‘Dad, can you play cards with me? Now? Pleazzz? I have made it a rule - at least today - to heed my daughter’s call immediately. Dropping whatever I was busy with, online. And play cards. Or come outside to join her sitting on the rooftop of a neighboring slum house with her friends. Or cleaning the fish tank (‘who bought those fish, baby?’). How does that feel? It feels ‘in control’. Because what I *actually* want to do, is to continue what I was doing at the moment of my daughter’s request. Whatever that was. Mostly online work. Website. Facebook. The Stuff. But not today. Not this Sunday. So I play cards with my daughter, powder her back with rose-scented talcum and massage it, sit with her and her friends of my neighbor’s house (‘oh, oh, don’t jump from the stairs, dad. Neighbor will be angry’) and whatever is coming up in the rest of the evening. Ah, yes. Got the laundry from the line on top of our house because it will rain .. not! Chores keep me busy and the computer waits. When I finally return, and look around, I see happy faces. My daughter (‘dad played with me today, cool!’), my son (‘ha, he finally went out so I can play a few online games’) and my wife (‘I thought he would never ever do this, finally!’). It’s worth while, acting now. Its more. Its important. For yourself. And people who live with you. Now.
There’s washing your car, going to the park for a jog, walking your dog through the neighborhood or calling someone you haven’t spoken to since ages. Things you could do and many actually do on a Saturday morning. Not me. Apart from the fact that I live in a South-Indian slum area, with a park close by but separated from it in such a manner that I would have to cross have the city to actually be able to go in there and the fact that most of the people I know or am working with are all the people I regularly speak with and the fact that my landlady has a dog but I haven’t, there’s work waiting for me. Why? Its weekend?
Well, here in India and I guess pretty much everywhere in the developing world, we’ve got this thing called a six-days working week. I work 8 days a week, personally. Well, that’s how it feels, me working 14 hours a day from Mon-Mon, but having said that: you really get used to working so much once you do work that you really like. I’m not saying that the office I will go to today (again, like yesterday and the day before that etc.) is my dream, but it earns me the income that I need to sustain my family. And believe me, once you’ve got a family (and in India marrying with an Indian means you get to know the meaning of ‘family’ really thoroughly), you’ve got to do what a man got to do: earn a livelihood. And living like I do in a metro (Chennai), where everything is expensive (and no one has toilet paper because that’s even more expensive than writing paper), you really got to find yourself a good job, a job that pays and is not too devastating to your mental or physical health.
I am lucky to have found a job where in between I can get a lot done of my other work, my passion (sorry), what I call ‘my second shift’, the work I do when I get home from my first job, roughly from 9pm-12am. If not for that second job, I would have a real hard time working in my first (not really knowing why I would be doing that in the first place except for a salary).
So perhaps the bottom line could be: if you’ve gotta make money for a living and need to take out a job for that (some don’t, others won’t) make sure that next to a job you need, you have a job you want. And praise yourself lucky as one of the happy few when those two jobs coincide in one and the same. I hope I’ll ever get there.
Everyone needs it, but its considered to be a rare thus scarce commodity, not many can boast to have it all the time: inspiration.
Inspiration makes you come of out bed at 2 in the morning; it makes you say stuff that you didn’t know you had in you (of course this can work out both ways); it makes you sit to finish that drawing, poem, song, blog post way beyond the time your house mate thought you’d take before you’d join them in the party; it creates space for creativity, it channels intuition and it is opposite almost everything that is being taught to kids at school.
‘Be creative!’ is the mantra.
Where discipline is caught in the phrase ‘you could but you won’t’, inspiration is probably found in ‘it comes out because it came in’.
‘It is because I have crossed 50’, I keep telling myself. This sense of urgency. Time’s running out and that kind of thing. Are you under 50? Most likely you are. Have you every ‘been urgent’ about something? Are you? Now? Well, let me tell you: its okay! To be urgent. Because time IS running out. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re 2 months or 200 (Oh, please!): time is the only commodity, along with oil, natural gas and brain cells, that is not restored. Ever. After it is wasted. And for all of you who don’t know: death is a one-way ticket. I’m not a Buddhist, no. Not a Hindu either. Baptised, yes. Does that make me a believer in life-after-death-in-heaven? No, it doesn’t. Well, it didn’t I should better say. Seeing and knowing the world I live in, I have grown to be a humanist. But let me not get into that, its an altogether different discourse. Perhaps for a later blog post.
