted. Two months ago I began to take better care of it, and it grew, shedding parts damaged by neglect.

Last weekend I moved it into a new, larger pot. I found a tiny offshoot growing beneath it. They’re both growing in the new pot now, albeit with more space, better soil, and better guardians.

And I suppose that is what being an Indicorps’ Fellow is all about.

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Leaders with dreams

Somewhere, sometime, we stopped dreaming.

Sagar, the hostel warden, left his post last week to join a government school in his home district, Dausa. He was a solid hostel warden. He was in control; he knew the children, their parents, the staff; and they all listened to him. He had solutions because he cared. With him around the hostel was in safe hands.

Sagar struck me as an intelligent, organised, and popular man, seemingly full of ambition and eager to learn. So when he and I became friends, I asked him what his dreams were. He didn’t need to think about it; he had his answer scripted. He wanted to start an organisation in Dausa that would work with children with special needs. Sagar explained that Dausa has no facilities for children with special needs, not even a school. He wanted to start his own hostel, his own school, and he wanted me to teach him about inclusion.

Sagar is a distinct minority, a man with a dream. He paints a picture of how things might be different, and he’s willing to work to bring his canvas to life; Sagar has ambition and drive. He’s just nineteen, but he’s tireless and fearless.

We’re short on people like Sagar, people with dreams; people who have the foresight to imagine better.

Ishawar is an inclusive teacher at my school. He invites me to his home regularly for chai, where he lives with his wife Manju, also an inclusive teacher. I enjoy their company, but I would decline invitations; Ishawar would spend hours showing me certificates and commendations that he had been awarded for an array of social work.

You see, Ishawar was a proactive child; and he still is. This year in Chachiyawas, he’s started an education network for children in the village; teaching children the values of cleanliness, the perils of alcoholism, and using their labour to build a better sanitation network. He’s trying to raise awareness of water conservation and he’s recently started a youth council.

Ishawar has a lot of dreams, so much that he’s registered his own non-governmental organisation to make them a reality. He too wants to return to his home district, this time to launch a multi-pronged social campaign; women’s empowerment, health, and education. He believes he can make this happen, and I agree; he’s a very competent, ambitious, and bright young man with some very original ideas. He shows me his plans; he’s thought this through.

The programs Ishawar wants to run should probably be part of a government scheme, or be provided by the local gram panchayat – the village council. Ishawar explains that money rarely reaches the villages it is intended for. I ask if he has considered running for office to ensure funds are properly distributed, programs properly enacted; but he doesn’t see that as an option. The family of the local panchayat is above the law.

Ishawar isn’t fazed. Instead, he’s looking for private funding from a foundation or donations from his community.

Like Sagar, Ishawar has dreams to make things better. Not for himself, but for his community. Like Sagar, Ishawar has passion, creativity, and ambition. He’s intelligent and he wants to learn. Like Sagar, he wants things to be different and is willing to work to make that happen. And like Sagar, he faces obstacles that he’s selflessly fighting to overcome.

I have tremendous respect for both these men. My career so far has been nothing more than an opportunity to make money and break even with my conscience; have I ever really dreamed? How many people do I know with real dreams – dreams that are worth more than fame and fortune, power and glory?

Somewhere, sometime, the dreams I held in abundance as a child were stripped of perspective and returned without humanity. When I dream now, it’s materialistic and void.

But these two men have used their dreams to become leaders and visionaries. They’ve shown me how important it is that leaders have dreams.

When leaders lack dreams, they end up like Ishawar’s panchayat. They lead because of circumstance. They have no vision, so they maintain the status quo – for all it’s worth. Unfortunately, it’s endemic beyond the panchayat. Across governments and organisations there are countless managers and bureaucrats who are not leaders. They lack foresight, determination, initiative and responsibility, all inherent with dreams. Without regret, they occupy positions meant for leaders.

Dreams can inspire creativity, innovation, and an unyielding perseverance; dreams can draw ingenuity from the greatest challenges, and force honesty in the face of defeat. Dreams will fight down ignorance; and they will make us tireless and fearless. They are the most conscionable part of who we are; and it’s when we follow our dreams that we can become our best selves. Dreams make us leaders.

But what happened to our dreams?

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What have I done this year?

In A message home I wrote that my year in India has indulged childhood fantasies. I’ve been a jack-of-all trades; I’ve had the chance to try my hand at every job I wanted as a kid, except the astronaut part. And I’ve performed tasks that I’d rather not have done; but that’s part of the adventure.

This year I’ve been a teacher, for most of the year actually. I spent an hour lecturing a class of diploma students on personal responsibility. I spent two weeks training teachers to be better leaders. I spent a morning facilitating a session on organizational values for over one-hundred colleagues.

As a nurse, I’ve gone through over one-hundred Boots plasters and applied far too much Tiger Balm to bruised children. As a doctor, I’ve diagnosed fevers, infections, applied bandages and prescribed lots of Pepto Bismol. As a physiotherapist I’ve helped Rajveer learn to walk in his first zimmer-frame. I, briefly, played some sort of dentist when I told Manish he wouldn’t grow back his chipped tooth.

