Thursday, July 22, 2010

India or Bust!

The top photo is of the farm house where I lived as a child. The other is of Ruth and our daughter Sara playing Scrabble with Ruth's mother and her caretaker. Ruth's mother died shortly after we returned to the US to renew our visas.

Ruth and I left for India with lots of anticipation three years ago. We still have the photo of ourselves at the airport as we were leaving. Our children are there with us holding a sign they made, “We love you Mom and Dad.” We are holding another sign that bravely announces, “India or Bust!” Ah the memories! What did we know about the things we would experience? The kinds of things we have been writing about in this blog.

It's been quite a journey, and it's rapidly coming to an end. I recently accepted an interim pastoral position in Madison, Wisconsin. The contrasts between Kolkata and Madison feel huge. Goodbye steamy tropical weather. Hello snow and winter. And that’s only the beginning of contrasts I can draw.

Ruth and I have been working from the MCC office in Akron, Pennsylvania since February, when we returned to the US to renew our resident visas for India. A process that we thought would take weeks has stretched into months. In May, we made the final decision that we would resign our MCC positions. The couple taking our regional positions will live in Nepal.

I recently called the outsourcing company that handles visa applications for India. The man on the phone tried to be helpful. He told me it will take more time but the embassy will contact me. I reminded him that we have been waiting for many months and still have not heard. He said we could reapply after six months but I detected a doubtful tone in his voice. I may need to resign myself to the possibility that we will not get our new visas anytime soon. We really hope to be able to return to say a proper goodbye to the MCC India staff and our friends.

Our life and work in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan has been stretching and incredibly educational. There are parts that we will treasure forever. It has also included some tough things—not everything turned out as we had hoped. These things include some painful work relationships and disappointment with certain aspects of MCC as an organization. We are now a little older and—hopefully—a little wiser.

What were we thinking when we gave up our secure world in Virginia for this adventure? We certainly had not anticipated returning to the US so soon or trying to find new jobs in the worst economic recession in our lifetime. Yet, we both believe that living life fully involves the willingness to take risks. We value the added perspective we have gained from our years of living cross-culturally, outside our native American social and political arena.

Living and working in Pennsylvania for the past six months—20 miles from where Ruth and I grew up—has been an unexpected gift. We keep running into people we have not seen for more than thirty years. We are gaining a new appreciation for the people and the culture in this place. We love riding our bicycles on rural roads past immaculate Mennonite and Amish farms.

This has been, perhaps, the most difficult time we have lived through and I sometimes feel very angry. Our MCC assignment wasn’t supposed to include such difficult relationships and transitions. I find myself repeating the Lord’s Prayer, “Do not lead me into a time of trial [greater than I can endure] but keep me from evil.” In other words, I pray that these trials will make me more compassionate and courageous rather than bitter and fearful. I seek to grow in the practice of "being peace" as modeled by peace activists like Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi.

I’m gaining new appreciation for Jesus’ teaching, “Do not worry about tomorrow. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” I seek to be present to each day. Enjoy the coolness of the morning as I go for a walk. Smell the corn fields and listen to the cooing of the doves. Be conscious of my own breath as I inhale and exhale. Feel my feet treading on the path. I’m part of this wonderful creation.

Madison, here we come!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Visa Woes, Rhinos, and Snow

These photos begin with a view of the snow-capped Himalayas as seen from Kathmandu. This is followed by a Buddhist shrine, two monkeys were picking up grains of rice offered at the shrine. The next are of rhinos and other animals in the Chitwan Park. Others are snow photos taken in the eastern US. The final one is our grandchildren Ivan and Annie with their mother Stacy.

The visa woes began about 15 months after our arrival in India in 2007 when we discovered that the Foreign Relations Office in Delhi would not renew our employment visas. We had to make a trip home to get new ones from the Indian embassy in the US. Things gradually went downhill from there.

