I have assumed many names in my life – most commonly I am referred to as Emily, a younger trouble making self would often be called Emily Elizabeth, Emmy for a few permitted family members, several nicknames acquired in high school and college which were only appropriate for those times, Coady for my TFA friends, I am Ms. Coady in Tallulah , I am Coado to my godson Cameron, and a percentage of my students in the Delta called me Mama – but since I have arrived in the Rishi Valley, I have picked up a new name. One that I now regularly respond to – Akka. Telugu for sister or revered female, the students in our schools have difficulty pronouncing Emily, which is fine because Lord knows I struggle with their names as well, so I am simply called Akka. As I walk my kilometer long commute every morning to work, I hear faint footsteps behind me and then, “Akka! Akka!” proceeded by infectious giggling. Just as I became keen to hearing “Ms. Coady!” it is now “Akka!” that perks my ears. I rather like hearing children’s voices shouting at me, even if it does tend to get loud.
This past month has been one filled with ‘firsts’ while also witnessing the relationships with those around me grow and gain substance. I decided to break this post up by themes. Bear with this blog entry, it might be rather long, and I have feeling as I look towards my next few months, they will all be fairly equal in length.
This was indeed a month of firsts. Those experiences previous travelers to India said “oh you must try this” or “just wait, this will definitely happen to you.” Some were exciting, and some were less enjoyable.
I successfully and accidentally crashed my first wedding. Everyone I had spoken with about my impending stay in India insisted that I go to a wedding. I am very glad that I went, even if it was by complete accident.
For some context, where I live and work is surrounded on all sides by rural villages. Most are in short walking distance, 2-5 minutes. One of our volunteers, Carina, and I had gotten into a habit of going on long walks or hikes after work every day. This day, as an impending Cyclone was moving in, we decided to just do a light walk. It was getting dark, the overcast made for an early green glow everywhere, and hundreds of bats (of the giant variety) were on the move. We were almost going to turn around as the rain started, when we heard drumming coming from the village up ahead. We decided that we would just walk closer to check it out. After getting stuck behind a traffic jam – which on these mountain paths can only be caused by a herd of goats – we made our way into the village. The drumming was in celebration of an upcoming wedding that was to take place the next morning. Before we knew it, we were swept into the celebration tent and asked to sit down. We were instantly surrounded by children and the shouts of “Akka!” After sitting and enjoying the music and the company, we were invited by the bride’s and the groom’s fathers to their homes for food. I have never ate so much in my life. Heaps and heaps of food kept coming. Even with one of my hands covering the plate to prevent being served again and the other hand clutching my stomach from over eating, they continued to pour food on my plate.
What I actually enjoyed more, beyond being given the chance to participate in a cultural event, was how welcome I felt. These villagers have or have had students in our schools, and the children recognized me from my visits to their schools. I am the Akka from America who helps in the schools. The relationships I have started with the students are growing with every interaction. It was nice to be greeted by students who I have a report with. I felt like a member of the community, and that feeling was one that has made my job as a teacher so exciting both here and in the Delta. It is also what draws me to rural education development.
First Solo Village Excursion
While I have been spending time in the villages, it has always been with staff from RIVER who speak fluent Telugu and know the communities quite well. One Sunday afternoon, Carina and I decided to explore and see how far back the valley actually went and what types of villages are there. We got on our bikes and went off for an afternoon adventure. We traveled through a total of 6 villages. I was surprised how welcoming everyone was even though we were two foreigners biking (and sweating and panting – the bikes do not do well on the hills unless you have thighs of steel). The last village we stopped at we were taken over by a group of children. Barefoot and yelling “Akka!” They jumped on the back of our moving cycles with ease and gave us a tour of their village. Of course, we do not speak Telugu and beyond “Hello, what is your name……and your father’s name….. and your mother’s name?” they know no English. The hour long tour ended at the village’s temple. A Hindu house of worship that was locked as it wasn’t presently being used. This did not stop our eight vocal and capable hosts. They broke down the gate and dragged us in by our hands. It really was a beautiful experience. The adults of the village walked over and laughed at us or invited us in for tea. When we finally left we stopped and watched the older kids carry on an organized game of cricket. On our way back to the school, we experienced more children hitching free rides and stopped with an elderly couple and ate the groundnuts they had just harvested by hand. I arrived home that evening completely exhausted and very fulfilled. I look forward to more experiences like the ones I had that Sunday afternoon. At the end of this post is a link to my online photo album. Please go there to see the pictures from this day and others!