Urgency. I have more of it while time runs out on me. While life runs out of me. What do I say here? Am I sick? Terminally ill? Thank God (!) no. Not yet, at least. Not that I know of, at least. I know of so little. And that, believe me, I consider a blessing in disguise. I read about Kim Peek the other day. Kim is (or was, there we go!) a so called ‘megasavant’. You know, one of these only hundred or so, people on earth that are gifted (why do we call it so?) with peculiar properties (others call them ‘bizarre’) as ‘seeing numbers as colors and shapes’, ‘knowing the future’ or ‘bending over backwards defying the known flexibility of human spines’. In Kim’s case: memorizing each word from a book with lots of pages, in an hour or so, by reading each left page with his left eye and right page with his right (simultaneously, if you thought that that wasn’t such a big deal!). At the time of his death (it hits us all, and so it did to Kim too, when he was in his fifties, in 2009) he knew some 12,000 books. By heart! He memorized them all. Has Kim’s capacity contributed to world peace? Has it brought communities at odds with life’s conditions (undrinkable water, no income and no natural resources) closer to better circumstances? No, it hasn’t. Should it? No. Then why do I remember this? And tell you this?
This is what life does to us. We think we do and think about that what is important in our lives. We say ‘do good!’ to others and say to ourselves (we should!) that we do good to others, because look. . aren’t we going to work every day? If we have work, that is. That is a miracle that some of us are still waiting for. Praying for! Look, we say, aren’t we sending our kids to school? Aren’t we responsible citizens, paying tax (or evading it, depends what your community taught you to make sense), mawing our lawn, washing our car on Saturdays? Am I being cynical, because it feels good, to be cynical? Well, it does! But that is not my point. What is my point then?
Well, here it is: time’s running out, lest you hadn’t noticed. The minutes that I used so far (from 3-3:15 am in Chennai, South-India on April 18, 2013, are gone. Forever. They will never ever return. I go to work and (hopefully) return to my home, in the evening. Photographs as witnesses of my passed, show me what happened. But the happenings themselves, will never return. You know when I first really understood the meaning of ‘never’? When my mum died. ‘I will never ever be able to talk to her’, I understood. Never. It means. . what? Its fairly incomprehensible, if you really look into it. And you know why? Because we refuse to really accept it. That counts for the amount of coal stored in our earth’s crust as well as death. We are in denial. And we have to (we think), because wouldn’t life become pretty unbearable when you would realize, I mean: really realize, that it will all stop, one day. The coal. And our lives. Would it? Become unbearable? I think not!
I don’t pretend that I know ‘how things are’. As a humanist and agnostic, I have the potentially depressive-making conviction that when I die, it all stops. End of story (hope it was a good one!). End of the line. But I’m not depressed. I was, when I was 20, but that was because i did NOT feel what I feel now. I felt, back then, that life was going on forever. And that ‘forever’ thought kind of depressed me. The same thought - that life was to go on forever or at least for a very very long time - made me happy ever since. And now? I have surrendered to the idea that it is not. Going to go on forever. But it will stop. And the minutes that clock away between ‘later’ and ‘now’, that seem to stretch out before me as ‘the future’ have become a precious commodity. As the growing scarcity coal has become the heart-beat of the ‘sustainable future’ movement (am part of it, don’t worry!). So did life’s weaning away because of time’s passing away, become my heart-beat. Causing an urgency (not very stressful, happily, but urgency it is) that puts me where I am. Saying: ‘people, do not waste time on stuff that later on you will think of as ‘Oh, I wish I had done more of this instead of that’. Because when you arrive at this and other similar thoughts - most likely at your very end - there’s really no time left to have it done.
My message in a bottle: seek what it is that you’ve come here for. Seek what drives you and to whom it drives you. And dispose of those things (and people) that withold you from doing what your heart tells you to do. For this is your heart-beat saying to you: ‘time’s running out, buddy. You better keep going, doing what you can to make it worth, living. Your life’s yours. And you’re the only one who can make it count. Every second of it. Do it!’
