Getting Settled In
Catherine Leahy
Rajagiri School of Social Work, India
Valerie Hoogstad Scholar Award Recipient 2017

After my arrival at the campus the whole college promptly went on Onam break for a week and I found myself the only one on campus with little food options. However, my prior experience of travel helps me adjust to this sort of situation. I simply booked a hotel in the tourist area, ordered a taxi (well uber is the way to go in Kerala actually) and went off to Fort Kochi for a couple of nights -  plenty of food, information and helpful hotel staff all provided.

A few days later and I returned to campus and meet some fellow exchange students. As I’m an older student I wondered how these interactions might go. But social workers are fairly tolerant people, into social justice and all that sort of thing so ageism is probably not their thing. Fellow students are great for getting some of the basic info, such as where is the bus stop, where can you buy some food, and how the mess hall works etc etc. I’m used to being in India in hotels, and often in tourist locations – being in the suburbs of an Indian city is a different experience. Written travel guides are of no help here.

Above is Pookallum or flower carpet, seen everywhere during the Keralan Onam celebration. This one was spectacularly large and made from whole flower heads. I didn’t walk through this one.

My program at the college involved doing field work. I chose to start with an HIV/AIDS program that was being rolled out to Migrant workers. Between 2-3 million people are HIV+ in India. The government is focussing their awareness programs on the high risk groups, in the first instance this was female sex workers (FSWs), men who have sex with men (MSM) and the transgender (TG) communities. (I’ve noted that Indians love acronyms. On this project alone I have a list of 30 acronyms that are regularly used in conversation.) On the second phase of the program they discovered two other high risk groups: Migrant workers and Truckers travelling from the North of India to other areas in India. I was placed with the migrant workers and there are 2-3 million of them in the state of Kerala. These migrant workers don’t speak Malayalam, the native language of Kerala, instead they speak their native state languages and the official national language of India - Hindi. I speak none of these languages.

Work is different in India. It doesn’t happen in quite the structured rigid way that it does for Australians. Weather and power outages can stop all sort of things from happening. The technological support isn’t the same, there is no ergonomic furniture, or air conditioning. It is maybe more like remote Australia which many of us never see.

As discussions are not in a language I understand you learn to find other ways of gleaning information and you need to be flexible about what it is you might learn. Fortunately, my prior experience with India helped me to just roll with it. I didn’t have too many set agendas. I created things to do from what was available. I learnt things where I could. For example, the HIV/Aids awareness program has copious documentation and datasets. I have a research background and I understand what info can be gleaned from datasets. So whilst doing some menial data entry might seem uninspiring it told me a considerable amount about the young migrant men that were registering with the program.

First and foremost it told me this program was vital. I have not typed in registration data yet that indicates that a man has used a condom and I’ve entered hundreds. I’ve also managed to tag along for the condom demonstrations. I’ve never seen a group of men so attentive as in these demonstrations. It is also a welcome relief that they pay absolutely no attention to the foreigner.


The outreach worker providing information on HIV infections to a group of migrant workers at their place of work. Photo courtesy of Sravan Chandran

Outreach worker discusses the use of condoms