Field Work is a whole different terrain… even more so in an entirely foreign country where you are considered an alien. It’s been around 3-4 weeks since I have arrived to work at Seva Mandir, a local Indian NGO based in the district of Udaipur. I arrived (as always) bright-eyed, ready to take on whatever challenges would await me during the next 2.5 months. 4 weeks later and I wonder if I’ve even begun.
Here’s the thing about doing field work in an NGO: no one arranges anything for you. You’re on your own. It’s the real deal. Do with it what you will. I thought I had known about this reality long before arriving in my new internship. I really did. It’s only now that I have realized that although I was fully aware of working dynamic at Seva Mandir, I hadn’t really accepted it. I was still stuck in that academic setting where I had so comfortably settled in the last 16 years. In school, you do your homework, study for your tests, get good grades and eventually get praised for all of your hard work. Classes start at 8 and end at 3. There’s a structure to your day. Here in India, I’ve been thrown into the polar opposite. I never have a structured 9 to 5 day – I could be up at 7 in the morning one day and sleep in until 10am another day. There are no set deadlines – except perhaps the looming departure date back home on the other side of the world. No one gives you a set assignment or test. As for praise - you go without. You learn to motivate yourself without reassurance from anyone else.
In short, even 10 years in university could never have prepared me for any of this.
Let me back up and explain just what I’m doing here at Seva Mandir. I’m currently working in the Education Department looking at the NGO’s Youth Resource Center (YRC) program. These YRCs are placed in villages all over the Udaipur district, with the main goal of ‘youth empowerment’ at its core mandate. YRC Facilitators at each YRC organize various activities, discussions, and training programs to teach youth about important government policies, provide a space to talk about social issues, and provide youth with vocational skills in order to better sustain their livelihoods. Such a program aims to shape youth as confident, responsible citizens for future generations. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. In reality, many YRCs are popularly seen as Youth Recreation Centers – attracting small children rather than the large 14-25 age group.
So why isn’t the program working? Many studies and evaluations were conducted, which revealed that there is a clear lack of structure in the YRC program, which makes it difficult to manage and coordinate the countless number of stakeholders involved with YRCs. Hence the main message is often lost and everyone pretty much does whatever they see fit without any effective results. This is when I come in. My goal is to formulate a study to design an effective monitoring and mentoring system between all of the program stakeholders. Basically, create a backbone for the YRCs. It’s a big job, let me tell you.
So I did what I could. I thought long and hard about my research design. I thought about what I would have to do to get the data from the field. I made a plan and countless interview guidelines for all of the stakeholders I would speak with.
Now, I have a Reporting Officer. He’s pretty much my go-to person for this entire project. He’s the current YRC Coordinator and very much dedicated to his work. He even helped all of the interns in getting oriented in Udaipur in his free time. So I go to him and show him everything I have designed and get a thumbs up. Cool. We discuss the arrangements for getting interviews and focus group discussions going in the villages.
And then I wait. And I keep waiting.
Responses from villages are slow. I can’t actually speak with anyone directly because I don’t know Hindi. So I rely on my Reporting Officer and he makes some calls. Any trips I go on are usually arranged by him. But things are still slow and a week or two goes by. The lack of quality translators that can work with me for interviews are frustrating and it takes me a good week to get used to calling potential translators, conducting interviews together as a team, and actually getting some quality data. It’s basically a huge learning process.
Today, I returned from the field with my Reporting Officer, with only one out of three interviews done for the day. Since I hadn’t been feeling well, we had to postpone the discussion to my dismay. So on the way back to Udaipur City, I thought I would have to go back to playing the waiting game when my Reporting Officer asked me what my plans were for tomorrow (Monday). I shrugged and told him I would type up some field notes and wait. Immediately, he made very constructive suggestions for me to take on for the week. Visit the villages you haven’t gone to speak with the YRC Facilitators directly. Go to a village every single day. Get them to understand the importance of your study to the YRC program and have them arrange interview dates for you.
I told him that I couldn’t speak with most of the stakeholders and that I needed help.
He told me get a translator and also added that I should have worked with a translator to make phone calls on my own.
I had to blink. I had not thought to do that. The phone calls, anyway. I never once thought I could take the project into my own hands like that. Faced with the giant language barrier, I had accepted that I had to get a green light from the people around me to get anything done.
Thinking on it now – why? Why didn’t I do exactly as my Reporting Officer said? More importantly, why hadn’t I taken the initiative to think of the solution on my own? I realized on the ride home that I had somehow made myself believe that I couldn’t do anything in such a foreign environment. I had hesitated and resigned to doing really nothing for a good 2 weeks. This wasn’t the ‘me’ that got shit done back home. And by straying from my usual determination, I felt like I had let my Reporting Officer down. See, it’s not his job to tell me exactly what to do. The reason he called me into conducting this study was to get an objective perspective on the YRC Program. This, as the YRC Coordinator, he could not do. In this respect, I was a colleague rather than a subordinate. For me subconsciously, I saw my Reporting Officer as my teacher rather than my mentor. I was writing notes and staring at the blackboard instead of taking the initiative to see him as an advisor to see now and again as I conducted my own study. Instead of asking him to arrange interviews for me, I should have been asking how I could arrange the interviews myself.
So 4 weeks in, and I’ve had a revelation. Enough playing at the drawing board. I want to show my Reporting Officer that he picked the right person for this enormous task. Seven weeks left. Eight villages and numerous stakeholders to speak with. I’ve barely begun. It’s time to hit the ground running.