Why is it so difficult to climb the Mount Everest? Or to travel up to 35 km and then jump off a balloon (yeah, it has been done!)? Or, to name something easier, to write a blog post? It is because the beginning is so tough. And that is because we imagine the final climb, moment to jump or first words on ‘paper’ to be so incredibly tough. Almost (yeah, say it!) .. impossible!
Then why some people HAVE done it? Climbing the Everest (many did, since Edmund Hillary in the nineteen fifties , jumping out of balloons (but nobody repeated the 35 km jump so far, though) or writing blog posts (millions are doing it, everyday). Why will YOU not do it, starting with writing a blog post?
Here I am, had just as much reservation as you have and I did it. You know how? Here’s the secret: I just wrote about my very fear, in the first paragraph. I wrote about the hesitation I felt while my browser was loading tumblr.com. ‘What am I going to write about?’
First thing you have to get out of the way is ‘the readers’. Replace them with ‘my best friend’. You are simply having a conversation with your best friend. That clears the path already for a great deal.
Next: get yourself out of the way. Its not you that your friend is interested in (of course he/she is, but that’s old stuff!), its the story! Hey, you’ve got some news for me? ‘Yeah, there’s this doubt that simply fills me everytime I …’. Silence. Friend: ‘Well, go on! I want to hear everything!’. There you are: you’ve got an enthusiastic audience, ready to hear whatever it is. Spill the beans, John!
Its all in your mind really. Just imagine. The right stuff. And off .. you go! You’re on your way towards your (first?) blog post!
India is celebrating its 64th Republic Day today.
Today, 26 Jan 2013 - is 13 years after the year in which we set the Millennium Development Goals with two more to go till the finish line; 22 years after India (in 1991) opened its international borders for international trade and 66 year after India gained independence from the British. How well did India do, looking back? Not that good, unfortunately. Here’s an excerpt from an article in today’s The Hindu, India’s largest English medium newspaper in the South. Its author, prof. Sankaran Krishna (professor of political science at the University of Hawaii) writes:
“One of the most prominent features of India’s middle-class-driven public culture has been an obsession about our GDP growth rate, and a facile equation of that number with a sense of national achievement”
“Yet, in a recent essay, the eminent economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze pointed to an important problem with equating India’s economic performance with its GDP growth rate. They noted: “There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress”.
How is it possible, you might think, that this middle-class is so blind for what happens in its back-yards? No, in the very streets it lives in, or on the way to the private schools they drop their kids off by car every morning; on the way to good-earning office jobs?
Prof. Sankaran says about the Indian middle-class: “The Indian middle-class is not conventional in the sense of being sandwiched between rich, conservative elites and the lowest third of society (…). In India the middle-class is at the apex and is the dominant component of the top 20% of society in terms of wealth and income (..)reflected in its caste-status, education and westernization (…) This class self-image is that of a meritocratic group that has advanced through education, discipline and deferred enjoyment. However, both the colonial period and the decades after independence show this ‘merit’ to be based more on privileged and restricted access to western education and professions that emerged in the wake of the modernization rather than by rising to the top in a context marked by widespread equality of opportunity”.
And about the poor, the ‘forgotten millions at the bottom’, he states:
“India has averaged annual GDP growth rates of approximately 6% - whereas the nation’s ranking in terms of the Human Development Index has remained unchanged over that period: we were ranked an abysmal 134 in 1980 and exactly that in 2011. In 1980, about 80% of our population subsisted on less than 2 US$ a day, and that percentage has declined by as little as five percent since then.”
In case you’d like to tell Prof. Sankaran what you think of his statements: email@example.com
In the same edition of The Hindu, there’s an advertorial by the Department of Electronicss and Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology of the Government of India. It narrates about the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP): Touching Lives of the People of India. An excerpt:
“NeGP is the e-revolution transforming lives of citizens by making access to critical public services, a citizen’s right. NeGP’s endeavour has been to improve the quality of life, by facilitating socio-economic development across the nation by making critical public services accessible on an ‘anywhere, anytime’ basis.”
Just in case you thought they’ve got the point.
