Author's Note: This was originally posted to the official Building Communities blog. Check it out for more up-to-date information on this project, and for other volunteers' impressions. Building Communities is the project jointly undertaken by the Indian organization known as the Association of Relief Volunteers and the American NGO Longitude. You can read more at those websites, and if you think it's a worthy cause to help those whom a government long ago branded "untouchable," then please considering donating your time or money to the cause. For now, though, thanks just for reading! If you're interested in volunteering in India or elsewhere or want to know more about what we did, please do e-mail me; I'd love to talk about it with you.
The Journey Home
My experience building communities in India

April 6, 2009

Hi everyone. I'm Jessie and I've just returned to Japan after spending a week volunteering in Gummallapadu Village. I had hoped to post something here while I was still in India, but events conspired to prevent me from doing so. That might be for the best, though, because now that I'm back home and have reflected a little more, I might be able to give a better picture of the whirlwind that was our week in India. Just be forewarned: I’m not concise.

As I saw it, it was upon our arrival at the Hyderabad airport that we really plunged into our Indian experience. I tend to be a nervous car passenger even in places where people use traffic lights, so Indian traffic was, to put it mildly, somewhat nerve-wracking. For those of us raised in the iron grip of oppressive totalitarian traffic regimes, true freedom takes some getting used to. We made a quick stop to wash up in the city center, then piled into auto-rickshaws that carried us off through throngs of people on their way to a political rally. The scene was full of an energy kept my eyes wide open, both out of fascination and a sense that I’d be swept away if they weren't. Once we reached the train station, we saw people running across the tracks while we waited for our overnight train (which eventually arrived two hours late). Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Japan anymore.

Even though we were a little groggy when arrived in Eluru the next morning, we quickly made our way to GP Village for our first day of work camp. The bumpy roads wound this way and that, past ponds and palms in an hour-long maze that I couldn’t have navigated even if I had all the power of MapQuest at my command, and in place of the political demonstrators in the streets, we now had goats and water buffalo.

And then, a child. Then two, then five, ten, twenty—a whole entourage of children, running after us, waving and hollering and grinning.

We had arrived. Petals flew into the air as we stepped out of the cars, a shower of orange and pink and yellow flying alongside joyous shouts. Our team leader, Anna, had to come and help disentangle me from the mass of small people trying to embrace me, kissing my hands.

What had I done for them to merit such a reception? That question lingered in my mind for the whole week, especially after I seemed to have become something of a celebrity amongst the children. I guess it was because I (mostly because I was the last person to figure out that everyone else had gone back to work) had stayed on babysitting duty and played with them that first day—which took a lot more energy than lifting measly cement bricks, let me tell you. Those kids had an energy that put our first night’s political marchers to shame. And for the rest of the week, just because I had stayed and played with them, I would be so fortunate as to hear "Jessie! Jessie! Akka Jessie!" echoing behind me wherever I went. (Akka means お姉ちゃん, or big sister.)

But Ravi told us something that made our situation somewhat clearer to me. We weren't there just to build houses. The villagers, after all, were quite capable of doing that by themselves. What we provided was the sense that what happened in this village mattered. The fact that foreigners would travel 50 hours to come and help provided a psychic support, or so I’m told, to the people of GP village. That is how our physical labor helped build their communities.

It’s an odd thought to me, though, because I still feel like they gave far more to me than I did them. To be a part of a community is to belong. It is to have safety and security, a place to protect you from the chaos of the outside world. On a fundamental level, that comes from the sturdy walls around you; on a more profound level, it comes from the connections you have with the people around you.

During the long layovers, clamorous crowds, and treacherous traffic of our long journey, I felt as far removed from any sense of community as I could be. But from first glimpse of a child running after our car, that began to change. As we handed trays of cement down a line of volunteers and villagers alike on our first day, the sense of the distance we had traveled began to fade. When a family co-opted Ravi's official dinner plans by inviting us all into their home to eat the pilaf they had prepared for us, it became clear that these wonderful people were building us into the community that we thought we had come to build for them.

That is what this trip left me with: the sense of the community that we all are building together. It is for the people of Gummallapadu, but we volunteers have a place in it too. And to think they were thanking us.

In my opening paragraph I referred to Japan as "home." I never know whether I should do that, being an American and all. This may sound cheesy, but I mean it when I say that my experience in India broadened the meaning of “home” for me. I have never felt such a contrast between two places before as I did between the bright Technicolor tones of India (complete with lively soundtrack and choreography!) and the subtle light-and-shadow balance of Japan. But because of my time in Gummallapadu, I came to realize how much I was a part of the community in both, and for that I am profoundly grateful. I hope to stay connected to that village in Andhra Pradesh, still so distant on the map, but now our neighbors in spirit.

© 2009 JLM

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