My flight from Chennai to Bhubaneswar (in the Indian state of Orissa) was delayed about four hours.
After finding out my flight was delayed, I called Sumant (the guy who was coordinating the guests arrivals). He said he knew already and that the car would be waiting for me. My plane was delayed due to fog. When we finally boarded at 11:30 and we were all set to take off, the girl in the row in front of me started yelling that she smelled something burning. Long story short, there wasn’t a burning smell and off we went.
My car was waiting to take me five minutes to the Gram Vikas office in Bhubaneswar. Sumant greeted me and had food waiting for me at 1:30am. I was happy to eat and have WIFI! It’s the little things.
Our van was scheduled to leave at 8am. I was up at 7. Went to breakfast at 7:30 to see Sister Jane. Sister Jane is a nun from Tanzania, who I’ve known for about five years now and met her the first time I went to Iringa, Tanzania. It was a happy reunion and we had a lot to catch up on but we had a four hour journey to Mohuda to discuss everything. There was another woman from Kolkata at breakfast who was heading down with us and a man named Bram, who was from the Netherlands and was one of Gram Vikas’ early funders through the organization he worked for. Also in our van were four guys from the GV finance department. We had a fun trip. Stopped for a roadside chai and sweets. Plus a bathroom break for myself. After a fun filled journey, we arrived at campus.
After five years, much had changed yet nothing had changed. When I first went to the campus, I arrived two weeks after a devastating cyclone- trees were down, windows broken, and flooding throughout campus. Now campus was back to normal- new trees had been planted, buildings were fixed and everything was green and blooming.
We were shown to our rooms. I was staying in the same place I had stayed five years prior, in this beautiful old stone building. On the bed, was a welcome bag which included a painting from a local student, a schedule of events and a calendar. I dropped off my stuff and then Sister Jane and I headed to the mess for lunch.
There were a ton of people there- people who had worked with GV in the past, people who work there now and other special guests. The mood was festive and happy. So many new people to meet and greet. At lunch, we sat with an Australian family. The mom (Jamilla) had worked at GV and met her husband there. They got married in the mess 23 years earlier. Their two daughters came and so did Jamilla’s Mom. There was a big group of people who had volunteered with GV 20 years ago and it was a big reunion for them. The executive board of GV were all there as well.
After lunch, Sister Jane, Devi (one of the Australians) and I took a walk through campus. Since it was Sister Jane’s first time there, she wanted to see everything. According to the schedule, the opening ceremony would start at 3. So we had about an hour to explore. It was really nice for me to be back there because it brought up a lot of great memories from my previous time there.
At 3pm, we went to where the tent was set up. Under the tent, there was an elaborately decorated stage with a podium, a large screen because the entire event was on Facebook Live and rows upon rows of chairs. Liby Johnson (not a white woman from the Midwest) gave the opening remarks. He is the new Executive Director of GV. After his remarks, Joe Madiath (the Founder of GV) welcomed the crowd and opened the display stalls. The display stalls were the different projects that GV has going on- some of them showed what the children were doing in school (robotics! and some science experiments), how each village improved after they got water and sanitation and what each branch (finance, IT etc) of GV does. It was really nice because the people working each booth were enthusiastic to share the great things being accomplished.
Another great thing about the celebration was there were sporting events. Throughout the four days, there were teams from each GV office and they competed to see who would be the champion of each sport (there was cricket, volleyball, badminton and musical chairs). Everyone was super competitive with these events.
After 7pm, there was the cultural program. The cultural program consisted of variety of acts- mostly dancing and some singing- by schoolkids and other people from the community. I was told that most of the schoolkids taught themselves the dances they performed.
That night, we were invited to dinner at Joe and Shirley’s (Joe’s wife) house. There were so many people there (between the past volunteers, guests and board members) that there weren’t enough seats for everyone. But we made do and had an awesome night. There was a lot of conversations, laughter and even some singing.
