Let’s start with a disclaimer: I write this in a personal capacity based on what I have witnessed. This article in no way projects the views of any organisation with which I work. I write as Roshini Suparna Diwakar, independent human being!
Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll tell you a story.
I recently interacted with a group of social science students from an elite university in India. These students come from almost every kind of privilege you can imagine. They came to visit a slum as part of a site visit for one of their courses.
A few weeks earlier, their professor had emailed us stating her wish to visit the slum with her students. She is someone who has worked with international funding organisations, before which she was a lawyer. Now a first time university teacher, she was keen on engaging with communities they read about in class.
As much as I appreciate her intent, the way things panned out was detrimental to what she set out to do. More importantly, the community we went to interact with was treated as a means to an end.
To begin with, we received an email from the professor articulating in academic jargon a range of issues she wanted to explore. We would try to cover as many of these issues as possible in a mere hour that they were giving us.
The next thing that really bothered me was the fact that around 40 students were to come with her in a bus. She wanted the students to go into the galis of the slum to see it and get a “feel of it”. This approach is extremely problematic. When we treat communities unlike ours like they are on display, as if their lives are for us to learn something from, we further “other” and dehumanise them.
The group was to arrive by 3:15/30 and we were asked to bring the women together on time so that the students would have an hour to interact with them. We informed some women from the community to come there by 3 and told them to bring their friends. We expected 30. We got 70. SEVENTY women came to the meeting by 3:30.
I should tell you that this slum also has water issues. Water tankers come every 3 days and people fight over water due to the scarcity. This was the day that the tankers came, and many women left them to attend the meeting. They left their household chores and their children. We waited and waited until some women left to attend to their children. The bus finally arrived at 5. To be fair to them, they did not know about the water issue. To be fair to the women, the bus was still almost 2 hours late.
Once they arrived, I quickly realised that the professor had given the students almost no background on the slum or the work that has happened there. So, we spent about 10 more minutes briefing them.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am one who fights against stupid rules. However, context matters. When you are going to visit a community unlike yours, it is important to take their sentiments into account. Students came into a community wearing sleeveless clothes where women still cover their heads when they step out of the house.
Next, two/thirds of the students were men. In order to make this less daunting for the women from the community, we split them into smaller groups. This would allow for women to maybe open up a little. When the groups were formed, the men sat very close to the women, with their knees often touching those of the women. Some of the women were visibly uncomfortable and moved around, occupying lesser space, just so there was no physical contact. I think this is the perfect metaphor for how our privilege plays out. Even in their own homes, their own localities, their own communities, we, as outsiders, are able to enter them and violate their space in the span of minutes.
THIS WAS AN EXTRACTION, NOT A CONVERSATION. Before the extraction began, I had stated categorically that if anyone felt uncomfortable with a question, they did not have to answer. It was also critical to tell the community women that they could ask the students anything they wanted. But these two statements are obviously not going to subvert power dynamics that are written into our bones. So, the students came, and asked their questions. When we brought the entire group back together, the professor also wanted her students to share what they had learnt from the community. With all due respect, it might have been a revelation for them, but this was not about THEM and what they felt.
I went and sat with a group of women once we finished, and asked them what they thought. There was the obvious, recited, expected answer of “We told them whatever they wanted to know. We answered all their questions.” This was tough to hear, though expected. I then asked them if they asked the students any questions. The response was essentially “Who would want to answer our questions? Who are WE to ask THEM anything?”. This is a learning that takes a long time to unlearn.
Once we were done, we took pictures and the community women finally went home after 6. The professor wanted to walk around the slum with the students. I mentioned a couple of times that it would be difficult to take such a large group and that we didn’t have time. On her insistence, we walked down the main road of the slum. After walking a couple hundred meters, one of the students came up and said that she was not comfortable with this. She felt that we were treating the community like a spectacle and that they (the students) clearly stood out. Her professor thanked her for raising the issue and was glad she did. We then headed back to their bus following which they left.
None of the things that happened that day came from a place of malice. But that does not change the fact that this whole exercise was exploitative. When we, as development sector professionals (or as human beings, for that matter), go into communities, it is critical for us to remember that these are actual people whose lives we’re enquiring about without any real substantive consent. Consent, in its true form, can be given when both players are on a level playing field. Here, they weren’t.
At its worst, this kind of visit is essentially poverty tourism. These communities do not exist for us to feel sorry. They do not exist so that we can visit them for an hour and use it as a photo-op to display how ‘woke’ we are on social media.
I can make no claim of having always done it right. I’m sure, in my own well-intentioned way, I have been patronising and condescending. It is a learning process. The role of teachers is critical for students to be sensitised. Then, you listen, reflect, immerse, learn. The onus is on all of us. The best place to start is by seeing human beings as…
* Spoiler alert*
Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar