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Why do we make them…Possibly it took few minutes, may be for some a little longer with the end result being same! if we have made with all the efforts that it takes, why then break?

If there was one statement in my mind it was this as I moved among a large number of children as small as toddlers and as old as teenagers. So what had happened to them? And why does this statement brews in my mind…

I experienced this where violations were rampant to the extent that violations were undertaken to break them..break possibly a generation! The biggest and possibly the worst force was applied to destroy the very facet of existence. Teenagers being pregnant, and not by choice, could as well be the manifestation of such a devastating force. Possibly it took few minutes, may be for some a little longer with the end result being the same. I witnessed the after effect as I moved among them!

It was hard to define and to an extent unbelievable to fathom how these many toddlers and young children have survived the tragedy. Many are not even sure who their biological parents are although they have someone to take care of them. On the other hand the women who do take care of these children have also lost significant amount of their lives…their peace, their livelihoods, and to me, possibly lost the very reason to live. The opportunity to rear “other” children not only gave them the joy but also the reason to restart again! They saw their men, their boys, their daughter…they saw them losing in front of them, they could actually narrate how it happened and in the midst of so many toddlers, this was their best choice to restart their lives, their very existence. I witnessed their agony in silence…

In the side meetings, an intrigue question was asked and that is what happens to children’s children? The discussion itself can turn few heads and create shocks!! What do we do and what are the ethics? What does the law say and why one should or shouldn’t ask the mother even the mother is a child? A child was born but why were they broken down?

The little joy that I experienced was to see many young, most toddlers, boys and girls having a smiling face, playing around the corridors and in between the rooms where they live. It seemed to me, atleast for a moment, that they are rejoicing the very essence of life. The support being provided is giving hope, a belief that everything is not lost. Atleast the children could face up and smile!

Such a large affected population and I only witnessed a small group but the agony is found in hundreds of communities across provinces and across generations. They have been experiencing this now for years and my little exploration made me think that why were they born to go through what they are currently going through, why did life came to them only to be taken away and why such a harsh reality.

I live and work in a comfortable environment and I have lot of time, could as well be understood as free time. I don’t experience what breaking means neither I experience what tragedy is. But surely I witnessed, and importantly felt, how a life could be broken, and the struggles that goes to rebuild them. Why did we make them if this is what was thought while breaking them…

This journey has just begun and this is my first exploration, something that I am myself experiencing. This expression is simply a gratitude to all those who are rebuilding such lives, who are giving life another chance, who are challenging the very notion that we don’t make to break them….

After a very long time…please accept my apologies for being so silent….!

Lot of water has gone under the bridge in these two years as I have travelled many countries, from Ethiopia to India, to Central Asia, to Zambia and to Nigeria! Its been a brilliant journey, connecting with many people and also doing my little bits to make somebody, a group, a life happy!

Over these years, in my different roles, I have interacted with a large number of people, many communities across these countries, many officials and many people, here and there. As I moved and walked with them, spoke, laugh and danced with them, I realize that my professional ability to capture these various points are not there. Why? Because, always, they don’t follow a logic! But then, they are the springboards, they make the unrealistic realistic, they make the unimportant important, they make the impossible possible. And yet the logical head of my responsibility doesn’t capture it so easily. So what am I missing…

On one such important event, I was talking to few health personnel who were working on an important virus eradication. As many were trying to, so did I! Took out my mobile to capture their heroic endeavours. But then came the reply, “please don’t take our pictures, we have left our families, our communities, almost always against their approval, to do this piece of work. If they see our pictures on social or other sites, we will not be welcomed”!! I realized how little I know and how much more I need to explore this. But for them, it was a sheer joy..why? Because they were giving life or atleast trying their very best! I learned yet another important lesson…

I moved on and experienced another important aspect. I met a group of health workers, who in somewhat quite difficult conditions were serving more hours in a health clinic than we sleep and gossip. I asked them what makes you do this especially when it is so strenuous, difficult, many a times salary comes late, so what makes you do this? I didn’t realize that it was not their job description or their positions for which they were doing this. It was a matter of heart, they meant it, they wanted to, within them they wanted to challenge the paradigm, they were doing it because they believe in it. My management role was trying to capture elements like what is their performance, how many patients they were catering to and what is the status of the cold chain! I hardly realized, then, that if these springboards didn’t exist, so many lives wouldn’t see the next morning sun!!!

My final experience on this comes from the people I interact with, not always people who are associated with what I do. I met someone, in my little journey, who has touched many lives. I tried understanding the premise and why so? The purity of life was the answer. When I heard the person’s story, whatever little, I realize that as a human being, irrespective of the roles we play, we have a bigger mission, much beyond the immediate realities. The interesting part is the person does so selflessly but surprisingly doesn’t fall in any particular category of “work”. If they are not the Springboards of Life, then who are…!!

I continue to explore this breadth and depth of life. And more I explore I want to express, in my little and humble ways. This human drama that we enact in the respective canvas of our own lives, I get more enthused to do that little more…More I explore..more I want to express…

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!

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