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Excreta, Et Cetera II

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. Lately they’ve been posting their key takeaways from the investigation which have provided some of the comprehensive insights featured below.
 

Pointing to the different norms around cleanliness inside and outside the home. Noting that provision of clear identity around who owns sanitation facilities is likely to drive more responsible use. Read more.
 

Highlighting the failure of toilet facilities to account for issues like menstrual waste and adolescent sensitivities. Read more.
 

Calling attention to the factions which may exist within a community that need to be considered in inclusive mobilising of residents around improvements. Read more.
 

Discussing how breaking up various tasks around sanitation allows for social interaction which diminishes the sense of delay. Read more.
 

Noting that users of shared facilities passively co-create behaviours which are established together over time. Read more.
 

Cross-pollination of The Potty Project insights on OpenIDEO

An aspect of the project which I particularly applaud has been the open sharing of research findings as they unfolded. Co-researcher and social media manager Kassia Karr, who joined Quicksand from Boston, notes that blog posts and tweets extended the reach of observations and created new connections for the team. Senior colleague, Ayush Chauhan, adds that “these channels have been a great way to communicate, in real time, with an extremely diverse community – client, peers and related practitioners – spread across the globe. It’s also been affirming that the findings have found their way into other forums not related directly with the project but in the larger domain of sanitation discussion and have provided inspiration in those contexts.”

A further aspect I commend on the project has been the approach of working visually.

“The interpretive nature of language is often a handicap when the real information lies in the texture of observations and the nuances of behavior – both hard to capture in the written word. Good research must have the power to inspire as much as it has the mandate to inform and that’s where capturing experiences of people through visual narratives – film, photography, illustrated scenarios – opens doors for people to interpret information and bring to bear their own experience and understanding of the context.

There are three areas where visual storytelling brings value to our projects:

+ With clients who are often removed from the context, understanding user issues through the immediacy of films & photography is both informative and unambiguous. Also allowing for wider participation in the process of translating research insights into action.
+ With users especially from an unlettered or a vernacular context, visuals help researchers focus the interactions on issues that may otherwise be hard to articulate
+ As design researchers, telling a story through illustrations and scenarios is more effective in communicating key ideas and abstract concepts that don’t have a precedent.

– Ayush Chauhan, Project Lead and Quicksand Co-founder

Quicksand are committed to extending the reach of design-based approaches and with their close partners Co-Design are presenting the UnBox Festival in New Delhi, February 2011. The main event is across three days of ideas, stories, spectacles and exchange to build momentum around design thinking and inter-disciplinary collaborations. The festival will bring together designers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, activists, educators, artists and others interested in social and cultural change. UnBox intends to work and play across contexts and mediums – workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings and travel. “Together, we’ll rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation.” I’m certainly looking forward to joining them there.

Related posts:
Excreta, Et Cetera I
Sanitation, Simplicity & Storytelling

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. [...]

Mathare’s Micro-farms and Market Gardens

Earlier this month on a fleeting visit to Kenya for Nokia’s Open Innovation Africa Summit I met an array of innovative folk like venture catalyst Emeka Okafor, Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman and mobile novelist Steve Vosloo. But the most interesting person I met during the trip happened to be after the summit was over, when I went on an early morning foray in search of entrepreneurial activity in the slums of Nairobi. I came across Festus Ambche, 38, tending a flourishing half acre plot of edible produce at Mathare.
 

Festus arrived in Mathare from a family of farmers and saw the opportunity to put his agricultural knowledge to use. He rents his plot from the local council and sells his large variety of produce in the neighbouring slum – direct to residents and also at the local market. He’s also been experimenting with sack gardening and, noting it’s relevance for the cramped conditions of Mathare, has been sharing his learnings with others.
 

Sack gardening became increasingly popular during the post-election violence in 2007/08 when food prices rose by up to 50% and access from volatile sites like Mathare to regular food sources became a challenge. A number of non-profit groups, school and self-help organisations began to promote the efficient, low-maintenance and low-cost sack gardens as a way of enhancing food security. Spinach, kale, chard, peppers, spring onions and tomatoes could be grown with relative ease for household use. Some families began selling their surplus harvest to neighbours while others grouped together to create micro-enterprises around their collective crops, including nurseries to supply the growing flock of Nairobi’s sack gardeners with seedlings.
 

What started as a way of improving food security has blossomed into a number of entrepreneurial ventures, driving an increased demand for fresh, local produce. Folks I met seemed proud of the independence that their doorstep gardens could provide. Many residents are rural migrants with roots in farming and are rekindling agricultural knowledge they had left behind, via their sack based micro-farms. Meanwhile, for Festus, business is booming – with the community showing more interest in what can be grown closer to home and from trusted sources.
 
