Exhuastion, Exasperation, and Sanitation!

I probably should have written about the past three weeks (oops) in real-time, but the amount of energy I had left over at the end of each day was less than zero so that didn’t happen and I probably won’t be able to accurately tell you all of the times that I stepped in poop or standing water with potential parasites.
A little bit ago, I was able to return to Trichy and Musiri districts to do more in-depth field work in four communities, regarding their shared community toilet blocks and treatment systems. These are the same four locations that I visited on my whirlwind first visit to Trichy and Musiri, the same places where I held human poop compost for the first and panicked with excitement over how cool that was. I spent over a week in those two towns and had forgotten how much I loved traveling in Tamil Nadu. The increase in heat is entirely worth the increase in greenery, the better food, and the fun village bus rides through the countryside where you pass hundreds (literally) of wild peacocks and macaques on each trip. Meals in Tamil Nadu are very different than meals in Karnataka. Meals are what you order when you want several exorbitant helpings of rice, covered in sambar, rasam, some other unknown type of sauce, and curd, while also getting endless helpings of three vegetable-based sides that usually involve cabbage and some type of stewed green thing reminiscent of spinach, but much tastier. Curd is one of the only things that I’ve struggled to eat so far in India. It has a bit of a sourish taste and sometimes a yellowish color, and usually takes me 3-4 consecutive meals before I find myself actually looking forward to having a serving of curd over my rice again. The meals sometimes end with that one sweet I may have told you about, the one that simultaneously tastes like Christmas and licking carpet and takes ten minutes to completely chew and swallow. One of the hotels (which is what restaurants that serve ‘meals’ are called) that we went to was offended we hadn’t called ahead to request they make American food for my arrival.
The goal of this trip was to complete as much as possible of my data collection plans for four communities that all have varying levels of community-led management and of resource recovery in their shared community sanitation systems.  
In each of the communities, I would begin the first day with a discussion with someone from the organization that implemented the project, to get a better understanding for what happened and what I should specifically ask the users about. I usually would be interrupted with tea or coffee, injected full of sugar and diabetes, or begged to take somewhere between one and fifteen pictures for some sort of official documentation. I can’t wait until my face is posted outside of a hair salon in some small village in India. We would then proceed to meet with the managing body for the sanitation system, which in one of the four recent communities was a women’s self-help group, and in the other three (in Musiri) was a mixture of one or two individuals in charge from the community plus government officials who played a more active role in system oversight. Next, I would go around and do an introductory visit to some of the households in the community who use the system, learning a bit about life in their community and some of the difficulties they face, before diving into the less-comfortable topic of sanitation and open defecation. During this time, we would leave the cameras for photovoice, explaining that we would return the next day at the same time to collect the cameras and discuss the pictures that the individuals had taken to capture the challenges and important things in their community. I have over 90 close-up, highly flattering pictures of my sweating face as a result of teaching groups of community members how to use digital cameras for the first time. I’ll be selling exclusive prints of those pictures to fund the remainder of my PhD. Let me know if you are interested. I would try to do photovoice with at least five community members, but ideally ten. The rest of the time in the communities would be spent talking again and again to the managing groups, talking to the operators or caretakers, and talking to as many community members as I had time for. In my original proposed data collection plans, photovoice would start with holding an informational meeting in a community meeting center. That happened once, and we met inside a temple. More realistically, I gave the information and camera training one by one. I had also planned to hold interviews with one community member at a time, hopefully in a quiet location with minimal distractions. I think that also happened possibly just once. One hundred percent of my recorded interviews have animal noises, children screaming, motorcycles driving past, and occasionally the sounds of someone taking a bucket shower nearby. Nearly all of my community interviews turned into mini-focus groups where the fascination with the outsider who was sitting on the dirt floor asking questions generated literal crowds in some cases. For the most part, this was great as it meant that I could get the input from many community members all at once. But sometimes, this meant that there was such a clamoring to see me or to speak to me that I couldn’t follow everything that everyone was trying to tell me. In each community, everything managed to go a bit different. Questions that elicited long, detailed responses in one community got one-word answers in the next. Photovoice exercises in one community would yield 50-60 pictures of varied problems per person, and just 10 pictures of someone’s household and children in the next. 
