On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*
The scenes of towering hills come into view while the dust of the plains settled as the car meanders up this hill, then down and then repeats onto the next hill. With the cold wind coming through the open window, I took in all the sights; the mountains piercing the clear blue sky as if to tear the heavens. I fixate on those snowy peaks in the distance. Their looming existence as corporal as my own; a rush of emotions – joy and excitement with a hint of sadness—come over me as the car meanders down the steep and rugged roads of the remote Mori region in Uttarkashi district. The Himalayas remind me that somewhere across those formidable ridges, another group of mountain people – the Tibetans—also habit the frigid terrain like the ones I was about to go visit. I was headed to survey the largest village called Hakhel, home to about 400 families in the region enclosed in a national wildlife sanctuary. The village stood in the clear backdrop of the Himalayas. The journey into the village was as perilous as the unpaved, rocky paths beside steep cliffs of the mountains; my fellow co-workers recant cautionary tales of road accidents that claim many lives into the plummeting depths of the cliffs.
In the village, the MANSI (Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative) field supervisors greet their contacts with pleasantries, asking to hold a community meeting while gleaning information about adolescent girl population in the community. Afterwards, the field supervisors arduously visit each home to call the people for a community meeting; the onerous task of crowd gathering takes approximately an hour before a motley crew of men, women, children – both young and old—surround the Mender ‘Temple’ grounds. My alien face among the Garhwali people, against the background of the Himalayas, serve as a constant reminder of my presence and identity as a Tibetan-American here in India. Everywhere I go, I notice lingering glances of curiosity. Each introduction in the villages begins with ‘she is Tibetan, but lives in America’ which seems to satiate the cognitive dissonance of the villagers’ image of what an American looks like in contrast to my image. After the fact, I am often greeted with bright smiles and head nods of approval to begin my self-introduction in Hindi and conduct my research from village to village while my co-workers begin their dissemination of information and resources about Home-Based Newborn Care to the villagers.
Throughout the ten village visits and two hundred plus surveys of adolescent girls in Uttarkashi, I have felt the contrast in the cultural difference between the spatial boundaries and the notion of privacy in India versus the United States more than ever before. Initially intending on conducting one-on-one surveys of young girls to protect their privacy, I quickly realize that was not possible in the field. The communal and clustered home design of the Garhwali villages meant for extended families made a controlled space impossible and impractical. Instead, I adapted to an outdoor classroom setting—predominantly in the open grounds of the town Menders— proctoring surveys in a semi-test environment to ensure individualized answers. Despite countless attempts to ensure privacy, curious onlookers and friends, drawn by my strange presence, would crowd around the survey participants. However, I have ensured that no male members would intrude the premises when survey is underway; with much difficulty, I am making sure that no female onlookers would feed or influence the participant’s answers directly.
Through these field experiences, I am struck by unique sense of communal sorority that I’ve observed in some villages where older girls would often shield their younger counterparts from partaking in the survey as a means to protect them from the sensitive topic of menstrual hygiene. Assuring the purpose of the survey and emphasizing again the willing consent of the participant, I show them that the young need only to answer questions pertinent to them. The business of gaining and maintaining trust in communities has definitely been a challenging experience; however, with the facilitation of MANSI field supervisors and the hospitable culture of the Garhwali people, I have thus far encountered very limited difficulties in interacting with the local people.
After one month into Uttarkashi District’s Nuagaon and Mori regions, I have enjoyed a steep learning curve in field research as well as the beauty and richness of Garhwali culture and village life. Amid the excessive amount of teeth-achingly sweet chai and ‘chura’—a roasted, then flattened rice snack— that I’m offered at every house in each of the villages I visit, I am amazed by the unquestioning hospitality and genuine kindness of the Gharwali people. Comically fumbling through language barriers – I misspoke once and asked if there were any adolescent girls aged 11 to 90, when I meant 11 to 19—and cultural differences, I have navigated many firsts: first rejections from girls to participate in the study, first time eating pahadi (of the hills) delicacies, and first time living in a village setting with no phone or internet service and extremely limited electricity among many other firsts. In these many firsts, I have also met such an incredible and devoted group of people who work in the most remote of areas in hopes of imparting a public health change into their local communities.
About the Author
Tsering was born in Tibet and raised in a Tibetan Refugee school in India before immigrating to the United States. She studied international relations, focusing on environmental sustainability and global health, and minored in biology from American University. She created and co-led her university’s month-long study-service program to Tibetan Refugee settlements in Northern India to study the impacts of political identity on the social health of the refugees. Originally intending to pursue a medical education, her volunteer experiences abroad in the hospitals of the Philippines and India inspired her passion for global health and the political ecology of disease. Prior to joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Tsering worked as a laboratory associate at Yale New Haven Hospital and interned at an international development NGO. She serves as AIF Clinton Fellow with AIF’s MANSI program in Uttarakhand.
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.