It would be hard to calculate the hours that Ruth and I (as well as the MCC Asia Department) spent on the visa problems in the past two years as we attempted to traverse this bureaucratic maze. The local Foreign Relations Office in Kolkata tried to be helpful but had one version of what was needed. The Indian embassy in Washington, DC had another version. And the main Foreign Relations Office in New Delhi felt like a black hole.

Things got even more complicated during home leave last summer when our application to switch to five-year business visas was denied. We returned to India knowing that we’d have to figure out something else when our present visas expired early in 2010. Then someone at MCC came up with the bright idea of having us courier our documents and passports to the MCC office in the US and have them work on it for us while we stayed in Asia. Apparently this had worked before present global security concerns.

One little hitch was that I needed to leave India and surrender my foreign registration booklet. We decided that I’d go to Nepal in December to follow up on some of our peace projects there while I sent my stuff to the US and waited on a new visa. I left Kolkata on December 14, handed in my booklet to Indian immigration, flew into Kathmandu, got a taxi, and headed straight to the nearest DHL office.

The man behind the desk looked at me a rather strangely when I told him I wanted to send my passport to the US. He called his supervisor who told me that it was illegal to courier a US passport across an international border and that it would be seized by US customs. Okay, we’re not doing that! But now I was in Nepal with no way to get back into India. The ground kept shifting beneath my feet.

Some hasty emails and phone calls set our next plan of action. Filipinos have a wonderful expression for times like this—bahala na! (happen what may). It includes a sense of resignation with a determination to make the best of it. That’s when Ruth and I decided to go see the rhinos. I could meet with our Nepal peace partners in the next week, Ruth would join me in Nepal, we’d hang out with friends on Christmas day, and then we’d head to the Royal National Chitwan Park for a week to see the wild animals. As you can see from the photos, we had a wonderful time.

Ruth went back to Kolkata after the New Year to work at the annual budget. I followed up on some other Nepal related matters and also worked long-distance at India project planning. Near the end of January, we both flew to the US to submit our applications for new visas. After the hassle of getting all the new documentation that is now required, we submitted everything several days later. (We panicked a bit when we were told that they now need copies of our birth certificates and we couldn’t remember where we had stored them more than two years ago).

Then it started snowing—we absolutely loved it! It seemed so fitting on top of everything else. First, we got snowed in at our daughter Krista’s house outside Washington DC. We got two feet of snow, turning the park behind her house into a winter wonderland. The next week we got snowed in again with another foot of snow in Lancaster, PA. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Now we’re in a holding pattern until our visas arrive. Two weeks of waiting have slipped into four weeks, and still no word. We stay busy in an office space MCC has set up for us in the headquarters in Akron, PA. A definite benefit has been spending time with our families, including our grandchildren Annie and Ivan, and Ruth’s mother who now needs a constant caregiver.

We try not to get too frustrated by this major interruption in our lives. We practice living in the present and not getting too stressed about the future. It's an adventure, right? We are also in somewhat tentative discussions with MCC administrators about the implications of this for our work and the MCC program in South Asia. Please keep us in your prayers.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Global Warming in the Sunderbans

The coastal region of West Bengal, known as the Sunderbans, is a very fertile but fragile ecosystem. Tidal rivers have embankments to keep water from the Bay of Bengal from penetrating the villages and fields during high tide. The specter of global warming puts the whole region at risk as rising ocean levels make the river embankments increasingly vulnerable. Rising ocean temperatures also make severe cyclones more common.

Cyclone Aila, fed by warm waters in the Bay of Bengal, battered this region last May. Most of the damage happened when rising saline water from the bay breached the river embankments and flooded low lying villages and fields. The worst affected areas were in the South and North 24 Parganas Districts, near the border with Bangladesh.

MCC India has a rural development project in North 24 Parganas near the town of Hasnabad in partnership with the Resource Development Foundation (RDF), a local development agency. Many of the villages and farmers’ fields, including the RDF agricultural demonstration center were flooded. MCC India, along with the West Bengal government and many other relief agencies, provided immediate food relief and shelter.