For several years I wanted to be an architect, and this year I helped landscape the courtyard of the hostel and redesigned the rear entrance to make it wheelchair accessible, right up to the sinks where plates are washed. When I couldn’t be an architect, I played engineer, sculpting out the precise measurements and materials needed for my smokeless Chula which, as a labourer, I spent a weekend building. As a scientist, I spent every winter morning experimenting with our fires to make sure they were most efficient and fume-free, does that make me an environmentalist?

I’ve even spent a short while farming. Nothing too strenuous, but enough to say I’ve done it. I’ve herded goats and cows in my short career practicing animal husbandry. I even milked a buffalo; and a buffalo stood on my foot. I’ve done a year of gardening, culminating in one small project to plant a hundred saplings around the play area. My career as a botanist was short-lived, though; they all died soon thereafter. But my small aloe vera plant, a gift from Indicorps, is still going strong.

I’ve played electrician when we’ve had power outages, or when the generator power has been needed elsewhere. I’ve had enough electric shocks to match the output of a small thunderstorm. I was a plumber twice, once when I finally fixed my leaking shower and tap, and another time when we installed a sink area outside to wash dishes. Nothing too dirty, though, and I haven’t got myself a toolkit yet.

For the last six months I’ve been a businessman, submitting a business plan for a new enterprise which won first place at the national E3 business awards. I spent a month as a surveyor, market researcher, accountant and marketing executive. Now, I’m handing over the reins to a new team who will manage the emerging venture.

I’ve played tour guide to friends and family, and I’ve played translator a few too many times; probably not very effectively and most definitely not worth paying for.

I’ve been a little extra-curricular at school too. I tried my hand at speech therapy, but I can’t pronounce Hindi characters so I’m little help to others. I invented new teaching aids to help in classrooms. I’ve coached cricket, football, badminton and bocce. And during the annual function I played actor, stage director, make-up artist, special effects wizard and scriptwriter. This is not my calling. Choreography, however, might be.

I am a decorator on most weekends. I’ve painted rooms, railings, window frames and wooden toys. I’m also an artist. I painted a world map on one wall of the hostel, in an epic work that took over forty hours and is still not finished. I’ve been a designer of new products for the Daksh business we launched, and I’ve been a cartographer, recording the first map of the local village of Chachiyawas for use in the school curriculum.

When I conducted a study of the families we work with I was a budding researcher, visiting fifty-two homes over six weeks. I’ve been a writer, helping prepare several reports; and a grant-writer in particular, submitting appeals for funding from overseas agencies. And of course, I’ve been an author, writing this blog and public columns elsewhere.

I wish I could say I’ve been a driver, but I haven’t. I’ve been a traveler. I’ve been passenger on the back of a motorbike, with one, two, and three other people. I’ve ridden alongside Nadan in his jeep; I’ve travelled on the tops of buses; and of course, I’ve slept in every possible berth on India’s trains. I’ve gone from Gujarat to Delhi, Rajasthan to Maharashtra, and Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh. I’ve hitched on the back of an ox-cart. An elephant is more comfortable than a camel.

I’ve done my share of labour. I’ve been a cleaner every day; whether in my room, the classroom, picking up trash or cleaning dishes. I tried my hand at cooking, and I can make a fairly round roti. I’ve been a waiter, if you can call it that, serving lines and lines of children and guests, and I’ve carried pots of water, bags of rice, and canisters of gas from storage to storage.

I’m a librarian on rare occasion that someone is looking for an English book in our library. I’ve been a salesman when I’m doing my best to make our women’s cooperative and vocational workshops a success. I’ve been a hairdresser when using my beard trimmer was the craze with the kids, only for them to complain that they didn’t like it afterwards.

And, unfortunately, I’ve been a minor celebrity. My attempts to play an inconspicuous Indian never went well until I could speak Hindi. But when I’m desperate, that very naïve and very useless English play-acting comes out; most commonly when I’m lost on my way to a rural village.

I’ve been a campaigner and an activist. What I’m trying to achieve doesn’t stop or start at the school gates. I’ve been to homes to speak with families, I’ve run campaigns in the local village to encourage community participation in our activities, and I’ve been a video producer, making an awareness video to highlight our work; to show as part of a mobile exhibition. I’ve attended meetings and conferences and spoken on behalf of something I care about, trying my hardest to inspire; my language becoming more and more rhetorical.

And I’ve been part of a family. I’ve been a son to kind mentors and managers who have helped to guide me. I am a brother, the cautioning, wise, older bhai to so many young men and teenage boys. And I’m most definitely a father, the fun kind, to the hostel children I live with. They don’t respect me in the same way they do their papa, but they come to me when they need help, and that’s more important to me.

In a selfish way, this year has been about me and what I’ve done; much more than it’s been about my community. And that’s a debt I’ll hold for a long, long time.

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Indian bathroom etiquette

My host-father hands me the empty canister, a plastic bottle with the top hacked off. It’s pretty grim. In Gujarati he explains – I suspect – that I should take the container to the floodwater lake, scoop up some water, find a concealed bush in the middle of the hilly landscape, and do my business. It’s that time of the day when business is done. It’d be much easier if the horizon wasn’t dotted with shepherds and their cows.

