Monthly Archives: March 2018

Laughter Has No Language

by Loren Breen

About halfway through our program, we were invited to the Child Friendly Spaces teacher training. Not wanting to appear ungrateful for the invitation, I accepted, but I was thinking in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to get much out of the session. One, I am not a teacher so I would be so behind and this training would be beyond my skill set. Two, this training was being lead in Guajarati so anything that I might have benefited from was bound to go over my head. To my surprise, I left teaching feeling full of joy and with a renewed optimism to pour myself into my work.

Language is a large barrier in India because each state has its own unique language or dialect. Even though we spend an hour and a half every morning learning Hindi, communication is new territory every day. I never know if I am going to encounter someone that speaks English or Hindi because there is just as high of a chance that they only speak Gujuarti, a rural dialect, or another language from a different state. In a place like Ahmedabad where over 60% of the population are migratory workers, there is a good chance that you won’t even be able to tell your cab driver you only speak English in a language he will understand.

When I walked into this teacher training, any barrier imposed by language melted away. I received a warm welcome consisting of waves from the teacher I had the pleasuring of meeting prior and introductions from those I was just meeting. Before I knew it, we were all sitting in a circle on the ground drinking chai and eating dal vada. This “training” felt more like a group of old friend gathering together with a common goal.

After the customary chai break, we jumped into learning different interactive songs, dances, and stories that can be used to teach everything from counting to morals. All fifteen teachers and four coordinators were actively participating during this opportunity to share ideas. We went around the circle and almost every woman took a turn to lead their favorite creative movement and interactive activities to do in their classroom. Jay, Rebecca, and I were even asked to teach “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to all the teachers because we had taught the song to some students the week prior.

On top of the inclusive atmosphere and eagerness to learn, my favorite part of this training was that it was full of laughter! These teachers were all such a joyful group; no one was embarrassed to dance like a fool and sing at the top of their lungs. They also were not afraid to laugh at themselves. One of the fables was about a lion, and when it was time to make a lion sound the teacher turned to Gopal bhai. As a coordinator for CFS and the organizer of this training, I anticipated Gopal bhai to observe and take notes; to my surprise Gopal bhai let out the most theatrical lion’s roar including teeth baring and all. As if rehearsed, the women broke out into a chorus of laughter that floated through the room and right out the open windows. This joy was a refreshing juxtaposition to the crowded labor colony in which we were standing. Everytime we learned a song, someone would teach a silly dance that would send giggles rippling through the group. While I didn’t always get the joke because of the “language barrier”, laughter has no language, and I found myself unreservedly laughing right along with them.

In the Clamor and the Clangor

A peacock perches on a balcony. Photo Credit: Gina Kovalik

I’m from a pretty small town. It’s usually a quiet little place – so quiet that I can hear our neighbor’s cows lowing from inside my bedroom. After I came to Duke freshman year, the noises that I heard from my dorm room were a little different. Shouts of students on the quad were punctuated with the grumble of trains running across tracks close by campus in what grew to be a comfortingly consistent pattern and the not-so-comforting beeping of garbage trucks right below my window at 8 AM on Monday mornings. Living on a college campus is very different from the sleepy city in which I grew up, but I have come to love Duke and am now familiar with the background music of both my homes.

When I told my parents that I wanted to do DukeEngage in Ahmedabad, India, one of the first things they did was to look up the size of the city to try and visualize what exactly an urban area in one of the most highly populated countries in the world might look like. While coming to a city of over 7 million from a town with less than 4,000 people has been challenging in many ways, some of which I was prepared for, some of which I was not, one thing that I didn’t think to prepare myself for is the variation in the soundtrack of life here.

As one would expect, Ahmedabad is a bit noisier than my hometown. Instead of hearing cows or trains from my bedroom, I listen to the constant whirring of my ceiling fan, the honking of cars on the street outside, and the aggressive chirping of pigeons fighting for space on the ledge outside my window. I can hear doors opening and closing as my host family moves about the apartment and the excited shouts of my 7-year-old host brother as he runs around and plays games, and the clatter of silverware spills out from the kitchen while our next meal is being prepared.

On the way to work every day, I hear a symphony of car horns, faint snippets of Bollywood music from other vehicles, and the mooing of cows right beside our taxi on the street instead of from my bedroom at home.

At SAATH, I, along with two other interns, have been working with the Child-Friendly Spaces project to develop and test interactive learning activities that CFS can use at its sites across the city. When we get to go test out activities at sites, we hear the gleeful yells of students as they perform their favorite song, “Rolly Poly,” for us and the rustle of some creative and nifty cradles as the youngest children are rocked to sleep.

When we work from the office, I am surrounded with the rhythmic tapping of my fellow DukeEngage students on their keyboards, hard at work on their projects. I expected this noise, and it provides a sense of comfort as it reminds me of group study sessions back at school. As we have become more integrated with the office, we have also gotten to work in harmony with the rest of SAATH’s staff. Hearing their sweet “Kaise ho?”s (“How are you?”s) as they give us opportunities to practice our Hindi as we pass in the kitchen always brightens my day.