The flood was very discouraging to village self-help groups organized by RDF because many of their livelihood projects such as fish ponds and animal husbandry were destroyed. In addition, they worried that the saline flood water would negatively affect future crop yields for years to come. People said they had not experienced such a flood in recent memory.

Several weeks before Christmas, I took a three hour train ride to Hasnabad to see the situation. Achinta Das, our MCC India project officer working with this project, and several RDF members accompanied me. Some of the progress made since the flood was encouraging. Farmers were busy harvesting rice on fields that had not experienced severe flooding. They reported that abundant rainfall after the flood had helped wash the salinity out of the soil. The saline water had been pumped out of ponds and new fish were introduced.

Even so, this was a serious setback for the RDF projects and farmers in the region. The most low-lying fields had not been planted this year. The self-help groups had also lost their initial investments in fish and poultry projects. They were hesitant to go further into debt in order to start over. Some women were planting a field of vegetables that will be irrigated by a pond that had been pumped out and refilled with fresh water. They worried that the remaining salinity would, nevertheless, stunt the growth of the plants.

The most alarming thing I saw on this trip was the temporary repair the West Bengal government had made to the river embankment near Hasnabad. The steep mud embankment is reinforced with flimsy bamboo piles that keep the whole thing from sliding into the river. I saw it during low tide but the high tide water mark was clearing visible not more than a foot or two from the top of the embankment. It would not take much for the river to again breach the embankment and re-flood the whole area.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Adivasi Farmers in West Bengal

by Ruth Zimmerman

“Do you have Adivasis where you come from?” the Adivasi farmer in rural West Bengal asked when I was introduced as a former farm girl from the United States. Adivasis are the tribal or original inhabitants of India. I was visiting their community as the director of the MCC India program to see the results of our four year project for food security and livelihood promotion.

Adivasis have suffered much in India like tribal people have in many other parts of the world. As newcomers arrived, they were pushed to more marginal, highland areas where life has been extremely difficult. I responded to the man’s question, “Yes we also have tribal people. They have lost many of their lands to foreign settlers and have suffered much.” He nodded his head in sympathy. He knew what that was like.

I visited the fields of these marginal farmers and could see flourishing fields of tomatoes, eggplants, lentils, cauliflower and giant green beans that benefited from the new water sources, such as a recently built check-dam, provided by MCC. Community members shared how the vermiculture and composting methods they learned loosened the formally hard packed soil. They proudly showed us the compost with lively worms that enriched the soil and was the reason for the healthy vegetation. Commercial fertilizers or pesticides are not needed.

Staff, from MCC partner agency ISARA, told of the many changes brought about by their work over these years. At one time the daily diet consisted mostly of rice with very limited amounts of corn and lentils. There was only one growing season during the monsoon rains. After the monsoon they often had to survive on one meal of rice or corn a day. Many would be at the edge of starvation. Drought years, when the monsoon rains failed, were doubly difficult and drove them into egregious debt to high priced money lenders.

Simple water harvesting technology has made it possible to introduce vegetables as a second crop after the monsoon season and (if water is sufficient) even a third crop. They not only have nutritious vegetables to add to the daily rice and lentils but they are able to raise enough to sell to others in the local markets. In addition they can sell worms from their vermiculture project.

The villagers smiled brightly while telling us how they no longer have to borrow from the money lenders and their children are now going to school. Migration to other areas of India for work during the dry season has also been much reduced.

ISARA helps form farmers groups and women’s self-help groups. The groups are now able to confidently access government banks for loans at much reduced rates and also take advantage of other government programs that have recently been introduced. In addition ISARA staff noted that to the incidence of deadly malaria seems much reduced in the villages that introduced vegetables into their diets.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flood Relief in Andhra Pradesh

Disasters bring out the best and the worst in us.

MCC India was discussing how we might do drought relief work in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The Indian government was calling it the worst drought in 40 years. Then unprecedented torrential rains lashed the region for more than a week, causing massive flooding. Within living memory, such heavy rain had never been experienced before in this commonly drought affected part of India.

