Story by Kendall Trelegan, Dialogue of Civilizations | Photo by Micayla Chow
Inseparability was first introduced to our Dialogue by Dr. Vandana Shiva. Whether she was speaking about the interdependence of nature on its biodiversity or the importance of diversity of thought among people, she continually returned to the theme of separatism as the root of disharmony.
Her words reminded me of a concept introduced by the South African theologian, Desmond Tutu, called ubuntu, which roughly translates as “my spirituality is inextricably caught up and bound in yours.” The immense power of each of our presences is both daunting and encouraging; so many things we say and do contribute to a larger picture. Even if we are well-traveled people, I beg you to keep asking yourself, do you travel well? Are you having a positive impact on the community you’re entering? How do you contribute to the atmosphere among your traveling companions?
Traveling in a group, you realize quickly how your attitude, willingness to help, and openness can transform the group’s mentality. The 24 of us were literally inseparable for over a month and each of our experiences have impacted the experience of the person next to us. Plagued with jet lag, I remember staying up all night in my cabin talking with my roommates who transitioned from strangers to friends in the dark.
Our connections help us support our growth, but also make us accountable to each other. When I think about inseparability, I think about how the world’s problems affect us all, like climate change and environmental degradation. How this interconnectedness created a problem so serious that the livelihoods of 10 Koli fishermen, whom I interviewed in Mumbai, are being destroyed by pollution and rising sea levels. I think about how in the book Durable Slum, the author argues that Dharavi, the largest slum in India, does not exist in spite of the systems in place; rather it exists because of the structural systems in place. I think about how the impact of monocultures owned by huge corporations like Monsanto have put Indian farmers in such economic danger that it contributed to a suicide epidemic. The state of Maharashtra alone saw over 60,000 farmer suicides from 1990 to 2018. Many drank the very pesticides they used.
Throughout my Dialogue, I continually asked myself how I could judge India when my own country suffers from the same sickness. The ills of poverty, sexism, classism, religious and ethnic persecution and environmental degradation infiltrate every society to varying degrees.
Intercultural communication offers a cure to these ills. Some articulations are more beautiful than others. I won’t miss deciphering the ambiguous head nods of Indian men or the way cars and rickshaws talk back and forth in an encore of horns. I long to understand how Indian mothers can always convince you to eat even more of their delicious food or how everyone dances so beautifully it’s like it’s been choreographed. When a beautiful woman tapped my head on the train, our TA had to explain to me that I was just blessed by a hijra (a third gender person who embodies spirituality).
Empathy is interconnectedness at work. I learned the most from the simplest conversations with Indian people in passing. I didn’t understand most nuances in speech, but I understood the shock on a child’s face when I explained American racism during an exercise at a school through the Study Hall Educational Foundation. They understood the equal shock in my face when they explained the caste system to me. Our shared dismay with the current situation is evidence of hope for change.
As we finished our jungle walk through the forest surrounding the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm, I remember seeing skeletons of brush covered in ash. We guessed the burning was intentional. The forest continues to be resilient despite the anguish it faces. It quite literally blooms from its wounds because the void is soon filled by the surrounding species. It echoed the make-shift classroom we saw set up in an unfinished, garbage-laden foundation of a house. Despite the bleak surroundings, the children filled it with smiles, laughter, and songs.
Dr. Vandana Shiva explained that we as humans aren’t inventing anything. We are simply renovating ourselves and the world over and over. I learned to shift my perspective. Facing challenges, I will choose to think of myself as under self-renovation, parts of me being burned away to allow for something new to grow. I learned that the ability to renovate myself is not individual. Everyone has the ability and obligation to continue improving the world around us. Afterall, interconnection can also breed resilience.