Thursday, January 28, 2010

History and Comrades - West Bengal

Hello everyone. Thanks for all the kind comments. It's so nice to hear from people - the love and support means the world to me. You're all in my heart and prayers.

This post might come off as a bit of a history lesson. I apologize ahead of time, but my goal is to build a bit of context to help explain a few of my most interesting experiences so far. Some of these facts have been dug up from wikipedia, just to let you know.

So, West Bengal is one of states 28 states in India (there are also 7 federally administered 'Union Territories'). Although it covers only 2.7% of India's landmass, it contains 7.8% of its population with around 80,000,000 residents. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal, and is the third most populated metropolis in the country. West Bengal is less than half the size of Washington State and has a population twelve times larger. Imagine that.

The British East India Company had its capital in Kolkata throughout the Raj era in India. Several greats of Indian history have sprouted from these grounds. Rabindranath Tagore, who will most likely continue to be discussed throughout this blog, was a highly influential social activists during the tulmutuos years in India during the first half of the twentieth century. He critiqued the inflammatory nationalist movement through his novels and poetry, and in doing so played a large role in modernizing Indian literature; earning him a Nobel Prize in Literature - Asia's first Nobel Prize winner. He founded a university called Visva Bharati, which is only about two miles away from where I'm living now.

Another big name from West Bengal is Subhash Chandra, the greatest freedom fighter during the Indian independance movement against the British Raj in the mid 1900's. A few nights ago, while wandering the neighborhoods, Loren and I stumbled upon hallowed ground. We were told it was where Chandra gave one of his famous speaches . There was a statue of him and something like a shrine nearby - he is highly venerated. Below is a paiting we found on the wall of a school near our house.

Rabindranath on the left, Chandra on the right

Amartya Sen is another big name and more of a contemprorary than the other two. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.

The point I'm trying to get across is that the history of West Bengal as a state is inseperable from the history of India as a nation. So much has gone on here, it's difficult to wrap my head around.

The final component of WB that I'd like to mention, and that stands out in Indian history is its ruling political party. For three decades it has been ruled by The Left Front, a group led by the Communist Part of India. This is the longest standing democratically elected communist government. One leader in particular from West Bengal, known as the architect of the Indian Communist Party, had a profound impact on India's politics over the past six decades. He died the first week Loren and I got here, on January 17th at the age of 85.

Fascinating. What does that mean? What are the realities of that? How does it impact politics here - as my Dad would say, "The process whereby it is decided who gets what". It's easy to read about this, but seeing and hearing it has opened my mind so much more to the subject. Imagine it - over twenty years ago the Wall fell. But here in West Bengal, like in China moreso than North Korea, there exists a modernized communist government. One that seemingly plays with the notion of private property and competition. Anyway, it's been so interesting to me to see bits and pieces of it.

A recent demonstration on a busy road near our house. The Communist Party in India is in decline recently, and they are desperate to show the people they are still present. They even hire people to come in from the countryside to take part in the marches.

Communist graffiti we saw walking down a random neighborhood lane

A memorial to Basu on the day after his death. The flags were all raised at half mast. The bridge in the background is the Howrah Bridge, which crosses the Hoogly river on the way to Kolkata

More communist graffiti
A megaphone attached to a rickshaw during the same demonstration

Anyway, this is all just my brain wandering. Interesting stuff. So much to learn. There is no danger to me as a US citizen, as long as I use common sense and courtesy. Loren and I blatently were taking photos and no one said a word to us.

And, last but not least, I think India has made me appreciate cute animals more than ever.

I don't care who you are, that's cute.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Business...and Puppies!

Hello Loved Ones,

It seems that Loren and I have had lots of time to adjust and settle into things. All the care we've received from Shubhra, Puthumai, Shubhra's family, and many other kind souls has made it a soft landing for us. So, I'll take this opportunity to get serious for a bit and share more about the Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS), where I am currently interning. This will probably bore you all, so I'm adding puppies at the end to make it worth your while.

But first, a few updates. Loren and I were able to get hold of a used bike. It is very sturdy, which was definitely a trait we were looking for because we are pretty hefty in comparison to many people here. It can hold both of us at once, and soon enough CKS will purchase another. It's a nice addition, and it only cost $19.50 for the bike plus repairs. Chitra and Ton Moy, Shubhra's sister and brother in law, made it all happen. They've been wonderful to us, and have offered nothing but love.

This is an answer to Michael's question - did I find sweets yet? Did I find sweets...I thought you knew me better, Mike. I sensed this shop's existence from eight blocks away. My sixth sense.
Ok, enough of that.