I would like to end with a quote by a poet & writer from the US, the country the majority of the Indian middle-class looks up to when its comes to life-style. Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) once said:
“There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.”
Every once in a while, I receive a mail from one of my local team coordinators, that goes like this: ‘John is happy volunteering in X, but would be even happier if Y wouldn’t pester him in forcing him to start fund raising for the organization, whereas that is not what he has been invited to come over and work for’. Many variations on the theme: project partners of AMAIDI, even the ones that signed a new contract stating that volunteers come to volunteer and not to donate money or raise money unless they have signed up explicitly to do so, do ask their volunteers to fund raise for them. Naturally? Well, from their viewpoint perhaps, yes. But from where I stand and from what I know is that there’s a lot of motivated volunteers out there who’d love to fund raise for practically every organization they work for. And these volunteers do sign up, apparently. But not yet in masses or even in small numbers with us @Amaidi. On the contrary, when a partner has it clearly mentioned (what we promote, if that is what they really need) that a volunteer is invited to come over and fund raise for them, there’s nearly no one signing up!
Fund raising - or rather: the outcome of it - is the bread-and-butter of all NGOs. When you’re lucky (but we’re living in a space where that commodity runs out quickly) you’ve got a donor hooked to you for a couple of years, or at least a few projects that makes sense in the context of your mission of alleviating poverty or one or two of its ugly facess, amidst the community you serve. If you’re not lucky, you will see the funds for your projects dwindle and therewith the projects, sad faces in the villages you work in, erodet believe in your power to deliver as a charitable NGO and a personal loss of face in the eyes of those who earlier carried you on their hands, revered you. There’s more than an organization’s tragedy when money doesn’t come. The tragedy has often a deep personal dimension.
And because the tragedy of not having enough money, as an NGO, to fullfill your commitments that you personally have been bringing to your beneficiaries (be it handicapped elderly or mentally challenged children and their care-takers, or a farmers collective or a federation of women self help groups), the need to avail of every opportunity to find funds, is so dominant.
No one will simply say: ‘Well, it seems that no one is really interested in what we do, so lets take a while off to redefine our mission and strategy’. No NGO wants to ‘take a break’. If at all there’s no work to be carried out, it is not announced and the impression will be upheld that ‘we’re only waiting for the next installment to be transferred’. Its like the guy who has lost his job, but leaves his home at 8.30am nevertheless, telling his family (or himself) that he’s going to the office, knowing that is not so. Until reality hits him in the face after a few weeks. Or earlier.
And now imagine that you run such an NGO and there’s an opportunity to get a few Americans from New York to work with you, for a few weeks. You are working with kids, an orphanage perhaps or with mentally challenged children, or you serve a lot of women self-help groups. Things don’t go so well, and you’re at the verge of having to fire a few people who work for you as field-workers in the villages you used to come. And there’s these kids, undergraduates. From New York. And the only thing that goes round in your head is ‘suppose, just suppose. . they like my project and would tell about my project at home. What would maybe come out of that?’ You start to imagine and it becomes a hope, bordering to a strategy. ‘I can always just ask them, can’t I?’
And you know, the thing is: most volunteers, if you ask them not straight from the outset, but after you let them develop what I call ‘a hearts-relation with the project’, are not at all taken aback hearing you ask to give a little publicity in their personal circle. On the contrary: they feel honored and will most likely even set up a Facebook page for you! If you can wait. But some can’t. And some overask. Too soon. Too much.
.. and that’s a pity, for as I said, although we have a policy (that partners sign for) that fund raising is something one has to commit to before one comes to be welcomed as a fund raiser, but not as a nasty surprise that first overwhelms you and then leaves you with a feeling ‘if I had know that this is the real reason why they have asked me to come over. .’ Disappointment! Delusion! The worst thing that can happen is when this mounts to a felt ‘breach of trust’ and a volunteer even asks for transfer to another organization. Again, this only escalates the way I describe it now, in untimely overasking. Not at the near end, when the volunteer, the project, its management and its beneficiaries have almost become family!
