For the non-Hindi speakers reading this, Didi is Hindi for “big sister.” While I know this name is used rather universally and liberally all throughout the country, every time someone refers to me as Didi I feel a sense of family, of closeness, of responsibility. And it’s not a novel realization – I am sure this title has endeared many a traveling foreigner in India.
However, the days I spent in Tirmasahun really did bring the sentiments to life. It’s not hard to connect with kids, especially eager ones. When language got in our way, we made up our own (a very sophisticated gibberish, punctuated with giggles). When we walked to the next village over, the kids guided me – their clueless and overheated Didi – down the dirt road. And when they showed up in the early morning to play without wearing their shoes, I asked them to go back home and find their appropriate footwear. And they listened, diligently.
Development in rural India is tricky. There are a lot of forces working against you – brutal politics, limited resources, and questions of sustainability have historically plagued the process and are deeply rooted in India’s colonial past. Gandhi’s focus on village development and security did not just pop out of nowhere. Rural development is a much more loaded and nuanced process than one may initially assume. And where many non-profits fall short is when they cannot balance the strategy of a project with the soul of a project. It’s not just about the hard deliverables, but also the soft deliverables. Many organizations do not appreciate the power of on-the-ground personal connections.
I am not in development, nor am I a trained strategist. Still, one thing that really stood out to me about United for Hope’s presence in Tirmasahun was the sense of connectivity. The project is not just connecting people to basic amenities, or connecting a village to an international community, but it is also – I’d argue more importantly – connecting people within the community through shared goals.
What I found to be so special about the United for Hope project was the fact that the work is deeply personal for everyone involved. There is an instantaneous gravitational pull to the people and their stories. In many ways, it is simple and surprisingly intimate.
Madame, Miss, Ma’am, Sara, that American girl. There are many names I’ve been called, but being Didi in Tirmasahun was one of the best identities I’ve had so far.
– Sara Lederman