Well it finally happened. I ate or drank something unsuitable for digestion and experienced the number one warning for any traveler to India. I am still not quite sure what happened – it was days after the wedding, and the school’s food and water follow strict sanitation codes. One Saturday night I began to experience stomach pains and was in the hospital by the next morning. My stomach pains and the fact I couldn’t keep anything in led to an IV being placed (rather precariously) into my arm. I had a high fever, a splitting headache, and would blackout from painful stomach spasms. I hope to never go through it again.
I was in more than capable hands, and never felt like I was in any real danger, but I did have enough lucidity to highlight the vast differences between medicinal practices of the US and those of rural India. I had two constant companions through my ordeal – two lizards that made me feel as if I was encroaching on their private residence. Additionally, my co-worker Carina, a teacher from Germany with no medical background, was asked to help out with medical procedures. Like when the nurse gave me a shot in my backside, and asked Carina to then vigorously rub the area so the medicine could be absorbed in my blood stream. At least it made me laugh at a time when I wasn’t feeling very humorous. There were times when, either through fever or cultural differences, I honestly thought I was on an episode of Punk’d, and Ashton Kutcher was going to appear out of nowhere wearing a sarong and a trucker hat with a camera crew. While that didn’t happen, my new community at the school did take great care of me. I had visitors who would just sit with me while I slept, and people, who I had only previously smiled at, who stopped by with genuine wishes of wellness. When I was finally released from the hospital, I had a whole entourage helping me back to my apartment, and adopted aunties who cooked breakfast and supper for me the following days so I had something with nutrition and no spice to eat.
I continued to have issues the rest of the week, and have very low energy for the next two. Even walking down my stairs to get drinking water would tire me out. I am finally feeling like my old self, and have slowly started running again. My work definitely piled up while I was out, and I hit the ground running my first day back. In fact, my co-worker, Vanita, affectionately informed me, “Oh you must have been really sick. You aren’t fat anymore.” So silver lining, I apparently lost weight and am not fat anymore. Yay for positivity and a cultural trait of directness!
I finally had visitors! Another AIF fellow, Swathi and her co-worker, Marley from Melbourne, Australia, came to visit me for a weekend after my hospital stay. I needed to be cheered up and they needed a break from the city.
We had a great weekend of conversation, chocolate and contra bands (wine). I even felt up for some walking and hiking. The weekend concluded with an impromptu concert by some of the village children. It was a fabulous time, and I plan to visit them in Bangalore in a few weeks. Even though it was a short trip, less than 48 hours, it gave me the burst of energy I needed to get back to work and not feel homesick (very easy to be when you are sick and away from your mommy, even at 25). I am looking forward to my trip to Bangalore, and I believe Swathi put it best – it is country mouse and city mouse. I really miss all of the fellows, and I can’t wait for our impending reunions!
First Home Stay
I was invited by Ragu and Leela, our administrative directors, to stay the night at their home and meet two other Americans living in the area. I was a little nervous. I hadn’t stayed in someone’s home yet. They picked me up from the office and we made the hour long drive to the nearby town of Madanapalle. My opinion of this town has been neutral. I need it for items I can’t buy in Rishi Valley, but it is loud and very crowded. I always come back to my apartment feeling exhausted, but always with more modern conveniences like Oreos and toilet paper in hand, so it is a necessity.
Madanapalle is Ragu’s hometown and he and Leela live in a quiet community just outside the bustling downtown. They have a beautiful home and were generous guests. Outside of RIVER, they are also affiliated with another school in the city, Hope English Medium School. Through that program, they have relationships with churches in Michigan who provide volunteers. So Anna, a volunteer English teacher fresh out of college, and Lynn, a pastor, joined us for the night. It happened to be the eve (American morning) of the elections. It was nice to be with two other registered voters and have some political discourse. Ragu and Leela are also Christian, and it was my first interaction with Christians since arriving in India. We even had chicken and amazing wine at dinner! Let me tell you after two months of strictly vegetarian, I dominated the chicken platter. It was a great experience to see someone in their home and witness their everyday life.
The next morning as we ran a few errands in town. I began to see Madanapalle in a different light. There is some organization to the chaos, and a community rich in culture and history. I am looking forward to going back this weekend for my shopping and exploring a bit more. Ragu and Leela have insisted that I come back to stay throughout my time here, and I will definitely be taking them up on their offer. As time marches on in the valley, I am learning how important relationships are, and I am enjoying the cultivation of many here.
As I have stated, I am enjoying the deepening friendships I have here. However, getting to know people and letting them into your life can also have it’s difficulties. After my first few weeks here, I was told my several people to hire a maid. It is very cheap, only 8 dollars a month, it gives them money and food on their tables, and let’s be honest, I was not figuring out how to wash my clothes by hand very well. So I finally caved, and hired a maid that worked with other families in the valley. She is to come for one hour a day to my modest apartment, sweep and do my laundry. Once a week she mops and cleans the bathroom as well. If there is the rare occasion of dishes in my sink she also takes care of them.
