I suppose one of the things I find most annoying about my personality is that I'm too quickly jaded and cynical. Its certainly not something I'm proud of, although I sometimes feel superior to others when I'm not surprised by the absolute poverty and destitution I sometimes work in. Its not that I'm numb or immune to it, but perhaps I expected to see the worst, whereas others didn't? A recent example is when my partner Elisabeth and I accompanied some International Honors Program (IHP) students to a relocation site for the evicted peoples of the Sabermati River Project.
The camp itself is a travesty. Entire families have been given simple plots of land that is most likely smaller than the room that you're sitting in. 10 by 12 feet. No building materials were given, so most people have scavenged bamboo and tarp to create roofs that stand about 4 or 5 feet off the dirt floors. The sanitation systems in the camp are misnomers. Hardly a working toilet and a handful of taps spewing dirty water for the thousands in the camp.
There is a “school” in the camp that has been set up by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), the government body responsible for the Sabermati project. This is less a school than a thinly disguised farce. It consists of three teepee structures in a clearing with 3 undertrained teachers teaching upwards of 30 students per tent. It is understaffed, underfunded, undereverythinged.
The IHP kids are mostly sophomores and juniors in college, and were rightly outraged by what they saw. Elisabeth and I, having been subjected to the disappointments and frustrations of development before, took it in silence. We moved past the outright indignation and were analyzing what the next step was, while these kids (its hard to call them anything else) were railing against the injustice, questioning the teachers why there weren't supplies, better facilities, etc.
About this time, two shiny new vehicles rolled up. Out stepped a number of journalists and photographers from the Ahmedabad Mirror. They were there to distribute kites to the school children, as Uttrayan, the major kite festival, was later that weekend. The school children - having been evicted from their homes, forced to live in shanties, forced into a mockery of a school - these kites represented normalcy. These kites were a reminder that life wasn't one shitkicking after another. That maybe, despite everything that had gone wrong in the past year, there is still hope and joy in the world.
All of that sailed well over the IHP kid's heads. Immediately upon seeing the kites, having only learned about the school supply shortage minutes earlier, they set upon the Ahmedabad Mirror people with fervent indignation. Their first question to the Mirror surprised me with its brashness: “How can you give these kids kites when they don't have pens and pencils for school?” Gut-punch for the Mirror folks. The Mirror folks were happy to distribute the kites (and take some pictures), knowing the immense cultural implications of kites on Uttrayan. Now they were rudely subjected to the American Inquisition, courtesy of three suburbanite White American 20 year olds.
I could only shake my head. The IHP kids had a point that the school children had a dire need for supplies, but holy hell did the IHP kids go about advocating for them in the wrong manner, and to the wrong people. The supplies for the school, as well as the eventual homes for the families, are supposed to come from the AMC, not the Ahmedabad Mirror. Surely, had they thanked the Mirror for supplying the kites and made a polite request to them to maybe supply the kids with pencils and paper. They could have easily made the connection between educating the kids to read and the Mirror's basic economic neccessity: readers. What a pitch! It would be hard for the Mirror to pass on that logic. Instead, the Mirror folks left visibly dejected, having their good deed tarnished by arrogant tourists.
Perhaps its because they're young, naïve, and idealistic. Perhaps its because they haven't been jaded by experience. Perhaps its a lot of things. I was probably the same way when I was 20. I've seen a lot in the four years since, and I've learned quite a few lessons. One of the most important lessons I've learned is that the ability to use tact, diplomacy, and cultural awareness is paramount in getting things done. For me, that translates into digesting the offense, suppressing the outrage, and understanding all of the angles. The IHP kids, in their haste and fury, failed to capitalize on an opportunity to get the school children their supplies.
I suppose that was the saddest part of the day for me.