A full moon illuminated the Ganges River as I rolled up my pants, held my bag over my head and waded into the water to get onto the rickety wooden boat. As I crossed the river, I reflected on the day’s events. While trying to make the last boat to the remote rural island, we were forced to abandon our cars (and drivers) stuck in a 3 hour traffic jam for a tiny rickshaw that held our group of nine. Upon reaching the island, we walked in the darkness on the sandy shore, making our way through a stream’s broken bamboo bridge and finally reached the village. While on the island I only saw what was immediately in front of me, dimly lit by the small flashlight I had thrown into my suitcase as a last minute thought. I barely missed walking into a cow – and if a snake or person were nearby I would never have known. Life without electricity and the dangers, especially for women, is a reality for the residents both on the island and in 400 million households throughout India.
Sitting on the boat, I reflected on how the research and planning from headquarters was coming alive for me. I am currently working with the Rockefeller Foundation on a rural electrification and economic development project that is implemented through a number of Indian organizations. While I am not new to field work, it is always a humbling experience. It continuously teaches me to check my assumptions and reminds me that the devil is in the details (e.g. did I factor in that it takes field staff 2 hours each way to reach the island?). Moreover, it reminds me to be patient. Patient for the reports, patient for progress and patient with the process of getting things done. In fact, I was told by the CEO of TARA (a prominent Indian NGO) that patience is a top skill needed by development professionals and is quickly taught by working in India.
Here are some other things working in the field (re) taught me:
- Field staff and beneficiaries hold a great amount of knowledge.
- Eat all the food and drink the chai provided.
- Take my time and open my eyes. A lot of things observed make sense later.
- Learn (at least) a few phrases in the native language.
- Dress appropriately or conservatively. For the ladies that means salwar khameez.
- Most of all be flexible, be patient and be humble.