Related posts:
Women Together: Incentivising Savings
Mobile Enterprise

Kibera’s Garden in a Sack: Urban Agriculture Magazine (500KB, PDF)

Earlier this month on a fleeting visit to Kenya for Nokia's Open Innovation Africa Summit I met an array of innovative folk like venture catalyst Emeka Okafor, Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman and mobile novelist Steve Vosloo. But the most interesting person I met during the trip happened to be after the summit was over, when [...]

Conflict Kitchen Serves Up Second Course

Earlier this year a group of artists associated with Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art launched an experimental project to spark street-level conversations about countries in conflict with the United States. From Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighbourhood, the Conflict Kitchen is a take-out venue which engages its customers through culinary and cultural diversity. Over the course of a year it will feature four countries at odds with the US, each over four months. Last month Conflict Kitchen transitioned from its first iteration as an Iranian restaurant to its next version as an Afghani one – with a new name, a fresh menu, an updated facade and the promise of ever-evolving conversations.

“Food is such an essential part of culture that we saw it as a great way to engage the public in human-centered discussion,” notes one of the project’s founders Dawn Weleski. “In contrast to the polarising effect of broadcast media we’ve sought to create a platform which can support a more subtle exchange of culture and politics. With food as a mediator it becomes easier for customers to consider the everyday life of people – they become responsive in a different way and consider more nuanced perspectives. They start to consider the people and culture behind conflicts at a government or military level.”
 

The new Afghani version of Conflict Kitchen is called Bolani Pazi and offers the popular street food bolani. The stuffed flatbread comes with a choice of four fillings – pumpkin, potato and leek, spinach or lentil – topped off with a dollop of natural yoghurt. The bolani are bundled in a printed wrapper which features the viewpoints of various Afghanis on topics ranging from popular culture to politics. “This forms a starting point to conversations and we deliberately include contrasting and diverse opinions to highlight the complexity of culture,” points out Weleski. The resulting discussions at Conflict Kitchen are not always political but tend to support various kinds of cultural insight. “It get’s at the heart of daily life,” tells project partner Jon Rubin. “ I’ve watched a Japanese Buddhist and a Muslim start to chat from the takeout window. They ended up in a rich exchange of experiences and perspectives on food, spirituality, rituals and symbolism.”

Rubin’s interventionist artworks explore the social dynamics of public place. In the case of Conflict Kitchen he sought to create space for civil dialogue around both differences and similarities. “Difference doesn’t require us to be damning. We’re keen to encourage dialogue which doesn’t blame or accuse and may be driven by curiosity rather than media prescribed positions.” He goes on to observe that both food and music are significant ways in which we understand culture and tells of an upcoming idea to create an online musical archive for sharing between US and Afghani Conflict Kitchen supporters. There are also plans for a live video feed between the takeout window in Pittsburgh and a hotel lobby in Kabul. The peer-to-peer concept features across the initiative, including the partial funding of Bolani Pazi via the Kickstarer platform.

The venue is staffed by twelve people through week day lunchtime sessions and late nights on Friday and Saturdays. Weleski is responsible for training the workforce from food preparation to hosting conversations. Factual information is shared alongside tips on triggering conversations amongst customers. Handling of contentious topics and tricky questions are covered through role play. “It’s not just about inviting people to talk to us but also encouraging interaction between customers. Personal reflection can generate a range of connections. I remember one woman who had a Pennsylvanian Dutch mother and a Persian father and spoke of the cultural tension this could create,” recalls Weleski. “A migrant joined in the conversation and could empathize with that tension from a different perspective. Once these kinds of discussions start happening people begin to expand their personal insights into social ones and appreciate similarity and difference in a new way.”
 

During the first iteration of the venue Iranian fare was served up as the Kubideh Kitchen. A minced kebab topped with onion, mint, sumac and basil was wrapped in baked barbari bread to form the Persian kubideh. In collaboration with the local Iranian community and contacts in Iran, events were devised to support the project’s focus on social interaction. A Skype meal was held between Pittsburgh and Tehran. Over an identical Persian feast of chicken with pomergranate and walnuts plus beef with greens and dried lime, forty people on both sides spoke about subjects from employment and education to dating and rock concerts. Earlier this month Conflict Kitchen hosted a Persian festival which included a documentary film screening, a varied menu, live traditional music, a cooking show and late night Persian beats.

Transitioning into the Afghani phase brings with it a fresh set of challenges. “Local Afghani’s in Pittsburgh are few and far between,” admits Rubin. “The UN in Afghanistan have been helping us track down communities in  the US who we may be able to collaborate with and our networks are starting to present opportunities. Orgnanisations like Beyond the 11th, which was started by two American women widowed by 9/11 to empower Afghani widows, have been in touch to explore collaboration.” He goes on to note that the change in seasons will present a challenge to the nature of social exchange at the takeout window which has become a popular hang out spot during warmer months. However the evolving nature of the initiative means that new ideas are constantly on the back burner – with people frequently giving their own thoughts on new directions for the venture.

