Saturday, September 17, 2011

Football in the Air

Earlier this year I wrote about an initiative within Manav Sadhna to bring the game of football (soccer) to the local slum kids and other youth in the surrounding community. Things started humbly with Jesus holding a weekly practice with any kid that was interested at the Ashramshalla. I later joined to help run the practices. Meanwhile a solid group out of the UK called Football Action contacted MS wanting to sponsor equipment and a football field to be built for kids to enjoy the game. Before I left India last March we had a meeting with some of MS coordinators about ramping up the activities: get more kids involved, recruit coaches/mentors from the local community to organize teams and hold practices, and work towards setting up a league for kids to hone their skills, compete, and grow the sport; and all along the way coordinate with Football Action to meet on joint objectives.

Six months later I am back at MS and eagerly joined Sunday morning's practice couple weeks ago to see the progress. Through emails, it seemed that things were really taking off, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw. There were over 50 kids, split into 5 teams representing 5 local communities, spread out in practice sessions across the ashram premises. Each team was engrossed in organized drills, led by a group of crackerjack coaches. The coaches are all "big brothers", MS volunteers from the same communities as the members of each team. The coaches led the surprisingly diligent players in jogging, passing and volleying drills, small-sided games, keep-away, shooting, and of course scrimmages. One especially strict coach, Rahulbhai, was barking orders as the kids ran in a wide circle and did the drill I used to do where you bend down and touch the ground with left, right, and both hands when commanded. Then go up for an air header. Incredible! They were having trouble running at the same pace and subsequently the circle got deformed and uneven, but was still a thing of beauty.

I later learned, mostly from Aaron who has been leading the training sessions, that these teams have been training hardcore for the past two months. Some teams get together daily to practice. Daily! On the weekends, there are sessions with multiple teams, and those regularly run for 4+ hours. Nimo works at MS everyday, and he told me every time he walks through the Ashramshalla he sees kids playing football. "Football fever has swept up these kids, cricket has been totally forgotten," Nimo remarked. Basically football is in the air and the kids can't get enough of it.

I was really impressed with the progress since Jesus and I were running a raggedy practice with ~12 kids every Sunday. We struggled to get the kids to pass and dribble. Now they were keeping space and intelligently passing. I participated in and watched some 3-on-1 keep-aways and was happy to see that a number of passes were being strung together. Some of the kids showed exceptional talent. I told Aaron later that what was most delightful was how you'd be watching 2-3 minutes of very ordinary football with standard repeated mistakes and lack of control. Then out of the blue a kid would do something brilliant. A delicate jumping touch to stop the ball dead, or a series of creative passes or striking the cone on a rifling shot. Breathtaking. One of my selfish goals for this project was for it to eventually produce one player who makes the Indian national team. It can definitely happen.

I attended this week's Sunday morning practice and helped run a match with Rahulbhai and Aaron. Saying it was an incredible experience doesn't nearly do justice. There were 14 kids, 7 to a side. As we separated them into teams, Aaron asked whether we could assign them positions (3 defenders, 2 midfielders, 2 strikers to a side) in an attempt to get them to spread the field for passing instead of bunching around the ball. I was skeptical, it was a tall order since the kids have yet to fully grasp the ideas of playing off the ball and giving their teammates space to accept a pass. But with a lot of help from Rahulbhai, we were able to explain to each team how they were to stay in specific zones on the field and handle specific roles. We even mandated that the attackers not be allowed to cross back into their own midfield, which was an artificial way to keep them ahead. But once you give kids the structure to play soccer the right way, they naturally understand what they are to do.

The game was intense and also instructional for the kids. I played ref and also paused it several times to make them aware of positioning, spacing, and passing options. Throughout the game I paced the sidelines laughing and skipping in delight as the kids made one athletic and/or skillful soccer play after the other. There was some tenacious on-ball defending and tackling, the kids are naturally aggressive on the ball. Some memorable headers/facials and lots of hand balls, and even a few intelligent back passes which was one of the more rewarding moments (they realized possession is more valuable than ball position). The climax moment of the match was an absolutely gorgeous goal by one of the teams where Mitesh and Ravi played a perfect 1-2 game down the defensive third and put the ball into the corner of the goal. From my angle on the field I craned my neck to watch the play develop and the shot trickle through, and when it did I ran to the two players to celebrate as if I had scored. It was easily the most joyful moment of my last 18 days in India. I couldn't have been more proud.

