Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When my journey began

To provide a more personal context for my upcoming post about our project’s nuts and bolts genesis, let me share my experience with the development world up to this point in time:

I forayed into international development two summers ago; I spent three weeks in Ghana volunteering with the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Global Volunteers. However, that summer trip was a short service project, for which I had to pay far too much money to have far too little of an impact. I remember thinking about that while I was in New Akrade, Ghana, when I would pass the abandoned, half-finished project from a previous group’s trip- the basic foundations of what was supposed to be a new health clinic.

However, at the time my plan was still to hold off on my dreams of changing the world until I was “qualified” and had finished medical school and residency. Thus many of my observations about non-governmental, non-profit work would be put on the backburner until I would revisit them, once fully committed to pursuing social impact with the Global Impact crew. Now, to be sure, I learned a great deal during my summer in Ghana, but the work was clearly tilted towards the observational and self-, not the social-development, side of having an impact on the world…


Friday, June 26, 2009

Opportunities from the In-Between

The basement of USC’s Leavey Library – we sat in an enclosed study room amidst the sea of computers and eclectic crowd of students that seemed to radiate stress. For months we found the hidden hours to meticulously plan, research, and speculate about our project. Yet, three weeks into our journey in India those meetings seem distant in every way imaginable. Our naivety at the time makes me smile- we were silly to think that business-speak, whiteboard diagrams, and PowerPoints could adequately prepare us for the challenge of working in India.

As I write this post our FrontlineSMS project is at a standstill. However, I’m not ready to comment on the questions of exactly “why” or “how”. To be frank, I’m not sure I adequately understand the answers to those questions myself and so that book remains open. The resulting downtime, while unsolicited, has afforded us the opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to begin to observe our surroundings – with a view and mindset not available in the university library’s basement.

I’ve found that India’s sporadic power and internet connections have not hampered my research and exploration of a place that continues to baffle me. As I’ve ridden buses and strolled the crowded streets a number of ideas have popped into my head. The sight of a child playing feet away from a hog rooting through garbage prompts the question – “Where are the playgrounds” while collective cravings have led to a half joking proposal for a restaurant that would serve omelettes, black coffee, and other comfort items (all veg of course).

Our most promising idea can best be exhibited by the picture included above. Photography is an interesting tool- allowing us to precisely capture a moment and in our case, the memories of this trip. Yet between the millions of Facebook albums and the obligatory graduation shots, photos have grown routine- more of a duty than a luxury. That is not the case here in India. People here not only want to have their picture taken, they want to see the picture and inevitably own a copy themselves.

Watching this process first hand has personally snapped me out of my entitlement and presented an opportunity. Realizing how a simple photograph can be a tremendous source of pride – Jon and I have embarked on a mission to deliver that service to Hubli and donate the proceeds to acts of kindness. We’ve marched around to print shops, brainstormed logistics, and even tested the market with our neighbors next door at the middle school. While I anxiously anticipate the continuation of our FrontlineSMS implementation, I can’t help but contrast the way in which this entertaining side project has developed in a radically different way.

- Dan

Monday, June 22, 2009


Wanted to let everyone know that you can follow the USC Frontline SMS project on Twitter as well: http://twitter.com/USCFrontlineSMS


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Compassionate Engagement

Rahul Brown, the mentor USC sent with us to Hubli, emphasized the importance of compassionate engagement in our projects to be able to succeed. Despite having the best well researched and planned business models, a project of social impact that we are here to achieve will fail if we do not practice compassion. To aid us with our interactions with the community, he gave us a small comb and nail clippers to use in the field. When children come to ask for alms, it can break your heart to refuse as most of the time they gather and give to a higher child exploitation organization. Instead of ignoring them, try showing some care and compassion by combing their hair or clipping their nails to teach them about hygiene and the importance of keeping hands and nails clean.