Krishnima can be very sweet to me. She gave me a foot rub after a nasty bug bite, and brings me groundnuts that her husband harvests. However, I also began to get the sense that she was pulling one on me. One morning she arrived to my apartment shivering. “Akka, I’m cold,” she said. I did not bring many warm things with me. I brought a light rain jacket, a knit poncho and a warm, very nice fleece my mother and sisters got me last Christmas. Without thinking, and because she was so convincing and I can only imagine how cold a saree can leave you, I gave her the fleece, but explicitly told her I needed it back. Not only because I might need it, but it was a thoughtful gift from my family. Well…. it has been a month and she is still wearing it. It has also become pretty dirty as she wears it to work in. I have asked for it back several times, and I know she understands me. I even learned some Telugu phrases to really drive the point home. She is still wearing it, even this morning when the heat index did not call for it.
Then again, the morning I got out of the hospital, I was asleep when she arrived. She came into my house sobbing and collapsed into my arms, crying for almost an hour. She apparently had some teeth pulled and she was having horrible pain. I explained to her that she didn’t need to work that day, I was sick and she clearly wasn’t in any condition to work. In fact, I wanted her to leave because of my illness. Not only did she ignore me and stay, she whimpered as she cleaned. Every time she bent down she would let out wail from the pain. When she finally finished, she then asked me for money, although I had already paid her due salary. She pointed at her mouth and kept crying. I held strong and did not give her money, but after she left I had a pit in my stomach. This was exactly what I had hoped to avoid when I first hired a maid. I really struggled with guilt.
I grew up in a home with chores, and working parents. We did not have hired help. Overall, my community is not the type to have maids. In fact, my friends and I looked down on anyone in our neighborhood who didn’t help out in their homes. In India, there is a different culture surrounding hired help, and I actually was excited when I first hired Krishnima, because in my head, I was helping her by hiring her. I had a romantic notion of the relationship that would blossom between us. I would come over for traditional holidays to her home in the village and she would look after me as some sort of maternal figure.
Instead, there have been instances, more than the two I have shared, where I have felt like she is trying to take advantage of me. After the money/tooth incident, I felt uncomfortable. So much so, that I would get up in the morning, still sick, and leave the apartment and hide out waiting for her to come and leave. It was getting ridiculous. I struggled with the idea of firing her. I had a suspicion that even though she would understand me, she would continue showing up. I also knew that I would feel really guilty firing her given her background. In fact, every time she cleans and I am in the apartment I feel guilty because I am a white foreigner and she is the local maid cleaning up after me. Imagine the discomfort I felt when she came in with the tooth problems. I was so sick and tired I could not get up, I just laid in my bed as she cleaned up my dirt, theatrically crying. I laid in bed cringing, waiting for it to be over.
I finally reached out to some co-workers and explained the situation with frankness. What I found out made me feel much better. Apparently Krishnima has a history of behavior like this with others, and they suggested I hire her because they thought she wouldn’t try it on me given our cultural differences. I asked her one final time for the jacket, and tomorrow if she does not return it I will give her an ultimatum. I want to try to do it myself. If she still doesn’t comply, a co-worker who is fluent in Telugu will come and translate and bear witness to the termination. It is an unpleasant situation that I find myself in, however after speaking to others, I am feeling much better, and will view this as a learning experience.
My project is beginning to gain structure and substance. For a recap, I have been asked to create an English language curriculum for grades 3-5 in the 12 satellite schools RIVER has created and supports. The curriculum must fit into the pedagogy used in the schools. What is called the RIVER method or ‘School in a Box’ was born as a solution to the traditional problems facing rural education in India – first generation learners, chronic absenteeism, gender gap between boys and girls, caste separation, and limited resources. Instead of using textbooks, the students and teachers use activity cards. Most are student led and they are differentiated based on student abilities. Additionally, students can learn on their own pace, and if for some reason they are absent from school for a significant amount of time, they come right back to what they were learning and continue. The cards utilize the experiences our students walk in with and apply the learning in practical ways the students can relate to.
