Thursday, July 21, 2011

Succeeding whilst failing

It seems like there is a lot of self-reflection amongst the other VSO volunteers at the moment. So, having had my mid-year review (admittedly a couple of months late!), I thought it was time to take stock of my placement so far and think about what constitutes a “successful placement”.

Paul (via Corey) talks about his three rules:
  1. Do no evil
  2. Have fun
  3. Treat any difference you make as a bonus
This might seem like a pretty low bar to success, but the reality is that making changes is difficult. VSO warn you about not expecting to change the world, but surely we can hope to do something a bit more than just not make things worse?

I had a number of objectives when I was sent to India. In theory these were agreed between VSO India and my organisation and should have formed the basis of my placement. In reality, for me and for the majority of volunteers, these objectives are turned on their head in the first few months of the placement. I was no different.

My role at Srijan is “MIS Officer”. I've only just (8 months in) been able to even think about MIS. My objectives were to build an MIS system and develop the organisation's MIS abilities and practices. Measuring my placement on this basis, it's been a complete failure. Yet Srijan are delighted with my work and would have happily had me extend my placement (which I'm unfortunately unable to do - visas, funding, job back in the UK, Suzie!).

So how can both be true? How can my organisation be so happy, yet I've missed my objectives so completely. It's down to those objectives being completely inappropriate to the work actually required. MIS? Srijan didn't need MIS – they needed basic project management processes and a move towards professionalism.

Seth Godin wrote about this the other day. Before you can teach anyone anything, they need to act in a professional manner. When I joined Srijan two things were clear: firstly, that communications between the senior management and the field offices were poor; secondly, no-one did anything independently – they had to be chased and chased and chased.

Fast forward eight months. All of the project managers and senior project staff have access to an internal email system and are using it. Reports and plans are submitted on a timely basis giving the senior management far more visibility about what's happening on their projects. Staff are working independently and taking a pride in their project's success. There is a desire to improve and to do a good job that didn't exist before.

IT training in MS Office skills has resulted in a significant increase in quality products being developed. Project Managers are far more comfortable using IT systems and this is saving time and increasing productivity.

We have initiated three new projects, for which I've had major input into the proposal writing. We are now working with Unicef on iradicating Polio in eastern Jharkhand. We also got funding to continue the work we are doing on education in a mining area and start an innovative HIV / Aids project to combat the dangers of diseases spread by migratory workers.

All of the project staff now have a documented Roles and Responsibilities document. We have set six month objectives and development areas for all of them to try to develop their career and make Srijan a positive place to work.

Srijan has a web presence, which although not particularly active yet, will be developed over the final months of my placement to help raise the organisation's visibility.

Are these massive, sweeping changes? Not at all. In isolation these changes would be seen as fairly minor, but when you look at the culture of Srijan. When you speak to the project managers and notice how much more involved and engaged they are on their projects. When you look at the work the senior management team is doing – finding more time to work on strategy and proposals. When you consider the visibility of issues on projects. All of this is difficult to measure and yet is of vital importance to an organisation like Srijan.

So yes, when I sit down at the end of the year with VSO and assess the success of my placement, I may not have met many (or indeed, any!) of my initial objectives. Does that make my time here a failure? Does it mean I'm not proud of what I've achieved so far (or hope to achieve before I leave)? Not in the slightest.

Oh, and when it comes to the first two of Paul's objectives? Well, I hope I haven't done any harm here – I certainly don't think I have! And fun? Well I think this blog is testimony to the fact that I've managed that one... :-)

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Close Shave

One of the more amusing regular experiences I get to have here in Hazaribag is going for a haircut. The first time I did this in India I simply went to one of the little huts just near to my flat. For the stunning price of Rs15 (roughly 20p) my frankly ridiculously long hair was trimmed to something approaching respectability. Bargain.

Since then I've gone up in the world of Indian barbers to a shop down the street. It's more expensive, but they have fans and (power permitting) A/C, which makes the whole experience a bit more bearable. Plus you get an Indian head massage afterwards, which can be pretty good!

As with many barbers in the UK you can get a shave here too. This isn't something I do back home, but here I thought “In for a penny....let's give it a go”. So now I go through a basically weekly (or two!) cycle of growing a ridiculous semi-beard and then getting it all shaved off again. So far, so dull right?

Well yesterday I had what I have to say was one of my strangest experiences so far in India. I went to the barber's after work and had a shave. Nothing particularly exciting about the shave (although he nicked my neck - not happy!), but just as I'm about to leave, they asked me if I wanted a massage.... ”yeah, why not” I thought....

So off he goes, 10-15 mins of face massage etc. It's pretty good. Then he stops for a bit. After a minute or so I look around and he's busy putting a glove on his right hand. That's a bit bizarre, thinks I. Not that he's putting a glove on. That's a bit weird, I admit - it's more that the glove also has a huge contraption on the back of it.....which he turns on and it starts vibrating! (Imagine a home-made version of the thing on the right....) So now he's massaging my head with this thing going like a jackhammer, then my neck, then he pushes me forward in the chair and starts running it up and down my back. Except the guy to my right decides he's not doing it right, so he gets involved too....

...then it's on to my shoulder and arms. I half expected him to ask me to stand up so he could do my legs too! Eventually, after another go at my head, he stops that one.

Then it got really weird.

He pulls out this thing that looks a bit like a drill from a child's toy set. Except imagine it with a sandpaper adapter on it – a small, circular disk on the front. Luckily this disk was not like sandpaper, it was smooth, because he proceeds to use this thing to massage my face!!!! Basically it vibrates too and he spent a good five minutes rubbing this thing all over my face.