A field recently planted with ladyfingers and eggplants, irrigated with recycled water.
One of my sweet women who rules the world of sanitation in India showing me the vegetables they sell from the above farm.
This mix of data collection would culminate in doing AHP with a community focus group. During my interviews, I would note every time that someone mentioned something as important to their community or to sanitation, and the night before AHP, I would assemble the list in my little Excel sheet to bring to the community. Then, we would tediously step through the process of comparing each and every priority to all of the others, which could take over an hour if the community had identified a larger number of priorities. We would start first with overall community priorities, and then repeat the exercise with priorities specific to sanitation. My favorite AHP focus group was in one community in Musiri, where we were sitting again inside the temple and there were 7 men and 9 women sitting around me. They would get into heated discussions about the priorities and about why one person thought toilets were more important than drinking water, while another thought drinking water deserved the highest rating. 
In the process of data collection, I would try to meet with at least one government official presiding over the district in which the community fell. Explaining the government structure is extremely complicated, and I’m not sure that I even understand it totally. Basically, my goal was to meet either with the Executive Officer of the Town Panchayat or with one of the government engineers or sanitation inspectors (I never truly learned the difference between these positions, and it seems like each panchayat calls their employees by different titles for the same jobs). The EO was the presiding official (although there was also a panchayat president…), who would be the liaison between the town and the municipality (a higher layer of government). Anyway, I won’t get into any more of the increasingly confusing government details, but these individuals would be the ones, if any, who had knowledge of the existing sanitation systems in their jurisdiction, and would (sometimes) be responsible for inspecting the systems or assisting the communities with maintenance and repairs. In Karnataka and the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, the town panchayats (or equivalent) that I visited were largely uninvolved: they would grant the communities the land for the sanitation systems, and sometimes help with connecting electricity or water supply, but not much else. In Trichy and Musiri, the government views sanitation as a bit more of a priority, largely owing to the historical involvement of NGOs that have advocated (and funded) sanitation in these districts. For the community in Trichy, I actually witnessed a woman from the managing self-help group call the junior engineer about a problem with their settling tank, and then two hours later the junior engineer and a desludging vehicle showed up to fix it.
In Musiri, the people at the town panchayat became my best pals. Or, in their words, my “sponsors.” One man, Sadha, took it upon himself to teach me Tamil and would literally erupt into loud cheers and applause every time he heard me say a word in Tamil. By the end of the time in Musiri, he would buy me a soda or fruit drink or candy every time I said ‘thank-you’ in Tamil. Sadha also took over a thousand pictures of my interviews and I’m still trying to get copies from him.
Me with the town panchayat officials who all requested this picture.
One of the interesting things that developed out of these extensive discussions with the government officials were two different storylines of the realities of the sanitation systems. According to the government, their support for sanitation was unparalleled. In some sense, this is true, as Musiri has an extensive network of workers who collect household solid waste from long distances and transport it in push-carts to the Resource Recovery Park. But, on the other hand, others would tell me that only 2 of 33 public toilet blocks are still in working condition. The EOs and sanitation inspectors would tell me that they visited each system every day and that if the systems every had problems, they would address the issues immediately or at least within 24 hours. Caretakers were hired and daily cleaned all of the systems. System repairs didn’t require a long bureaucratic chain of approvals. Things could happen, and the government always supported the communities. But to compare that rhetoric to what I witnessed in the offices, where it took three days (and eventually me refusing to leave the office, in a respectful manner I promise) and seven or eight people to make me Xerox copies of two project reports. Or to the stories from former government officials who talked of massive delays in obtaining funding because all financial transactions must be approved by the elusive council that meets very infrequently. Or to the systems themselves, that often were clearly not cleaned daily or had blocked toilets that had been blocked for weeks. Regardless, Musiri district still had the highest level of government involvement and support that I had seen so far in India. And their office still had no computers and accomplished everything with paper documentation. Another interesting thing that I’ve started to notice is that the sustained presence of an NGO seems to increase the willingness of the government to remain involved and supportive of a sanitation project, likely because someone from the NGO acts as an advocate on behalf of the community to the government and has a little more power to persistently push for repairs to happen. 