The Indian government was able to give an early warning to low-lying towns and villages, else there would have been many more than the reported 226 deaths in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Millions were forced to evacuate and hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. Many of these families are still living in refugee camps.

The floods struck immediately before Ruth and I went to Indonesia for our semi-annual Asia Leadership Team meetings. From there we were in touch with both MCC disaster response people in North America and our MCC India staff in Kolkata. An earthquake had hit Sumatra, Indonesia at the same time and a cyclone had struck the Philippines and Vietnam a little earlier. MCC put out an appeal for these Asia disasters and we spent time, outside of our regular meetings in Indonesia, helping to coordinate this effort.

MCC India was able to secure $475,000 for flood relief from the Canadian Food Grains Bank. This is being managed through the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action, the relief and development arm of 24 Protestant and Orthodox churches in India. We were able to secure another $40,000 through the Asia disaster relief appeal to be distributed in the Mahabubnagar District of Andhra Pradesh through the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MSCFI).

Several Mennonite Brethren congregations are located in the flooded towns and villages in Mahabubnagar. MCSFI targeted this area for its relief effort in coordination with three small Mennonite Brethren related relief and development organizations. MCC India staff was also directly involved in managing the effort. We distributed 10 kilos of rice, 1 kilo of lentils, and one blanket to a total of 4,115 families.

Disaster situations bring out the best and the worst in people. Many want to help but coordinated effort is difficult. Volunteers such as the students at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College brought what little they had and helped clean mud out of houses. People from the nearby city of Hyderabad donated clothes. On the negative side, many of these used clothes were unfit to wear and most villagers refused to accept them. The clothes were lying there in huge piles that a few desperate people were picking through.

When a disaster happens, our MCC India office is flooded with appeals from local agencies that want to deliver relief aid. One of the most difficult tasks is determining which agencies are reputable and have the capacity to deliver the aid. Delivering relief is a business and many want in on the action. Getting aid to the neediest people is not an easy task. Surveys need to be taken and lists of beneficiaries must be drawn up.

The distribution itself must be well organized to make sure the relief goes to the people it’s intended for. Fights easily break out as others try to get some of the supplies. Sometimes whole truck loads of relief supplies are broken into. At one aid distribution point this week things almost got out of control because of the number of desperate people and a lack of careful planning by the people in charge of the distribution center.

I have mixed feelings about relief aid. I’d rather give a hand-up than a handout. Yet relief can make a huge difference after a disaster. The Indian military provided much needed early rescue and relief efforts that nobody else could provide. Other NGOs provided additionally needed initial food and shelter.

MCC India is not a “first responder.” We need several weeks to choose local partners, purchase supplies, conduct surveys to develop a list of beneficiaries, and finally deliver the aid. This, however, fills an important role after initial relief efforts have ended. People have lost everything and their crops have often been wiped out for the entire growing season.

What we are able to provide is so little compared to the need after a disaster like the flood in Andhra Pradesh. Yet it is something that is much appreciated. I saw one little boy, no more than ten years old, leave the distribution center with his family’s relief supplies, cheeks wet with tears. His load was almost more than he could carry. Helping that little boy is what good disaster relief is all about.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Peacebuilding in Orissa

The first photo is of me and the Orissa Minister of School and Mass Education flagging off the peace march. The second is of the march being led by a police officer, the third is of street children from the SNEH shelter-home performing a peacebuilding drama. The last is of a university student performing a traditional dance.

The Society for Nature, Education, and Health (SNEH), an MCC partner organization, inaugurated their Centre for Peace and Non-violence on World Peace Day, August 21, 2009. Thomas Harris, an MCC India project officer, and I took the overnight train to Bhubaneswar, Orissa to represent MCC at this significant milestone in our peacebuilding programming in Orissa.