I guess it's something like this:
….except the one he used was bright yellow and so it looked like it had been bought in the Early Learning Centre.

I'm not really sure what the point of it was to be honest. It wasn't very relaxing, and rather than massaging my forehead like you'd expect, he seemed determined to "massage" my eye sockets and nostrils. Now, I'm no expert on massage, but I'm not sure that's standard. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if he was even a trained masseur at all..... ;-)

So, I've now been in this barber's for about an hour and he's finally finished. Oh. Except of course he's not. Now he wants to put some rose water in my eyes (I have to decline this on account of my contact lenses)! To be honest I think he was a bit bored and was beginning to just pick things up from around the shop and see what stupid things he could do to the idiot Englishman. If you do a search the whole thing is probably already up on Youtube....

I'd been intending heading to the lake for sunset and having a coffee and a bit of reading. My massage marathon meant that it was now pitch black outside. Next time I think I'll take the sunset....probably more relaxing!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lost in Translation

I've been in India for over 7 months now. In less than 4 more I will begin my journey home. I'm in a completely non-tourist area (I have seen less than 5 white people in Hazaribag. One of those was Suzie and seeing as I brought her here, I'm not even sure that counts!). Many of my colleagues speak only rudimentary English. I'm (allegedly) not entirely stupid. So I'm almost fluent in Hindi now, right?

Wrong. Big time.

Hindi is a difficult language to learn. Really, really, really difficult. Not least of the problems is that there is a completely different alphabet to get to grips with. The Hindi alphabet (called Devanagari) has 14 vowels and 36 consonants. For those of you who struggled with maths, that's almost twice as many as the Western alphabet we're used to.

Then you have to consider the way you make the sounds. Look at the consonants section. Check out rows 3 and 4 of that table. See anything that strikes you? Yep, they're basically identical. The difference is down to what you do with your tongue (stop sniggering at the back). For one you push your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, the other you push against your teeth at the front of your mouth.

I'll give you a small example:

Try saying those three and imagining the difference between them. Now imagine you've got people talking at you at 90mph and in an India accent. Think you can tell the difference? No, well you need to be able to because you're either being asked to eat something, do something or say something. Yep, three of the most useful verbs there are: eat, do and say – basically identical. Great.

So, you're a conscientious volunteer. You've got all sorts of materials. You've downloaded Hindi learning software, you've got mp3 podcasts, you've got books. You just need a teacher now....


Apparently, and in my opinion rather short-sightedly, Hazaribag has not seen any real need to import a large number of English-speaking Hindi private tutors. In fact, there is a sum total of....well, none. Since December I've been trying to find someone. My organisation have continuously said they're working on it. A couple of times I thought we were close....

...for example, one Sunday (in April I think) I actually got collected from my flat and driven across town by one of the staff. Here we go, I thought. Five months down, that's not too bad. We pull up at a house and walk up the drive. Sanjit has been referring to the teacher as “The Madam” (I said stop laughing!) and a sweet old lady answers the door. She speaks very good English, but obviously has absolutely no idea why we're there. I assumed there was some mis-communication, but was hopeful that once we explained the problem she would help me out. Then she said something that really surprised me.....

“but I don't know Hindi!”

…yep, in the state of Jharkhand, whose official language is Hindi, I had managed to find probably the most fluent English-speaking Indian (at one point she even used the phrase “Kicked the bucket”!)– and she didn't speak Hindi!!!!

I was eventually passed to her next-door neighbours, who run an IT school. They're nice people, but obviously have never taught a language lesson in their lives. Their approach was an interesting one. I was asked to copy all of the letters out first. Ok, that makes sense. I can do that. I did do that. Okay, next lesson:
Them - “Right, have a conversation with this boy here”
Me - “Um, but I don't know any Hindi.”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!” (speak in Hindi)
Me - “um.....”

Them - “Your homework today is to write 10-15 lines on the agriculture industry of the UK”
Me - “I don't think I can do that in English, let alone Hindi....”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!”

Random boy in class, when asked to talk to me for practice – [Says some Hindi I don't understand]
Me – “MaiN nahiin samajta huun” (I don't understand)
Them – “He asked you what your favourite season is”
Me - “Um.....” (I should point out that this was a completely random question. We hadn't done any vocabulary on seasons. Or talked about how to express opinions. Or done anything that I could use here.....)

In 9 or 10 lessons we haven't even approached any grammar or anything useful. Their approach seems to be – bombard him with Hindi, without explaining any of it, and hope that something sticks. If I could learn like that I would be fluent by now!!!! So I'm stopping them.

I am improving though. It's just very slow. Frustratingly so. Partly down to my pronunciation. Partly down to my lack of good grammar. Partly because often people are expecting me to talk in English and therefore trying to translate my pigeon-Hindi into Hindi!!!

Most of the time, the situation I'm in means that I can work out what's going on, even if I don't understand 100% of the conversation, but sometimes it just confuses the hell out of me. Like today – I've had to change my washer-woman (the previous guy's stall got demolished!). I went for the second time to pick up my clothes this lunch time. We got through the entire transaction fine and then as I went to leave she started to say something. I couldn't understand, but I knew she was saying something about my dirty clothes. It seemed to be that she was telling me to bring them for cleaning.....but that's what I have been doing already! Oh well, I'm sure if it's important I'll find out eventually!

So I stumble around town, having short, stunted conversation with people. Some people seem amazed that I'm not fluent in Hindi, talking at me and even when I explain that I don't understand they just carry on talking to me, asking questions. Other people are absolutely amazed when I show any level of Hindi knowledge at all.

It's actually pretty much like being Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Except I haven't seen Scarlett Johansson yet....