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The Things I Learnt On The Way To Learning

A year ago, to this day, I gave out most of my property, ferried the rest to my parents in another city, packed my bags and headed to India for a 9 month course. This would not be the first time I was seeking education- I have a university degree and other professional qualifications. But this time I was 39 years old and leaving my life, and my daughter, for an unknown place halfway across the world. This was definitely new to me.

There was a lot of motivation for me to leave. My life felt like a puzzle with crucial parts missing. I was excellent at my job in all its ramifications; being a TV Producer, Event Talent Manager, Marketing Communications professional. I had gathered a modest following online chronicling my life anonymously as a Person Living With HIV, I had a rolodex of quite a few of the ‘who’s who’ in the industry, yet I was unsuccessful. In every material way success was determined. I owned mostly liabilities, had no money in the bank, was out of work and down on my luck. I knew that my life’s purpose bordered around the things I was doing but I was not sure how.

But if there was enough reason to leave, there were also a lot of reasons to stay. I had no idea about the place I was going to: India was never a place I had indicated any interest in visiting. I knew absolutely no one there. I had a daughter for whom I was financially responsible - not to mention emotionally. I was a middle- aged woman by all modern metrics. I had passed that dreamyphase in my life where everything was so exciting, and had stepped tenderly into a mixture of philosophical stoicism. Life as I knew it would not exist. And finally, embarking on this journey required that I fund the transportation personally. That was quite a lot of money to be spent by someone who was in-between employment every so often. Yet I took the step.

I had gained admission to train for 8 months in an usual centre. This centre known by the name kanthari, trains people with visions for social change, and with personal stories that motivated that change. I had been chosen because of my work with HIV and my vision for change, but I questioned whether I really belonged there. In my mind, all that I needed was some more professional, corporate training, that would take me up the ladder, in a high flying job. Not almost a year away in an obscure social work programme. How would I explain the consequent one year gap in my resume?

The first indication that I was making the right decision in leaving was when all the things I needed began to fall into place. Out of the blues, a friend and former work colleague, whom I had not spoken to in 7 years, contacted me on LinkedIn about a job opportunity he had. That opportunity created a huge source of income for me; more than I had seen in about two years. Also, the initial attempts at securing travel documentation were very easy. However, while things were looking up for me travel-wise, a few incidents were making it very uncomfortable for me to continue to stay where I was.

The rent ran out on the apartment I was staying in, which was rented by my brother. Expectedly this did not go down well with the landlord and his family members. However, my brother had travelled to another city for an indefinite period, so I bore the brunt of their displeasure, which included well-timed insults and vicious physical attacks on my person. (I know, I know. I do not even understand it myself). To add to that, my property, especially my books, became flooded by a leaking faucet from the flat ABOVE. It was all I could do not to lose my mind as I stood in the inch-high flood, trying to salvage the property I had initially packed painstakingly. I however took all these incidents as an indication that I needed to seize the opportunity of the training, if only to maintain sanity.

I therefore disposed of whatever property was damaged, gave out whatever I could to friends, and stored the remainder. At the same time, I pursued the travel documents and papers earnestly, delegated my child’s care and family responsibilities, and tucked away whatever was left. A few weeks later I was on a plane headed for India.

In a prior discussion about this trip, a member of my family told me ‘India can change your life’. Since he has never been there I do not think he knew exactly how this change would happen. Nor did I anticipate the rejuvenation that would occur in my life during this training.

  • The first obvious change that I noticed in myself was a renewed desire to experience life daily. As a younger person, I used to wake up in the morning curious and excited because I felt the world was so big and there was so much to experience. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of life knocked the wind out of that sail and I unknowingly descended into a feeling of semi-drudgery about my daily routine. However, with a new, unknown environment to be explored, and the prospect of new challenges, I began to feel excitement again.

  • The nature of the training and the living arrangements ensured that no participant was hidden or overshadowed. We were very few, just about 20 and the experiential curriculum involved full participation of everyone. As a result of this, I rediscovered my talents (writing, performing, singing, public speaking) that had been buried under years of disappointment, and even unearthed new abilities (photography, financial management).

  • Naturally, there were times when things did not go too well. External and internal issues caused strife among participants and other people on campus. Prior to travelling to India, all this would have been enough for me to become discouraged, lose faith in myself and generally throw in the towel. However, I learnt to maintain focus and stay positive, even if I felt the world was against me. I did thisby reminding myself of why I was there and what I had invested in getting there. This would be one of the very rare times I did not quit at something even when I wanted to.

  • Living with people from different races, cultures and backgrounds taught me to be conscious of the timing and delivery of my opinions and thoughts. I learnt that cultural nuances and personal differences coloured what and how we heard.

  • Finally, and more importantly, training to run a social venture was a lesson in simplicity. It was a totally different ball game from the (rat) race for material acquisition that the corporate world is notorious for. This simplicity gave me a new-found love of nature: I visited lakes, beaches and natural attractions. I ate healthy, unprocessed food from a garden. And in turn, I was imbued with a curious – to me- love for myself. Suddenly it dawned on me that whether or not I had material acquisitions, academic qualifications or upward mobility in my career, I was enough as I was. What was more important was for me to latch on to the human need I was meant to fill, and believe in where it would take me.

I thought I needed a professional or academic qualification to move forward, but I returned with purpose. I wanted a scroll that carried a certificate but I came back with a glint in my eye and a song in my heart. My path is clear to me now; that is something I could never say before.

My advice for anyone seeking education, or learning - whatever it is -is this: while you go into it with an open mind, also go into it with an open heart. Learning can come in many forms if you are ready to receive.

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