The game ended 3-2, well fought by both sides. In the recap, Rahulbhai emphasized that the kids still needed to work on their spacing and respect the positions on the field. Also to work on trapping. Aaron spoke next and said something memorable: in the 8 weeks he's been at MS, playing countless hours of football with countless kids, this, finally, was the best match he had seen. After breaking up we hugged gave knowing looks that had been part of something amazing. The next day I get an email from Aaron who was also still on a high from the experience. "What a match... ten times better than the World Cup final!" Couldn't have said it better.

One of the edges that has come up with this project is working with an organization that has a pre-defined vision and goals for the project. Football Action stepped up and committed to sending a bunch of equipment, including balls, shoes, and even uniforms to MS to distribute to the kids. They sent a portion of it to Ahmedabad a month or so ago. Balls, uniforms, and even shoes. And this is all top-of-the line stuff, really high quality. But the problem is that there isn't enough equipment to match the number of kids that are participating. If the equipment was distributed to only some of the kids, it wouldn't be fair. So a deficit that didn't previously exist is created. We probably would have been better off buying enough equipment locally at cheaper prices. Meanwhile top of the line Man United jerseys and Nike Mercurials sit unused in a locker at Manav Sadhna while 52 kids play soccer outside barefoot.

A big reason why he have this situation is that the number of kids participating was unexpectedly high. But this is only a problem if we are unable to respond to the dynamic situation. Football Action approached MS originally with a vision to build a soccer field, complete with goals and lines, in or around the local community. Once the field gets built, their team would make a visit to the site, get to know the community, and have trainings and exhibition matches with the kids and other local people as the press looks on. This is their signature contribution, having followed this blueprint successfully for a community in Africa. While it's a wonderful thing to do, this is a different context with different constraints and requirements. There are a number of other expenses that have come up that need immediate attention. Equipment is just one. Another is paying a modest financial incentive for the coaches who have stepped up and dedicated significant time and energy to the project, despite their own time demands to make ends meet. Another is funds for snacks to offer the kids after practice. Many of the kids lack a nutritious diet. Instead, the coaches are spending money from their own pockets to provide the kids a snack. A third is setting aside money in case of injuries to players. A previous ultimate frisbee project at MS screeched to a hault when one of the players got injured and needed surgery, but the backing organizations couldn't offer any financial assistance. These are real needs, and it's easy to miss them when you have your own idea of success. To me this is a microcosm for how international aid agencies work; caught up in their own pet projects, many agencies miss being responsive to the unfolding situation on the ground.

If I ran Football Action, I wouldn't make a trip to the site after the field gets built there; I would travel there as the first thing. Get to know the community, talk to the local organizations, play some football with the kids and get a feel for what could work. Then create a timeline and budget that fits the context and get everyone to buy into it. But in an era where MBAs are rewarded for creating a model that "scales", we get seduced by the idea of one size shoe fitting all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The School That Ganeshnagar Built

Last weekend I visited a special school. It is located in the middle of a slum in Ranip, Ahmedabad. It's built using only materials from in and around the slum, and by the children from the slum.

Patangyu ("Butterfly") School in Ganeshnagar is phase 2 of the after-school program for Ranip kids that was run by Manav Sadhna volunteers out of a small but colorful space near Jayeshbhai's house. The idea for this new schoolhouse is to involve the students themselves in every step of the school's development, and to make it a part of the community that they live in.

I attended the weekly Sunday session with a bloke from UK named Aaron, to see the school in action. The schoolhouse is simple: a basic circular space closed off by pillars of rocks gathered by hand by the kids, stacked into cylinders by wiring. There is a basic but sturdy bamboo roof on top. Overall it's minimalist and inviting.

