Immersion Impact: Alkabai's journey to clean drinking water
The idea of empathy-driven social development is a departure from traditional top-down approaches. Instead of a one-size-fits-all mindset, we must take the time to understand the needs and aspirations of individual families. The only way to access this perspective is to develop trusting, long-term partnerships with people from all walks of life within our partner communities.
This is exactly what we did when seeking a overcome a lack of hygienic drinking water in a partner tribal community in Maharashtra. Over two years we facilitated countless conversations and community engagements during exploratory Immersion programs that ultimately empowered the community into collective action. It can be at times painstaking work however, we believe this holistic, long-term approach empowered ownership and resulted in over 70% of households participating in a community water filter program.
While this has been an important step forward it cannot be counted as a success while sections of the community are excluded. While participation is open to all households, those not participating provide reasons varying from a lack of financial resources or other priorities; though it is often underpinned by limited awareness of the link between drinking water and health.
With students in a past immersion program understanding several such perspectives, we created a community outreach program. It was from one of these conversations that Drishtee Immersion team member, Catherine Walsh, experienced first-hand the challenges of truly understanding with empathy and the potential for positive impacts for an excluded family. The following is their story, one of an enduring friendship that arises from selfless acts and community spirit.
It was during the early stage of the Immersion program, with students settling into village life, taking every opportunity to connect with their host community, when I took a couple of students to visit Alkabai and her husband Ashuk. Being only a few doors down the road they are practically neighbours, although they had noticeably avoided recent community activities. I thought it to be an ideal opportunity to get to know each other.
Earlier in the year, during a health-focused Immersion program, we became aware that the family had limited awareness in relation to water hygiene and health. It might be the underlying reason Alkabai and Ashuk hadn’t participated in the community’s clean drinking water program. So, to understand their perspectives, we went to say hello and potentially have a discussion around water-related health.
As is common in partner communities, Alkabai and Ashuk are incredibly kind and welcoming. We are sitting on the floor, engaging in general chit-chat, getting to know each other a little. With everyone comfortable it wasn’t long until we began to learn about serious challenges confronting the family. We learn about Ashuk’s illness; for the past year he has been experiencing paralysis on the right side of his body; and that a series of doctors could not explain the cause, nor provide a direct treatment. As we explored this experience, Alkabai served hot chai, almost as a circuit breaker, to suggest a return to light-hearted sharing of life experiences and discussions of family back home.
A little later on we started discussing water in the village; quite a wide ranging and important topic to most people in the community. Taking the family through our prepared educational discussion, about half way through I see Alkabai’s body language and demeanour change. Clearly she has something on her mind. At that moment I stop and provide an opportunity for her to input into the discussion. After a pause, she begins a long story about hardships resulting from Ashuk’s illness, including financial stress that resulted from medical consultations and ineffective treatments. She seemed to already understand the importance of clean drinking water, had heard about it from others, and desperately wanted access for her family. The initial 400 rupees (approx. $8) required for a yearly contribution was impossible given their currently limited capacity to earn livelihood.
Alkabai becomes emotional; she says it is a relief to talk about the situation and her recent experiences. Alkabai goes on to reveal the loneliness that has beset the family with Ashuk’s illness. She felt that people had been avoiding them, with less people paying visits as they used to. While she recognised that people mean well, perhaps they don’t know what to say or how to act given the family’s situation. Subsequently, she feels “cast aside”. It was a conversation that had a lasting impact on all those present.
Following the discussion we thank Alkabai for her generosity and openness. We share solidarity and our determination to find ways to support that family now that we are aware of the situation. With this Alkabai blesses us and said:
Naturally every part of me wanted to help by paying for the family to participate in the water program; the amount required is small to me. Yet, I know too well the damage this is likely to cause in the long term. It raises the complicated and morally confounding question of empowerment versus charity.
Considering some of the root cause issues, such an act could foreseeably lead to a deepening sense of disempowerment and further isolation from the community. Almost certainly, giving the money would make me feel better for helping this lovely lady and her family. However, an act with empathy is for the benefit of others, therefore I must set aside my personal urges and consider the best course of action for their long term benefit.
