Adventures in Volunteering

Okay. I know, the little white suburban girl learns about a real-world issue firsthand – it’s kind of clichéd by now, made into movies and books and blogs galore, but here I am, in the middle of India, fresh out of university with a padded humanities degree and all of the fluff in my head trying to find a path into the world of development and getting a good dose of reality along with it!

I first worked with the Blue Planet Run Youth Board for two years working with incredibly creative and motivated young people to raise awareness among their peers of the world’s drinking water crisis. The experience was wonderful, and when I graduated and wanted to spend a year traveling and volunteering, I contacted Rajesh – head of the BPR water network, Peer Water Exchange, to see if he knew of anything. And boy, did he! Now I’m knee-deep in PWX and loving every single second of it!

I’ll first hail back to my BPR days though (even just a year ago). One of the many activities we created to raise awareness was a viral video where I, along with another youth board coordinator, explained the statistics on a video for other youth – 1.1 billion people, women walking hours, blah, blah, blah. And not that the statistics aren’t important – they are incredibly astonishing and worthwhile, but my point is that while I knew the statistics forward and back, I know now that I did not know the problem until I got to Gram Vikas.

I arrived to the sunny haven that is the main office campus of Gram Vikas in little Mohuda Village, Orissa after a grueling 20-some-hour train journey. Butterflies pranced in the palm tree-shaded path as I carried my backpack to my new room in the beautifully crafted intern guesthouse.

On the way here, I had no idea what the area would be like. In fact, in my ignorance, I was pretty much expecting dry, uninhabitable lands with unbearable conditions. Orissa is, after all, one of the poorest states in India where less than 4% of the population has access to piped drinking water. To make matters worse, I had been reading in the paper leading up to my visit to Gram Vikas that farmers across the state where killing themselves because of the terrible drought conditions slamming the lands. Walking in this lush enclave was not at all what I had imagined. Again, I knew the stats about the area, but I was blown away by the mountainous region covered in green trees and jungle fauna.

Since then, I have visited five projects in the area and researched pretty much every single one of the 701 water and sanitation projects initiated by Gram Vikas and the great Joe Madiath. In many parts, conditions are indeed terrible, but what I have learned from Joe – both through the books about him and his wonderful patience in explaining everything to me – is that the statistics about water that I have so fervently memorized and preached for all these years are very important, but still, only half the problem or less. Why is the water unsafe and unclean? Because people poop in it, bathe in it, and wash in it. Because flies land on feces, which sticks to their feet, which then contaminates the food they land on. Because animals loiter around the water sources pooping at will and carrying feces on their hooves and mouths as they drink from the well. Sitting in Joe’s office while he spelled it out for me was one of those “duh” moments. The numbers are meaningless without understanding the meat behind the issue. And in this case, it took me coming all the way here to begin to really grasp the water crisis.

Since then, I have delved into everything WatSan (one of the many acronyms I’ve learned for water and sanitation). My official business here is to help Gram Vikas get all of their projects organized onto PWX, but in that process, I have helped with a few other things around the office and in every ounce of my free time, soaked up all of the knowledge I can on water and sanitation – no pun intended! More on my adventures in water to follow!

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