When we arrived class was already in session. Any child from the slum is invited to attend, provided they stay for the entire session and are old enough to understand what is going on. But inevitably kids of all ages show up. Currently Anjali leads the classes each week. Typically she presents a theme of the day and have the kids discuss it. The theme is usually related to a holiday or festival that's happening at that time. Then she has the kids draw a picture on that theme. This week it was Ganesh, who's festival is coming up. All the kids drew Ganesh first with pencil, then colored it in. The main point of the activity is to let the kids be creative, use their imagination, and practice concentration. The kids broke off into mini groups and got to work. It was fun watching the diversity of pictures develop, the kids took drawing Ganesh in many different directions. Whenever they had trouble know what to draw or how to draw it, Anjali would ask the student to close their eyes and picture what they want to draw for few seconds, then open and draw what they saw. Worked every time. In fact part of this exercise is about unlocking the latent ability each kid has, but isn't aware of. It's a confidence building exercise. At the end of the session everyone gathers back in a circle and flip through the pictures together. Each child has a chance to describe what they drew. Finally, class ends with a few seconds of meditation and the kids are off to the races.

Watching the kids play in the space, Aaron and I commented how these kids have such active imaginations, making up random games to play with each other. They had no toys, but maybe that was a good thing because it forces them to come up with creative ways to entertain themselves. Anji mentioned that it's a known principle that children need to feel boredom in order to spark their imagination. Kids in the US who are constantly stimulated by video games, soccer practice, and dance class don't get to feel bored, and maybe that's not a good thing.

The school has it's share of problems. Adults in the community sometimes sneak into the space to drink or gamble. Others have come in and defecated. During the rains, a farmer used it as a barn to keep his animals. Each time, the kids have taken the initiative to let the perpetrators know that it's not OK, that their space should be protected. That level of ownership only comes through sustained participation and engagement.

Though Anjali is currently the only full-time instructor, the space remains open for anyone to come in and volunteer to share what they know. This week, an organic farmer from nearby visited the school to talk with Anjali about getting the kids involved in gardening by planting some vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants in the dirt area behind the schoolhouse. They could grow vegetables specifically to meet some of the community's nutritional deficiencies, and medicinal plants that can help with common chronic illnesses amongst the children. Everything would be grown organically; the children would help create compost by collecting waste from their homes. Hopefully they will take ownership over the garden as they have the school space. There will likely be other challenges, like theft and hungry animals. But the kids have a habit of stepping up when it's called for.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tabla Pusher

Robin Sukhadia has been in India for the past 6 months on a Fullbright Scholarship exploring the role of music education for street children in Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Last week he hosted an intimate evening at the MBL headquarters where he shared his personal journey, what art means to him, history and primer on tabla, and of course some riffs on the tabla from the man himself.

Robin took us through the history of Project Ahimsa, which he has been a part of since its beginnings. The project's mission is to empower youth around the world through music. Robin showed some videos of various projects in which disadvantaged youth came alive when introduced to creative expression through music, especially tabla. Also I learned that Project Ahimsa planted seeds for future music projects in Manav Sadhna, starting with a simple project to bring instruments to students of a local blind school. Later folks would be inspired to put together the Ekta show, which toured around the world. That laid the foundation for the latest incarnation, Ekatva.

In his own journey, Robin has been deeply influenced by tabla. Always musically inclined, he got into tabla after a chance encounter with Zakir Hussein 8 years ago. Backstage at his concert, Zakirji told Robin to seek out another renowned tabla master, Pundit Swapan Chaudhuri as his teacher. Robin obeyed, and has been practicing intensively under Swapanji ever since. But of course as Robin related, the tabla is a very subtle instrument and can take a lifetime, or even multiple lifetimes to master.

Tabla has its own language, the dha-dhin-dhin-dha that you often hear tabla players sing during a concert. The alphabet if dha's and dhe's and dhin's is what teachers use to transmit to their students. Tabla is taught completely orally, nothing is written down. Same goes for tabla making, which I learned is an ancient art. Tabla is one of the few modern instruments (and I mean really modern, it has really only gotten wide exposure since the art was opened up to the masses since Independence) that does not have a satisfactory synthetic version. No one has been able to capture the sound of symmetrically stretched calf and goat skin. The black middle part of the tabla is what gives it the sweet sound. The two drums represent the male and female, and making them dance together in different combinations is what makes tabla beats diverse and alive. My burning question from Robin's talk was a two-parter: a) Do famous tabla players grow out their hair on purpose so they can fling it around during performances, since their hands are occupied? and b) How does he cope with his own inability to do so?