This was my first problematic toilet encounter in India, nearly one year ago. I’d mastered the traditional Indian toilet fairly quickly; but in rural India, the Indian toilet is behind a bush, preferably one that hasn’t been used before.

I suppose there’s bathroom etiquette for every location, even back home; a restaurant, the workplace, a public restroom or a friend’s house. It’s just to me, those come naturally. The best way to use my container of floodwater – which I have no doubt was laden with cholera – should have been explained to me; the training delivered with video instructions and a pictorial pamphlet that I could keep handy for moments like this.

Luckily I have a bathroom at home which contains all needed amenities; a bucket, a jug, a toilet and a tap. This works for both toileting and showering. So for most of the year I’ve coped just fine, taking time to master the art of washing myself (with the left hand) while fully clothed without getting everything wet. When I haven’t been at home, it’s usually at an Indicorps’ retreat or in a train along the route, where the same basic facilities are provided (although in the case of the latter, best avoided).

So we fast forward to the last few months. I made a promise to myself to visit more villages before I left; where I can stay with friends or their families and get a healthy dose of the ugly side of conservative Rajasthan. It pays to be bold and rather hardy about it, and it’s a great learning experience; particularly for my bathroom etiquette.

Last week I stayed in Mehagaw, a village in the heart of the Thar Desert in Nagaur district; it’s about 150km from home. I was there for a large shaadi. The village is untainted and the language is pure Marwari – the local dialect – so I don’t get very far in conversations. On the occasion I ventured to ask someone to speak in Hindi, they replied that they were speaking Hindi. So asking for directions to the toilet wasn’t easy.

Luckily, there’s a universal sign in India for the two modes of toileting. Number one, as we call it, is expressed by extending the pinky finger. I’m told to go behind the bales of hay, next to the cows, at the back of the grazing area behind the house. Simple enough.

The next morning, despite my best efforts to hold it in, I need to go for a number two. I find an inconspicuous young man, somewhere between the age of 12 and 18, and ask where I can go to the toilet. He’s totally confused by what I’m saying, but that doesn’t matter, he’s ridiculously excited that I’m talking to him. I revert to sign language. Using my most subtle manners, I extend my first two fingers like a half-Vulcan hello.

He nods in agreement and runs off. I only hope he’s gone to get me an empty canister and is not telling the family what I’m doing. With relief, he returns with the container – this time an old paint pot – full of water. He directs me out the gate and into the wilderness. I ask how far, and he points into the distance and says something I don’t understand. Trying to be polite and not wanting to draw attention, I wholeheartedly agree and head off on my merry way into the wild. I’m almost skipping.

This wild is a bit more barren. Instead of cows, there’s goat grazing on the scraps of thicket and cactus that are strewn about. I walk for a fair while, but there is still the odd farmer about and every time I see an appropriately sized bush, it’s already ‘in use’ or being eaten by goats, with whom I do not want to share my sacred toilet break.

Eventually I find a spot beneath a steep hill, it’s fairly concealed, although a path runs not too far on one side. I’m quite sure this is prime real estate for snakes and scorpions so I try to make it quick. The canister contains just enough water, and I head back.

I spent the morning painting newly plastered walls with a shade of blue that didn’t match the other walls. It’s also 45C, so I’m sweaty and desperately needing a shower before the wedding.

Showers are simple enough; a bucket, some cold water, and a jug. They’re always in private too, at least behind a wall or with some half-hearted gate to preserve your modesty. On rare occasion I’ve showered in communal showers, but even then I’m among company.

This was a special shower occasion. Bhagchand showed me the spot where I would clean myself. It was in the back, opposite the kitchen areas, next to what seemed to be a make-shift crèche complete with mothers, aunties, uncles and fathers. It was not in the least bit concealed. It was a slab of paving with a dug trench to carry the water away. In fact, I’m quite sure it was optimized for amphitheatre audiences.

Now, I’ve done some observation of how this is done, and you’re supposed to shower in your underwear. I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I stripped down to my underwear and got wet. I ignored the spectators, who were by now gossiping, presumably over the way I wash myself (which is completely normal, I assure you). Some of the children that I’d befriended bought their friends to sit by me and watch.

I threw water at them. It only encouraged them. So I refocused on the task. Now from my observations you’re supposed to wash your private areas underneath your underwear, and then thoroughly rinse your underwear afterwards. I did all that (in record time) and moved onto drying.

I’m somewhat in relief that I have a towel around my waist and the spectators have been placated – somewhat. But I still have to perform the most arduous and skilled task; replacing my wet underwear with dry underwear without availing my modesty or dropping my towel. For an Indian man, this trained skill takes seconds. For me, it took about five minutes. I tried to keep my cool, but no doubt people were wondering what on earth I was doing. My sole paving slab was slippery and the delicate balancing act required to get this right is no easy feat. But it worked out. The children went back inside. I was clean and dry; and eventually, clothed.

Yes, bathroom etiquette in India is a whole new level of understanding. Showering is difficult, but clean and comfortable. Toileting is rather more awkward; throw in the infamous Delhi-belly and you can be quite befuddled, as I found two days ago in the village of Mandawari, where I was visiting my friend Sagar.

