Community immersion, trust, and apathy

He lurched across the courtyard. I’d never seen him like this before, staggering into groups of well-wishers, cursing his friends indiscriminately, and stopping to retch on his graceful exit from the shaadi.

He wasn’t the only one drinking. From the moment we arrived at the village wedding in the desert region of Nagaur, I could smell alcohol; with it, trouble. Candid but obvious, it flowed freely from shadowy corners. It wasn’t light, either. Heavy liquors in old plastic bottles, with no obvious mixer. There was no attempt at moderation.

With the covert nature of a freight train through an opera hall, adolescent drinkers – many my friends – attempted to be sly about their habits. But young Indian men would not qualify as CIA operatives, and their attempts at secrecy bought attention to their shame and naivety. These were men convinced they were heroes, instead imperiously masquerading as sordid incarnations of depravity. How easily trust can be lost, respect replaced by disgust and disdain.

Plotting escape, I felt endlessly hypocritical. One year ago I not only tolerated that behavior, but most likely I was the starring thespian. The opium of the masses knows no borders. How can I judge people for making the same decisions I do? Surely it’s both condescending and arrogant to judge my community by one criterion and make excuses for myself?

But I did judge my friends. I scolded them without remorse. In rural India alcoholism is rampant and anxious mothers impose early curfews to protect their children, only to suffer unparalleled levels of domestic abuse inside the home. Villages: by day, vibrant farming communities; by night, centres of vice, violence and notoriety. As a moral imperative, I serve in opposition to drinking.

It’s important to realize the difference between my community here and that back home. As a westerner, alcohol does not invoke the same universal disdain and disgust in me that it does in every fearful child and mother here in Rajasthan. How can I do what is best for my community if I don’t allow for a difference between what me – the westerner – thinks is important, and what me – a member of the community – thinks is important? A more qualified candidate would call it anthropology, I call it community (or cultural) immersion. It’s considered an essential component of grassroots development.

As a core Indicorps’ value, community immersion asks that a Fellow become a member of their community in order to understand the priorities – needs, wants, and problems – of that community. As Fellows, we live in the communities we serve; we eat and sleep with them, sharing both stories and hard-working chores, no matter how laborious. Even our stipend is set to match local incomes.

Given my anecdote this makes sense, but community immersion is difficult to get right.

Indicorps’ values are subject to interpretation, with each fellow living them in their own right. As Fellows, we’ve talked about the importance of language in community immersion, where I’m outnumbered by native-speakers of Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi and other languages from the sub-continent. The consensus is that good language is essential to community immersion, which leaves me defeated, even if I disagree.

I speak bad Hindi, so I look elsewhere for opportunities to immerse in my community. There are plenty of ways to communicate; we have five senses, after all. But I depend on another important factor.

Trust is not something easily earned. A stranger on your doorstep offering quick fixes to daily struggles may sound enticing; but would you trust a stranger who turned up outside your front door to fix something you never considered a problem worth tackling? If you don’t trust them, then why would you trust me?

Like the anecdotal stranger, a lot of people question why I’m here. I struggle to answer the question; no one asked me to come and help and telling them I want to help sounds patronizing. Telling them I want to do service doesn’t sound convincing enough. It was me who decided they needed me, so who am I to ask for their trust? Luckily, trust comes hand in hand with service.

When my community sees me doing the same chores that they do – it means something. When they see that I’m willing to train teachers for a class that I won’t teach; that I’ve toiled to launch a business that will empower disabled people and their families; or that I will stand up to alcohol abuse while making myself unpopular – and all while asking for nothing in return – this earns their respect and their trust. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

When my community sees an unflinching commitment to their cause they understand that we share a common goal. It’s a sacrifice worth making. Through mutual bonds, we identify and challenge problems together.

But there’s a reason people here haven’t found their own solutions. After just nine months, I’ve come to accept bovine vandalism, awful phone and internet reception, and a lack of road and traffic signals. Even the food doesn’t seem so bad. How can I spot problems if I’ve learned to live with them?

Recently Indicorps’ had the chance to meet Desh Despande, CEO of the Deshpande Foundation. The Deshpande Foundation funds a university, dozens of major development projects, and countless hundreds of minor experimental projects across Karnataka, effectively running its own research laboratory across the state and finding solutions to development problems.

The foundation also supports a fellowship programme to pioneer new development techniques; providing holistic approaches to old problems. It’s like the Indicorps’ Fellowship, but with a significant difference: Mr. Deshpande is hesitant about adding core values to his fellowship, and in particular he cited community immersion.

He said that community immersion prevented those in the field identifying and tackling the problems they face. He felt that by becoming too involved in communities, his fellows risked becoming apathetic to the challenges faced by members of the community.

I can offer countless anecdotes. My ease at riding three to a motorbike; making do with unclean water; eating the same, unvaried food; being agreeable to temperamental electricity; and dealing with cattle meandering down busy highways. All are candidates for development. But how can I fight for them when I’ve come to accept them as inevitabilities? I’m not sure I can.

It is clear that community immersion is something I find challenging. Living with my community helps me understand their needs; it helps me identify local solutions; and it is based on mutual trust. But it leads to apathy.

Having reason, rationality, and some level of objectivity helps keep things in perspective. While being in the moment, I need to be able to pull myself out to look at the bigger picture.

It’s arrogant to think that I know better than my community, but the truth is that I am here to help them find solutions to their problems. And part of that is helping them identify their problems. My method isn’t perfect, but it’s working, I hope.

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3 Responses to Community immersion, trust, and apathy

  1. David McNorton says:

    When I worked as a therapist the dilemma was the same. In order to help someone change I needed to be sufficiently immersed in their ‘problem state’ to understand that state and yet still somehow maintain my resourcefulness to work with them towards resolution. Sympathy is no good, that’s like standing at the edge of a pit someone has fallen into, looking down and feeling sorry for them. Empathy isn’t much good either, that’s like climbing into the hole with them. Like they say, a problem shared is a problem doubled. What’s needed is something akin to climbing into the hole with them but remembering to take a rope. We used to call that rapport. Not rapport in the every day meaning of the word but a more profound state of being connected at one level whilst retaining another, more resourceful perspective. This comes from a systemic approach where we stop thinking in either/or terms. Like it’s not about being immersed in the community or not being immersed, it’s about being both immersed and at another level detached and more objective. It’s a multiple perspective.

    BTW if I buy you a book from Amazon will it get delivered to you there? I really think you should read some Bateson.

  2. David McNorton says:

    Bateson’s ‘Steps to an ecology of mind’ is available as a Google Book at

    It covers much of the territory your grappling with.

  3. Simon S. McNorton says:

    Probably won’t reach me in time but if I could have it waiting on my bed when I get home, much obliged, ta. There’s probably parts that could be shared with Indicorps’ too.

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