Robin also talked about and quoted from the Artist's Way, and emphasized the benefits of making room for artistic expression in life. But also it's important to encourage artistry in others, especially youth. He linked art to social change and said Gandhi was himself a great artist, and how deeply he was influenced by the work of the artists Tagore and Tolstoy.

Robin is a really cool cat. Although we only overlapped in Ahmedabad for a couple days, it was great getting to know him and bonding over childhood love stories (tetherball!), Clay Shirky, and Mario Bros. I'm not sure when our paths will cross next, only that they will.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I am FOB

Welcome back to The Organic Indian! Let's dive right in and cover happenings since the last installment of this blog.

First, I graduated. In early 2011, I was in India finishing the final bit of work for my thesis. I came back to California in April, gave my oral examination in May, walked in cap and gown in June, and handed in my dissertation in August. I subsequently came straight back to India where I type these words from.

Next, I am now working full time on Awaaz.De ("Give your voice"), the startup I co-founded with Tap last year. The company is a spin-off of my thesis project, Avaaj Otalo, which is a voice information service for small scale farmers in Gujarat to access and share agricultural advice using any mobile phone. Callers dial a regular phone number and access a question and answer message board, where they can post, browse, and respond to others' questions and answers. We launched the service with DSC, our local NGO partner, in 2009, and it has been live since then. If this paragraph sounds like a rehearsed spiel that has been rattled off in verbal and written form hundreds of times to hundreds of people in the last year, you are on the money.

My dissertation was on the design and usage of Avaaj Otalo. As I neared graduation, we needed a way for the service to live on. It wouldn't be right to just pack up my computer and call it a day just because I was graduating. We had started something that our local partners had invested time, money, and effort on, and that was delivering real value to farmers who depended on it: to date AO has served over 40,000 calls from 5,000 callers.

That's where Awaaz.De comes in. It hosts Avaaj Otalo: all of the calls into and out of AO come through the servers in the our office. In addition, we generalized the software underlying AO and created a customizable voice social media platform. So now any organization in India who wants to reach remote, disconnected communities can set up their own voice application with us. We help design a custom application based on the particular information and communication needs the organization is trying to address. Then we set up the application on our servers, and give the org a phone number and a login to a web-based administration interface. They don't have to install any software or manage any hardware. We take care of all the of the technology, it is a fully hosted service. The organization is the front-facing entity for the service. They promote the phone number as a service they are provided. They are also responsible for the content on the system: responding to questions form the community, uploading new info, broadcasting and routing messages, etc. Currently we are hosting applications for eight different organizations across six states in India. And not just for agriculture, but a variety of domains like labor rights, women's empowerment, and education.

And like that the company is off and running. We acquired our partners in a relatively short time, all since last September. And they all came through word-of-mouth. We hadn't even set up a website and we were getting requests from folks, like the service we offer has been needed for a while now, only no one was offering it. So in a way I don't really feel like I started the company, more that the company started itself. All very organic and demand-driven, which makes it feel right. There was nothing unnatural or forced about how things have developed. In fact if anything I would say I have been reluctant, conservative, perhaps even in denial about the inevitability of the company every step of the way. Honestly I didn't see it coming, yet now I look back at the path and it makes perfect sense. I couldn't see that far ahead, but now here I am trying to make this a way to earn a living. So far, it's looking possible. We are revenue-generating, have one full-time employee, Chirag, and an office with a sign and a logo. The other day, we even got business cards.