Last night, I was fortunate to have my first experience using my hair comb. A young girl, about 7 years old and her older sister were asking us for money as we stepped out of CCD (Cafe Coffee Day). I opened my purse but instead of taking out money as I'm sure they expected, I took my hair comb out of the plastic bag I keep it in. I showed it to the younger girl and motioned with it across her hair to show her what I intended to do. She grabbed the comb, stuck it in her hair, and ran away giggling. After getting over the initial amusement and shock, I ran after her and explained that I wanted to comb her hair and make her look pretty. The sisters were confused that I was offering to provide a service instead of giving something physical to them. I started combing the front of the younger sister's hair and she could hardly contain her excitement as she quickly took out her hair tie to unravel her ponytail. It took me about 3 minutes but I was able to detangle most of her oily unkept hair and smoothed it out for her and showed her and her sister how lovely she looked. As we were leaving, the older girl kept asking for money but the younger girl seemed to have understood and valued the act and smiled, waved and yelled "Bye Tapasya."

As I sanitized my hands, cleaned the hair out of the comb, and put it away in its bag, ready to use for the next child, I couldn't get past how grateful the girl was and how quickly she stopped begging when I interacted with her. I hope this is the first of many successful acts of engagement we get to practice not only over the next few months while we are in Hubli, but throughout our lives.

~ Tapasya

Cows and Dogs and Naan - Oh My!

A sea of flat roofed buildings, cows wandering through the streets, and boys playing cricket in empty fields- India overwhelmed me before I left my window seat on King Fisher Airlines (a conglomerate brand that also manufactures popular beer and bottled water- imagine Bud Light airlines). As we’ve completed our first week it’s worth revisiting some of the biggest shocks to our system since landing in Hubli.

The Food

I wouldn’t count myself among Indian foods biggest fans before my arrival here. In fact, I’ve probably only willing ate Indian food a dozen times before (twice at Global Impact meetings). That being said – the food has been great! As a country with a vast vegetarian population- you have to go out of your way to eat meat. Our entire team has been veg thus far- and the meat eaters among our group have carefully considered a number of arguments why we should never eat meat again. I impress myself every day the streak continues, but I’m really starting to crave some chicken. It has also been interesting to adjust to the preferred eating utensil- the right hand!


As Jon’s pocket India guide says- no city in India has a full day’s supply of water. Most buildings here collect water in big tanks on the roof when the government turns the water on in the morning. When it goes off, gravity becomes important (the lower you are the better). The electricity has also been pretty inconsistent- so far we’ve had three extended blackouts, often well over an hour. Our India colleague Golden has just informed me that we are lucky that the electricity has been this good, so let’s hope it holds up.


I expected to see a lot of cows on the streets and that has certainly been the case. They are pretty docile and tend to do their own thing- occasionally blocking traffic or issuing a loud “moo” to let everyone know they’re here. I’ve been surprised to see a pretty sizable population of stray dogs roaming the streets. They’re joined by goats and the occasional pig/hog. When we told one of the sex workers (referenced on the previous post) that this was not the case in America she was pretty surprised. Thankfully there is plenty of litter and food in the open lots here for these critters to munch on.

The Head Bob

In the US head gesturing works as follows: up and down = yes and side to side= no. Indians are known for what many call “the head bob”. It could best be described as the accelerated tilt of your head from left to right (sort of a cross between the US’ two gestures). The head bob is both confusing, as it can mean everything from yes to maybe to absolutely not, and also addictive (I’ve noticed a number of us unconsciously imitating it.)


In addition to driving on the left side of the road (I’ve accidently waited on the right side of cars here twice- the passenger’s seat in the US, but driver’s seat here) the motorists here also operate using echolocation. By that I mean they forgo mirrors and sight for the constant use of the horn. It’s pretty smart between all the animals, motorcycles, and people walking on the streets – but makes for quite the cacophony.

As I struggled to adapt I’ve learned a great lesson from an unlikely passenger on our flight from Bangalore to Hubli – Jaishree Deshpande (the billionaire co-founder of the foundation funding our project). She told us two stories about her move from India to Toronto that made me feel better about my own adjustment, describing how she had initially thought pepperoni was a pepper and how she had first distrusted the hot cocoa vending machine because she didn’t see a cup. As foreign as this place was initially, it’s starting to feel like home.

