Four students from EPFL in Switzerland share their experiences in the village for the WE: Santiation Outreach project.
“I’m from France and studying in Switzerland at EPFL. I graduated in Environmental Engineering and am pursuing a degree in Renewable Energies and Sustainable Development. I am craving to create innovative solutions with other bright minds of my generation. I envision a new conception of companies and economics based on mutual help and compassion for the next generations.
I heard about AMMACHI Labs through the EPFL based association called “Indian from Lausanne and through the contact of Rajasundar Chandran.
I came to India to discover and experience a great emerging country facing many challenges, driven by an ancestral culture and a strong-willed population. My first impressions of India was in its diversity. There were the beautiful sceneries, large infrastructures and huge discrepancies from one state to the other regarding religions, languages, daily habits, wealth and poverty levels.
In the village my experience was being truly unplugged from the wired world we know nowadays in big cities. We had time to immerge ourselves in a brand new lifestyle, modeled on the villagers’ one. Waking up with the sunrise, taking care of the animals, drinking tea with villagers: such details shaped our mind and body during the stay in Gujarat. People are overall happy to see us and come to give them a hand. However, we felt somehow that they are still not used to interact with westerners when tackling issues they didn’t think of as important so far, for instance building toilets was not considered a priority.
Gujarat is a dry state so we didn’t have to face this widespread issue plaguing the country. As we arrived in the village, we were expecting to negotiate with men and leaders to explain in the best ways the necessity to build toilets. They had become used to have toilets built for free [by the government], however seeing women taking the job was not a very pleasant news for them. After admitting that we came a long way to help them, the men decided to let our Zonal Lead Chris Kripasagar write up a list of the women available and willing to learn how to build toilets so that they can build their own afterwards.
We then started prospecting the sites where to begin accordingly to the arrangements villagers craving for a toilet did with the leader. Some places where not suitable because of the dangerous proximity of big trees or houses that might cause instabilities for the soak pit. Once we chose the first site, many women attended the sessions, more by curiosity and excitement than for helping to get work done. However, by showing ourselves dedicated to the task, they felt they had to get involved. Of course, some women were more dynamic than others, but they were all willing to do it right in a friendly atmosphere. We also had the chance to get support from a gifted mason, who was very patient with women and taught many clever tricks.
Let me explain to you one of the lessons I have been taught by him and left speechless: I needed to cut in half a piece of metal stick and was about to use the measuring tape to find the exact middle. The mason suddenly intervened, took the metal piece and lifted it with one finger… He found the equilibrium point of a regular piece of metal which centre of gravity is obviously located mid-distance from both ends. That was surprisingly smart and simple!
We are not masons for sure, but these are tricks benefiting our creativity and sharpness on the field. Also, we were not experts in building. We had to be patient and modest when women were teaching us how to blend properly sand and cement for instance. As always men started digging a bit the pit to show their strength bit quickly left the task to women.
Moreover, I felt that owners of the toilets were not feeling much involved sometimes. I believe it is very important for the owner to be a pioneer of the construction, otherwise they will not feel bound it and won’t be prone to using it at least for the efforts it cost them.
Fun fact for us was the religious belief of the soil being a property of God and that before digging it we should bless it marking tools and workers with red spots and by eating sugar cane and coconut flesh.
The food was the same everyday: rice, curry and chappati. After a week we started buying tomatoes, eggs and several kinds of fruits to compensate the lack of fibers. I believed that I would lose weight during the village experience but I was wrong: Indeed rice is one of the starchiest food, getting in your belly fat easily. As a result, I kept a decent weight all the time.
The people there were always hospitable and offered us many small gifts that made us feel glad to be there.
Some of the challenges were not being able to interact with villagers in their own language. The time spent there and the high physical efforts required to fulfill our duty didn’t allow us to focus on language learning. Some basic vocabulary sheets of the language spoken on the field would be nice to implement for other students coming.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is: Patience, patience and patience.”
View Alex’s and the other students photo gallery: