What My Pishi Taught Me

She would be the first to turn up every day. She would collect the keys from a neighbour, open all the windows, clean up the place and do many other small jobs that turned those two nondescript rooms into the local field office of an organisation working on women and microcredit. This is where I had interned.

On the first day itself, she came up to me and introduced herself. We shared a common surname. “So I am like your pishi (paternal aunt),” she said with obvious glee. She appointed herself my guardian, my ‘go-to’ person as I navigated this new universe.

She was a big help. There was so much I didn’t know. More importantly, I could not decipher the handwritings on many of the records made in the local language. She would patiently read them all aloud to me. Some of the staffs had hinted that she was mentally ill. Some of them spoke about her with warmth, some didn’t. But almost all of them agreed that she did a good job.

She would often walk back with me to the nearest bus stop. One day, she took a different route. I asked her how much time it would take to get to the stop. She answered in terms of numbers of steps taken. Another day, another route and the same answer. I realised that she measured distance in terms of number of footsteps. She did this for every destination.

Then, one day, she wanted to treat me to some local snacks. I was in a hurry that day. But we stopped in front of a small shop. I was a little suspicious of the kind of oil being used and the set up wasn’t very hygienic. I didn’t really want to eat there (Yes, this was early days!!!). She asked me what I wanted. I didn’t want to say no to her. There was a pause. Then, suddenly, she spoke to both me and shopkeeper together, “She sings. You sing, don’t you? And the oil is not good for your throat. So, you should not have all this stuff. She will not eat anything. Let’s go.” And she started walking at a brisk pace and I had to run to catch up. I made small talk, trying to guess if she was angry with me. She wasn’t and we were back to talking as we usually did.

She came with me to the bus stop on the last day of my internship as well. I thanked her for everything that she had done for me. She told me not to talk like that. Then, my bus came and I left. That month, I learnt about women’s groups, savings and microcredit and how these women interpreted empowerment. But my pishi taught me the more important lessons – about kindness and friendship.

When Getting Answers Isn’t Easy

What is the most frustrating part of doing process documentation? Let me count the ways! When a project/programme will conclude in another 15-30 days and the organisation realises they need ‘good’ process documentation done ASAP. When most of those closely involved in the action have left (and some can’t be contacted for various reasons) and there is a new team struggling to keep pace. When factors beyond your control jeopardise the fieldwork schedule. When an organisation talks proudly of the community based structures they have established and you can find little evidence of it on the ground. I can write many more. But definitely in the top ten for me – when participants say very little!

Of course, people take time to open up. Some are naturally more reticent than others. Usually, patience and small talk prove invaluable. But then, the silence may also mirror the lack of communication and engagement experienced by them. This is particularly true for marginalised groups – often our key participants (I don’t really like the word beneficiary) in development initiatives. In many ways, silence has been their friend. It has kept them out of trouble with the powers to be as they struggle to remain afloat. So, they are wary of speaking up before an outsider.

There are also multiple layers of vulnerabilities, insecurities and restrictions involved. Here’s an example. (1) A woman with little or no education and limited contact with the ‘outside’ world (these factors probably affect her confidence more when someone around her keeps reminding her of it). (2) A tribal woman uncomfortable in speaking the language spoken by the more populous local group and the documentation personnel. (4) A poor, tribal woman who is the main breadwinner and this work is uncertain and dependant on others. It is unreasonable to expect that she will, on demand, list benefits/positive changes experienced as a result of involvement in a project/programme.

One of my biggest learnings has been that everything she says, everything she hints at and everything she doesn’t say is equally significant. (And yes, double check whether the translator is adding his/her words and meaning to what is being said!)