Larger than Life

This afternoon, driving through the slums of Ahmedabad, I could not shake the nagging feeling that I did not fit. Coasting in our shiny white Toyota van through narrow dirt roads not designed for us, the universe paused for a minute to accommodate the Americans who were larger than the communities we infiltrated. Through the windows of our air-conditioned vessel, I watched as workers stopped what they were doing to make room for us, children paused their games to wave and smile at us, and local cars and vans moved off the road to make way for us-- the Americans. This reminded me of another incident I experienced earlier this morning, while working with the organization Design for Change at a local government-funded primary school. 

 As I was observing the outside area of the school, a young boy hesitantly approached me, flogged by a few giggling friends, and asked for my autograph. Taken by surprise, I paused for a second. Who am I to be signing my autograph for this boy? To show that I wasn’t any better than he, after signing my autograph I asked for his. However, this well-intentioned act only brought more undeserved attention from the students. As soon as the first boy signed his name in my journal, I was bombarded with at least twenty other students who all wanted to sign their name in my book. This continued for the next ten minutes or so. Confused, I asked one of the members of my Design for Change group why the students were so fascinated by us. She explained to me that these kids assume any white person is a celebrity.

 This statement shed a whole new light on the way I viewed my Niswarth experience so far. I fear that we journey out to help and learn from these communities into which we insert ourselves, but often only end up making spectacles of ourselves and interrupting the daily lives of the people we want to help.

 Over the past four days, I have been exposed to so many life-changing experiences. I have learned about incredible organizations working to empower women, I have visited various schools and seen first-hand the amazing work they are doing in their communities, and I have met so many kind, inspirational people who are taking steps to change the world. However, I still sometimes find myself wondering if going into these communities and attempting to understand them is overstepping some invisible boundary. Who am I to strut into these communities with my sheltered, relatively affluent upbringing and attempt to adopt their problems as my own? What’s more, I sometimes doubt whether it’s even possible to gain an understanding, no matter how superficial, of the communities we’re visiting when, everywhere we go, everything pauses to make room for us.

 Going forward, I hope I grow to better understand my role in the Niswarth program both as a volunteer and as a student. I hope to reach a balance between attempting to help the communities we enter and accepting the cultures of those communities as they are.