Another really interesting thing that developed during this time was I discovered that one of the systems I had originally been shown, a prefabricated improved septic tank with a gravel filter, was only for a men’s toilet in the community, and the community had two other government-built structures for bathing and for toilets. The story (that I’m still chasing to get the full picture) is that an international NGO wanted to conduct research on prefabricated septic tank installations, so they funded a local NGO to do the project. The local NGO chose this community since it is right next to one of their experimental farms, and in driving past the toilet block frequently, they noticed that the original concrete septic tank was constantly overflowing. Lovely. So, a few years ago, they implemented a new treatment system that in my first visit I was told irrigates the experimental farm, but according to the community just discharges to an open drainage canal. A couple years later, the government received an allocation to construct additional community toilets in their district, so they unilaterally came in and built a community bathing facility and another community toilet, for both men and women. The bathing facility is now known as the recreation spot for the community drunks and teenagers and has never been used. The other community toilet is semi-used by the women and unused by the men. The government kept complaining to me about the old septic tank from the men’s toilet that required so much maintenance, but turned around to implement an eerily similar design at their new toilet block. This community also was one of the examples of many people saying the toilets were cleaned every day, when my observations of sanitary napkins and fecal matter and algae on the water surface told otherwise. It was quite the gymnastic exercise to uncover an accurate depiction of what was happening, particularly when each community member had a different estimate of how frequently the caretakers came (I honestly have fifteen different responses written down).
Contrary to every other piece of my personality, I came to India still with this inexplicable fear of phoning strangers or asking random people for help with small things like directions. That fear has been smashed to pieces. Looking back on that crazy busy week of field work, I think the three biggest things that I learned were (1) how to gather data while fielding a barrage of strange tensions and attacks from people who were supposed to be helping me; (2) how to assert myself when people tried to change my plans; and (3) how to successfully travel in local transportation by myself (I mean, my translator was with me, but he was surprisingly unhelpful in figuring out the bus system and remembering where we get off).
I’ve been working with my translator consistently for the last two months, and spent a couple of days before doing any field work with him meticulously explaining my research goals and the ways we would approach data collection, particularly through interviews. I don’t remember how many times I emphasized how important it is that he translates word for word what I say, without adding his own interpretation, and especially without providing examples to the interviewees in his translated questions. It’s kind of funny (but mostly frustrating) to have read countless books and articles about ethnographic interviewing techniques that are founded on developing rapport, asking open-ended questions, and seeking descriptive answers only to have to attempt the technique through a translator, who invariably shapes your questions and your respondents’ answers through his own lens. At the beginning, it was hard to differentiate between commonalities that stemmed from his personal vernacular and those that were emerging as interesting trends in the data, truly reflecting a community’s experience. I hoped anyway that my large barrage of questions in each interview would mean that the same topic was addressed multiple times from many sides, allowing me to compare answers and eventually tease out a fuller picture of an interviewee’s experience. But little by little (as I began to pick up on some of the Kannada and Tamil words), I started to notice that I would ask about community challenges and he would clearly say the words “mosquitoes” and “drainage” at the end of the questions, completely undermining my hopes of elucidating the interviewee’s own original ideas. I learned how to be okay with maybe not a perfect interviewing technique or a perfect translator, but instead to focus on the fact that this man was willing to travel on overnight buses and work for fourteen straight hours, plus travel time, accidentally without lunch one day, and would still get up the next morning excited to accomplish a new day’s work. I also learned how to say ‘mosquito’, ‘drainage’, ‘toilet’, ‘house’, ‘smell’, ‘snake’, and ‘water’ in three languages. So that’s a plus.
