“What did you learn from your work as an international development professional?”
“Hunger makes you humble.”
This might look like a job-interview question, but that is what I would reply to anyone who cares to ask.
I belong to that ‘old-school,’ who thinks that every development professional must spend time in the field and stay close to the field realities. I remember a renowned social worker telling our class, ‘If you want to change the lives of the poor, then you must know what it is to be poor. Go and experience the world with them. You will be a changed person.’ And that is the motto I tried to adapt –
A few years ago, I led a project that focused on evaluating the life of tribal populations of rural India. That was not the first time I was leading such a large-scale project. Yet, I was nervous. I remember sitting in a meeting room and discussing the field strategies with the team.
“Bastar in Chattisgarh, that is where we should start,” our Field Executive suggested, “This is not going to be an easy project.”
His concern was legitimate as we had to interview close to a thousand families spread across forty villages from the region. To put it into context, Bastar is one of the most backward districts in India. The area is labeled as “Red Corridor” because of the significant presence of the Maoist insurgents. The area is isolated, disadvantaged, and conflicted. So, by no means it was meant to be an easy project.
The first day arrived. We drove to the first village that was at least 20 miles away from a nearby town.
“You need to walk from here. There are no roads,” the driver announced, “I will come back in the late afternoon to pick you up.”
We got off the jeep and started walking towards the village that was located on a hillock. The walk in a steep three-kilometer trek uphill with the sun shining over our head made us exhausted. To our surprise, when we reached the destination, the entire village was virtually empty. Absolutely empty with no one except a few older men.
There was no mobile reception to contact the driver. So, we had no option but to be in the village until the driver returned. In the beginning, it was a great feeling to be in a place that was so far away from civilization. The shade of the tree, quiet atmosphere, and the cool breeze was soothing.
By noon, we were hungry. Typically, whenever we visit any village, we find food stands run by the locals. However, that village was different. It did not even have a small Kirana shop. There was no food, and we did not carry any food either.
It was a hot and humid day. We were dealing with India’s scorching summer. I drank water and tried to cool my stomach down. By 3 PM, I was starving. I drank more water, but the pain of hunger came back in excess. The scorching heat was not helping me either. My stomach growled like a small baby crying for food.
I kept searching inside my bag, hoping I would find a pack of chewing gum or any toffee, but on that day, I had remembered to keep the phone charger but not food.
“Wow, a phone charger was more important to me than food,” I thought, wondering how we take small things for granted.
I then looked at my purse, and I had Rs. 2,000 in my wallet. I stared at that money and wondered what I could do with it when there was no food in the village. In the process of responding to this question, I had the biggest epiphany of my life; ‘I can buy a full-course meal with this money. Holy God! Right now, when I need it the most, this is just a paper.’
To make it worse for me, I saw a poor old beggar, in abject poverty, grabbing and eating stale rice with water. On any typical day, I would sympathize with anyone eating that kind of food in such a manner. Nevertheless, that moment was different. He had something that I did not have. I was beyond hungry. My lips were pale. My stomach had stopped growling as if it knew its cries would not be answered. I had lost my ability to think or concentrate. I was motionless with an intense feeling of despair and isolation. I stared at that old man, and I thought, ‘He is so fortunate that he is eating. I am so unfortunate that I am not eating.’
And that moment of comparison was harrowing – both physically and emotionally.
As they say, nothing is permanent. That moment too, passed. Our driver arrived, he took us to a nearby town, and we ate a delicious meal. I was back in my world, where I could use my money. And I moved on.
Since that day, I always carried snacks. In fact, we never encountered an empty village. Everywhere we went, we found the locals. They introduced us to their customs, we attended a local carnival, we tried local drinks, and we ate lots of regional cuisines.
Professionally, I learned how to manage a project in conflicted regions. We were questioned either by cops or Naxalite sympathizers. But we managed by respectfully maintaining our balanced opinion by not taking the side of either the Government or the Naxalites. Of course, the socio-economic condition of the tribal population was not encouraging, and we submitted a 200-page report regarding it.
Personally, no description can elucidate the first-hand experience of being in the field. Today, if I must think of my experience as a development professional, I remember that old beggar. I vividly remember that moment when I stared at a beggar eating stale rice, and I was overwhelmed with deep agony. That humbling moment taught me the most precious lesson of my life; money is good, but it is good to retrospect what money cannot buy. We consume and waste so much. What will happen if we run out of our resources one day? What can money buy then?
Bastar will remain in my heart forever. I learned a lot from the tribals, specially how they love the nature and how they take care of the Mother Earth.
I am sharing a few pictures from a Bastar Haat, a weekly market in the village. All villagers across the region came together with their products and that was the only way for purchasing groceries (or any other products) for the entire week. Some villagers traveled for more than 25 miles. I, personally, found these Haats to be far more exciting places than our supermarkets. It was not just a hub of economic exchange, but also a node of social interactions.
#beinghumble #mindfulliving #mindset #travelstory #lifestory