I want to discuss the food on campus. It is made behind the mess and it is amazing food. Since it was a celebration, there were a lot of people working the kitchen. Bram and I walked back there one day to witness the magic. The size of the pots they use are unbelievable. The women sit and peel massive amounts of vegetables. The men fry and cook the food. Each meal is delicious and unlimited refills. Best thing I ate was this fish dish that they served for the first lunch. So good.
Tuesday January 22nd is Founder’s Day at Gram Vikas. Everyone was up early to head to Tamana Village (about four kilometers from campus) to attend the 40th Celebration. We started the celebration by walking around the entire village and then everyone found seats in front of a huge stage. A few of the board members and Joe gave speeches. After the speeches, we were treated to breakfast there. Tamana was one of the first villages that GV helped. So it was great to see the village thriving because of GV.
After breakfast, everyone headed back to campus to attend the Founder’s Day Celebration. At campus, the flag was hoisted and the torch was lit. There was a memorial for departed colleagues. The widows were invited on stage to receive flowers and a plaque. It was quite moving. Then there were some songs and performances. Also, GV released a book discussing the first 40 years and they launched the revamped website. When everything was finished, people were invited up to share their experiences with GV throughout the years. I did not stay for the entire experience sharing… I left after Bram spoke. Whoops.
That afternoon, Sister Jane and I had a lovely discussion while watching an intense cricket match. Bram came and suggested that we schedule a field visit for the next day.
That night, there was the cultural program and dinner at Joe and Shirley’s again. There was a lot less people at dinner that night but we still had a good time.
Wednesday, we (Bram, Sister Jane, the woman from Kolkata, Kailash (our guide) and Sudam the driver) headed out to see two different villages, Samia Pali and Konomana. Samia Pali is the oldest village and the toilets and water were completed in 1992. This village has about 80 households with around 300 people. There is a huge community hall where the committee meets and big meals are prepared. We sat down with a few of the committee members and Sister Jane got to ask a lot of questions about what needs to be accomplished in Tanzania. The committee members showed us that they have about $5000 in their corpus fund in case something breaks with the water system or the sanitation system.
When we first pulled up to the village, a few of the women took an instant liking to me. They did my hair, painted my feet (supposedly it was to protect me or to prepare me for marriage…not sure which one), gave me a henna tattoo and painted my nails. They did not want me to leave and they almost convinced Kailash to let me stay there. Luckily, he told them that we all had to leave.
The next village, Konomana, started constructing toilets about two years ago. This village was a little more complicated to get everyone to participate because it consists of 5 communities with about 103 households. Here, we saw a few different toilets. Each toilet has a lock on the outside so no one can go in but the owner and each toilet has its own flair in the form of different colored tiles. The pride that each owner showed was unbelievable. Every person wanted us to see their toilet. Also, outside the toilets, the villagers had gardens growing. The villagers are also teaching the kids about proper hygiene and health. It was great to see the pride and dignity that each villager had. A beautiful day meeting amazing people and seeing what water and proper sanitation can do to further the well-being of people.
After visiting Konomana, we headed back to campus to eat a late lunch and to rest before the cultural program. That night, Joe, Sister Jane and myself had a meeting about our day and how to proceed with the projects in Tanzania. We are hopeful that the projects will be completed this year!
Bram left that night to take a 27 hour train ride to his next stop in India. I packed because I needed to leave early the next morning to head back to Bhubaneswar.
The next am, I said bye to Sister Jane, Liby and a few other people. My driver back to Bhubaneswar was the same driver from 5 years earlier. So we had a happy reunion aka took a selfie. He was such a good driver that we got back to Bhubaneswar in record time and I got to eat lunch at the GV office before heading to the airport to fly to Sri Lanka.
Thanks to Gram Vikas for turning 40 so I could celebrate and meet a ton of amazing people. Here’s to many more years of bettering people’s lives by providing water and sanitation.