Along with their other rural development and health programs, SNEH has been providing peacebuilding and conflict mediation skills to students in several high schools in Bhubaneswar. They also have a shelter-home and study center for street children in Saliasahi, a huge slum in Bhubaneswar. The newly inaugurated Centre for Peace and Non-violence is their response to the recent interfaith violence between Christians and Hindus in Orissa.

The World Peace Day inaugural program began with a three-kilometer peace march, guided by Gandhians, which included more than 300 students from various universities in the city. The peace march was followed by the inauguration ceremony at the newly constructed SNEH office building that will also house the Centre for Peace and Nonviolence.

Various local politicians and academic leaders spoke at the event which was covered by local television and newspapers. I gave a brief address on behalf of MCC India. The children from the SNEH shelter-home performed a drama on interfaith conflict that was resolved through dialogue and organizing a community peace committee. This was followed by a cultural dance and a linguistic drama, representing diversity and unity in India, performed by university students.

The Centre for Peace and Non-violence will be a place for study and research as well as peacebuilding activities and non-violent community action. A network of civil society organizations working for communal harmony is being formed. Upcoming activities in Kandhamal District, where interfaith violence erupted last year, include two conflict mediation trainings, a peace rally, and a peacebuilding competition for students.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Country Evaluations

The first photo is of students at the School of Shanti in Nepal, the second is of a tailor in Kathmandu, the third is of Charlotte and Micah in Itahari,and the fourth is of evaluators talking with vocational education alumni in Kolkata.

During much of the past month, Ruth and I have been busy with country evaluations in India and Nepal. The actual evaluation began when the team of four evaluators arrived at our MCC India office. The preliminary work had begun several months earlier as we and our staff assembled relevant documents, chose people to be interviewed, made travel arrangements, and developed key questions about the region and the work of MCC.

The goals were to both access our efforts during the past five years and to help set our strategic direction. I traveled in India with two members of the evaluation team that visited Mennonite Brethren churches and programs as well as the Henry Martyn Institute (HMI), a long-standing peacebuilding partner in South India. Dan Shetler, an MCC service worker at HMI, joined us in these conversations. The other two evaluation team members visited community development and education partners.

There was lots of affirmation for the work of MCC in India through the years. The evaluation team encouraged us to stay creative and proactive in out work. Such observations were framed as the challenge of moving from “good” to “better.” There is a sense that change is in the air as MCC repositions itself as a relief, development, and peacebuilding ministry of the global Anabaptist family of churches. We seek to envision what such change may include in our region as well as the new opportunities it may offer.

There were many encouraging conversations. One was when the HMI staff encouraged MCC to embrace our Mennonite heritage because this is our unique contribution to the field of peacebuilding. Another was a conversation with about twenty young adult alumni of our Global Family vocational education scholarship program in Kolkata. Each had a personal story of struggle to finance their education and eventually being able to help support their families as they completed their schooling and got jobs. I was especially impressed by the way our Global Family staff had built warm, nurturing relationships with these students.

We then traveled to Nepal with two members of the evaluation team to engage in a similar but smaller scale process there. Ruth and I also took this opportunity to visit various project partners and service workers in Nepal. We traveled to Itahari, a hot little town near the Indian border, to visit Charlotte and Micah Shristi who have recently begun their assignments there with United Mission to Nepal (UMN).

Charlotte is a peacebuilding advisor and Micah is an appropriate technology advisor for their UMN project cluster. We were impressed by how quickly they had made Itahari their home and were already involved in some exciting projects including cross-border violence and building a solar drier.

MCC is in the process of being registered as an international relief and development agency in Nepal. Amos and Heidi Stoltzfus, MCC service workers in Kathmandu, Nepal briefed us on these developments and other matters related to our work there.

We slipped in a quick visit to the School of Shanti, an innovative peace-training program, on the morning before we returned to Kolkata. Sixteen staff members of various grass-roots organizations from all over Nepal were gathered for a two-week training before beginning a two-month practicum with their organization. This training-practicum cycle is repeated three times throughout the one-year course. The interactive energy in the room as they engaged the topic of identity and violence was very encouraging.