India, and the state of Rajasthan in particular, is known for its spicy food, vibrantly colored clothing, and festive music. What has not managed to be packaged so neatly in a stereotype or captured so easily in a postcard image, is the magnificent spectrum of cultural diversity that exists not just in India as a whole, but even within the locale I worked and lived in for eight months as an environmental conservation volunteer.
In terms of religion, socio-economic status, language, and dress, I encountered a wide variety of sub-cultures both professionally and personally in northwestern India. Working as a Rural Sustainable Energy Development Intern at the NGO the Foundation for Ecological Security, I was based in the medium-sized city of Udaipur and completed significant fieldwork in the rural tribal areas of the surrounding Aravalli Hills.
In my small office alone, there was immense diversity among the 15 employees. I worked alongside colleagues from rural tribes, small villages, and major cities, with Hindu, Muslim, and Christian backgrounds, and education levels ranging from tenth grade to PhD candidates.
Whether I was working with a tenth grade educated colleague to install a biogas digester for a tribal household or reviewing a grant application for solar lights with a PhD candidate from Mumbai, everyone had something to offer in their field. I realized that, as highly as academia is regarded, it cannot replace the expertise, knowledge, and skills that the locals possess.
Likewise, the isolated rural populations depend on the social connectivity and advanced literacy skills of NGO members to navigate the world of funders and bureaucrats. I observed how my NGO and their beneficiaries used their diversity to their advantage to make development happen on the ground.
I fit right into this already diverse working environment, finding my niche in the organization as a liaison between the beneficiaries and project developers and funders. With the help of my colleagues in the field, I could go from one tribal home to the next, interviewing households on their fuel wood consumption, cooking habits, or interest in solar lighting. I analyzed the data I collected into statistics that our partners could quickly and easily digest, conveying the communities’ needs to the right audience. Together, my team and I were able to assess ground situations and apply for funding, form business partnerships, or trial a pilot program in response.
The diversity of the culture in the Udaipur district also had a significant impact on my life outside of work. I noticed remnants of the caste system and invisible, yet prominent lines between people of different socio-economic statuses. As a foreigner, I had the opportunity to step across social barriers and experience these different subcultures with more ease than a local. Whether it was dinner with a widowed maid, a night stay with a rural farmer, or a cooking lesson from an American-educated urbanite, I was able to skip across social lines and experience my community in a unique way.
Getting a taste of this patchwork of sub-cultures helped me understand how they are all interconnected. What does a tribal person’s lack of cattle have to do with a peri-urban villager’s need for cooking fuel? The tribal women collect and trade fuel wood with the villagers for buttermilk. What does an urban furniture manufacturer have to do with a tribal child’s thirst? The cutting of trees for furniture production reduces the soil’s water retention rates, slowly drying the rural wells. Gaining an understanding of how the larger system works, from the top of the pyramid to the bottom, has helped me understand how I fit into this system and how I can intervene most effectively to make a positive change.
With the InterExchange Christianson Grant, I was able to make professional and personal connections beyond the surface level. It enabled me to experience different pieces of a nation, to go beyond the postcard image of a country and explore a culture deep into its roots. I am so grateful for the lessons I learned and lifelong connections I formed with people from all walks of life. It is easy to generalize a culture, but cultural exploration through personal connections is the only way to truly uncover a nation’s true colors.