I’d spent all day travelling with diarrhea. It was made worse after the first – and only direct – bus crashed into a central reservation on the motorway and destroyed a wheel. So I patched the rest of the route together over three buses. When I arrived at midnight I was desperate for the toilet – but that had to wait until after food. By the time I used the bathroom I was beyond waiting. Unfortunately, the bathroom was rather too close to the living area where the family were sitting and the door was riddled with holes, presumably for added bass. I’m not normally loud, but this time I outplayed an orchestra. I sat in shame for a while before plucking up the courage to rejoin the family.

That set the tone for the rest of my visit. Sagar’s cousin did, however, tie a rakhi round my wrist before I left, so maybe my musical talents did impress one of them.

I suppose average awkwardness in a western bathroom, whether public or at home, will be simple now. Maybe my ease with it will make other people uncomfortable. Maybe I’ll be one of those people who is so at ease with my own bowel movements I feel compelled to start conversations over the cubicle doors.

I really do hope not, though.

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India’s problem-solving problem

When a fallen tree obstructs the road, do you stop to move it? Or do you drive around it?

Two days ago five child marriages took place in Chachiyawas, on my doorstep. Ten spritely children, blessed with potential, were needlessly bound and chained. My community knew it was wrong, but they know that it will happen again. This is India.

Last week a colleague was subjected to attempted rape by two men, both drunk. The attack happened on my campus. Friends showed indifference or blamed the victim, a ‘loose’ woman who messed around with other men. Eyes roll; people sigh at my naivety. This is India.

In February, a friend was killed when his motorbike was hit by a van, a needless death caused by a myriad lack of road safety measures and awareness. There was no police investigation to find the driver and no campaign to improve road safety. People were distraught, but the circumstances were soon forgotten. You see, this is India.

I don’t have to study India’s problems to know what they are. They hit home every single day. I’m overwhelmed with a checklist – a checkbook – of problems I’m fighting to resolve. But with each endeavor I make to solve those problems, reality creeps in; I can’t fix India in a year.

Neither can my friends. This is India. It’s their excuse.

The road to Ajmer is pretty, lined with desert; imposing mountains on the horizons. The dry ride on the back of a motorbike evokes an era of Texan cowboys. But pleasant daydreams are rudely interrupted by potholes and loose rocks. At times the road ceases to exist, or diverts across the bush where it becomes an impasse. Still, the route carries traffic, government buses, heavy trucks, laden tractors and camel and cart.

It’s important that it remains operational. So the government strips the tar and lays a new road. And for a few weeks the road is fine.

Then the cracks start appearing, most often in the same places. New routes are carved through the bush. Government buses dodge motorbikes and potholes in tandem, and accidents happen. The government strips the tar and lays a new road.

The problem is quickly fixed, but it’s not permanent. The tar is a cheap, patchwork solution. And patchwork solutions are applied everywhere to solve bigger problems than poorly managed roads, like corruption.

Many Indians consider their politicians corrupt. It’s a big issue and requires real solutions. Political scandals involving the Commonwealth Games, 3G phone licenses, and illegal property deals have bought down senior government ministers and members of parliament. Innocent officials are tainted by association; the profession is considered undesirable.

So structures have been set up to fight it. The police already exist, so their powers are reinforced. To monitor government, an anti-corruption body is set up. Extra legislation is brought in to increase accountability.

But here’s where it goes wrong. Each of these can be subverted with more corrupt practices, with more bribes, more kick-backs, and more under-the-table deals. Corruption is now so engrained that these patchwork solutions don’t fix anything; India’s bureaucracy can be peeled back one layer at a time, like a piece of appliqué.

In March 2011, India’s top anti-corruption official, Polayil Thomas, had to resign after being accused of corruption. And for each of the five child marriages mentioned earlier, police were complicit in a cover-up. My district doesn’t just look like the wild-west; it is the wild-west. When I ask friends why this isn’t reported, they are apathetic. This is India.

So corruption is a problem, and a big one at that. It’s an epidemic. But India’s patchwork solutions don’t start or stop with efforts to fight corruption.

In booming cities, houses built to accommodate burgeoning residential demands inevitably fall apart, becoming safety hazards because the materials used are poor quality and hurriedly assembled; unsustainable farming in Punjab uses pesticides that increase short-term harvests but damage long-term yields; and across Rajasthan wells are built deeper and deeper to gain short-term access to a water table that will soon be depleted.

When you bring these together, it becomes clear India faces a bigger problem than corruption, than broken roads, than a collapsing water table. India has an endemic problem-solving problem. And it starts with a preference for short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

But it’s even bigger than this. You see, to fix a problem, especially a problem-solving problem, you have to identify the problem. In this case a problem-solving problem. Confused? Join the club.

I’ve encountered several fallen trees on journeys across India, most of them on the road to Ajmer. I consider them a problem, but my friends don’t. This is India.

By driving around fallen trees – at times an awkward enterprise – the problem of the tree-in-the-road can be ignored. The road is still navigable, making the tree a mere inconvenience for passing traffic. And it’s not an inconvenience we need to remedy because driving around the tree is still an option.

I recently conducted an intensive two-week training course for teachers and faculty I work with. Through my year of service I’d identified several areas of training with one central agenda: to develop the problem-solving ability of staff.

The second day – Accessibility Day – required staff to adopt disabilities for a two-hour adventure course around the campus, where they would interact with different people and environments. The three groups were given artificial disabilities to make them deaf and mute, blind, and physically disabled.

My learning objective was for teachers to understand problems faced by disabled children on our campus. If they understood those problems, I thought, they could propose solutions. In our first post-activity reflection, I asked them to list the problems they faced.

The feedback was startling. Of all the groups, only one – the physically disabled group – acknowledged difficulties caused by their disability; that they could not access areas restricted by staircases while in wheelchairs. When I asked about rocks and sand, they were considered minor inconveniences.

The other groups had difficulty recognising problems they faced. They found the task hard, but they couldn’t explain why. The blind group had navigated the entire course with the help of the one team member who was sighted (for safety reasons). Being blind had become a slight inconvenience. When prompted, they acknowledged that staircases were an issue, but with care, they could use them.

The deaf group, instructed not to speak and with ear plugs in their ears, apparently had little trouble communicating because they were able to perform charades, deflecting that deaf and mute inconvenience. Their biggest problem? They didn’t face any.

While their disabilities remained inconveniences they could – with a little effort – find a way to work around them. They found the easiest option and ran with it; just like the government road, just like the extra bureaucracy, and just like the tree in the road. Even my teachers are inflicted by India’s problem-solving problem.

A bus rolls by. Most of the windows are broken, the passenger door no longer exists, the rear ladder is barely attached, and the exhaust is ungodly. But the bus still moves. These are inconveniences, and inconveniences do not need fixing. This is India. Inconveniences are not problems.

Child marriages are a problem in India, and organisations like mine spend time visiting villages to talk to communities about why they are wrong. Last weekend, friends on campus invited me to attend the child marriages in Chachiyawas. So certain were they that everyone would attend, they closed the kitchen and canceled dinner.

As I rejected the invitation out of principle, my friends started to laugh. I was being idealistic, lofty, bringing my liberal values into this traditional wilderness. But work had turned into play. Staff were no longer going into the village to explain why child marriage was wrong. I was being naïve; this is India.

The partisan nature of professional and cultural responsibility is a huge problem. But the staff hadn’t even considered it. To them, this was as different as night and day, they hadn’t connected the dots. When I pointed to the contradiction the air fell silent; staff looked stunned, as if I’d broken their world in two. When faced with an undesirable truth, the human reaction is denial.

When a female colleague was sexually assaulted last week, my friends knew it was wrong, because that’s what they teach every day; that a woman is equal to a man. But they blamed the woman for her role in the incident, for her ‘loose’ ways. She was, to them, a slut.

One perpetrator was sacked immediately, but his community didn’t ostracize or shame him. They claim his dismissal was unfair. They continue to laugh and joke about the incident, because she was asking for it. It is her who is ostracized. Her boyfriend has since had nothing to do with her.

The next day, our social campaigners tell people over loudspeakers that women should be treated like respect, they hang banners showing why women should not be housebound, and they tell husbands that their wives should be given the right to work.

Manisha is an excellent special educator who is invested in her work. By day, she preaches equality to our children; she is a fantastic advocate for inclusion. But in November she will marry, and at the insistence of her family, she will quit her job to remain at home. She’s almost oblivious to the contradiction she’s facing. But there’s a glimmer of realization. Shrouded in defeat, Manisha asks a question. This is India, what can I do?

These are huge problems. The activists I work with perform great work in order to solve problems of social injustice. But at home, they undermine the solutions they are working towards. It’s not intentional; there is an incredible disconnect between their professional and cultural responsibility.

Like the teachers in my adventure activity, they have trouble identifying the problem. But when the problem is presented, my colleagues experience denial. Manisha knows what she should do; but tradition dictates otherwise. This is India.

So India’s problem-solving problem is a cerebral morass. Of all my anecdotes, the causes and consequences are no doubt related. The matter is simple; together, India faces a massive problem-solving problem.

I’ve been here a year and I’ve done things I’m proud of; I’ve built features to make the campus more accessible, I’ve taught teachers to be more inclusive, I’ve invested time and energy to create new employment opportunities. But I haven’t helped India tackle its endemic problem, the problem-solving problem. I’m just fixing problems for them. After eleven months, my work is not sustainable.

Now helping friends fix their problems has become a priority, made obvious during my recent training. What’s going to happen when I leave? Who is going to advocate for long-term solutions over short-term patchwork? Who is going to identify problems they consider inconveniences? Who is going to point out contradictions between role and responsibility?

India’s problem-solving problem has become my problem-solving-problem problem. It might sound philosophical, but this problem better have a solution.

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Manish Guru

Manish was found by police in a village near the city of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh on June 28. He is with his mother and will return to school in time for the start of the new term. Thanks to everyone who offered their support.

Manish Guru

Manish playing in the hostel in April, shielding himself from the sun

He runs up to me and stops about two feet out from where I’m standing. We’re opposite each other. He holds his arms out and reaches across to my hands. He doesn’t want to hold them, but he starts tugging on them, expecting me to do something. I nod for a reaction, half teasing and half grinning, and he tugs harder.

