It has been just over two years and one sees a dramatic change that is sweeping this small village, Bulaya, about 50 Kms from the main town of Lufwanyama, the second biggest district town in Zambia and in the middle of the copper belt. The 50 Kms drive looked like for ever as our vehicle jumped and crossed the terrain, driving through the natural forest and the human habitation.

Mothers have shown exemplary strength and leadership when it comes to providing motivation and care, not only for their own children but to the society at large. This has been through the time known to humankind and will continue into the eternity.

As we see in many other places across regions and countries, villages which are far away from the district or provincial head quarters lack some of the basic amenities, sometimes such amenities are not even available. Bulaya too is not very different. Lack of access and poor delivery of services characterizes this village, and all the neighboring  villages in the zones (A zone comprises of anything between one to five villages). Access to health facilities and services are neither easy nor dependable, there are no out reach services and only one primary school catering to a number of villages. High prevalence of maternal and child malnutrition exist and so are pneumonia and diarrhea, some of the main causes for maternal and child deaths. It is in this situation that the communities supported by Save the Children came together to discuss some of the problems associated with the maternal and child health and developed plans to addressed them.

It was a joy and music to the ears to hear some of the mothers who took charge of the situation and became volunteers. They received training and coaching. A young mother, member of the Safe Motherhood Action Group narrated her experience as she learned to undertake pre natal checks, and provides care during pregnancy and escorts expecting mothers to the health centre during the labour. The pride in her eyes and jubilation was evident as she narrated that there are fewer complications during delivery now. Another mother, Community Health Worker and trained to identify malnutrition among children and mothers is working to improve health seeking behavior of the community. She said, “first, we wanted to improve mothers health…as that is key to the health of the new born”. Many such testimonials followed one after another, and possibly one of the best reflections came from a young mother, “It is sad to see a child falling sick and dying. The entire community gets affected. And, when we understand the causes, we realize that these could have been prevented and taken care of.”

These groups of volunteers, I met some 30 of them (and there are more than 50 volunteers covering 10 zones), move from one village to another providing training, checking health condition of the mother and child, monitor growth of young infants, escorting mothers to the health centres at the time of labour, guiding mothers on breastfeeding and raising awareness on food habits and child health. One of the male members, who heads one of the Neighborhoods Health Committees, said, more community health workers will drastically improve the situation of mother and child health, not only in this village but in the entire region! Very promising indeed!!

At a short distance from where the meeting took place, a group of men and women were busy constructing an Early Childhood Centre. They provide two days of voluntary labour every week and keen to complete the centre as early as possible. Few of the mothers were taking rest after some hard work and as I approached them on the topic, in one voice they said, “we want our children to study and go to school. This centre will help these toddlers to get ready and learn better in the primary school. Children should go to school”. Six similar centres are being constructed in and around this village and we hear similar enthusiasm from all the different corners. What an impressive story of commitment, love and affection!

And I wonder how many times, and from how many places, we will need to hear such stories of mothers taking charge of their communities before Governments, donors, change makers, private sectors can act together to ensure that every mother and child in this world lives a healthy and educated life? We have heard this before and this was my own exploration of how mothers, being in the front line, are giving hope and aspirations to so many lives.

As we took the long ride back home, my mind wavered between whether what I saw and experienced are simple and easy and, how such significant change can take place in every community across the country, and across the region? Is there a simple answer? Many Governments are investing to improve health and education services but we still have many children and mothers who die every day primarily because basic services are not easily available. I know this exploration will continue, understanding and learning from such experiences here in Zambia and elsewhere, and I also know that Bulaya is now ready to embrace a healthy and good life for their children, mothers, actually the entire community.

The sparkling cotton

An early morning drive from Nagpur to Amravati and as the car passes through some of the villages and towns my memories take me 25 years back when I would take a bus and travel to some of the villages on this road to understand what does “rural development” means. I will interact and in that excitement, most of the days, I will miss my return journey. This “missing the bus back home” became a practice and a good reason to stay the night there! The change is visible and my memories fade to identify these villages with what it used to be ….

My car leaves the highway and takes a left turn to a village called Borda. As I approach this village, I could see farms with white pods, one or may be two harvesting already over and getting ready for the next harvest. Communities say that the total area under cotton is marginally less than the previous years and the reasons are known to all. I could see large tracts of grams, coriander and other crops. My mind wavers…can they not be sparkling and bring joys to families and communities?