Fund raising is the life line of most NGOs. Most NGOs we deal with are not in a luxury position, we acknowledge that. One of the reasons we started AMAIDI Social Impact Investing is to divert the urge to ask volunteers to fullfill grand wishes for more than few hundred dollars, to this department. A department that we’re setting up to help our partners to find those who have money to spend and want to spend it on them. A platform where NGO and social investor can meet, in a safe environment, a space of trust. We’re not fully operational yet in this domain (volunteering is still our main metiér), but we’re developing the platform to its final shape with the help of a few experts in the field.
We hope that volunteers and NGO-partners will keep on meeting each other in such a manner that both the integrity and honesty will be safeguarded and no one has the feeling that ‘we’re together, but for the wrong reason’. In a world of transparency, needs need to be covered by this principle too. And AMAIDI definitely has a role to play in this.
‘I know its a difference-culture-thing’, but still, its tough to accept that some teachers just walk into your classroom and whack some kids’. Says Jamie in a school in a village in Uttar Pradesh, where she is deputed by AMAIDI as a teacher-assistant.
No matter how often we are repeating it, pre- and post arrival in India, it keeps astonishing and often repelling our volunteers: teacher’ behavior in average village schools in India. Although I don’t know the beating habits (of absence of it) in Africa and the America’s, but I’m sure there willl be a few likewise surprises awaiting the teacher volunteer, ready to start at his/her new school.
How deep can you reach in your sensitizing the volunteers to what is about to present itself to them once they start working on schools. Or in an NGO. Or a third world hospital. For it is not the schools’ privilige to amaze foreigners who have come to share skills, get some experience on their CV or simply ‘with a wish to do good’.
How can you manage expectations?
There’s tons of so called ‘pre-departure preparation sessions’ that so called sending organizations organize for their candidates. No doubt, tons of online material too, that ‘ensures that you will on your way fully prepared!’. So the caption says. But is that so? And can it be altogether so?
I’ve been wondering what the power exactly is that makes people believe that - like learning to swim by making movements in the air - prepares a candidate for what it is like when in the water. Does it not make more sense to practice. .. in the water? In other words: learning how it is to teach in a third world country, is best done when. .. you are in a third world country.
Of course, we can SAY and TELL about what could happen. We can ASK how you WOULD feel in case this of that would suddenly happen in front of your eyes. But what about the response? Is it a learning response? Will it change the receipients behavior? Will they take this ‘luggage’ along with the rest, to their destination? And except remembering that ‘something has been told about it’, will it capacitate them to actually convert a potentially threatening experience into a learning experience?
I am skeptical, that much is sure, about the effects of pre-departure sensitization courses. I am not saying we should not sensitize volunteers before they go, I would however like to see whatever is done before the airplane takes off, be complemented by a refreshers course at the destination. And that calls for organizing such an event, by a local team or by the host organization where one is going to work.
A short and focused preparation session (could very well be online only, to prevent people spening a lot of money in traveling to a central city in the home country of the volunteer), complimented with an equally focused inducation in the place where one sets foot in the other country and its culture.
Learning how to swim, while in the water, will finally make it work, while knowing which movements to make, is certainly a good beginning.
‘Hello, I am Ivy. Pleased to meet you here!’. Said Ivy from Hongkong (‘married with someone from Cambodia’). Ivy, around 35 years old, comes to Blue Cross in Velachery, Chennai, South-India, every day. The whole day. Since two weeks. She is responsible for the care of the puppies that are being brought in. Every day. In the 2 hours I was there, with my children, 6 new puppies were added to the small cages, on a nicely cleaned tile floor, in a small house near the entrance.
‘We need more volunteers, you need to speak with Don’, said Ivy. Before we could do that, my kids already picked up two puppies (‘go ahead, no problem’) and sank down on the ground with them to play. ‘If you can’t adopt one of them, bring your children here to at least play with them and show them love’, she said, with a big smile on her face. Ivy, from Hongkong. In Chennai.
Barag (or something with a similar sound) and another fellow, from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu respectively, lead us around the premises, before I met Don. Along with them a young, handsome engineer, from Tamil Nadu too. ‘I am already graduated’, she said. ‘Doing social service here’. She seemed to know an awful lot about animals, for an engineer that is. And there were a lot of various kinds of animals taken care of at the Chennai Blue Cross’ premises: apart from the usual dogs and cats, there were (wounded and/or neglected) cow, buffaloes, pigs, donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs and poultry (fighting cocks and even fighting sheep). I saw a little white rat (kept as a pet by someone until he had enough of it) and a wounded owl (‘normally wild life goes to a special centre’).