The following two iterations of Conflict Kitchen are pitched to include North Korea and Venezuela but an off-shoot concept around food exchange and countries involved in border conflict is also under consideration. This might feature feuding states like India and Pakistan and may manifest itself as a food truck or an attachment to an existing restaurant. “We even get emails from online followers who have created their own take on the project,” informs Rubin. “A woman from Arizona contacted us early on to let us know of her family’s intentions to hold Conflict Dinners on Monday nights – with the featured country to be selected by their eight year old child.”

Weleski admits that their initial hunch that food could deepen conversations has taken them farther than they had initially imagined. Return customers tell her about their onward discussions that have stemmed from their visit to Conflict Kitchen. It is this open-endedness that has drawn her to the role of a public practise artist. Bolani Pazi continues the mission to appease appetites and stimulate dialogue. As one customer observes – “it’s a delicious way to learn about becoming more human.”

Related posts:
Fruitful Pursuits
Still Life, Smooth Moves

An edited version of this Conflict Kitchen article appears in my Change Observer Project Report on Design Observer.

Earlier this year a group of artists associated with Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art launched an experimental project to spark street-level conversations about countries in conflict with the United States. From Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighbourhood, the Conflict Kitchen is a take-out venue which engages its customers through culinary and cultural diversity. Over the course of [...]

OpenIDEO: Better Together

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always been somewhat in the dark about what I do for a living but from following my Twitter links she’s started to get the idea. “It’s about design and people and making the world a better place, right?” she offered as a perspective on my professional pursuits.

[vimeo]13707896[/vimeo]

 
So it was helpful when I announced recently that I had a contract with IDEO as a Community Manager on OpenIDEO, that she already knew what it was. OpenIDEO is a place where people design better together for social good. It’s an online platform for creative thinkers: the seasoned designer and the new guy who just signed on, the art student and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker. This diversity makes up the creative guts of OpenIDEO. And the best part is it’s constantly in beta – so the platform continues to evolve over time.
 

After a challenge is posted on OpenIDEO, the three development phases – inspiration, concepting, and evaluation – are put into action. All resulting concepts generated are shareable, remix-able, and reusable in a similar way to Creative Commons. Participation is incentivised through the Design Quotient (DQ) which measures users contributions. Collaborative behaviour is encouraged through features like the Build Upon function. Challenge topics have ranged from ways in which affordable education can be delivered in the developing world to how kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food can be raised. Even the randomised OpenIDEO logo was designed through the challenge process.
 

Just now we’ve got two challenges open. The Sanitation Challenge is in conjunction with IDEO fieldwork in Ghana – and asks how human waste management and sanitation can be improved in low-income communities. The Innovation Challenge seeks to set an agenda for the upcoming i20 Summit of global innovation leaders. Come over and join us – because creativity loves company.

Selection of my OpenIDEO contributions:
Story Telling on Wheels (Winning Concept)
Innovating *With, Not For* Communities (Winning Agenda Concept)
Growing Knowledge (Concept)
Posters Made of Soap (Inspiration)
Making Policy Public (Inspiration)

Related posts:
Creative Waves Through Collaboration
Solution Seekers at Play

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always [...]

Life’s Inevitable Transition II

I’ve been continuing my work on the riveting Death and Diversity project between the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Wellington Museums Trust. Following up on earlier investigation with various ethnic and religious groups on attitudes and approaches to death, dying and the afterlife – I’ve more recently met with members of Jewish, Hindu, Mexican and Iraqi Christian communities. We have continued to focus on themes including the lead up to death, body preparation, funeral rituals, customs of remembrance, attitudes to afterlife and surrounding superstitions – to culminate in an exhibition and series of public programmes in Wellington later next year.

Assyrians constitute a distinct ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East who traditionally speak Aramaic and practice Christianity. Assyrian families started coming to Wellington initially as refugees from Iraq in the eighties and nineties. Yooneh Henoo, above, has the task of composing and performing chants of lament (jnanyatha) for local funerals. She shared with us a particularly moving story about a five year old boy in Iraq, with New Zealand-based relatives, who was kidnapped during the Iran-Iraq conflict then cut into pieces and incorrectly buried. Yooneh sung for him here in Wellington, affirming the belief that children rise directly to heaven:

“Tell all of the gentle men and beautiful women that I am going to the heavenly kingdom. Tell my mother not to cry. I have not sinned. I am like a bird and will fly from this world.”

 

Image by Zsoldos Szabolcs from Flickr

The liberal Jewish group I spoke to provided rich and comprehensive insights of both local, Israeli and diasporic customs. They mentioned the common practice of leaving visitation stones at the graves of loved ones. These assert the permanence of memory for the deceased. They also described the ceremonial washing of the dead body which is done under a continual flow of water. A rabbi visiting from Israel mentioned that this is a meditative experience in which the water forms a cyclic link to amniotic fluid – closing the chapter of the body and opening the chapter of the soul.
 

