As mentioned in my previous post, my first month in India was spent at the PRIA office in Delhi where I learned the details and background of the project that I was assigned to. I researched the topic of ‘urban sanitation’ as much as I could; trying to develop a base understanding of sanitation issues in Indian cities before I was sent to the field. This time was well spent, as it eased me into the complexity of the project, and of India itself. However, I still found myself struggling with letting go of the need to “grasp” a topic. In my haste to “grasp” the topic I began to generalize – drawing myself an incomplete picture of what urban sanitation within India means, and filling the gaps with assumptions that were initiated by the relatively little research that I had completed. I’m still unsure about whether my mentality of needing to understand quickly is a product of my personality, or perhaps a product of a school system that conditions students to adopt a learning strategy of continuous cramming and regurgitating information.
Regardless of where the mentality originated, I was unsurprisingly unable to formulate a sufficient understanding of the project and all of the various contributing aspects. However, this process did enlighten me to the fact that I am uncomfortable with surrendering to and accepting the vulnerability that comes with feeling incompetent. Since working in India, I have struggled to find the words to explain my experiences and perspectives, this is largely out of fear of minimizing or misrepresenting anything that I am speaking on. To quote the words of our fellow intern: “How can I write about this city, or its people, without doing it immense injustices?” (Zachary Brabazon).
It wasn’t until I made the transition from head office to the field office in Muzaffarpur did I realize that the answers I had been desperately seeking were not going to be found in a database. I have now been working in Muzaffarpur for almost one month, during which time I have assisted and observed the field team in conducting participatory research with local community members. I have had the opportunity to meet various individuals who are directly affected by the lack of sanitation facilities within their communities.
Although the discussions I have had with these individuals (with the translation help of the PRIA staff) have been centered on the topic of sanitation, each story told was different, and each experience offered significant insight into the daily struggles of living in an area that has received minimal investment from the municipality in the form of clean water, functioning toilettes, and proper sewage and drainage systems. It is the livedexperiences of people that display the successes and failures of a society in its entirety – something that cannot be replaced or accurately represented by a mere number or statistic. For example, numbers and statistics did not prepare me for hearing the apprehension in a girl’s voice when describing her experience of travelling from home in order to defecate in private. My prior research also did not do justice to the mistrust that many individuals feel towards their municipality and other outside forces such as NGOs, due to a history of neglect, and failed attempts to bridge a nexus between civil society and higher representatives.
In trying to make sense of my visits to the field in a way that is mutually beneficial, I have come to appreciate the value in using participatory research as a means of understanding. Engaging in participatory methodology despite a pervasive language barrier has limited my tendency to rely on my own voice, thoughts, and research methods to make sense of a situation or topic that I feel incompetent in. I am stepping into a new web of social, political, and economic dynamics in which I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert in, nor will I become one over the next few months. However, it is through appreciating and respecting this fact that has made it possible for me to fully embrace the indispensable learning approach of what Ernesto Sirolli calls “shutting up and listening”.