My work in process documentation often involves listening to multiple versions of the same events. What people say, what strikes them, how they say it and even what they leave out – each of these strands is important and tells its own story. And I have learnt to accept that I hear and understand through the prism of my own lived experiences. That adds another dimension! Linking cause and effect is not always easy. In fact, determining which actor and which action/s led to a ‘success’ is rarely a straightforward affair.
Recently, I spoke to several people who played a part in preventing (or rather postponing) a child marriage. There was the school principal who spoke to the girl’s father. There was the father who stated that he had decided to act on his own (He did not mention the principal till it was explicitly brought up. Even then, he stressed that he had acted on his own accord). And then there was the seventeen year old girl. She had gone willingly with the man who had expressed interest in her. This was an accepted custom in her community. She now agreed that child marriage was not a good idea. She seemed more worried about the prospect of her parents being in jail rather than the adverse health consequences of child marriages, early pregnancies and the rest that followed. So, who and what specifically had helped prevent the child marriage? I was unsure.
I wasn’t even sure if this could be counted as a ‘success story’. Since the girl had come back, life had not been easy. She became irregular in school and finally dropped out. She hadn’t been sure about how the others in the school would react. She, anyways, did not have many friends in school. Meanwhile, a dearly loved niece fell into a pond while playing. The child, barely three years old, drowned and died. As the mother recounted this, the girl sat with her head lowered. She wiped tears that came streaming down her face. She looked up and then she looked away. We all fell silent. That sense of loss and grief filled up all the spaces in that courtyard where we all sat under the fading daylight.
Given a chance would the girl choose to not wait for a year and elope to marry? Possibly. It would take her away from her present that seemed overwhelming and unhappy and restrictive (I got the feeling that the father was a dominant figure who did not take dissent well.)
And I couldn’t frame this as a success story.
Here’s a list of another kind – the top five statements that I get to hear the most.
Number 5: You don’t have to report to anybody!
This is partly correct. Yes, I am my own boss. But then things like nodal/contact persons, seniors (“we have to consult them you know”) and feedback exist. Let’s just say…it is complicated!
Number 4: You don’t have to do that 9-5 thing.
I am happy about this. But then, on the flipside, distinctions between day and night and weekdays and weekends and holidays and other days can get blurred very easily while chasing deadlines. Moreover, there are expectations that, as a consultant, you will manage to deliver on time no matter what! “The world is on a seven day break. But then we had agreed on that date for finalising this. Remember?” And then you kick yourself for being a conscientious professional and not slipping in 1-2 days of leeway (and recovery from holiday) time!
Number 3: You can choose what you want to do.
Our lives are a curious mix of choices and chances and compulsions. Being a consultant doesn’t change that completely. So, there are some assignments you do because you want to and some because you have to.
Number 2: Don’t you miss working in an office, having colleagues and all that?
As a consultant, you work closely with various teams across organisations and locations. So, the scope for meaningful interactions is always present. You can also hear all the office gossip without really being affected by it (unless it directly concerns you)! Of course, there are no official support structures and systems to always fall back on. So, there are pluses and minuses (including numbers 3-5). Anyways, it has worked for me for the last 8-9 years.
And the Number 1: So, what do you do exactly?
To be fair, just saying ‘consultant’ probably does not make much sense. But then in my case adding the words ‘process documentation and knowledge management’ doesn’t usually help either! And then – ‘for the development sector’ does the rest! Some smile knowingly and desist. The more hardy and curious kinds ask more questions. I guess that is social work too…clarifying about social work!
So, I had read of this exercise where you think of something and see what words come into your mind. I was possibly subjected to something like this in college by my room mate who was studying psychology (I served as the de facto subject for countless experiments). I was curious to know what I would come up with regarding process documentation. And here are the results – the words that tumbled forth in an unplanned and unapologetic manner!
Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.
The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!
So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.
It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!
Now as I try to return to the practice of blogging, I couldn’t help but look back at what I had posted so far. There are some posts that I really enjoyed writing. In fact, the experiences referred to have stayed with me. So, without further ado, here are three of my favourite posts.
What My Pishi Taught Me
A Shiny Piece of Plastic
I met Salma while doing an assignment on identifying good practices across the rescue to the reintegration spectrum linked with countering cross border trafficking of children between West Bengal, India and Bangladesh and Nepal. This was under the Missing Child Alert project led by Plan India (for India) with a non government organisation Child in Need Institute (CINI)facilitating actions in West Bengal. A project partner in the state, Socio Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) had shared information about Salma and her younger sister Noorie. Noorie had been trafficked to Bangladesh earlier. She was brought back within a couple of months. An attempt had been made on Salma as well (this was possibly inter country trafficking). Both sisters had also participated in a workshop on creating comics that present key messages on countering child trafficking. Finally, Noorie couldn’t make it for the interview and Salma was there.
Salma appeared to be one of the calm and quiet ones. A measured speaker. I began with some polite conversation. General remarks about her village, asking about her school and family. Then, I tried to ease into the main subject – her current circumstances, support received by her family from the local community, non government organisation and other stakeholders. I told Salma why I was meeting her – i.e. to learn from child survivors of trafficking about the kind of supports that were most effective for them, activities or strategies that we could recommend for other NGOs and development actors to adopt and feedback on the comics workshop. I told her that, if she wished, her name would not appear in print.
There was now a pause in the conversation. Staff from the partner organisation jumped in to provide more information to the girl, to make her feel more comfortable. I had thought of all these lines that I would say. But these words just came out on their own – “I know that our conversation may remind you of painful experiences in the past. But we will not talk about that. We know that you want to look ahead, to build a good and secure future for yourself. We just need to know how you are doing now, who is helping you and what happened at that workshop and any suggestions that you have for improving such workshops.” Her eyes became misty. But her voice remained even – “You can ask me anything you want.”
We talked about her present, how her younger sister was doing and their hopes for the future. She had enjoyed the comics workshop. He voice became more animated as she declared – “I have suffered. We (my family) have suffered and we know. People usually react after something happens. What good is that? All the children should know about these things. You should try and put these messages in our school and madrasa books.” She also spoke about a recent incident when she slapped one of a group of boys who were harassing her. Her maternal aunt had also been with her then. The two had merely been walking down a street. The aunt too had hit one of the boys. I asked – “Weren’t you scared? What if the boys had hit back or they could so something later?” The instant response – “How long can you live in fear? I will face whatever happens.”
It was humbling to meet her. I may be a lot of things. But I don’t think I am as brave as her.
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!)