“Our guests are our gods”. As we are officially welcomed to Odisha and the SOVA headquarters, past trainees sing us these words. Earlier that day, Niharika knocks on our room with a delightful voice and infectious curiosity to know our names. We all make an effort to pronounce each other’s names correctly and I attempt to use my very little Hindi skills to ask her how she’s doing. Ramesh, the cook, prepares us dal every day as we get ready to learn more and more about SOVA and the community. They have been the familiar faces we see every morning before joining Mr. Mishra, Prasantha and Lipun on the jeep heading to the healthcare centres, schools and surrounding villages that SOVA works with. Every day is a new opportunity to learn more about their work and fight for social justice and health equity in the Dhenkanal district.
A day later, the same song returns in a different setting: a temple in Bhojadeipur, Mr. Mishra’s home village, the same village where SOVA had been founded. As we were later explained, this Odian expression is rooted from an attempt of the community to nurture and strengthen the bonds with those who have come from afar. This warm reception of guests is symbolic of the deep spiritual harmony that Odisha has preserved for centuries. Think of it as an extremely spiritual "respect thy neighbor".
This has been clear from the start; that we are more than just guests, more than the students from an American university, more than one of many of SOVA’s partners: we are here to be friends, as Prasantha had emphasised on and the girls we had talked to about Reproductive Healthcare in Odisha had so strongly agreed on. Friends who learn from each other, are ever-curious, grow together and challenge each other to constantly look into new perspectives. And as days keep passing by, I have never felt more intellectually challenged and curious. I am constantly reminded that there is always more to learn, more to see and more to question. Questioning my own biases, my own expectations and assumptions have made introspection almost second nature to me, as each day brings something new to ponder over. This is precisely what has happened in the past 4 days here. From learning about SOVA’s different projects and partnerships, the several awards they have won for their work on youth training and development, the impact of the Srimula primary healthcare center on the 8000 people that benefit from free healthcare, the favorite memories of the workers employed in SOVA’s initiatives and the bonds I have made with the staff, they all add to this rich tapestry to learn from.
As I continue on this internship, I am shaken profoundly by what I have already experienced and eagerly await the next few weeks as they unfold. There will certainly be more rich experiences for me to dissect and sate my curiosity with, and more lessons to bring back to our chapter.