To highlight the pitfalls of giving hand-outs, only two months earlier I was speaking to another lady in the community about the water program. When I enquired about her participation she stated “why would I contribute to the water system now, when in three months time you will be handing it out for free, anyone who pays for it now is a fool”. This demonstrates a donor-recipient expectation that some people have towards outside intervention. It comes from a history of well-meaning but disempowering programs in the region. When people do not contribute to their own welfare, it suggests no ownership or value placed on the activity. In the long-term it is difficult to sustain initiatives that people do not view as theirs. Instead, an empathy-based approach is seeking to engage people, empower participation and ownership, and encourage communities to take control of their own destiny.
A key component of the water program has been the community-driven aspect, whereby community leaders have taken ownership and contributed to every aspect; tangible (e.g. funds, man-power, etc) and intangible (e.g. positive encouragement, goodwill, etc). If we were to give access to Alkabai for free, then it would undermine the entire system across the community, or worse, lead to increased social stigma and isolation for the family.
However, inclusivity is fundamental to our values and approach, therefore we must not ignore those most vulnerable in the community. Families like Alkabai’s represent the very people our community development efforts are seeking to support.
We leave Alkabai house with these words ringing in our ears; feeling somewhat overwhelmed by this touching conversation. After much discussion amongst the team we found a simple way for Alkabai to regain a foothold in community, earned in her own right. Each morning we have a yoga and mindfulness session in the community hall, where the floor accumulates a lot of dust and leaves. Perhaps Alkabai would like to take a simple task to sweep, an employment opportunity that would take only 15 minutes each day. She could use the funds from a little over two weeks of the activity towards water, or for some other expense at her discretion.
With this in mind, I walk back to Alkabai’s house to share the idea. I explain that we start yoga at 6:30am, and that if she can sweep the hall beforehand each morning we will happily pay her a little above the regular rate for such work. She immediately agrees, and says she intends to put it towards filtered water for the family. As I departed she shared deep gratitude for the opportunity, tears welling in her eyes. Feeling elated I walk back home, wanting to tell everyone the good news!
The next morning, arriving at the community hall for our session, I see that the hall hasn’t been swept. I can’t say I didn’t feel disappointed. Alkabai was so happy about the idea only yesterday. What had changed overnight? Perhaps the weight of social exclusion? Or not feeling up to the task? Not wanting to jump to conclusions, after the yoga session is finished I walk to her house to investigate. She looks down at her feet embarrassed, and says that she doesn’t know how to tell the time, so didn’t know when she was meant to go and sweep, and that she desperately wanted to come. It makes complete sense, surveying her home it was apparent that there is no phone or clock in the household. Alkabai has always lived by her own time. Not wanting the opportunity to be wasted, I think of an obvious solution. If she wants, I can come to her house each morning at 6am, we can do it together. She gave me a hug and I departed, cautiously optimistic that this new approach would work.
For the next 15 days I would go down to Alkabai’s house, to collect her and provide company and assistance during her task. It became our morning routine; with each passing day we became more comfortable with each other. There was something special about our time together, in the crisp morning air, existing mostly in silence but feeling deeply connected.
On the last day, after the final yoga session for the Immersion program, I went down to her house to thank her and provide her salary. She gave me a hug and I stayed for tea. Casually enquiring if she was still intending on using it for the water program, she said yes though she was waiting for another payment from some recent farm labouring work; all going well she would be ready in a week or so.
A few days later I return to say hello and catch up. After discussing various village and family matters Alkabai tells me she still hasn’t been paid. Then, over the next two weeks we frequently bump into each other, often stopping for tea whenever emerging between breaks in the heavy monsoon rains.
Then, one afternoon Alkabai comes walking into my house with a big smile on her face holding exactly enough for her contribution to the water program. I excitedly go a get her a water jar and water filter access card, now with her name on it. Together we leave so I can demonstrate how the system works. It’s difficult to express in words our shared happiness in that moment.
Later I reflect on the small act of going to someone’s house with the purpose of starting a conversation, crossing cultural barriers to understand a different world-view and perspective, and how this has led to positive outcomes for everyone involved. I feel grateful for the opportunity to support this wonderful woman, Alkabai, and her family.
Almost every second day Alkabai stops by my house on her way to refill her water jar; she often extends the invitation should I want to join her to fill my own jar. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made that joyful walk together now.
Written by Catherine Walsh