For anyone who knows the way I tell stories, you’ll know that it comes from my mother’s side of the family. I have a tendency to tell what I call tree branch stories. That is, there is a main trunk to the story line, but I will often branch off to tell side stories along the way. In reflecting on our first few days with our NGO, this is going to be one of those stories. So buckle up, it might be a bit longer – but I hope you will find it interesting.
To start, I should explain that our team of eleven IBMers was divided into sub-teams to work with four NGOs here in Jamshedpur. Kim (USA), Szandra (Hungary) and I are working with an organization called Kalamandir – The Celluloid Chapter Art Foundation. The others are working on other projects with School of Hope, Family Planning Association of India, Singhbhum Branch, and All India Women’s Conference, Jamshedpur Constituent Branch.
This week has been overwhelming in a good way. We’ve experienced so much in such a short period of time. On Monday we had our opening ceremonies, where we met with all of the NGOs as well as representatives from Tata Steel. (Fun fact: Jamshedpur was founded by a man named Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata, and Tata Steel essentially runs this city – which is why it is also known as Steel City, TataNagar or simply Tata.) Tata Steel supports these NGOs, in one way or another.
In the morning, everyone introduced themselves and the passion with which each of the NGOs spoke about their organizations left all of us incredibly humbled, touched, inspired, and frankly a bit teary-eyed. The whole climate of the room changed – we all got a very personal sense of what these organizations and what these projects mean to the people making decisions, and the communities that they serve.
We then divided into our groups to get to know one another and to have a project kick-off, talking about the vision of the organization as well as the scope of work for each of the projects. We received these documents a month ago, and this was our opportunity to get a better understanding, face-to-face.
We had these projects assigned to us, rather than assigning ourselves to the projects. But I have this feeling as though all of the stars have aligned, so let me explain that through tree branch story #1.
Who am I outside of work?
One of our first pre-work tasks three months ago was to write a CV and cover letter to explain our skills and our interests, so that we could be matched to specific projects. As consultants we’re constantly interviewing and being proposed on new projects, so we have to keep an up to date CV. Writing about my skills was the easy part. Especially because I “leveraged” – consultant speak for plagiarized – from my manager Jayme’s cover letter. (She participated in a CSC assignment last year in Malaysia.) Now the hard part – what the heck are my personal interests? What kinds of projects would I find most meaningful, personally? What do I want to accomplish? I hummed and hawed about this and had a bit of an identity crisis, calling friends and family, “What do I like doing besides gallivanting around the world? What would I say I am most proud of as a personal accomplishment? I’m so boring!!!” In the end, I came up with the following:
Outside of work, I enjoy traveling and learning about new cultures. When not traveling, I enjoy the arts and will spend time with family and friends doing activities related to music, art, drama, and dance. On a personal level, my motivation for joining the Corporate Service Corps is rooted in the belief that as humans we are all interconnected, and together we can innovate to create a better world.
This was the result of some reflection. As a child, my parents’ philosophy was “we’ll show you your country, you show yourself the world.” They wanted me to have a solid understanding of my own culture and where I came from, so I got to see Canada coast-to-coast. I took their words to heart and in the past five years alone, I’ve studied, worked, volunteered, and traveled across 29 countries on five continents. I would say one of my greatest personal accomplishments is the fact that I only had one blank page left on my last passport (and that’s only because I put a post-it note on it that said “please leave this page blank for full page visas :)” – much to the amusement of border patrol officers). It’s not the stamps I’m proud of – although they do look cool – it’s the experiences I’ve had on each of those trips. I’ve learned so much. I like going to new places, I like meeting new people, I like trying new foods, I try to pick up a few words (I’m not good with languages but I make an effort!) and I try my hardest to get authentic experiences to learn about different cultures. If I wanted everything to be the same as home, I would stay home. I hate going to a place and eating in really touristy restaurants or buying souvenirs from China (unless of course I am in China, but I haven’t been there yet). If I think of my favourite experiences on trips, it’s not the most expensive activity or the typical sights and sounds that stand out. It’s either ridiculous laughter shared with family and friends together in some far off land, or it’s something you can’t find in guidebooks that I stumble upon by happenstance or the guidance of a kind local. Sometimes it’s both, but it’s somewhere new.
Once upon a time I learned that there are different levels of national culture: the artifacts (e.g. monuments, language, food, music etc.), the behaviours, and the values that underlie all of these. Artifacts change most frequently, but the values are passed down through generations and are built into the education system. These don’t change often, or quickly. There are varying dimensions in analyzing culture, but I’ll spare the details and simply say that one of the reasons I like the arts is because it is such a raw representation of culture. The arts have always been a part of me – I studied music for a decade, went to a high school for the fine arts, and spent every weekend at the museum, art gallery, or science centre (where I later studied and then worked). It’s safe to say “getting cultured” is a theme in my life.