As I began to see light at the end of the tunnel of grad school about a year and a half ago, I started to think about what to do next. I thought about staying in academia as a professor, or getting a job at an organization I like and care about (one I've had on my list for a while is NPR), working for the government (inspired by Obama), and of course continuing to work on the stuff we started in India in some capacity. Then we started Awaaz.De, and that option became a concrete possibility. Since then, with a more-than-gentle nudging of Tap, I started trying on the role of entrepreneur in my mind. Is it for me? I have always felt my personality isn't suited for entrepreneurship, I don't have an unquenchable thirst for it like the best ones seem to have. But over the last year or so I have begun to start embracing the role, and at this point I can say with full conviction that this is what I want to do. I am an entrepreneur. I'm excited to develop the skills that are required to be a good entrepreneur. In particular understanding what people need, working under uncertainty, innovating, having a strong vision, and leading people. No matter the level of success the business achieves, I want the learning experience and opportunity for growth. Assuming this new identity, I've seen the transition in how I think and interact with friends and others. I am more protective of business interests in political debates (fiscal conservative?). When I'm at social events, I find myself giving the AD pitch 30 times throughout the night because I have no other way to answer the question, "So what do you do?". Dad, Jay, and I are all currently running our own businesses. Only mom is doing the sensible thing and working for an institution. We are a family of hustlers, as one of Jay's high school buddies recently remarked. Danny Patel would be proud, we have "various type of a strength" and "the vizzzun".

But it's not just about entrepreneurship, I am excited about Awaaz.De in particular. I love what we do and the service we provide. I wholeheartedly believe in it and its potential. I sit in meetings with all kinds of social impact organizations across India and say with genuine belief behind it that what we are selling is an amazing thing and can be revolutionary. I don't have to trick myself to think it, I've fully drank the kool-aid. It's one of the rare things in life that feels fresh even as I dive deeper in. With some ideas, they don't stand up to scrutiny, don't have depth and nuance and complexity. After spending enough time thinking about it, the idea withers in your mind. It no longer keeps your attention and interest beyond a certain quantity of attention. But with this, the more I think about what we're doing, the more excited I get. It has a blossoming, generative property. Every day I wake up feeling excited about the possibilities, and the number of possibilities keep increasing. More than I can keep up with really. There is so much potential for what we are doing, I just want to capture even some part of it and see what kind of ride that wave takes us on. The cliche goes that the test of your love for a job is whether you'd be willing to do that job even if you had a $0 salary. So far I'm passing the test.

But all that said, I think the big turning point in making the decision to work on Awaaz.De full time was when I found a suitable living situation in Ahmedabad. The entire Shreeji Krishna crew will be shifting to Sivanta apartments, a residential community bang opposite the Gandhi Ashram. When we all put in our deposits for the apartment, my decision to come to Ahmedabad was sealed. When you are looking for a happy work opportunity, what you are doing matters, but you also have to consider your social well-being. I knew that if I stayed in Ahmedabad, I would have a strong social circle. I already had bunch of relatives to maintain the feel of family, but having a like-hearted group of friends is also key. It's a blessing to be around Jayeshbhai, Anarben, MAM, little MAM, Anji, Nimo, and other MBL angels. Manav Sadhna is an inspiring ecosystem, it's the closest thing you can get to the CF posse outside of the Bay. I needed that piece in place before making the leap. Also I have a feeling that all of the difficulties I have living in India (the weather, the crowds, pollution, lack of taquerias) will be mitigated by having my own space to call home. I look forward to carving out a corner of India that I can really make my own and be totally comfortable in.

Recently I was trading emails with Kaushal, my friend from college. Back then we used to tease each other because he's a FOB and I'm an ABCD. As we were going back and forth planning a long overdue reunion in Bombay, he made a joke about carrying passports in Malad that I didn't understand. When I reminded him that I am not a FOB, he replied, "You're a FOB now!" It's totally true, I'm a reverse-FOB.

It's been somewhat of a challenge mentally adjusting to fact that I'll be living in India. Mostly because it will mean leaving so many beloved family and friends who I always miss dearly when I'm away. For their sake I've been trying to soften the language around my "move" to India. "Move" implies that I'm going and never coming back (Jo I promise I'll be back!!!). So I tell people that for the "foreseeable future" I'll be "based" in Ahmedabad, but keeping in frequent touch with my American my roots. And for sure, I'll be back.

I always had it in my mind that I would be involved in entrepreneurship in some capacity after grad school, but assumed that the opportunity would be in California, Silicon Valley in particular. But in life you can't deal your own cards, you can only play the hand that's been dealt. My cards have entrepreneurship, but also India. I'm going all-in.