When I left my home country I told myself that I would approach this experience and challenge with open arms- no limitations. No expectations, no biases. I would let the mind free, be a sponge to everything India has to offer me.
And then I actually started living here.
A part of the programme is to develop a project within our apprenticeships in order to implement and test our leadership skills, hence transitioning from the theoretical stage to the raw, practical stage. The project should be beneficial for one or more stakeholders, be a somewhat long-term project (the length of our stay), and be well organised and executed. A dozen ideas popped up in my head, declaring their arrival by utter excitement, hope, and empowerment. An amazing adrenaline kick.
They all had their very origin in common; they were all based on the same, single story, and inspired by the ideas of the same storyteller.
By biological and psychological default I was searching for elements from this single story, sloppily letting my perception, observation, and experience be limited even further.
I was hunting for similarities and patterns. I was getting lost in translation, as someone so famously put it, and by doing so I enforced a possibly false reality onto my students.
And that is the problem, isn’t it? I didn’t even know.
I saw needs on the basis of my own system, my culture, my expectations. Wonderful ideas about student democracy and fair representation, at least on an internal level. The need of international exposure by talking about who invented the cheese slicer, and why India is having difficulties getting a permanent seat and VETO power in the UN Security Council. Surely these ideas would fill all the aforementioned requirements for a project. They would test me as a leader- but not a good leader. Why? Because I got caught up in the moment, and forgot the simplest and most obvious step to take- I forgot to ask.
Realising that my ideas probably weren’t as important and life-changing as I initially thought or liked to believe, I started questioning everything. Can I do anything that will actually be useful at this very moment for the kids? The most urgent need to address is the evident lack of teachers. A need that I cannot meet. The uselessness is hard to shake off, and I dramatically fell down from the peak of the mountain I thought I had mastered.
I was left with questions of ‘What do they truly need?’, ‘Can I help them in any way?’. Still, somehow, I forgot to just ask them.
I knew that the upcoming exams are essential. One misstep and they will drop out of school, losing perhaps the only opportunity to drag themselves out of the black hole of poverty- and their families too.
Who am I to barge into their lives as this foreigner, fed with the white-saviour complex (doesn’t matter if I disagree, it’s still there), who is only familiar with this one single story?
And I am certainly not the only victim of single stories. I was also met with the expectation that I could do something. That I had the arsenal to confront high-priority issues, especially in terms of money.
I see how impactful poverty porn has been on both ends, and how graciously ignorant I have been to pretend like I had some super immunity against such manipulation.
But this is what I DO know, after finally asking: Even with good grades, or just graduating from high school, it is almost impossible to get into a good university. The demand and lack of spots make the requirements ridiculously high, taking away what little incentive most of them have left to attend school. Tuitions are obviously another issue.
And even when they do attend school, their health tends to come in the way. Diarrhoea is the third leading cause of child mortality in India, and if you ever got to use my school’s toilet you would see some reasons as to why.
Not enough with the worst of toilet conditions you can imagine; recently the school got absolutely flooded after a heavy monsoon rainfall, way after its expiration date.
So not only is the school grounds already a severe disease bomb; it is now also the ultimate love nest for dengue mosquitoes that seem to be bloody resilient.
Bottom line is; the power of a single story is not to be underestimated. I am lucky to be here long enough to ask for more stories, told by a vast variety of storytellers. But many are not as lucky. Many don’t see the value of it. And this is how foreign aid becomes flawed and inefficient. This is how we often end up doing everything except from helping those who need it. How we give them everything, but then leave them with nothing.
Want to help someone? Shut up and listen, as Ernesto Sirolli so earnestly put it.
Stop being satisfied with one single story.
Or else you will miss out on all the other mind-blowing stories out there.