It’s Complicated

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!

What Lies Beneath

Qualitative research problematizes the ‘objective’. Can anything be really objective when we view almost everything through the lens of our own perceptions, biases and experiences? Some constructs or labels or distinctions, whatever they are called, are clearly demeaning and discriminatory. We find it easy to identify and rebel against them. But, sometimes, we carry certain other biases and we are not even aware of them, of how they may be implicitly influencing our behaviours. That realisation is disconcerting. It happened to me. My not so glorious moment possibly impacted me more than the other person concerned. But still…

About seven-eight years ago, I found myself in a rural district in Rajasthan. I had come to support an organisation (Bodh Shiksha Samiti) in undertaking process documentation of one of their rural schools. Each day, a different staff with a motorcycle provided transport (from the block office to the village with the school being covered) and background information. That day too, I started with my volley of questions as we made our way through the uneven terrain. The staff hailed from this particular area. So, we talked about local customs and traditions before getting into the crux of the conversation – education. So, how were these schools functioning? How responsive were the communities? Could we actually see any changes in the children – in their education levels as well as overall development? Did children from disadvantaged backgrounds and in remote rural areas need to be taught differently? What worked? What didn’t? Did the pedagogy used and promoted really make a difference?

His answers were direct and honest and thought provoking. I was enjoying the conversation and learning a lot. Then I asked – “What exactly do you do here?” He turned and smiled at me and said – “Main tho driver hoon didi”. (I am the driver didi i.e. sister). Then it hit me. I would possibly have not asked that many questions about the education component if I had known that he was a driver. I also realised that day that just being respectful towards everyone was not enough if I still carried biases that somehow limited my perceptions of what the other person was capable of. I didn’t feel particularly proud of my subjective self that day!

In the years that have followed, prevalence of such moments has reduced…I think. I have tried to get better at initiating a dialogue, to help evolve moments of connection that can possibly be mutually enriching and not merely extractive. And to not underestimate anyone.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that I have overcome all my biases. I am sure there are many more moments of disconcerting epiphany in store. Well…we live and learn!

Of Triumphs and Tribulations

The five girls waited patiently as I finished another interview. Then, it was their turn. I explained the objective of the interaction – this was about capturing their experiences of returning to school for a case study document. Basically, these girls were part of groups (Kishori Samooh) constituted through the government’s SABLA scheme (Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls). Helping girls who had dropped out to return to formal schooling was one of the components of this scheme. The document was being prepared under a pilot project wherein Child In Need Institute (a reputed not for profit organisation) was assisting the state departments (Departments of Child Development and Women Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal, India) in rolling out the scheme across 18 blocks in 6 districts of West Bengal. Ford Foundation had provided additional support.

The girls spoke about the circumstances that had conspired against them. Absent fathers, mothers trying to run the families by doing whatever they could, or both parents struggling with low paying jobs. Two of the girls worked as domestic maids themselves while the other three stayed at home, helping with household work. All of them had been out of school for an average of about three years. They had not really expected much when they had joined the girls’ groups. Then, the Anganwadi Workers (grassroots government functionary) and CINI staffs helped them in rejoining school in classes VI-VIII. The two girls who worked as maids negotiated timings with their employers so that they could attend classes. This was a significant achievement in itself.

Getting back into the classroom was half the battle. The girls felt uncomfortable as they were among the oldest in their classes. Some of their classmates didn’t make it easy for them either. Comments and taunts sometimes hung in the air, sometimes the echoes followed them even after they left school. But then there were also the few that befriended them. The relationship with the teachers remained complicated as well, sometimes affected by their own lack of confidence in approaching them with doubts or requests for help.

Two girls mentioned another challenge. There were a couple of days when they had been unable to board any of the buses that would take them to school. As the buses slowed down at the stop, the two would get ready to get on. Each time, the conductor would spot them and say that the bus was full and they should take the next one. The girls would be left standing as the buses would fill up with other passengers and leave. The two would finally trudge back home. No school that day. Why did they think this happened? “Maybe because we as students can give less fare and the conductors don’t want that” is the response. Another girl, whose financial situation was comparatively better than these two and this was reflected in her clothing and appearance, shared that this had never happened to her.

In the midst of all these challenges and an uncertain future, the urge to prove themselves now in the classrooms was unmistakable. “I may take more time. But I can also do it,” stated one with quiet confidence as others around her nodded in agreement.

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!)

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.