Three years and this is what they took to abolish child labour from this village. As the villagers narrate their progress and the road they took to achieve this, a lady sitting beside me says with a beaming smile, “I will work harder if this is what is required but will make sure all my three children complete school and college. My elder daughter is already in college and the other two who are in elementary grades will also follow their sisters’ footsteps’. How did you do this was my spontaneous question to her and to the other members who were around me? “Yes it took some time to understand, to challenge our current poverty levels, and decided to educate our children. One of the members of the School Management Committee proudly reiterated that all children in the village between 6 to 14 years of age are going to school and there are no drop outs. We checked this (the development professionals’ inquisitive mind!) from the school head master and he gave us the details including how the students are performing in different grades. A prominent member from the village assembly said, now that we have reached to this point, there is no looking back and we will always help, motivate, convince and whatever is required to make sure all children in this village complete their school education. There were only three teachers for 125 students and now have six. The district officials gave in to their constant persuasion and most of the teachers are now trained on child friendly tools and techniques. Children enjoy and this was obvious when most of them said they want to become teachers and teach students.

The volunteers, the project staff, the community members didn’t stop here! Borda, Ashok Nagar, Gawanipani, Mokhar, Vayi and many more are now child labour free in this district. A staggering 137 out of 275 villages in the district where cotton is grown is free from children working in cotton farms! Village leaders are called by the district officials to explain how they achieved this; they go to other villages sharing their experiences and as one of the Child Protection Committee member said, no matter what, this momentum will continue.

We moved on and met a group of adolescent boys and girls, who after training are in the hospitality industry. They are nearing completion of their training period and eagerly waiting to be absorbed as full time employees. They narrated their journey and their confidence and humility touched my inner chord. We discussed a range of topics including protection issues, how they group themselves up and the way they interact (and manage!) different visitors. We had a cup of tea together and as I pondered on the incidents that shook and shamed Delhi, realized there are these voices that have crossed their village boundaries, made their parents and community proud and are now eager to conquer the wider environment.

We all know cotton farms especially during harvest employ children. With support from IKEA Foundation, Save the Children in India and their partners have brought this change. For once we can say that these cotton buds are not only white but as well sparkling. I continue to explore these moments and possibly this is the only way we can send strong message, that we can build a better India. So much more to express…

The expatriate life

I never thought this will come so quickly, and I find that I have a stamp on my passport saying, “leave for good”. After having worked and lived in 3 countries outside India, when I see this stamp, it hits! And then comes series of questions: could I have done this better, did I learn enough, were there things that I should have managed differently, and so on and so forth.

Tonight is my last night in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia. And I clearly remember the day I arrived on 31st August 2009 and it seems it was just the other day. It was a smooth landing and I made many promises…. I have done this twice earlier, first time in Vientiane, Laos and second time, although for a short period in Jakarta and Banda Aceh in Indonesia. What does it mean to live in another country and then suddenly, when you start thinking that you have integrated yourself with the culture, people, work and its nuances, you realize its your last moment and its time to say good bye!

I am surely not going to write what I have achieved and what I have not, what I have learned and what I had to re learn. There will be another occasion to dwell on this. There was a reason to come to Ethiopia and foremost being I had never worked in Africa before and wanted to know and learn what it is to work in one of the countries of this continent, understanding the development issues in Africa and how they are being addressed, and how different are they when compared to, for example Asia. But there were other equally important and pertinent reasons to come and live in a country: learn, explore and connect the “dots” that makes our work so interesting.

Many years ago I was told that the basic principle to live and work in another country is to make “that” country as yours, grow with the social and cultural development of the country, appreciate the history and the struggles and make the “new home” equally interesting and beautiful. These sounds as mere words but when I started practicing them it took weeks and months, as every time I will face a challenge or difficulty, I will start comparing with my own country, with my own situation back home. It took time and for that I had to take long and arduous field visits, visit project sites which are very far and difficult to access, long sessions of listening and understanding, long walks in the city, reaching out to many and beyond the work force simply to understand what makes this country so beautiful.

