Hearing peoples stories regarding their life experiences is the heart of my research.
I have done qualitative research on Women’s Health Care during pregnancy and childbirth in both India and Africa; enjoying my home visits and interviews to hear women’s stories and experiences.
In the last few years my research has focused on the use of ‘Photovoice’; a participatory form of research that incorporates photography and stories. I have done Photovoice research with youth, homeless families, care partners for Parkinson’s Disease, and am currently completing research on use of Photovoice as an intervention within Parkinson’s Disease support groups throughout Minnesota.
While data gathering and interviews are important; it is the life changing experiences that occur when you have the opportunity to experience the ‘people’ your research is about or would impact. Below is one of those experiences that has touched my life and has impacted me forever.
Research in India:
In some of the rural areas of India, women do not work outside the homes and you only see men in the work place. The hotel I was staying at was staffed only by men, cleaning the rooms, cooking and serving the meals, and working the desk. The shops in the area were all staffed with men.
During my long stay at the hotel, I got to know several of the people working there, including the one waiter in the restaurant. His English was very broken and I did not know any Hindi, but over the course of a month, we had some time to talk and share a few stories. He was always pleasant and very curious about me and my life. He talked about his wife and new baby. One day, he invited me to have lunch at his home with his wife and son.
Their home was a small two room house made out of cement with curtains hanging as the door to the outside with a common courtyard area with many multiple small cement houses that were all attached, sharing an outside toilet and water supply. The home consisted of the outer room in which 2 twin beds were with a space of approximately 2 feet between the two beds. There was a small table but no room for any chairs. The other room was much smaller. It was considered the kitchen. It had a small place on the floor for a fire with a hole in the ceiling for venting. There were no shelves, the small amount of pots and pans were stacked in a corner. The room was approximately four by six feet. This also had a curtain that separated it from the other room of the house.
When I arrived, Mai was squatting in the kitchen next to her fire stove making food for me; her 9 month old son strapped to her back. She rose to greet me and as she smiled shyly, her beauty struck me. She was short, as most Indian women I had met, with long dark hair braided neatly. She wore a bright blue sari that accented her dark skin and features. Her eyes are what struck me the most. They were soft and curious, inviting me into her home. She had prepared more food than one could possibly eat. She laid out newspaper on one of the beds and invited me to sit down by it. She then proceeded to bring out the food, setting it on the newspaper. The Indian custom is to serve all the food in individual dishes. I was humbled by the amount of food she presented to me. The main dish was rice and a bean dish, with many sides. Her husband had to go back to work, so it was Mai, her 9 month old son, and I. Her husband had informed me that their son had been running a temperature for a few days and Mai had taken him to the doctor that morning. He was strapped to his mothers back as she was preparing the food, sleepy, yet curiously watching me.
The custom that I had experienced while visiting families in India was that the women did not eat with the men, or their guests. They fed you, and then I guess they ate when you left, as I never did see them eat when I was visiting homes. This situation was no different. As I ate, Mai watched me, and kept offering me more and more food. There was enough there to feed at least 6 people. I felt bad knowing that they had limited food supplies, and they were sharing what they had with me so graciously. I ate as much as I could, smiling and making small talk, which of course she couldn’t understand. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, but we were able to communicate by gestures, nods and smiles.
After I finished eating, I pointed to a picture that was pinned on the wall and asked about it. Mai then proceeded to bring out a small photo album that she had under one of the beds and showed it to me. They were pictures of her wedding; beautiful pictures. She became very animated as she pointed to picture after picture, describing who they were and where they were taken in Hindi. This was one of those moments I wished I could speak her language, yet was amazed by how we interacted without verbally being able to communicate. As I watched her face as she tried to describe her family members to me, her pride and joy was etched in every facial expression. I had also brought family pictures with me. I showed her my home and my family. She pointed to things in my pictures and asked questions, which of course I had no idea what she was asking, yet she seemed satisfied with my answers and continued to ask questions as if she understood every word I was saying. She made it so easy to talk.
I spent 3 hours with her that day. We watched her son play in the court yard with the children; I sat by her side on her tiny bed as she nursed him to sleep and softly cooed and sang to him. I felt I had a received a rare gift of a glimpse into the life of this beautiful young mother.
As I was getting ready to leave, hugging her and tenderly kissing her son on the forehead, she took my hand and gently led me to the bed, insisting I sit down. While I was sitting down, she pulled out a shoe box from under her bed. She gently opened the lid of the box. As I peered into the box, I could see that there were various small items and keepsakes. She reached into the box and pulled out a small bag, opening it with tenderness and an expression of reminiscence. Inside the small bag was a pair of very decorative toe rings, with beautiful red stones. They were the toe rings that she had wore for her wedding, I recognized them from a wedding picture that she showed me and had pointed them out. At this point she was squatting on the floor next to where I was sitting on her bed. She reached over to my foot, attempting to take off my sandal. I was taken aback, not sure how to respond. As I pulled back, she looked up into my face with eyes that showed a tenderness and determination that is hard to explain. I then realized she wanted to put her toe rings on my feet. She again lifted my foot, took off my sandal, and gently put the toe ring on my foot. She then took my other foot, removed my sandal and placed the other toe ring on my foot. I was so moved by the experience, I didn’t know how to react. I admired them, smiling, then reached down to take them off and give them back to her. She shook her head vehemently and put the toe ring I had taken off back on my toe. She took her hand and covered my toes gently, as if saying ‘this is my final decision, they are for you’. I was moved to tears at that moment as this young mother, with her son strapped on her back, was squatting on the floor, holding my dirty foot in her hand with her wedding toe ring on my toe. She had just given me a very precious gift, sharing a part of her life with me that was beyond words.
I will forever remember that moment, one of the most humbling experiences of my life, as a young mother, who had little, shared one of her most prized possessions with me. As we said our goodbyes, we hugged, holding each other for a moment longer, stepping back, and looking at each other, with tears in both of our eyes. We live a world apart physically, but at that moment, our hearts were connected.