First Impressions - Nov 2018

Stepping out of the airport, I’m hit with the smell of smoke and exhaust. It’s 3:30 a.m. and I should be stumbling from the jet lag or the 32 hours of travel but my limbs are buzzing with anticipation and and the adrenaline rush of the customs line. It is dark outside and the arrivals curb is lit with fluorescent lights. My eyes search the crowd of picker-uppers and I hear my name, “Aedin?” Amy, the other Sabarmati Fellow has heroically come to pick me up from the airport in the much too early hours of the morning. I awkwardly negotiate my large duffle to give her a side hug, the woman from whom I will learn for the next month before she returns home, leaving extremely large shoes to fill. 

Amy has been in India for 12 months and in her time here has implemented an English curriculum for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at the four different Manav Sadhna teaching centers. This has meant finding a curriculum online, vetting the curriculum, testing it out herself at one center in the role of teacher, finding funds for the curriculum materials, getting the lesson plans translated into Gujarati, teaching the teachers how to teach the new curriculum, and following up with the teachers as the lesson plans progress. It has taken me two weeks to fully grasp how much work she has accomplished in her year here but in the van from the airport, it only took a few moments for me to feel wholly welcomed and realize, here was a human who genuinely cared to make the world a better place and whose actions thoroughly reflected this desire. It has been this kind of company that I have become accustomed to in every corner of Manav Sadhna, the NGO that I will be working at for the next six months to a year.  

The first week of my time in India is an orientation spent trying to understand exactly what Manav Sadhna is, what all it does, and what it means to be a value based organization. Though I have only seen the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, I’ll offer my understanding so far, as much for my own absorption as yours. First, some introduction: Manav Sadhna (Manav = Human, Sadhna = Practice) is a non-profit that is housed in the Gandhi Ashram in the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat in the country of India. When Gandhi moved back to India after his time in South Africa, he started an Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River where he lived and which served as a center of the Indian struggle for independence. In 1930, Gandhi along with 78 companions, began the famous Salt March in protest of British salt taxes. The march incited a mass of freedom fighters and British jails were soon full. Along with arrest, the freedom fighters’ lands were seized by British rule. Gandhi asked the British government to seize the ashram as well, in sympathy for those whose land had been taken. The government did not oblige, but Ghandi disbanded the ashram and vowed not to return until India had won independence. He never returned, however, as India won independence in 1947 and Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. The ashram was then preserved by local citizens and is now a museum and tribute to Gandhi’s life’s work and teachings. 

Gandhi’s seat where he spun cotton. You can also see one of his few possessions, the hear no, speak no, see no evil monkeys.

Gandhi’s seat where he spun cotton. You can also see one of his few possessions, the hear no, speak no, see no evil monkeys.

In 1990, a group of volunteers, inspired by Ghandi’s teachings, began sitting under the trees in the Ashram to play with children from the neighboring slums. They fed the kids a nutritious meal and taught them basic hygiene principles. This was the seed that began Manav Sadhna. Along with collaboration from nearby non-profits, Manav Sadhna (M.S.) became an organization that responds to the local community’s needs and only functions with participation of the community. It is partially this fluidity that makes M.S. hard to explain but also extremely effective. M.S. mirrors an organic ecosystem that isn’t dictated by the ego of a visionary but by the need and participation of the community. If a need goes  away or participation is not there (or if a program isn’t effective), M.S. reallocates those funds to other projects. Since its inception, M.S. has founded four other community centers throughout Ahmedabad, all in the center of slum communities where the need is greatest. My fist week was spent visiting these different centers, each of which have distinct personalities which mirror the communities they serve. Manav Jatan, a 20 minute walk from the Gandhi Ashram, is the closest center. Also located at this community center is the Paryavaran Mitra project, which aims to empower, fund, and support “rag picking women” who scour the streets in the early morning for recyclables to sell to recycling companies for an income. The next community center, Manav Gulzar is in a slum community of both Hindu and Muslims, a rare mix in Gujarat, with history Muslim versus Hindu violence. Manav Seva is noticeably more squished that any other community, with the houses and alleys about half the size of other communities'. Lastly, Manav Mitra might be the most colorful community center I’ve ever seen with an internal courtyard filled with trees. Please enjoy the professional map below. 

Kindergarteners in line to wash their hands at Manav Gulzar.

Kindergarteners in line to wash their hands at Manav Gulzar.

After my first week of visiting the different community centers and projects under the Manav Sadhna umbrella, I can only describe my internal state as simultaneously overwhelmed and at peace. Overwhelm because this organization impacts so many lives in thorough and sustained ways. For example, many of the staff were children who grew up in the slum communities,  were taken in by the Manav Sadhna family, and were inspired to continue into a life of service. They now make decent pay (though M.S. says it could be better and they are currently trying to raise salaries), have healthcare for themselves and their families, and have strong longterm support for their families’ education (Education of the children of M.S. staff is paid for through secondary school). The breadth and efficacy of social change and positive impact is overwhelming.  

The ethos of M.S. also gives me an inner peace… Manav Sadhna is difficult to describe because it is so unlike any organization I have experienced in the west where so often there is a struggle to create good, a fight to get funding, a battle to adhere to a vision. M.S. is nothing like this. In a conversation with Virinbhai, the cofounder of M.S., I asked him what the most difficult part of creating this community organization has been? His response was that none of it was hard. There was no difficult part… To call this a paradigm shift in an understatement for my American-capitalist-conditioned brain to comprehend - I have an unbidden voice that screams within, you must work hard and suffer to succeed! So what could this wise old man possibly mean? It isn’t that Virinbhai didn’t work hard. He simply serves to the best of his ability. That’s it. He doesn’t have a vision to save the whole world or even strive for literacy for every child in Ahmedabad. He co-created an organization that simply does its best with the resources available. Day by day, they do their best and give where there is need and center themselves with meditation. And in 27 years they have created a humble but very powerful organization that impacts hundreds of lives each year. You can imagine my relief - The way I have been addressing the world’s problems has been an uphill battle without a weapon on a rainy day. But suddenly I have been told it’s not a battle at all. This new way of creating change much more resembles the flow of water that carved the grand canyon - obviously creating a huge impact but simply by flowing. My heart, which has fervently been searching for a way to ease the suffering of this world only to feel more and more exhausted at every turn, has hope for relief. I look forward to learning from this community.

Lots of Love,