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India Trip!

Hi everyone!I went to India this winter break, and I’d like to talk a bit about it, because a) there are some pretty pictures that go along with it and b) it was honestly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.I usually visit India every other summer break for family reasons: this time, however, I went to work for a nonprofit called Ekal Vidyalaya (usually called Ekal for short). Essentially what Ekal’s been doing for the past twenty years is establishing one-teacher primary schools in isolated, rural villages all across India; in addition to lowering India’s rampant illiteracy, the hope was that education would slowly work its magic and enable the village to develop infrastructure, a self-reliant economy, and a strong community in a way that donations and outside help never could. So far, some 56,000 schools have been built.Recently, Ekal has branched out its aims and focused on something called "Gramotthan" (literally meaning "village upliftment"). This includes things like setting up resources for farmers to learn about how to get more income and nourishment from their fields; teaching skills like sewing and repair work to give people (especially women) secondary sources of income; and setting up a village council to identify and address ongoing issues in the village.

My goal in India was to study test models of these programs with a team of six other college students, some from IIT and some from various places in the US, and answer some basic questions. Are these programs working as they are right now? And what can donors do to help these projects be more successful? (Donating money to buy textbooks or supplies is one thing, but money alone isn’t enough to fix problems like an unstable economy or social inequality). So, we traveled through the windy roads and jungles of Jharkhand, one of the states of India, visiting schools, villages, and development centers and taking notes on what we saw (or didn’t see) there.When I first got to India, we met with the coordinator of this internship program, and he wanted to know why we had chosen to spend our winter break here, and what we hoped to contribute to the experience. Everyone went around in a circle, talking about their specific focus – one guy was really interested in improving a project Ekal was doing with anemia, while someone else with an agricultural engineering background wanted to see how feasible it would be to rent out large farm equipment (threshers, tractors, etc.). In response, the coordinator then said something I won’t soon forget:"It’s great that all of you are thinking of how you can help or teach the villagers. But you’re going about this the wrong way – they aren’t the ones who need to learn. These villagers have so much more to teach you than you can possibly teach them, and the best thing you can do with this experience is just listen, observe, and try to understand their lives."And, man, was he right. I can’t possibly share all of the times I felt amazed when I saw how much the villagers could accomplish with so little, or humbled when someone invited all ten of us into their house and gave us some of their own food in hospitality. Those kinds of things need to be experienced personally. I think pictures are the next best thing, though, so below are some of the particularly memorable shots I took.As always, thanks! See ya on the flip!Vasant

There were a lot of other people I met who did similar things with their opportunities – one woman in the neighboring village loaned a sewing machine from Ekal and repaired dresses for townsfolk, then used the profits to start a backyard garden and used that money to buy herself a scooter and books to learn Hindi.