When 8 students, 2 teachers, and 2 parents from Westminster School in Atlanta, Georgia arrived in Amritapuri, India, it was clear that this group was going to find joy in service. The students were curious, polite, and extraordinary open-minded, but they admitted they had much to learn. To gain an understanding of the local and academic context, they hoped to learn the goals of the larger AMMACHI Labs toilet building project. The group began an intensive cultural orientation from Amrita University’s Live-in-Labs—an immersive village-based educational program—followed by a technical training led by AMMACHI Labs zonal leads.
The high school students had spent several days traveling from the United States to build toilets, gain new cultural understandings, and learn about India in the small rural village of Byse, one of the 101 Adopted villages and a hub of AMMACHI Labs’ sanitation outreach activities. Each came for different reasons, though all were connected by curiosity and a desire to serve. One student, Aisnley Harralson, a senior at Westminster, said: “I was inspired to come and part in this program because I’ve always loved global health and enjoyed my courses in school, but we have never gotten real opportunities to actually implement ideas in the field and real-world setting.” This interest in seeing real service and science in action was palpable in the group, even before the teenagers left for Byse.
On the morning of January 10, the group, accompanied by three AMMACHI Labs staff and an Embracing the World photographer, travelled by train to Mangalore, 12 hours from Amritapuri in Kerala. They arrived in the evening, and immediately went to visit Amma, who was giving darshan in a local school. The students were able to not only sit near Amma for some time, but also get their own darshan. They were very touched by the experience. Katie McGahan, a senior at Westminster, explained that: “Meeting Amma has been the peak of what this full experience has meant, which is putting spirituality in action.” Many of the students were in tears after their darshan, and they left Mangalore in high spirits.
When the students arrived in Byse after a four hour bus ride, they were greeted by huge crowds of Amrita Vidyalayam students in the Nagara school that hosted the group during their stay. School children clamored around, yelling “welcome to our school!” Soon, the high school students from Atlanta and the local children were engaged in a cutthroat game of volleyball in front of the school. Lexie Young, a 16 year old student at Westminster, described her experience with the children, saying, “The kids were beautiful and energetic. They want to learn. They want to teach us their language and culture and we want to teach them. So I think it is a beautiful relationship that we’ve begun to maintain with them.” Despite the high school students primarily speaking English, and the school children speaking the local language of Kannada, both groups were able to foster a playful and fulfilling relationship. Throughout the whole week this relationship continued, culminating in a massive dance performance put on by the Atlanta students, which was met with delight by the local children.
The first day of toilet building was very successful. Alongside seven local women from Byse—Anupamma, Srimati, Prema, Hema, Jyoti, Saavatri, and Ganga—the students spent a day mixing cement, laying bricks, and working on the toilet’s soak pit. The Byse women are currently completing the AMMACHI Labs’ vocational training course, which aims to yield replicable plumbing skills to rural women which can then be used to create a substantial income. After the day of work, however, it was clear that though toilet construction is extremely important, the real gain was in the interpersonal relationships that had begun to develop between the women and the students.
As the days of work went on, the power of small, inter-human dynamics have in creating larger change became more obvious. Each day, when reflecting on their work in the villages, the high school students repeatedly expressed the power of nonverbal communication and the emotional depth that their work had on them. They were excited that the self-reliance emphasis in AMMACHI Labs’ work was visible in the reciprocal dynamics between the village women and their instructors. Instead of understanding their work in the village as actions done to the women, they saw the relationship was equal and valuable. The women are intuitive; they often are able to figure out the best way to go about plumbing without formal training.
The women were empowered and focused: they were unafraid to tell the students when they were not whitewashing correctly or if the soak pit was not properly aligned. They were focused and extremely dedicated to the process. The principal of Westminster Schools, Joseph (Scoot) Dimon, said that the women “were deeply invested in the toilet building process. They had ownership of this process, they were emotionally invested, and they clearly took pride in what we were creating. It was powerful to work alongside them and to see the way this process has empowered them.”
Towards the end of the week, the students, their teachers and parents spent a day focused on interactions between the women and the students. After sharing a group lunch at a local dam, the students asked the women questions about their daily lives, while the women responded and asked their own questions. One of the most powerful responses by Prema emphasized that they didn’t see their lives as awful or difficult. She said that when problems come, they face them. None of them saw their lives as miserable, though they were excited to be healthier due to their new toilets.
Furthermore, another woman said that they were happiest when they were working in the fields. The simplicity and humility of these answers really touched the group. The village women did not see their lives as lacking; instead, they were deeply connected with nature and the earth. One student, Ruben Roy, who hails originally from Kerala, said that he learned “a lot more than he thought he would” from the village women. he said that he learned how “to live a content life, a simple life. He said that “Westerners should try and mimic the simplicity that is practiced by the village women, for they seem as though they are truly happy.”
Overall, the larger experience in Byse, Karnataka was one of connection. The students connected with local children and women, while also connecting Amma’s larger message and her love during darshan with the project.
Katie McGahan explained the larger experience as signified by the act of laying bricks and making toilets. She said: “It would be difficult to describe this experience in one sentence, but putting it to a friend, I’d say that it was nothing that you could ever beat. You just have to experience it; you have to come here to figure out what this is about. The one moment that accumulates everything is when we were filling the cracks between the cement blocks and the women were holding one side, and we were holding the other, and people were putting the cement in, and on one hand there were these villagers from India and we didn’t speak the same language, and other hand there were these Westerners and some of us had never been outside the country, and we were holding up this wall, and I think that shows that we were all coming together to build this beautiful thing that happens to be a toilet, but it was so much more than just a toilet.”