***Please know that the following is all heresay, and is only what I've gathered over the past few months. Some of the details may be off. Puthumai, if you read this, please correct me if needed.

As I said before, Puthumai has over a decade of experience playing somewhat of an interlocutory role between international and domestic NGO's, as well as between those and the government of West Bengal. Being a one-man communications hub of sorts, he has interfaced with and cultivated a vast network of movers and shakers in the disaster management and general humanitarian fields. He's familiar with the work of a huge list of these organizations. In his time working with grass roots non-governmental organizations (NGO's) he has identified that many are in need of support. So, in response, he has recently founded CKS to provide training and disseminate essential knowledge to the NGO's.

The following is a list of training modules CKS will provide potentially . This is the nitty gritty, so I would understand if you don't read it all. My goal is to provide share what CKS is all about. This doesn't necessarily answer the question, "So...what will you actually be doing there?", but it hopefully provides a bit of context for those interested. Puppies on the way. More adventure stories within the next week or so.

Social Analysis- Includes Social, Political, Economic and Cultural Systems in West Bengal, and practical tools to understand mechanisms and analyze causes of poverty in a community.

Rights Based Approach to Develpment- Explains approaches to development, constitutional, citizenry, consumer, political and informational rights, and how to attain them, and techniques to impart the same to communities

Project Writing- Concept Note Writing, Project Writing, Budget Making and a brief on LFA, Gap Analysis and Stakeholder Analysis

Constitution and Political Systems in India

Report Writing- Process Report Writing, Newspaper Report Writing, Case Study Writing, and Brief Report Writing, with a note on reports on emergency relief situation

Program Monitoring Skills & Methods- Personnal Monitoring, General Program Monitoring, Budget and Cash Monitoring, Quality and Quantity Monitoring, Outcome and Impact Monitoring - tools, methods and soft skills

Managerial Tools for Social Workers- Staffing, Directing, Monitoring, Budgeting, Planning, Coordinating organization or program; Documentary Needs; Organizaing Multiple Tasks - Procedures and Methods; law and social administration

Research Methodologies - Survey Methods, choosing a right method, staffing, documenting researchers - with soft skills on MS Access and Excel - for data entry, analysis, query and report generation.

E-Governance and Future Governance in India

Social Communication-Street Theater as a powerful tool to convey messages; and techniques for using visuals

Disaster Management- Thematic analysis of governmental and non-governmental system of preparedness, mitigation and response, including community based disaster management tools, with practical apps and visuals.

Disaster Response Management: Rescue and Relief Systems- inputs on "doing relief" camp management, data management, linkages, distribution of relief materials, stock management, emergency response report writing / systems etc.;conducting rescue operations and rescue methods

Rights of Tea Garden Workers and Rights of Indigenous People of Mountain Terrain

Government Schemes

Legal Rights and Police-Public Relationship
- Legal rights of workers, laborers, women and children, conjugal rights and duties; rights relating to police, ways to write a FIR, make a diary; rights and constraints in police custody and judicial custody

Gender in Development
Programs - gender and social policy

Life Skills Education- Youth and youth problems

People's Organizations
- SHGs, Farmer's groups etc.; community organizations

These are all the ideas Puthumai is considering for the courses and trainings CKS will provide to agencies. Loren's jobs are to create four comprehensive training or lesson plans, as well as to build the library. I will be focusing more on personnel by connecting with international students in the area to build a network of educated young folks in the area, drum up any form of support, or draw from their wisdom and experience. For international students hoping to volunteer with CKS, I will create a manual containing tips about arrival, eating, sanitary habits, internet and telephone, transportation, electrical and appliances, local gestures and body language, clothing, and making acquaintances.

Ok, no more for a while. I'm sorry to saturate you all. You're all in my thoughts and prayers.

Now, as promised...

Friday, January 22, 2010

And of!

Ok folks, these photos are not in chronological order, and are in fact in no order at all. I had to post at the lowest resolution because my connection is a bit slow. More photos with better explanations to come. Please enjoy. Love, Jeff.

Fun Tan Chocolate - Bitter, yet Fun. No lie.

On the campus of Visva Bharati University, Rabindranath Tagore's pride and joy. He also founded schools from kindergarten to high school. Classes are taught outdoors in the sun and under the shade of trees. Shubhra, one of our two 'local guardians', graduated with a Masters in Social Work for there.

One of our many furry neighbors. It's been interesting having goats, wild dogs, cows, and other lovable creatures roam free in my own proverbial backyard, and real backyard. This one has an interesting geometric-esque white patch. Oh, and it's true that goats eat absolutely everything.

This is a simple offering to one of the many Hindu Gods. To be honest, I'm not sure which one this is. It's been fun discovering this similarities and differences between the expression of faith and religion in the US and here in India. Since 86% of the country is Hindu, it seems there is a greater sense of openness about their practice. There was recently a festival dedicated to the godess of education, Saraswathi, and the community was out in full force. There were shrines built on nearly every street corner, young people got dressed up, and school was out for three days. There's a lot to this topic, obviously, but it seems more tightly intertwined with the societal structure and flow of life that in the US, but maybe this is just me coming from it with an outside perspective.

Loren and I were tasked with meeting Puthumai in Kolkata to act as couriers. So, we woke up early to hop the morning train to Kolkata from Bolpur. It was a nice three hour ride, and we had a good day getting a hang of the system. We actually met Puthumai in Howrah, which is a bit outside Kolkata, and had a chance to explire a Raj era bridge near the station. So many people in such little space.

Puppies! You might have to squint to see them, but there are a few in this photo. It's weird seeing so many wild dogs running around here. Dogs get so much attention in the US, but there just isn't enough for everyone here in India. Somehow, they survive. Their streets smarts are amazing - they deftly navigate the very busy streets much better than I. Some people adopt a pup or two, but for the most part they're on their own. Jack, our old boy at home, just wouldn't survive. Oh how good he has it. I love him; can't help it.

Here Lived John Cheap: This man was a local British administrator during the early nineteenth century. I assume he was directly involved with the British East India Company. Either way, it is known that he owned (or stole by force) a large plot of land that one of the two campuses of Visva Bharati University is on now. The area is called Sri Niketan, and is where the social work department where Shubhra studied is. Anyway, Mr. Cheap coerced (with the use of force) locals into providing their free labor for his indigo plantations. Ironic?

Friends from Bolpur. Loren and I, on one of our expeditions through the bazaar, met a few nice guys as we purchased a few shawls from their shop. Through that connection, we've had a chance to meet some other good fellows. This is us at the train station socializing. From left to right: Raj (red shawl), Salendra, Me, Sachin, Dibendu, Pankaz, and unknown. It was a good time that night. After hanging at Raj's garmet shop, we wandered over to the train station to meet some his friends. Pankaz is Raj's best friend, and is a great person. He is vehemot about considering himself a 'simple man'. He is good at speaking English.

Loren chatting with Salendra and Pankaz before the shop closed and we went roaming. The picture was taken by me from inside the shop and facing the street. The young locals we have talked to are very interested in the big wide world. They see the opportunities people find in the US, and are very attracted to them. At the same time, they seem to appreciate Bolpur for its relative safety and feeling of connectedness. We've only been here for nice days, and already we bump into people regularly. I couldn't imagine what it would be like living here my whole life. Pankaz loves to ask me, "At this time on a Saturday night at home, what would you be doing?"

Fantastic Four. Me, Puthumai, Shubhra, and Loren. We were eating at the Lodge Ashirbad, which is the hotel Loren and I stayed at for six days before moving into the headquarters of CKS (a house in a neighborhood). For the room, we payed only $6USD per night. On average, we ate two large meals a day - sometimes more - and ended up paying $33USD for all six nights and food. The staff was great too. Woo.

Shubhra and her fam in front of the house she grew up in. Her Father was an accountant for Visva Bharati for many years, and during her childhood they were housed on campus. It is regular practice for the University to house its faculty. The house was a bit run down, but Shubhra still loves coming back there and thinking of good times. These are her two sisters, their kids and husbands. From left to right - Snehendu, Bijoy, Indira, Shubhra, Chitra, Ton Moy, and Titli. A beautiful family.

This is an interesting temple looking building that Loren and I saw when we were exploring Howrah. I don't know much about it, but it was very photo worthy. It was taken from the Rabindra Setu bridge we walked on that took us across the Hoogly River.

This is Shubhra's beautiful yard. She gaves us a grand tour and showed us a mileau of fruit trees, herbs, and vegetable plants. She knows her way around the garden. To be correct, this is the garden at ther parents house. Very beautiful.

B, B, B, Burj, Burj, Burj, Burj is the word...sorry. We had a good time exploring Dubai during our seven hour layover there. There's a good story to tell about it, but that will come later. Here are us and the Burj Dubai. We didn't get to go inside, but got close enough to appreciate its size. It sounds like there are close to 175 floors. Wow.