Very early I realized that if I have to mainstream myself here and do justice to my work, I need to build a connection between what I do as my “job” and the environment in which I will spend my youthful time in this country. “Doing the job” is so intrinsically linked with how well we know and understand the external environment. And it is so easy (and most often tempting) to conclude and comment quickly!! Let me share an example and this is from another country where I used to work earlier. I used to be surprised (and many a times get angry) when I would see that colleagues would get upset and angry when they were challenged, and it could be as simple as providing another perspective. It took me long long time to understand that colleagues who are adults now have passed their childhood living in fear and uncertainties, and it is not with a small percentage of population but the entire generation!

Over these three years this was one mistake I didn’t want to make. Apart from my job (and my bosses will comment on how well (or how bad!) I did the job) there was one thing that I did (or atleast made a genuine effort) and that was to relate (and thereby understand and appreciate) my work with the environment: in which I lived, spend time and the numerous interactions I had. This becomes important because we as “visitors” or expatriates do not always understand why certain things happen in a certain way because we simply don’t know. What better way to learn other than simply talking to people, appreciating, understanding and relating with what we do the way do.

By this time I have already made this as my home, knowing very well that I am a visitor here. My interactions spread beyond the office walls, there was ease in everything I would do or wherever I would want to go. It was as if this is my place! And suddenly the departing moment comes and with that comes many questions: did I spend my time properly, were there things that I should have done but didn’t do¸ what did I miss out, and so many more. Emotions hit high but then as a professional I need to remain objective and focused. I need to bid farewell with a smiling face but then somewhere the little child is merely wishing, “Could I have stayed a little longer…”

As I enter my 25th year of work life, there is so much more to explore, so much more to express and so much more to learn!

The invisible side …

We spent a little over 2 years in Laos and that was my first overseas work and so it was for the family to live abroad. We had some very great moments during that stay and we experienced some difficulties as well. Yes, naturally!! And then when I landed in Ethiopia made a promise to myself, to integrate well with the local community and culture. That was the beginning of my exploration of this great country, from people on the street, pubs and restaurants to understanding how Christianity came to this country, how communities come together to address the chronic food security that they experience year after year and this country’s rich history.

During this period I have come in contact with tens and hundreds of people, who have very kindly extended their helping hand. I feel touched and honored as a foreigner and has helped me immensely to be more thoughtful and appreciate a given situation. There is a huge appreciation of the environment which I am part of. I would spend significant amount of my time talking to different people and explore about their interest, their family and how they landed up “there”. I never knew that these various discussions will get connected to form a view, a perspective and a theory.

A small house, may be few hundreds of square feet and a family of six lives there. I spoke to the parents for an hour or so although we did not understand each others language, but was able to communicate! Both of them are old and depend on their children for every daily needs. The house has items and gives glimpse of earnings from a life that is alien to many of us. In the midst of all this, I was touched as they switched off the music being played in the local language and instead tuned to some bollywood songs! Special food was cooked knowing that I don’t eat certain food items but also felt embarrassed thinking about the cost that has been incurred cooking so many types of food. I realized one thing, it doesn’t matter where one comes from and what they do, guests are important!

How fondly a villager would take me to their house, give a meal and how thankful they will be that I had a meal with them. But many a times, I will rarely ask how did they manage to cook this meal and what else must have happened in their house, in the family and whether I have any clue to “their” surrounding?  The jobs that we do help us to see the invisible side! And this is where not only what we do becomes interesting but makes us responsible as well. So many times I have overlooked this invisible side and made blunders, and every time this happens, I go back to the basics that I need to learn!

Let me end this with an interesting incident that I encountered some months back. During a visit to one of the communities here, we were mingling with people and talking about a new water facility, the difference that it will make and how they managed earlier without the facility. In the midst of all this, an old lady comes with a small pot which had “doro”, the Indian version of egg curry. She offered me and as well to my colleague. We looked at each others’ eyes and immediately my colleague took the pot with a “thank you” smile and shared the few eggs with the children around. To some, he even fed them. The lady had a big smile on her face and later I found out that one of the children around was her grand child. Very simple, right? The smile expressed hundred emotions!

On a visit to a project, many of us were surprised to see the motivation and commitment of staff whose contract were coming to an end the day I visited the project. What was their motivation? And why couldn’t I / we manage additional resources earlier to ensure continuity of programme as community needs were still significantly high? And how did I / we manage these additional resources after the visit? Did we not see the other side or did we miss it? When will I be able to answer these questions?

