I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!
That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.
The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?
By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.
When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.
No, it wasn’t just the dinosaurs. Yes, they were the major attraction, but once we got there the Museum fur Naturkund (Natural History Museum) turned out to be so much more. It was as if a physical force took hold of the children and we were barely able to keep up, chasing after them as they ran from one exhibit to the other, fascinated by creatures preserved inside bottles, by the science of taxonomy, by the preservation techniques on display and all the stuffed birds and animals, by the sheer biodiversity on our planet that hit us when we were in there. It was like an ocean of information, so well presented and it was an absolute pleasure to be here. To quote from their website, this is “one of the most significant research institutions worldwide in biological and geo-scientific evolution research and biodiversity.”
But let’s start with the dinosaurs!
This gallery, the very first one in the Museum, is a result of a highly successful early 20th century German expedition to Tanzania to collect dinosaur fossils. The Germans were prolific discoverers, very strong on scientific rigour and Berlin is a city full of museums because of this. In this one hall, we saw the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world, the Brachiosaurus, which stands 13.27 metres and whose bones were found during the Tendaguru expedition that took place in 1909-1911. The Tendaguru Beds, as they came to be known, yielded many significant dinosaur skeletons and added hugely to our knowledge of this fascinating species that once inhabited the Earth. A skeleton of the herbivore Kentrosaurus or ‘spiky lizard’ that lived in the Upper Jurassic Period and a reproduction of thos period’s largest carnivore, the Allosaurus with its short front legs and enormous jaws with blade-like teeth are some of the other Dino friends we met in Berlin. Take a look…
I’ve noticed time and again Aadyaa is deeply interested in nature while Udai is on a mission for gleaning facts and will read every written word inside a museum (we call him the paisa-vasool tourist, meaning he will eke out the full value from whatever he spends!). And so, the two kids were comrades-in-arms at this museum, Udai reading things out and explaining to Aadyaa, she running ahead to identify the most interesting exhibits. The visual variety in the museum had a lot to do with keeping the kids engaged I feel.
I have to tell you about this incident inside the museum that really tickled me. Udai and Aadyaa were trying to build a 3D model that shows the different types of outer coverings that Dinos might have had, scaly or feathery. But a piece was missing. Off they marched off looking for it, managing to find the thief and communicate with his German grandpa, finally getting their missing piece back. They went on to toil at the model and posed when it was done, pleased as punch! See the tale in pics!
At the tail end of the Museum, I saw all these people lying on a round couch. It was only when the screen overhead began to flash images that I realised this is some sort of planetarium equivalent. The voice over was in German so we didn’t really understand much. But I captured here that aha! moment for which the crowds had been waiting. At one point of the film, the Google Earth image on the screen zooms in to show an image of the people down there on the couch. At the instant I clicked this image, the camera was already zooming out on the screen, but you can see that people spontaneously started pointing to their own faces when that image was shown! Such excitement! Such a simple way to get people to come back again and again!
There are many interesting ways to work with communities. A wide variety of social researchers across the world are learning that there is tremendous knowledge vested within communities and the outside-in, often high-handed, approach used by academicians and policy makers alike can be disastrous, not only because analysis and solutions may be far removed from reality and therefore unsuccessful when applied, but also and more importantly because this sort of approach loses out on the rich understanding that communities have of their environment, the networks that exist among them, their strenghts and weaknesses. Critical knowledge that can make or break their future and that, in turn, can teach those of us from the ‘outside’ that work with them, so much!
Today’s The Hindu carries a piece by Janaki Lenin about Erika Cuellar, a Bolivian biologist who empowered tribals to use their inherent knowledge in mainstream research and be recognized and compensated for it. This is a critical change and an evolving approach in research.
In my experiences with slum communities, I have often had the opportunity of learning from community members. Often, not the leaders, but ordinary members of the community can make astute observations that put us on a path to better design and more appropriate solutions. In the Sundernagari slum redevelopment project that mHS did in association with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the frequent mention of community life as enacted in the streets outside their homes led us to a pathbreaking design that focused on the street (at two levels, on the ground and two floors above the ground) as a space for interaction, work and play, a tool for safety and social cohesion and much more.
In our workshop at the Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri earlier this month, I got the chance to see another type of knowledge at work. The issue that stood out in all our conversations here was the low sanitation conditions in the slum. Most homes had no toilets and the community toilets are filthy and poorly maintained; many of the 35 toilets on the male side and the female side were not even functional. I had to see them to corroborate that absolute horror stories we heard. Not a pretty sight!
After the complaining had been done, I engaged the community members in a discussion in an attempt to find the reasons behind the problem and seek possible solutions. Apparently, the toilets used to be maintained by a private operator (charge Rs 1 per use) and were relatively clean, until the current Councillor (a good person, independent candidate, did other really good things for the area) declared them to be free. The maintenance became non-existent; women especially are in a bad shape, complaining of stomach aches and infections, a really pathetic situation. The Councillor is depending on the MLA for funds to remedy the situation, but the MLA is disinterested because he knows he won’t be re-elected when the elections come around. The community, which has represented numerous times on this matter, is caught in the crossfire and they are currently disheartened by the status quo.
I probed into the issue of self-regulation and the awareness of improved sanitation habits, like cleaning up after each use, etc. One gentleman happened to make the remark that ‘renters’ are the ones who leave the toilets dirty, which of course sent me into a whole tirade on how personal hygiene is not related to economic wealth, caste, status or tenure! I was so upset and insisted on knowing why the community isn’t organizing itself to address this issue if it is indeed such a huge issue! I should have expected the reply.
I was told that anyone who takes the lead runs a huge risk of being the object of ridicule and contempt if they fail, and subsequently they also lose whatever social equity they currently have, an important aspect of slum life and one that is traded for money, debt, favors and the like…. and the toilets are an issue that even the local politician has failed to crack! And then, the solution came too. If an NGO or any external organization were to take the lead and outline a strategy, the community members we spoke to felt confident that people would support them wholeheartedly, work for the cause, do whatever it takes to get this done. They desperately need a facilitator, that’s what they were telling me.
And their observation ties up with experiences of development practitioners in a myriad circumstances.They know the solution, they are simply not equipped to take the lead in roping the right people. They have little confidence in their own knowledge or bargaining power, and have been disheartened by recent and persistent failure in negotiation for their needs. Of course, it seems like they just passed the ball into my court and won a battle of words and it’s easy to walk away in scorn, wondering why “these people don’t want to help themselves”! The thought did cross my mind, but I hung my head in shame immediately. Of course they wanted to help themselves. After all, it is they and not me who have to use those filthy toilets every day.
If you have the stomach for it, take a look….
As always, I return energised from visiting the slums. My destination today was Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri, New Delhi. This where Katha runs its public school, a buzzing pulsating place full of joy and cheer. Like in all other schools, the walls reflect the happenings. I was amazed to see how deep the understanding and explorations of concepts went. Through the medium of exploring life in the sea, these children had studied and debated issues like sustainability and exploitation, diversity of life forms, survival and propagation of species, life cycles and natural systems. Also they had a philosophical take on the sea. How they identified with the sea; And being the sea change!
After interacting with the staff here, I see a passion and hunger for learning and teaching, a will to make change possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired! I look forward to two days of interaction with class 12 kids in January, when mHS gets in a group of American students to interact with Katha kids and try and develop a template for what quality of life means to a slum dweller. Since children will facilitate this, it should reveal some surprising results.
Walking out if the community, I captured two images that offer contrasting aspects of slum life for our consideration. One on hand, slum dwellers struggle to access basic services. You can see people gathered around a water tanker. On the other, the pace of life, home based work and an intensely interdependent social network means people can catch a few hours of repose on their charpais in the warm winter sun. On the street onto which their tiny dwellings spill out, while taking in the hustle bustle and latest gossip. Plus chai!