These recurrent echoes and workplace conversations are to be expected when working in an office, but just as life in a city is different from life in a small town, offices in India are a bit different from offices in the United States.

I didn’t expect the clinking of tiffins (lunchboxes) and the clatter of metal container lids as all the employees share their lunches, family-style.

I didn’t expect the crunching of samosas on days when SAATH orders treats for everyone because the monsoon season has hit hard that day.

I definitely did not anticipate a beautifully dissonant cacophony of voices as everyone shook my hand to wish me many happy returns on my birthday last week, including the founder of SAATH and its current Executive Director who both took time out of their days to come celebrate and munch on the cookie bars my DukeEngage group surprised me with.

Some of the sounds that I will miss most of all are the gentle jingling of ceramic cups as our friend Santosh brings around cups of chai for everyone each morning and afternoon, the winsome cries of peacocks cutting sharply through the air, and the pure joy emanating from my peers each time our ears detect one of these frequencies. Peacocks are India’s national bird, and we have sort of adopted them as our mascot. Each time we hear one’s song, we all immediately stop and look for its owner, and it is this intense collective weeks-long birdwatch that I will remember most fondly of all.

While some noises are more welcome than others (the relentless rivets of rain can stop at any time now, thanks), they have all woven together to create a true masterpiece of a score to one of the greatest adventures of my life. We are nearing the conclusion of the piece, and I’m hoping that the finale of the work is just as exciting as its beginning before all too soon, the noises shift once again to the wheels of suitcases and planes as we journey back home. I’m so blessed and grateful to have heard this melody, and I am excited that for SAATH, the end of the summer is simply a refrain, not a coda, and the echoes of the work they are doing will resonate on for years to come.

Ahmedabad, an Aspirational Society

by Jay Gupta


Ahmedabad is a vibrant city with rich historical significance. On one end, it was the site of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram – a central symbol of peace, unity, and power during India’s tumultuous campaign for independence. Now, Ahmedabad is growing and building in unique ways in response to challenges of its own. In the early 2000s, riots between Hindus and Muslims left the city with increased violence and lowered morale. Coupled with rapid migration of people from rural villages seeking livelihood opportunities, it saw an expansion of slum-populated areas. This created inequality between pockets of the population and necessitated a shift towards development and progress. Ahmedabad became a hub for social organizations and took the view of an “aspirational society” – a mindset that pervaded many aspects of my time in India and work with Saath Charitable Trust.

I spent the summer working on Saath’s Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) project. In the short term, CFS centers provide safety, education, and nutritional support for children of migrant construction laborers, who live and work in colonies established near construction sites. Saath’s larger goal is to encourage and counsel families to eventually enroll their children in government schools. Thus, CFS centers also need to prepare these students with basic skills so that they are ready to meet the rigors of a formal education. I entered my DukeEngage experience eager to contribute to this goal in any capacity that I could.

Initial meetings with our Saath project mentors helped identify a key area where this contribution could take shape. The teachers lacked a designated curriculum, and instruction varied significantly across the seven site locations. My teammates and I decided to create a teachers’ handbook with interactive lessons plans for activities that spanned areas such as language, basic math, creative development, and mental development. Our goal was to provide the teachers with a resource that they could use to both standardize classrooms and keep students excited, motivated, and engaged. With a concrete plan and enthusiasm for our project, we began developing Saath’s first CFS curriculum.

Initially, field visits consisted mostly of observation. We toured several sites and labor colonies, interviewed teachers, and learned as much as we could about their classroom procedures. This gave us a strong operational knowledge of the CFS program, which we used to begin developing our teachers’ handbook. However, as we would quickly learn, sometimes facts are not enough to put an idea into practice. About a quarter of the way through the handbook, we decided that we were ready to try some of the activities with CFS students. But, to me, this presented more challenges than anticipated. How was I to communicate with students across a vast age range – and that too, while facing a language barrier? I had known that there are students from just a few months to around 14 years old all in a single CFS classroom, and most of them speak only Gujarati. But our activities hadn’t been planned with this in mind just yet. Unable to keep all the kids engaged and entertained, I returned to the office a bit dismayed and questioning how to proceed. Very soon, Ahmedabad started to showcase its “aspirational society” nature.

My teammates and I began working more closely with our Saath mentors to improve our activities and benefit the students’ learning. Our mentors gave us valuable encouragement and guidance. They had an overflowing enthusiasm for our project and the impact it would have on establishing a dedicated CFS curriculum for the first time. The teachers were also instrumental in helping us better understand the community and surmounting the barriers we initially faced. I would often speak to them in Hindi, and they would translate into Gujarati so that the students could understand. They also provided valuable tips on engaging more students, despite the varying age groups. Soon, the students also overcame their shyness and brought forth a contagious spirit of happiness and eagerness to play with us and learn in the process.

By the end of summer, when I walked into the classroom, it was always with a big smile. And right as I entered, I would be greeted with a reciprocal chorus of laughter and excitement from the students. The warm relationship that formed between us has made my work with Saath quite memorable and meaningful. The many lessons I will take away from this experience have given me an important outlook on service – to successfully contribute, one must first understand the community, its perspectives, and build connections with the diverse people he is working with.