With every passing day and meeting and interacting with hundreds of people I realize how easy it is to become a “know all” man! These footprints are changing and defining the way I see myself and the way I work. I continue to explore…the breadth and depth of what we do and why we do…

Field visits and that too with colleagues / senior managers are an excellent opportunity to step back and reflect on how a project or a programme is performing, the scope for expansion, challenges that comes with it and the opportunities to do better and bigger. Many a times, I use these field visits to develop clarity and understanding (of what we do and why we do them), and more I do, realize how less I know. I also use these opportunities to connect and understand the ‘dots”, across villages, countries and continents. And there seems to be a pattern: whether they are about community actions, leadership styles, motivation and resilience, or even the myriad and complex analysis of poverty, disaster, roles and responsibilities of aid agency, government and civil society.

In a recent field visit, I got a splendid opportunity to reflect and understand some of these points. At the end of the field visit, took a moment to talk and have a dialogue not only to understand some of these “dots” but whether there is a pattern to this: our reflections and analysis, what makes something work and the source of motivation.

The programme activities are an excellent mix, providing long term development solutions and addressing immediate emergency needs. It brings back the “age old concept”, and the importance of developing solutions which are context specific and community driven. The different development activities for example, constructing water storage tanks, called “birkhas” or slaughter house to maintain hygiene of meat products are apt given the context and the region. On the other hand our emergency nutrition work is “global” in nature and something that we do in many countries. So what it takes to make an “activity” truly global?

The importance of integrating development activities came up for discussion. And in the same breath, the challenge to integrate activities and programmes was also raised. Given the fact that emergency in the region is chronic in nature and slow in ‘arrival” and “setting”, how does one bring greater synergy between an emergency response and long term development solutions?  May be the answer lies in having greater sense of urgency, coherence in our work and thinking and accepting that “business cannot be usual”. The need to align management style and approaches to respond to this is something to reflect upon.

We touched upon on another interesting issue of innovation and scalability. How do we take these micro / project level lessons and implement them on a wider scale: beyond the kebele’s, region and country? Its an interesting discussion as, for example, a project staff or even a country level manager would like to see projects deliver as per the commitment, has the impact and lessons are documented and shared. However, from a global perspective, we would like to see whether the lessons learned (read innovations) can be taken, for example, from a project site and implemented elsewhere. Evidence is key to this and so is clarity in terms of what we want to take forward.

The discussion moved from programming to leadership and I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy one but I also knew the responses would benefit many who are performing different managerial roles. Delivering strategy, consistent follow up, context / situation specific styles and having an excellent team is central to what we do to deliver on our targets and commitments. The ability to identify and prioritise risks and making the right decision is equally central. Personal resilience and self awareness is what holds all these together. Didn’t I know this? It reaffirmed what it takes to be a manager and a leader!

I go back to Orissa, eastern India and the year was 1999! Orissa was devastated by the Super Cyclone. I was coming back from a field visit and suddenly, there was this black cloud and birds were flying all over the sky. I thought what a brilliant moment to capture on the lens with no clues what is in store!! A simple distance of 100 Kms took more than 9 hours with my car door broken due to the speed of the wind, wet clothes and driver constantly saying, “Sir, lets wait..it is dangerous to move forward…”. When I reached the destination, I realised what has happened..with broken roof tops, uprooted trees and water every where…I simply prayed and thanked God that he saved me!! My moments of uncertainty were far too much and taught  me a lot! Lot of water has flown down the bridge since then….

Foot prints never leave, and even if I want them to, they ask me, “how have you managed these moments?” As people say, ” What has to happen..will happen”, and haven’t we heard this statement..so? More I go into the depth..more the desire to explore..What have been your footprints…?

We all have heard the current crisis that is going on in the Horn of Africa, primarily the countries of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. There are many families who have been displaced and the Governments, NGOs and donor communities are trying to bring some peace to the individuals, the communities who are severely affected by this crisis. I sometimes wonder whether I can  go and dip into their hearts and minds..to see what they are going through, their agony,frustrations, pain and more importantly, how they are coping up with this!!

For many of us with years of development work and experience the feeling of “uncertainty” exists and can range from when things do not go right to not receiving attention (doesn’t matter whether others are receiving it or not!). More importantly, when my ways of working are criticized by others (after all, I cant be criticized!)

I go back to my work in central India and my current work in Ethiopia. A group of men and women (in communities), who did mention that they are trying to work very hard but they dont get what they should, either in the form of wages or broadly entitlements. I remember going into a “sarvet”, a grass house here to meet two old women who are beneficiaries of Government’s safety net programme. Even though they live in a small house (if I may call this as a small!!), their faces smiled at me.