Another challenge that I came across was one visit to a community we had someone who was both affiliated with the implementing NGO and with the community itself with us to provide an introduction to the community and managing body. In theory, their presence at the beginning would be extremely helpful as it opens doors and establishes a basic level of trust or willingness from the community to answer my questions. But almost as soon as I started my first interview, this individual interrupted to say I had asked the wrong question. We proceeded. The person interrupted again to say I forgot to ask a critical question. I calmly (hopefully) explained my schedule of questions that slowly built from initial introductory questions (talking about their family, their work, what they use for cooking fuel, easy things) to discussing the planning, construction, operation, and management processes of their community’s wastewater treatment system, to discussing their experience and perceptions of sanitation in their community, and so on. It’s an interview script that I had been working on for at least six months before ever using in India, and one that has had so many revisions and adaptations that by the time of the particular interview in question, I could do it blind and felt extremely comfortable in the conversation organization. I left it flexible for unstructured tangents and important follow-up questions. But I hadn’t planned for these strange interruptions that were calling into question my preparedness, competence, and understanding. The individual also began to interrupt the women I was speaking with, correcting them to say their memories were incorrect or their experiences were invalid. It was so bizarre. We managed for that interview, and then I strategically ensured that the individual would no longer be present at any of my future interviews and scheduled very separate times to speak with the person. The interesting thing though that I observed about this event that seemed isolated at the beginning was that the same trend has happened to me throughout my time in India, where someone (usually a man) will challenge my plans and propose something entirely different, without an understanding of my objectives. It happened all the time with my translator (among many others) where I would begin the day by saying “we’re going to do these five interviews and go talk to these people and do things in this order for these reasons” and he would say “great. But let’s do one thing, let’s do it this way instead” and I would essentially have to fight to ensure that my plan was the one that we executed (in the accomplishment, not killed and abandoned sense of the word). 
It’s just a testament to the fact that in doing field work, even months and months of planning and practice and preparation will still always result in giant surprises and plans being turned completely upside-down. I did learn, at the end of this, that my unflinching assertiveness when it came to my research, led nearly everyone to believe that I was at least thirty years old (in one case a serious guess was 42—meaning that the guesses for my age have varied a full 30 years between May and now) and be entirely shocked that I’m only 23.
Despite some of those adventures, I did also meet some of the most wonderful people during my work. There was one woman named Panju, who manages the whole resource recovery center. The first morning we came, I surprised her by arriving on time and sent her into a full panic since she didn’t feel the meeting area had been cleaned well enough. The third day I saw her, she noticed me wearing the same tunic that I had previously worn and became extremely worried that I didn’t know how to do my own laundry so begged me to bring my clothes with me the next day so she could wash them herself. I assured her that my sink-and-shampoo combination sufficed. As I got to know her, she told me about her daughter, who is hoping to go to college, and her son, who is a typical thirteen-year-old boy. About her husband, who died in a road accident four years ago, and she showed me the place where he was killed. There is a certain beauty that I can’t figure out how to put into words when a friendship is forged with someone who speaks a few words of your language, and you even less of theirs. It hasn’t happened with everyone that I’ve met, but it’s happened enough that I’m reminded why I love the work that I get to do and how I’m always changed by the people that I meet. The last day I was there, Panju gave me a hand-woven towel that she had made and pinned a freshly cut rose into my hair. How can you not get emotional about these things?  
In another community, all of the men and women who were able to work were hand-loom weavers, and would weave the cloth used for saris or veshtis, the cloth men wear more traditionally in the village communities. I received so many demonstrations of hand-looms, and one offer to have my future wedding dress woven by a man in that community. The people in India are much more optimistic about my upcoming marital plans than I am. After some negotiation, he did agree to sell me a piece of beautiful white and gold cloth that he had just finished. 
