Author: Phuong Tang

Standfirst: Gazing into the spreadsheet, it feels like there isn’t enough time. But for what?

My gaze diverts from the spreadsheet filled with numbers and diagrams, and I stare out my office window, searching. For what is not clear. Tears well up. I am fragile in this moment, but contain my tears, breathe in, sigh, and divert my gaze back to the all-important spreadsheet.

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In January this year I landed in Chennai where I met what would be my project team for the next three weeks. We were eight: a lead architect, a trade teacher, four carpentry students, one plumbing student and me, an environmental engineer. On previous trips the local Indian NGO, Satpuda Vikas Mundul (SVM), had requested assistance from their community partner CERES in Brunswick. SVM wanted to improve the poor state of the teachers’ quarters at the local primary school, an important task it the school was to attract and retain good teachers, particularly women teachers, of which there was currently only one.

The aim of this trip, then, was to design and build a pilot teachers’ quarters based on sustainable principles, integrating environmental, social and economic concerns. We were exploring alternatives to the coal-fired brick, cement and reinforced steel houses that are currently overtaking both the city and the countryside. This was the first phase of an ambitious master plan to revamp the primary school with sustainable built classrooms, accommodation, fourteen teacher units, and kitchen and toilet facilities for 400 students in a remote tribal school in Jamnya, Central India.

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We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Jamnya. Smiling, inquisitive children shyly congregated around us with their big fragile eyes and dirty faces. Teachers greeted us with warm handshakes and optimism. Nearby, subsistence farmers dressed in loincloth loitered curiously, together with their jewelry-wearing cattle. We were the first foreign group to stay in the Jamnya community. It was probably as strange for them as it was for us: seven burly men and one woman, ages ranging from twenty-one to forty-five, from a mix of English, Asian and European cultural backgrounds, plonked in the middle of a remote mountainous village.

 

During the trip, we were challenged on both a physical and professional level. On a physical level, we had to let go of our creature comforts. There was no beer and steak to help unwind in front of the telly after a hard day’s work. Our accommodation was basic─ squat toilets, bucket showers, no running water, beds with wafer thin mattresses and a poor excuse for a pillow, no internet, no phone reception, only sporadic electricity. Despite this, we were living in five-star accommodation compared to the actual living quarters of the teachers and the local homes. Our accommodation actually had four solid walls and a roof to keep us warm during the cold nights. Drinking water as brought in, as the village only had bore water. Water for our evening showers was heated each night on the wood fire. A gas cylinder and stove was sourced from the nearly town, as LPG is only provided to those fortunate enough to be registered and with enough money to pay for it. We even had a cook who prepared some of the most delicious vegetarian meals I have ever eaten, made with love and always served with a friendly head wobble and glowing smile.

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On a professional level we were also challenged. We had to adapt our outcomes-orientated mindsets to the ebb and flow of village life. Food, water, shelter and family were the priority. Each day unfolded like a ‘choose you own adventure’ book. Our plans for the day might be deterred by an impromptu game of cricket with the school kids, or delayed by a missing or non-existent building tool. We had discussions with the teachers, local women’s group and local trades people. We investigated what materials were locally available and assessed the most appropriate building materials, including bamboo and earth.

 

We did whatever small jobs could be done with whatever material was available. Water tanks were installed alongside the girls and boys toilet block so the kids could wash their hands. The septic tank on the boys toilets was fixed so the effluent did not run straight into the nearby creek. Leaky taps and pipes were repaired, stopping valuable drinking water being wasted. The site for the teacher’s quarters was marked out and inaugurated with a coconut-cracking and incense-burning ceremony. Teachers, students and local trades people all helped to lay the stone foundations of the teacher’s quarters.

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Despite the lack of machinery and electrical equipment, and what at times seemed difficult conditions, our human power and enthusiasm made up for it. There was still much to do, but as we said our goodbyes after three weeks, we left with our initial mission achieved─ the design for the teacher’s quarters finalized and building started. Tick. However, what really transpired in Jamnya was much more than building a teacher’s quarters or fixing leaky taps. For me, it was the human connection made─ both with the local community and the Australian project team.

 

Being the only female in the team, I was fortunate enough to stay with a local family in the school. I shared the house with the father, mother, their son and daughter-in-law. Sunrise and sunset were greeted with smiles, partly due to the language barrier, partly due to language being unnecessary. As the days unfolded, the son, who could speak English, became less shy and we would chat in the evening. I learnt that he was a high school teacher. He recently married his wife, who was twenty-one. He loved cricket. He missed his sister. She had recently passed away, in childbirth. She was only twenty-five. My heart broke. My humble host family had welcomed me into their home despite losing their daughter that Christmas.

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From the women’s group meeting I learnt that few women had the opportunity to learn beyond primary school. After primary school, girls are needed to help in the home with cooking, chores, farming or looking after siblings. I thought about the only female teacher in the school. I wondered what she and the villagers thought of me. I wondered whether they were comfortable with me travelling with a group of blokes and digging trenches. While we built the foundations of the new teacher’s quarters, I noticed the female teacher mixing up a brown paste in a bowl. She pointed to the cow dung on the ground, her bowl and the holes in the bamboo thatched walls of her existing quarters. She smiled. I stopped digging and offered to help. Together, we mixed cow dung with water and rendered her wall. I let go of my uncomfortable consciousness of being a well-traveled and educated woman. I allowed myself to learn something new. It was a magical moment.

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Back in Melbourne I stare into the spreadsheet, trying to make sense of the numbers in front of me. I am in a comfortable temperature-regulated building, sipping a strong black tea after a lunch break. I have food, water, shelter, health, loving friends and family. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is fulfilled, but something does not feel quite fulfilled. Time feels like it is escaping me; there isn’t enough time! But for what?