- Dan

It's been one week

It's been exactly one week since the global impact team reunited in Hubli, stepping off the small Kingfisher airplane and into the monsoon. Although I have been in India for weeks already and have no excuse of being jet-lagged, I feel just as exhausted as the rest of my team mates. Our days have been long, the heat has been intense, and I have walked more than I have in months. I can't believe it's only been one week since arrived in this town. Already, I have developed my daily routine of yoga at 6:30 am, cold showers, granola bar for breakfast, and off to work. We have become regulars diners at Hotel Ambesh and know the staff by name. We have learned to barter with rikshaw drivers that try to over-charge us. We have learned how to cross the street dodging buses and cars and risk drinking fresh juice from stands. We're used to our 8:30 pm curfew and don't flinch by power outages. We have even made friends with a few of the girls of BVB Engineering College at the girls' hostel we are staying at and gone to the mess hall to eat 20Rs meal with them and taken the bus to Kopikar Road for bargain shopping and delicious ice cream. They now come to our room every night to come talk, laugh, and share life stories. It feels like we're in the dorms all over again.

It has only been one week and I feel like I have already been living here for a month. I feel like I have seen and interacted more with India in the last week than I have in the two weeks I was in Bangalore. I have met people from all walks of life - from the wealthy but ever so modest co-founder of this foundation, Mrs. Jaishree Deshpande herself to Indian fellows from Karnataka who have dreams of opening their own NGOs to a 16 year old village girl who was thrilled to be able to show me her two bedroom mud hut and wanted me to stay to dinner. We have come here to make a change but judging by the amount I have seen and experienced in the last week, it is I who is going to learn and grow. I hope I can make the most of this amazing opportunity and take lessons learned to heart - let's see what the next month and a half has in store!

~ Tapasya

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Unexpected Employment

I'll give you some basic details about one of the people we met yesterday:

- She works two jobs to make sure her kids eat everyday.
- She tells her daughter not to talk to boys.
- She speaks five languages including Hindi, Kannada, and some English.
- She offered our team tea because we were guests.

If I were to ask you to tell me the profession of this person you would either mention any random job or say you just don't know. I don't know a lot of people in the United States who speak five languages and still have to work two jobs. In fact, I don't think I know anyone in the United States who speaks five languages at all.

This person was and is a sex worker. She provides intercourse to clients for a payment. According to the sex workers, they charge anywhere from 50 rupees to 500 rupees. That is roughly $1 to $10. They fear harassment from police and violent clients, and they often have to get illegal abortions if they get pregnant. One abortion alone costs from 1000 to 2000 rupees. Usually the client pays for the abortion, but sometimes they run away and leave the cost to the sex worker. This is not an easy life, especially for two sex workers whose husbands passed away and forced the women to make enough money to provide for their kids.

Along with being sex workers, some of the women work at BCT as peer educators. Through the NGO BCT they visit villages and educate them on the potential harms of sex work. Working alone in the community they explain the prevelance of HIV and the effectiveness of condoms. Along with education, they recruit community sex workers to visit the organization's Drop In Center for a discussion with a counselor and a checkup from a doctor. If necessary, the sex workers are referred to the Primary Health Center for an HIV blood test.

For the work they do, the peer educators get paid another 1500 rupees per month. This is roughly $30. With a wage in the US of $8 per hour, it would take roughly four hours to earn that much. For peer educators, an entire month of work.

So, how did they act? Were they frustrated? Angry? Mean? Well, as far as we saw, none of the above. They smiled and laughed more than I ever do. They joked with us about our terrible language skills. They talked about taking care of their children and how their job provides security for their family. They even read us some stories and went out to lunch with us. All this is pretty impressive for people who risk HIV, pregnancy, and other STIs for $1 to $10 so they can feed their family. Did I mention one of them spoke five languages? Yeah, she really did.