A whole bunch of waterbuffalo’s was sulkying in the mud, plentyful on the terrain after rain had lashed Chennai last night. ‘We have rescued them from being brought to illegal slaughter houses in Kerala’, the beautiful engineer explained me, pointing at some of the wounds they had developed because of the overloading of the truck they had been traveling on. I was introduced to Mohan, who was making a documentary on these illegal ‘transports to hell’, backed by a Hindu organization for the preservation of cow-life.
Finally I met Don, but before he could talke to me and I to him about what I wanted to get out of this visit apart from an exposure for my children (‘Can i please take this one, daddy?’), Don was called up by one of his field assistants. ‘Sorry, I have to go on a rescue mission. We have to pick up a neglected cow’. And off he was, in his truck. I asked him, while he drove away: ‘Are you not afraid for actions from the owners of these animals?’. He said, with a smile: ‘I have a team of lawyers on my side, and the law of course. They are no party for me’. Don, ex-Indian military officer. With a mission. To rescue. To care. To raise awareness under the general public of India.
I will surely come back for a real talk with Don.
Every night, before going to bed, I’m listening to a TED talk. You know, pressing ‘popular’ and then browsing the talks until I find one like. Sort of what fits the atmosphere, limited by how tired I am. I look at the expression of the faces of the ‘TED talker’, you know, looking at the stills that feature on TED’s website www.ted.com. Anyway, so I finally made my choice for a guy that looked kind of dynamic, but not uberactive. His name I forgot - I mostly do when the content is more attractive than the speaker - but I still remember - it all ended about an hour ago, that he was talking about ‘leadership’ and ‘how leaders inspire others’. As a small leader myself, I am almost naturally inclined to like these talks. ‘So lets have it’, I thought. And I thought well.
Not much I remembered in detail (already found out that handicap of mine in my college days), but what stuck in my mind - he repeated it many times, on purpose, to let it sink in well with the audience - was his saying ‘people don’t buy what you have, but what you believe’. He was giving examples, Apple was staged more than a few times upto a level that I started to become really suspicious. But he had a point, I thought. People want to share your believe system and after that or because of that (believe system) they feel good about buying your stuff. It sort of brought me on track again where I felt I had gone off: a good reason to start blogging taking my beliefs, the things I believe in, as a starting point.
I’ll do that in my next blog :)
I love cliffhangers.
It happens all the time. We are trying getting in touch with someone we know very well and its not working! We get no reply, no mail, chat’s offline for days. . We are sure the guy’s not on a holiday, or at least he didn’t tell us about it. Business trip? What keeps him busy, we’re thinking for a minute. Almost annoyed, coz we badly need to get in touch. ‘Where are you when I need you, mate?’
Is it that we don’t see our own part in this ‘being-more-than-busy’ universe of ours that we live in, that we work in. Anyway, the distinction between those two concepts is getting pretty vague these days. One of the reasons that in spite of an overkill of communication channels we are less and less accessible? Or. . are some of us (are you?) deliberately dis-engaging from ‘the conversation’? Are we starting to put more emphasis on ‘life-offline’? Second-life, almost?
That wouldn’t be a bad thing after all, would it? I mean, when we would actually get more enaged in talking with who’s sitting 2 meters instead of 2 timezones away from us. It would make us discover our personal environment again, bringing life back to proportions, almost bringing our soul back to ourselves.
Having said all that, what would being more dis-connected get to mean for my own business? Almost 80% of my emails to beyond 3 time-zones and I spend (too?) many hours in composing, reading and archiving them. What if I would start to also deliberaty dis-connect from time to time? Sort of un-engaging the way I am engaging right now? I would definetely win the sympathy of my family, starting with my kids! Do you have kids? Well, you can imagine having them.
In my work email is everything. But its not everybody. And that is what this conversation is perhaps all about. To realize that, it takes people that ‘suddenly’ dis-connect from you. Wean themselves away from your dialogue with them, leaving you with no choice to do the same. And that, in itself, could simply be cleansing.
I’ll try to be less annoyed next time ;)