He wants me to give him a centrifugal swing around. I sit down. He pulls me back up, making sure I’m in the right position to start before repositioning himself in front of me, arms outstretched and tugging on my hands. Five seconds after I start, he starts screaming for me to stop.

Manish is about eight or nine. He spent nine months living with me and other children at the hostel until his mother took him home for summer. He’s due back next week to start the school year, when he’ll be reunited with his friends.

Manish is mentally disabled. We’re not sure why. He has signs of trauma to his head but we can’t be sure where they came from. The scars are repeated across many of our children; in several cases they are signs of earlier attempts to fix their condition with surgery.

His mother may have had difficulty during child birth or lacked vital vitamins and minerals during pregnancy. Or he may have not been adequately provided for in his early months of development after child birth. I’m not an expert on maternal health or the assessment of children, but these are some common causes of mental and developmental disabilities.

Mental disability varies from child to child. Some children have conditions that can be easily identified; cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Some have conditions that our psychologists can diagnose and offer treatment for; severe cases of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some children simply live with mental disability; their brains have not developed in a way that we would call normal.

Manish has a mental disability.

He’s an adorable child, tiny for his age; his last check-in weighed him at 19kg. It means he’s easy to swing around. It also means he’s pushed around by older children easily. But there’s no need, he’s harmless. I’ve never seen him hit another child and he’s rarely involved in fights. He doesn’t run from danger, he screams at danger – hoping that I or one of the caretakers will come to help.

Manish can’t talk. He can make noises, but he has no language skills. He communicates with gestures and odd noises. It’s difficult to apply what he’s saying to what’s going on, but he can identify pictures, signs, and people. When he recognizes something he’ll point at it; accompanied by a ‘wojuwa’ noise that can’t be transliterated. Maybe it’s more, ‘woogwaa’. It’s an exciting time for him.

Because of his inability to perceive and interact with the world the same way we do, Manish is incapable of supporting himself. He’s slowly learning how to accommodate his basic needs. He can attend to the toilet, get himself water, and get into bed by himself. But he finds it difficult to prioritise or conduct other tasks. That’s why he’s here, to develop basic skills we learn in early childhood, skills we take for granted. And for school.

Manish picks his friends. He’s not as selective as some of the children but has trusted allies. I like to think I’m one of those; the staff often joke that he is my ‘beta’ (my son), and I don’t dispute that he’s one of my favorites. But his mother works on the campus, which makes it awkward when it comes to treats, bedtime, and discipline. Every morning when I open my door to the chaos of the hostel courtyard, he’ll come running to me and climb up my body until I have no choice but to carry him to get chai. Often, he’s the one who wakes me up with incessant banging on my door.

Last winter I made a series of poster boards with pictures of activities the hostel children had taken part in. It’s his favorite. He’ll spend forever trying to see the pictures, clambering up my body to get a better look, pointing at friends and making trademark noises. He has other hobbies; playing in the sand pit, filling metal cups with sand, adding water, and making a complete mess of the hostel. He likes to dance too, although he takes a bit of encouragement. His dance moves are spectacular.

Like all the children, Manish has tantrums. He’s reasonable over small injustices, even causing problems for other children; stealing their chai or food. He’s like a leprechaun; physically harmless, but a completely devilish enterprise when it comes to getting what he wants.

But when Manish is reprimanded things turn ugly. It’s a rule on campus that we don’t hit the children – ever. But children hit each other. Likewise his mother – a care-taker for girl residents – breaks this rule regularly. It’s difficult to challenge the bond between mother and child but I make clear what is best for Manish. Outside the safe space provided by the hostel I won’t stop her hitting her son. But while they both live here, I can’t let it happen.

I don’t get on with her mother. I have accused her of prioritizing herself – selfishly – over the needs of her child and the female children she is responsible for. Other staff have called her careless. But most importantly, I’m dismayed at the lack of support she shows for her distraught child on those occasions when he is upset, those moments when he turns to me and not her.

Manish’s tantrums are an awful experience. His screams are ear-piercing. His disability becomes apparent and alarming.

In rages of upset and injustice, he begins hitting his head against hard surfaces, kneeling on the ground and head-butting the floor and walls. He’ll continue after blood starts running down his face, causing more pain and leading to more of the same. In all my year, it’s been one of the most difficult things to work with. Worse is that those responsible for his upset – other children and his mother – find his self-harming theatrics due punishment for his misbehavior.

At these times I try my hardest to comfort him, picking him up so he can’t harm himself. He tries to bang his head against mine. It’s frustrating and disheartening to consider the damage he’s causing himself. Is he taking steps backwards?

Luckily, it doesn’t take long to calm him down; I usually make for the nearest photographs or pictures to distract him, and within seconds he mindlessly points at things he recognizes, uttering his trademark ‘woojuwa’.

It’s this bond that makes Manish my ‘beta’. I love him all the more for the challenges he gives me, his diverse needs. In an environment where his is undermined by peers, ignored by his mother, and constantly battling against a world that was not built for him, I find comfort in being able to support him. I love him like a son. Saying good-bye to him in May, when his mother took him home for summer, was difficult.

On June 15 Manish Guru went missing.