My ESL curriculum must also be in the form of activity cards and self learning, but there are some noteworthy challenges in achieving this. First, there is little exposure to English in the villages and the teachers, while very excited and open to teaching English, know very little English themselves. There is no electricity in the schools nor are there laptops etc for the students to simply get on and practice. Some personal hurdles of mine, I have never taught ESL before or created a curriculum before. I am also walking into a curriculum that was half made, and while there were ample activities for me to use, much of it had to be redone so the students are able to do the tasks. This past month has also been incredibly difficult as the main school has been holiday my other two team members have been gone. I have been doing the work of three people in drafting the pilot material. I have it down to a science now and it takes me roughly a day and a half to edit, format and create additional activities for each milestone (learning topic). My mentor also had a death in the family and is out indefinitely. While these challenges may seem insurmountable, I have learned a tremendous deal these past few weeks. I am gaining momentum, and I believe the work that is going on trial next week in the schools, while not perfect, is in a great place to receive productive feedback. I am also taking more ownership and advocating for the things I need. I will be going out into the schools and teaching lessons using the material, I have also requested the ESL material for grades 1 and 2, and I will be editing those as well based on information from the teachers. I am researching and reading everything I can on ESL teaching and curriculum development, and above all, I just remain positive.
Not to say there haven’t been afternoons I have walked away feeling dejected. My first day back after being sick, an impromptu feedback meeting was sprung on me. It was the end of the day, and I was completely wiped out from work. Another co-worker, who is next in the chain of command and receives a milestone as soon I complete it, told me that the teachers were on their way and we were going to discuss the material I created. I misjudged and thought he meant the activities I had created in the last month or so. Over a month ago, a co-worker printed off a rough draft version of the milestones and gave them out to the teachers. There were several mistakes, and it wasn’t on student activity cards. The feedback meeting was to be about those milestones instead of the new materials I had created.
It was almost surreal to sit in the meeting. I sat in a circle with the teachers and I had someone acting as an interpreter. For the first half of the meeting, I thought they were discussing my authored milestones, and was confused by their feedback. Then I realized it was about the out dated ones instead. The meeting became heated at times, and raised voices in Telugu directed at me were able to cut through any language barriers we had. They were upset, and what we had given them a month ago was not up to their standard. It was frustrating for me as I had no ownership for what they had been given, and in fact most of their feedback had been addressed and fixed with the milestones I had created since. The meeting finally turned positive, and we created a plan. We will pilot the first few milestones in the schools over the next 3 weeks and then have a feedback meeting. I will visit the schools and use my own observations and experiences teaching the material as well. For the feedback meeting, I will have a questionnaire translated into Telugu for the teachers to direct the meeting, and help me sift through productive concerns and other complaints.
Clear communication and a culture of trust are two important factors when proceeding with teacher relationships. I believe that this meeting was an important step for the future of our interactions. I explained to them my intentions with the curriculum, and how I valued their opinions. Which I genuinely do, I have taught before. I know exactly how it feels to be given a new curriculum with absolutely no support when it came to resources or professional development and told to deliver. I am not about to continue that cycle here for these teachers. Although I was overwhelmed by the meeting, I also felt a new sense of energy walking away.
In Other News….
I seem to have acquired a dog! This trend is getting a bit ridiculous I know. First, Sophie in Tallulah and now Juranta here in Rishi Valley. She is just so sweet, and I am trying to figure out how to get her some shots. She is a big puppy, not fully grown yet. She followed me home after a hike up Juranta Hill (now her namesake), and she has slept outside my home ever since. She even stayed outside the hospital the entire time I was there. I already informed my parents to not tell Sophie, she is already pretty possessive. We go on runs and hikes, and I bring her treats to eat often. When you check out the pictures, you will see her throughout my albums. I am trying not to get too close to her, because as an avid dog lover, I am going to be heartbroken to leave her in June. Sophie is still my most missed reminder of home, and bringing Juranta to the states is out of the question. For the time being though, she is a great companion.
We are having some monkey infestation problems at the office. We have almost 30 that hang out around the building. They run and fight on our tin roof which sounds like chaos, and my desk sits right at the custard apple tree where they like to jump and eat. My favorite moment is when they notice me watching them through the window, and they snarl and growl at me as if they can scare me through the screen. It is fascinating to watch them. We obviously do not have monkeys in the US, and their mannerisms are so human like. There are lots of pictures I have taken right from my desk in the office. You will notice how close the tree is to my window. It all adds to the experience of living here.
In the next post
I have some fun events coming up. My next post will cover the largest Hindu festival, Diwali, and my first trip to Bangalore. I am also knee deep in graduate school applications, and studying for the GRE. It is amazing what you can get done at night without internet, television and a bustling social life distracting you. I am looking forward to spending more time in the schools, getting to teach again, and the continuation of my relationships with those around me. I plan on starting a football club with the students at the school at our office, and have been playing with them a little bit. Barefoot soccer in the middle of the jungle is quite an experience, and of course, the game is peppered with the shouts of “Akka! Ball, Akka!” Make sure you click on the link below to see my online photo albums!