Sometimes the challenge with trying to learn about community priorities is that it often leads to questions about how I can help the communities. It’s difficult to convey that hopefully my research will eventually impact the way that projects are planned and implemented, when realistically there may never be any tangible impact in those places. I give the pictures back to the people who help me with photovoice and will print them copies of family pictures as well, but it still doesn’t reconcile the dissonance between the gains I get from spending days interviewing people and talking about their intimate problems and the reality that their lives go unchanged. There was another woman in one community who one my second day handed me this beautiful handwritten letter, petitioning me to help paying for her daughter’s education. This has happened before, but this one woman’s plea is seared into my memory, as she handed me the letter with tearful eyes and was so desperate that her daughter get an education to have a better life. I don’t know what to do with that just yet.
And again, the same man who proved to be quite challenging during that one interview has sent me countless articles on sanitation in India and was willing to sit down with me later for hours to answer all of my follow-up questions about the planning processes for many sanitation systems. So maybe this is all just a patience and grace building exercise after all.
My best friend holding said neon baby chick.
The most special person that I’ve met so far in India was Mr. Mehaboob. He was my perfect, perfect guide for the past week and was immensely helpful in introducing me to the communities and all of the relevant stakeholders. He was perfectly happy and willing to follow my plans all day, often for more than fourteen straight hours, with the one stipulation that we take a break for lunch. He had no complaints, but occasionally I’d look up and find his sweet head resting on his chest, having fallen asleep during a particularly long interview. The only time he went against my plans was when we were headed off to another meeting and instead stopped in front of a little turquoise house buried in one of the neighborhood streets. We had come to his house as a surprise because he was certain if he had told me ahead of time, I would have tried to refuse and keep working. Probably true. I got to meet his wife, two children, and two grandchildren and was forced to eat another large helping of sugar-soaked, diabetic-coma inducing desserts. And then we were off again, me riding on the back of this 83-year-old’s two-wheeler. I’m sure it was quite the sight to see this old man driving a two-wheeler with the white girl sitting on the back. He thought it was extremely important to make sure I was taking breaks and laughing enough to keep the stress down, and occasionally he chose the middle of my interviews to be the time to make me laugh and would frequently deposit a baby goat or a neon-painted baby chick or some unidentifiable pile of fruit in to my lap mid-question. One of my favorite things about getting to know this man was how different he is from so many of the other government employees that I’ve met so far. Many of the others are challenging to work with and operate within a system stuck in corruption, with their words unsupported by their actions. This man worked in the government, in a pretty visible, high-level position for 30+ years and every single person we met said he’s the reason they have a toilet, or he’s the reason their community is cleaner, or he’s the reason that they have their job. He still volunteers in many of these communities, and we couldn’t go five steps anywhere without someone calling him over to speak with him and offer us tea. It was really amazing to get to see a glimpse into the life of someone who continues to advocate for people whose voices go unheard, especially after his accolades and salary no longer exist. When we said goodbye, he started crying and it really surprised me, but was so reflective of how deeply and genuinely he cares about the people in his life. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him, and am so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to meet people like him in India. Amazing.
I found myself on my (hopefully) last 8 hour bus ride, which was the most enjoyable one so far as it was during the day so I got to stare out the window and count wild peacocks and temples all the way back to Bangalore. Unfortunately, at the end of the ride monsoon season became real and we were driving through puddles that were multiple feet deep (not exaggerating). It took me twenty minutes standing in the pouring monsoon to get an Uber home, and that ride was a full three hours (compared to the usual quick 45 minutes) because the city completely collapses in the rain.
This time in Tamil Nadu was easily the highlight of my time here in India so far. Why? See the fact that I just wrote six pages about it at 2 am to share with you all.


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