Long Time Coming

Hi Everyone! I'm so sorry for taking this long to post. We have limited access to the internet, and for some reason blogspot hasn't been working for me. So, I hope this post is successful.

It is 10:31pm on January 22nd. Loren, the other intern from Seattle U, and I have been here since the early morning of January 13th. We're definitely settling in well, and getting a hang of Bolpur, which is where we will be until late March.

So, backing up a bit. I'm a super senior at Seattle University. A few other students and I have been given the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the International Development Internship Program (IDIP), which is a program run by Seattle University that sends students to various countries to intern in the development field. In our case, development refers to the strengthening of key sectors such health care, agriculture, education, government administration, and in my case disaster management.

As it turns out, Loren and I have been sent to India for our internship. We are working with Puthumai A. Nazarene, who plays a unique and dynamic role in the administration of disaster management in the Indian State of West Bengal. He is the lead coordinator of the State Inter-Agency Group (SAIG), which links and organizes a multitude of non-profits and NGO's who work for the welfare of those struggling in India. This includes large multinationals like World Wildlife Fund, CARE, and UNICEF, as well as local grassroots agencies. Puthumai is a mover and a shaker to say the least. He has a shining heart, absolute committment to serving those in desperate need, deep faith, and wonderful humor and energy. It is a blessing to have the chance to interact with him. In addition, another beautiful soul has been by our side since we've been here. Puthumai's colleague, Shubhra, is our other 'Local Guardian'. She is leading the charge on Puthumai's latest endeavor. He is starting an NGO called the Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS), which is in response to the great need to increase the capabilities of the non-profits he interacts with through SAIG.

The house CKS is now located in is the house Loren and I will be remaining in for the duration of the internship. Up until the last few days, we were in a hotel waiting for the purchase of the house to be finalized. So, it is freshly ours and we're excited to help CKS get off the ground.

So far, it's been all positive. Loren and I have meshed very well together. It seems like a lot of our habits are similar, as well as our senses of humor. We've been good partners in exploring Bolpur, the small city of 60,000 or so that we are living in. It's been a great adventure diving into the language, customs, food, neighborhoods, and people. We stick out like a few sore thumbs here. Although it is a college town, with Visva Bharati University and a few other technical colleges, we haven't seen very many westerners around. The smiles and laughs can be a bit discouraging from time to time, but it's simply a reality that we look and dress differently. Anyway, it is all made up for by the beautiful people we are getting to know. Shubhra's (Mom, Dad, two younger sisters and their husbands) have already made us one of their own. They are all so kind to us, and it is like always having a comfy wark blanket to know how much we are cared for here. Puthumai is also checking in on us very frequently. If he isn't able to come see us, he will call us and exchange a few updates and kind words. It's great. We're loved. Thanks God.

As far as our work goes, things are just now getting off the ground. Loren and I have moved into the house, which is great. We are dealing with a few minor details before getting going on the library for CKS. Our laser printer needs paper for us to print masses of published documents about disaster risk reduction or rural development. One of my projects is to rally international students from the schools around the area in the hopes of holding regular gatherings. It would provide a nice forum for exchaning ideas and impressions regarding studying in India, and would allow me to facilitate a dialogue about using education for bettering the world and being committed to service. Also, I hope to gain ideas from them to put together in a manual designed specifically for international interns like me who would be coming to CKS to volunteer for a few months.

Shifting gears - Bolpur is a famous city in India. It is home to Rabindranath Tagore's famous school called Visva Bharati University. He was an intellectual, a leader during India's push for independance, a social progressive, a nobel prize winner, and had a profound impact on India's education system. During that time period, there were many ideas floating around in Indian intellectual circles about how to break from the British institutionalized education system. Although many had ideas, including Ghandi, Tagore went the extra step by founding and nurturing his own school. It has growng and thrived in the light of his personal philosophy and myriad literature works. He is very revered around here, and it is amazing to be witness such a historied area that I previously would only have read about. India's past is so much more real after only being here for nine days.

Ok, this hasn't even touched the surface of what we've been doing. There are many good stories to share, none of which I will delve too deep into at this moment. Just to give you a taste - riding the trains, meeting locals, giving a speech to a bus load of students and being treated like a rock star afterward, eating lots of different and delicous foods with our (right) hand, mosquitos, a festival for the goddess of education, using an Asian toilet, puppies!, learning Bengali, cooking, catching a ride home at 11p.m. with Raj on his motorcycle after hanging out at his clothing retail shop.

Ok, much more to come! I really hope this post will be successful. Blessings to you all! For all you other IDIPers, keep posting and know that Loren and I are with you. I love you all.