His family lost him during a trip to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, where they were visiting relatives in the rural district of Mathura.

Manish has no way of identifying himself to people. His arm bears his name in the devanagari script, a name he shares with countless children and adults. Uttar Pradesh rivals Rajasthan in poverty, social injustice, and the ineffectiveness of police forces to conduct basic operations. Manish has gone missing in an environment that does little to help find him.

Manish’s family have spent ten days searching for him. He no longer has a father, and I never got on well with his mother. Am I angry at her? Do I blame her? Probably. But she is his mother, I can barely imagine the anguish she is facing now as she searches for her only child.

She remains in Mathura with her family, but ten days later people are losing hope that they, or the authorities in the poorly governed district of Mathura, will find him. Manish is an incredibly vulnerable child, he is not able to resist abuse or understand that it is wrong. He is not able to seek help. He is an easy target.

I always thought that if something happened to any of my children it would be an accident caused by their wrong-doing, their misbehavior, or their inability to look after themselves. I never dreamed it would be through neglect.

Manish was found by police on June 28. He will return to school in time for the start of the new term.

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One-billion strong for equality

The Empire State Building, lit up to celebrate marriage equality in New York State

Last night same-sex marriage became legal in the state of New York, making it one of just seven states (including the District of Columbia) to offer gay marriage in the US.

A while ago I tried to crunch statistics on gay marriage, but it’s a tricky subject. Across the world same-sex relationships are defined with different terminology and legal status. Today I traveled the internet and used my best number crunching skills to finish up those global gay marriage statistics. Here’s what I found out.

Across the world, 371 million people in 12 countries (including some states in the US and Mexico) have access to gay marriage performed and recognised by their home state or country. This represents 5.4 percent of people on this planet.

Another 634 million people (9.2 percent of people) in 24 countries (including some states in the US and the state of Meride in Venezuela) have access to civil unions and domestic partnerships performed by either their national or local state government.

In total, 1,005,000,000 people live in 35 countries or states where governments offer same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships or civil unions. Last night’s vote in New York means over one billion people are now offered protections by their government if they have a same-sex partnership. It’s 14.5 percent of people on Earth.

And here’s the breakdown.

Seven US states offer gay marriage to their citizens. They represent 35 million Americans from a total US population of 308 million, meaning just 11.4 percent of Americans have access to same-sex marriage rights. A further 24 million (7.7 percent) Americans in four states have access to civil unions. And another 68 million Americans (22 percent) in eight states have access to domestic partnership benefits that range from recognition comparable to civil unions (California) to limited funeral and inheritance rights (Colorado).

In total 41.2 percent of Americans, 127 million men and women across 19 states, have access to some form of domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples.

42 states have banned same-sex marriage through constitution or state statute, the largest being Texas. These bans prohibit 242 million people, some 84.7 percent of Americans, from marrying their same-sex partner. Same-sex marriage rights are banned for seven times as many Americans as they are afforded.

The Defence of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996. It bans the American federal government from recognising same-sex marriages conducted by states where it has been made legal.

Outside of the US, the European Union (EU) is home to 501 million people in 27 member-states. There are 99 million people in seven countries that have access to same-sex marriage, that’s 19.8 percent of the EU population. All of these countries are situated in Western Europe. A further 257 million people (51.3 percent of the EU) in eleven European countries (including France, the UK, and Germany) have access to civil unions or domestic partner benefits.

This means that almost three-quarters (356 million – 71.1 percent) of people living in the EU are afforded recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Within the EU there are five countries – home to 61 million people (12.1 percent of the EU) – where same-sex marriage is banned, the largest of these is Poland. Membership of the EU requires repeal of homophobic legislation and enforcement of non-discrimination laws to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

Outside of Europe just three countries allow nationwide same-sex marriages; Canada, South Africa, and Argentina. They are home to 125 million people. Another ten countries totaling 271 million people allow civil unions or domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples, with the majority (190 million) living in Brazil.

And there are some rogue exceptions to the statistical borders given so far.

In the Venezuelan state of Meride, home to 843,000 people, same-sex civil unions are legal. They are not recognised elsewhere in Venezuela. In Mexico, same-sex marriage is only performed in Mexico City, although a marriage conducted there is valid and recognised across Mexico; which makes it an option for 112 million Mexicans. And in Australia, four states representing 14 million people offer domestic partnership benefits.

For reference.

Countries and states offering full marriage equality to same-sex partners:

Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, Connecticut (US), Iowa (US), Massachusetts (US), New Hampshire (US), New York (US), Vermont (US), District of Columbia (US).

Countries and states offering civil unions, domestic partnerships or other forms of recognition to same-sex partners:

Andorra, Austria, Brazil, Columbia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Isle of Man, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Uruguay, California (US), Colorado (US), Delaware (US), Hawaii (US), Illinois (US), Maine (US), Maryland (US), Nevada (US), New Jersey (US), Oregon (US), Washington (US), Wisconsin (US), Australian Capital Territory (AUS), New South Wales (AUS), Tasmania (AUS), Victoria (AUS), Meride (VEN).

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Facing the heat

The desert brings a cruel partisan climate.