I am worried when things don’t go right but haven’t we made that promise and commitment..to serve the cause? So why…a lack of salary hike..a colleague trying to over power..or not being noticed..should disturb or distract? Or is it that..if I am not climbing enough or at the speed that is required..to reach the professional heights…I am uncertain but why? Have things changed?

The easiest answer is “quit” : from the discussion, interaction and even the job itself!  Is this good enough reason to quit? What happens to the community or that specific individual who are fighting to get their entitlements, which is central to their livelihoods and possibly to their very existence? Why should I be or is there something that I do not understand? May be…possibly…!!!

Let me end this with a life story..! There was a moment when what should have been a decision and action of one, was taken by another colleague. Not that the colleague had any wrong intention. The team was furious and the decision was not right (possibly!). The individual was stressed and tensed . What did this mean and where was all this leading to!

What are these moments of uncertainty? And what does this mean to people like me? And more importantly, how do we cope up? Very recently, I read a blog of a person and the person writes of “harassment” and whether the person should fight till the end or give up the job? How do you define what uncertainty means to this person? What must be going on in that person’s mind? Is there an answer?!

Am I indispensable…

Over the past three weeks I have been on the bed nursing my back pain, which developed suddenly and possibly for the first time in this long career that I took sick leave. When it happened, my first reaction was not how to take care of my back but what will happen to the work I do in my office, my team and the office in general. I pushed myself, even lying on the bed and the result, more severe pain! During this long absence from work and in the midst of so many important assignments, I started thinking what will happen if I am not there? And more so what this means if I continue to be sick? Will the organization stop working? Is an organization so small that a person’s absence will have such an impact, however important or “big” that person is in that organisation? Or is this a mind set of people like me, who thinks that if they are not there then the organization will stop working? Am I indispensable?

Ethiopia and the large part of Horn of Africa is going through a big (and bad!) drought displacing hundreds and thousands of people: men, women and children. There are scary reports of malnutrition levels of adults and children and famine declared in one of the neighboring countries. Aid has flown in from different directions and so have the experts. And we all know that this is going to be a long fight, a long journey before the situation stabilizes in the region. But are communities ever dependent on external aid? Yes, there are individuals and sections/groups in a community whose poverty levels are higher than others but communities have lived through such situations and disasters and have the resilience to fight back, not only here but all over the world. And isn’t it “us” who thinks that they need support, they need aid, they need our expert advise? Aren’t the communities with whom we work are key stakeholders without whom we do not have the smallest space to show our benevolent attitude towards “them”? If this is right then why do we think (or why do I think) that without us, the work will stop or will not progress?

It was in 2008-09 and in a particular community meeting with men and women on the status of social service schemes being implemented, the group said that they exist but are not easily accessible to those who need such services. The decentralized structure (and persons responsible) was quoted as key to getting these services delivered but they also said their lives moves on and the little that they can do to help such individuals they do themselves. Some of us who were there in that meeting started wondering whether the issue is how to improve the delivery of services or whether the resilience that community has and how that can be further strengthened. May be it is both and one is dependent on the other? Or may be the decentralized structure which has been created to facilitate such services feels that they are important and communities need to acknowledge that? But what did the communities think? We were not sure…

I remember in one of my field visit to a distant community here in Ethiopia where I saw a young teacher teaching children of pastoral communities. The school building is in a thatched house where there are children of different age groups learning different subjects. I wasn’t sure (and to be honest did not venture into details) whether the teacher receives his monthly salary in time but was surprised to see how much importance the community and the children gave to their lone teacher. The teacher himself felt responsible that he is unable to do enough for the children but his passion and commitment was there in his eyes and the way he spoke.

I have heard of being committed, passionate and yet should be able to depersonalize!! What does this mean and what is our role then? And how do we, as development practitioners and managers ensure that we do not create the dependence nor feel that without us work will be hampered or stopped? Each one of us have a vision, a dream of what we want to do and how we want to achieve that but in the process do we start “owning” what we do? We talk of delegation, we talk about systems and procedures, we talk about team and our communities with whom we work. And if this is so, then why do get nervous when we are not there? Or do we get nervous at all?

More I work there is a desire to explore more. The footprints through the time have given enough evidence but what have been the footprints in your life, in your career….


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