Living with the Grey

Salma and Asif talked about their struggles with poverty, of making ends meet. Whenever one spoke, the other would listen respectfully and nod. An assignment on documenting case studies of young women survivors of trafficking had taken me to their home in rural West Bengal. We wanted to see how these women who had chosen to return to their families (and their families had wanted them to), were doing. Terre des Hommes Foundation, Lausanne (India Office), Sanlaap and a group of local community based organisation were my guides in this fragile and complicated universe.

A few years ago, Salma had got trafficked. The family had not approved of her relationship with the older and married Asif. Her brother hit her. Headstrong Salma, still a teenager then, ran away. She eventually found herself in a brothel thousands of kilometres away from home.

The system did work for her as she was eventually rescued and restored to her family. Salma stayed away from Arif after her return. But he met her and persuaded her to marry him. Arif knew what had happened. He was tormented by guilt and wanted to offer her a fresh start. Initially, both the families had mixed feelings about the marriage. The birth of their son made it easier. (Arif and his first wife did not have any children). Gradually, family and social acceptance grew. Each day brought new challenges, but Salma had found her safe space.

The experience of meeting Salma and Arif has stuck with me mainly because it made me rethink moral positions and what can/should be considered right or wrong. Arif, older and married, chose to initiate a relationship with the teenager Salma. Surely, that was wrong. Her family objected – any family would. An act of violence (brother hitting her – cannot condone that) triggered a chain of events that none of them had foreseen. Arif, to his credit, chose to stand by her when she returned. He married her when she was considered ‘tainted’ and doomed to an uncertain future. Did this redeem him?

And what about his first wife? I didn’t get to meet her. But I also learnt that the household was essentially run with the money that she earned as a domestic worker. (Arif had a childhood attack of polio which affected his right foot. He has never had a steady source of income.) How did the first wife feel when she came to know about his relationship with Salma and when he later brought her home? And when the two had a child? Didn’t Arif do wrong by her in all this? But then, I return to what got me there. A survivor building her life again with the man she trusts and what is now right for her.

Want to be hated? Just Say….You need to fill this format

Call a meeting of field workers or other personnel who are placed lower than you in the official hierarchy. A training will also do. And then say – You have to fill this format. Yep. That is all it takes.

I would know. I have been on the ‘giving’ side and have received strong reactions (verbal and non verbal)! They think it is the old ‘HQ syndrome’ at work again. People sitting in the main office, having little or no knowledge about field realities saddling them with more meaningless paperwork. Or the ‘external consultant who doesn’t really have a clue’ syndrome. Very often, they are not far from the truth.

Besides, I do believe fieldworkers are often underpaid and overburdened. It is even worse for those who are drafted in as ‘volunteers’ and exhorted to do their duty for their communities. (I seriously doubt whether we would ever consider doing so much for our communities!)

But, at the same time, I understand the compulsions of the project management teams. They committed to all these indicators and now must have the data for it. The underlying dynamics (and tensions) between head office and field teams invariably colour perceptions and attitudes on both sides. In such situations, any system (with the related tools/formats) will be followed half heartedly with little or no concrete results.

I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But it helps to be ruthless. It helps when we anchor ourselves to what is most important and relevant for our intervention and cut out the rest. What information can we source from others and what do we need to collect ourselves? What is the most efficient and effective way of doing it? Do we really need all the details all the time?

I always agonise over this last question. As a process documentation person, my instinctive urge is to say yes…capture everything that you can. But with experience (and strong reactions!) has come wisdom. I now choose to work with the teams involved and see what can be done practically keeping in mind the sanctioned proposal and logframe and expectations from M&E and process documentation. I have to play facilitator/mediator/ devil’s advocate. It can be exhausting and I don’t know if I always get it right. I am on a learning curve myself here and fortunately there are others who are also in it for the same reasons. But most importantly, we begin with a system that has a fighting chance for survival. And if we get it right, it may even last beyond the current M&E officer and the next one!

What Happens to the Child After That?

The children who came to the drop in centre were being encouraged to participate in a play which would be staged on Independence Day. The staffs at the non government organisation (NGO) were demanding, cajoling, pleading and trying every trick in the book to get the children interested. Finally, a motley group of about eight-nine children agreed.

The older ones (all about 10 – 12 years) and the staffs started talking about the storyline. Ideas were strung together – a child with an alcoholic and abusive father, conditions worsening at home, child runs away for a better life, ends up a railway station, feels afraid and lost, is spotted by a didi (NGO staff) who tries to convince him to come to their drop in centre, initially the child resists but eventually agrees to go with the didi feeling hopeful again.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Well, I was a student social worker then and didn’t know that this was the de facto script for most NGO driven plays.

Anyways, parts were assigned and the acting began. Everybody was making up their lines on the spot and having a blast. A few small scuffles, over real or imaginary slights, broke out as well!

Finally, we were at the last scene. The child and the didi hold hands and walk out together. Everybody clapped. The actors got busy reviewing their performance in phrases that can’t be written here. The staffs just sat down to catch their breath. They were through the first rehearsal. Now, it would get easy.

And then, one of the smaller children (I think he was about six years old) spoke up. “What happens to the child after that?”

Playing Detective

Many people see documentation as a boring job. And consider process documentation an even bigger bore. But I have had some amazing experiences while doing exactly that! A few years ago, I was involved in process documentation of two bodhshalas for a non government organisation Bodh Shiksha Samiti. It focuses on education of deprived children across multiple districts in Rajasthan. Bodhshalas are essentially schools that concretise community engagement and this engagement begins from selecting the land and building the school collectively! Anyways, one of these schools had led to the formation of the organisation more than two decades ago. So here, a group of teachers and I, were undertaking process documentation of more than 20 years of experience!

Numerous names came up in the community level interviews and discussions. One person, in particular, seemed to have played a very important role. Twenty years ago, he had been the undisputed leader of the community. A leadership position derived from caste hierarchy, but also perpetuated by a reputation of being fair and just. His wife held similar clout among women. This couple had accepted the idea of a bodhshala and then the rest had fallen into place. Yet, after a while, he disappeared from the community narratives. He had moved out with his family from that slum community about a decade ago. No one seemed to have stayed in touch or was willing to share any information about his current whereabouts. But we knew that our story would be incomplete without meeting him.

So, we played detective, shamelessly pursuing every lead we had. Being persuasive, demanding, respectful – whatever worked! One man volunteered to help us and then backed out. Finally, three of us set out with whatever information we had gleaned. We knew the district where he lived. We knew that a particular kind of tree grew in that area. That was it! But one of us (our driver) had followed this trail earlier. He hadn’t found the man but that certainly narrowed down the field this time. He took us to a particular settlement. He believed that families staying there were related to the man we were looking for. And this time, he asked one of us women to do the talking. It worked!

We were led to this man’s house which was a short drive away. The lady with me had worked at that bodhshala for years and knew this man and his family personally. It was an amazing reunion. Tales from the past – some happy, some poignant – were recounted. Updates on friends and acquaintances were eagerly sought and shared. The man spoke to the founder of the organisation over phone and agreed to travel back with us. The conversation continued as we drove back through the night. Some of the missing pieces of the story of that bodhshala became clear. Some were hinted at and I chose not to pursue. It didn’t really matter. A man was returning to see what he had helped build. This wasn’t just about process documentation any more.