I remember a freezing weekend spent building our Chula. Back in November I could barely speak Hindi; but those misty mornings with the children – breaking every rule of fire safety – were priceless. Three hours, burnt and re-burnt fingers and a hundred cups of chai would shiver by before it was my turn to take a bucket of hot water and have a quick shower, dressing in the same smoked sweater I slept in.

Back then I wished on the summer. I’d spent summers in hot places before, and several months in monsoon-soaked Malaysia. I knew what a real summer was; it had to be better than a winter with no heating, right? How naïve.

I have a thermometer in my room. It reads 38.7 degrees Celsius, that’s 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s 9.43pm, but the sun set three hours ago. During the night it drops a few degrees, but by the morning I’m suitably sweaty, twisted and miserable.

Over the last two weeks we’ve routinely flirted with a high of 47 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). Outside it can drop to around 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) during the night, but it’s still wise to sleep inside. I made the mistake of sleeping outside when a sandstorm hit, and I was spitting sand for the rest of the day.

Like winter, the problem with summer is that you can’t escape the temperature. My summers spent in hotter climates invariably involved plenty of air-conditioned rooms, offices and transport, lots of chilled juices and shakes, and the option of a cool shower, bath, or dip in the pool.

Unfortunately conveniences are far and few between in Chachiyawas. Electricity is temperamental in the summer, but when electricity is available it’s used to power fan units in each room, which blow hot air at you. If I open the window I let hot air in. That’s about it for climate control.

My water is hot, too. When we have electricity we can pump water from underground storage tanks to containers on the roof, where Newton helps into my bucket. But the sun has plenty of time to heat the containers, so my bathing water is always hot. Likewise, so is my drinking water.

Truth be told, I was stupid to wish on the Rajasthani summer; it’s damn near insufferable.

But this week, and for the next two weeks, it isn’t just the heat that’s making me sweat.

Throughout the year I’ve supported teachers at our inclusive school: Minu Minovikas Mandir. The inclusive education that is pioneered here incorporates children with mental, developmental, physical, and sensory disabilities, with children from local villages. We’re a non-government organization, but our practices support a wider government campaign to secure education for all, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

In the last year I’ve observed and helped teachers to teach lessons, to run activities, to plan events, host guests, and organize awareness raising activities in local districts. I’ve imparted technical knowledge, led by example, and spent a lot of time covering for busy or absent teachers. I’ve run a few smaller training sessions. Outside of school, I’ve played adoptive parent to over thirty children I live with.

But so far I’ve been unable to comprehensively share my knowledge of inclusion and diversity. Our work here is made harder because basic concepts of fairness and equality are not understood, even among teachers. In our local community there are many mistruths and superstitions that bring scorn on the children I work with; parents who worry that their sons might catch mental retardation from their peers, or that their daughters will return home in a wheelchair after catching cerebral palsy.

The inclusion that is done here started as little more than a mixture of disabled children and children from local villages, with several special needs educators thrown into the mix. Their practice has been honed over the last five years, but there is little being pioneered. Concepts of inclusion are not widely understood, diversity is not discussed, and equality is founded on pity and karma. Our teachers are excellent at what they do, but there is so much unrealized potential. There is a wealth of knowledge in this world that would stop them reinventing the wheel.

And that’s where I – and the extra sweat – come in. Over the next two weeks I’m running twelve days of training for teaching and rehabilitation staff. My mentor aptly suggested we name it ‘capacity building’. Not a fan of generics, I opted for a grandiose title: Fostering Leadership in Inclusion.

I’ve spent a month planning and I’m excited about what’s going to happen. Accessibility Day will give the teachers a chance to experience disability for themselves as they embark on a day of activities and fact-finding with artificial handicaps. Another day will challenge the staff to prepare awareness raising tactics before being let loose in the local village for the afternoon to talk about disability, and three final days will bring the focus squarely on inclusion; inclusive language, inclusive environments, and inclusive atmospheres.

In the mix the teachers will get time to develop their own personal projects for improvement over the year, personal or work related; and they’ll spend an afternoon being introduced to problem-solving challenges that they can use in their classrooms. They’ll leave the training with their own classroom rules and a checklist of classroom management styles they can try out.

The training is not designed to teach teachers everything I know about inclusion; it’s designed to add structure to their experience of inclusion; to introduce concepts that better explain what they’re already learning; and provide a framework for them to develop inclusion, and education, here in Chachiyawas. When I leave next month, I want teachers to build on foundations that these weeks will provide.

I’ve already faced challenges; the number of participants was halved this morning – it’s now 17 – and I’ve been asked to relocate twice. Our latest site, the rather oversized hallway of the school building, comes with its own character, but it’s spacious and has plenty of light, if not much electricity.

And I’m sure I’ll face more challenges, not least linguistic. I can ask for directions and discuss the weather in Hindi, but it’s a little more difficult to enter dialogue on inclusion and accessibility. That said, teachers will be treated to an eight-hour English curriculum over the fortnight.

The training has been a year in the making and I’m excited to see what teachers can take away from it. The three weeks following training mark the start of the school year, and teachers will spend that time implementing what they’ve learned, with my guidance.

In that respect, this marks the last chapter of my project, my last investment of my Indicorps’ year. Luckily, the kids will be back to share it with me.

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