Why am I telling you this?
Let’s go back to Kalamandir. They are all about preserving and promoting tribal culture. Their vision is:
“A hunger-free society with an empowered, community-based, democratic institutions at grass root level that safeguard, nurture, promote and disseminate traditional and ethnic art, culture and heritage of the people and its values.
We shall aim to create a greater understanding and interaction of the tribal and folk traditions, their age-old customs, rituals and their environment which is of immense historical value, anthropological interest and a national agenda.”
The passion in which Kalamandir’s leaders spoke about their vision really hit home for me. They have had tremendous impact on the communities that they serve (fun fact #2: for my b-school friends, there’s an Ivey business case written about Kalamandir). Together they have “held hands” with villagers to create sustainable living. Back in our first-year class at Schulich, the triple bottom line accounting framework was drilled into our heads. This means that sustainability is measured in three dimensions: people, planet and profit. Kalamandir embodies this.
One of the things that touched me the most was something said about the intense collectivism of the tribe and the inherent prejudice against tribals: “Inequality cannot bring sustainability.” By using both our hearts and our heads, our project is to create a marketing strategy for rural tourism to tribal villages.
If you’re still with me, let’s move on to tree branch story #2.
Why do I feel any connection to tribal traditions?
I don’t have any Native American roots, so why do tribal traditions mean something to me personally? À la “Where in time is Carmen Sandiego?” let’s roll the clock back more than 2,000 years and talk about my father’s side of the family.
It is with great pride and a twinkle in his eye that my nonno (grandfather) likes to remind us that we descended from ancient warriors. The tribe was called the Sanniti (Samnites), and they lived in south-central Italy (where the province of Molise is today, just south-east of Rome). This tribal name shouldn’t ring a bell, unless you’ve spent time with my nonno; but believe it or not, you’ve heard of them. They were the Spartans of ancient Italy (but better, of course). They were warriors that had three long wars with the Romans, and were the last tribe to hold out against them. My nonno will emphatically tell you that “we only stopped fighting them because they asked us to be generals of their army.” I don’t really know, as this was in 290 BC and he wasn’t around, but that’s the story that’s been passed down through the years. In the end, those who were not integrated into Roman society were ethnically cleansed. But there are some huge artifacts still standing today that we all recognize. This is because one of their cultural traditions became famous worldwide: they were the first gladiators. Italian Wikipedia tells me that it was probably through the Samnites that the bloody pastime was imported to Rome. For a long time, in fact, the only type of gladiator known in Rome was that known as Sannita.
The region eventually became a Roman ally. In fact our last name – Manocchio – has an interesting history. The name can be split into two parts, mano (hand) and occhio (eye); the legend is that he was a general who lost his hand and eye in battle. So whenever I’m feeling down, my nonno takes my hand and forcefully encourages me: “Michelle, you are tough. You are a fighter. You are a Sanniti!”
My nonno is the proudest Canadian you’ll ever meet, because as he says “I chose this country.” But imagine that, even this many generations later, he has instilled in us such raw connection with the spirit of an ancient tribe.
Today, I spend a lot of time with my grandparents, and candidly one of the things that scares me the most is that we will not carry on their cultural traditions authentically. I doubt I’ll ever be as good as my nonna at making her famous Easter soup, and unlike my nonno I don’t spend my mornings in the garden talking to my plants or evenings in the basement singing to my handmade sausages. There are so many things I hope to someday pass on to my own children, but I fear that in time they will be lost.
I think the preservation of culture and traditions is important. It shapes a part of our identity and has the power to communicate so much with little interpretation. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the time and place that I have, but I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without having these experiences. I would hate to see modern day tribes get wiped off the map or have their traditions forgotten instead of celebrated.
These are some of the reasons I’m thrilled to be working with Kalamandir. Since our kick-off, we’ve had more meetings in the city, but to experience these Indian tribal traditions first-hand, they took us on a day trip to Amadubi. It is the site of our rural tourism project, and it was such a special day that I’m making my next post all about that. Considering that I’ve already written a wall of text, it will be a photo blog with limited writing!
If you’ve gotten this far (either because of your sheer boredom or your interest in my tree branch ramblings) thanks for reading! You’re amazing! It means a lot to me. I hope that you enjoy reading these updates as much as I enjoy writing them.