Chicano artist Willie Franco ran a sugar skull decorating workshop at the Museum of Wellington City & Sea in the lead up to the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos). Skull (calavera) imagery is a ubiquitous part of the annual celebration which honours the deceased. Children, adults and even skilled cake decorators joined the workshop and I noted there was much licking of fingers! Participants had the option of contributing their decorated skulls to the altar being prepared at the museum.
 

I was also invited to a Hindu Vedic ceremony, performed to ensure the well-being of departed souls, for the father of one of our research participants. I was particularly taken by the pavithram ring worn by the priests, made of holy kusha grass, to keep their hands ritually pure. The ring takes a particular form for ceremonies associated with death.

jaathasya hi dhruvo mr.thyur dhr.uvam janma mr.thasya cha
thasmaad aparihaarye’rthe’ na thvam sochithum-arhasi

For death is certain to one who is born – to one who is dead, birth is certain;
therefore, thou shalt not grieve for what is unavoidable. – Bhagavad Gita

Related posts:
Life’s Inevitable Transition I
Sweet Redemption

I've been continuing my work on the riveting Death and Diversity project between the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Wellington Museums Trust. Following up on earlier investigation with various ethnic and religious groups on attitudes and approaches to death, dying and the afterlife – I've more recently met with members of Jewish, Hindu, Mexican [...]

Twitter, Hip-Hop & Smoke-Freestyle


 
A while back I was asked to contribute ideas on spreading the smokefree message to New Zealand youth via the awesome Smoking: Not Our Future platform. Noting that they already had an active social media following and a focus on the local music scene, I threw in the idea of a Twitter rap competition to engage youth to co-create positive health messages.

Collaborating with Transmit Media-Creative, the TwitSpit Competition was devised – inviting participants to freestyle/rap their smokefree attitudes via Twitter. The 140-character constraint was reduced even further by the requirement to include the #twitspit hashtag. Judging was done by local hip-hop legend, MC Juse1, who also created the graffiti artwork which branded the competition. The winner scooped an iPhone, with a slew of music-oriented prizes also up for grabs to those willing to spill their skills.
 
Winning tweet:

@ohhhSunday! you’re killing yourself but it doesn’t end there/
because it also affects all the people that care #twitspit
 
Highlights:

@DropNutsDean No more banter, Listen to this stanza/
If we lose the battle against tobacco, we will lose the war against cancer #twispit

@geekyORANGEfool: pull out that smoke and will anybody kiss you?
cause when you start smoking your love life’s gonna be an issue #twitspit

@DropNutsDean to coax/all those who smoke/heres a flowed note/
i don’t care if u burn… but i mind if u smoke #twitspit
 
And more fresh cuts from the prolific @DropNutsDean

… the only thing I smoke is MCs who test me…
… yo smokin dont just result in coughin/it results in coffins
… quit getting thru tar… like a cement mixer
… if you don’t want your ash kicked, the butt stops here

[vimeo]14200490[/vimeo]

 
Related posts:
Street Art Gets Behind the Wheel
Lo-fi Meets Hi-fi at the Corner of Send and Receive

[Images by Transmit Media-Creative]
 

  A while back I was asked to contribute ideas on spreading the smokefree message to New Zealand youth via the awesome

Excreta, Et Cetera I


I was recently invited to participate as an external advisor, from here in New Zealand, on an extensive research project currently being conducted in India. The exploration is focused on sanitation in low-income urban India and has been dubbed The Potty Project.
 
The study entails a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. This is expected to highlight specific opportunities for innovation which might include business model, design, technology and/or communication interventions.
 

The comprehensive research endeavor is being conducted by the dynamic bunch over at the multidisciplinary Delhi-based innovation consultancy Quicksand. Their focus on user-centered design principles has attracted assignments from Google, IDEO, and the United Nations Development Programme. They’re big on participatory methods and the use of visual aids for research. And best of all for me (being so far way from the action) they are smooth users of Tumblr, Vimeo, Flickr and Twitter – to share images, video, methodological musings, interim analysis and anecdotal interludes – both from the field and back in the office. Much of this flows through The Potty Project blog and occasionally we talk more detailed sh*t (literally) between the Quicksand team and various global advisors via Skype. I get the short straw being out on a limb in terms of time zones – sorry guys if I get incoherent by 4am in the morning!
 

While rigorous research is being done to summarise the key impact parameters, sanitation spectrum and slum topologies – as always there are some peripheral wee gems that are observed along the way. The images above highlight an informal solution for soap dispensing.

Quicksand’s services span research, film-making, product development, exhibition/experience design, education and beyond – but here’s a quick taste from a couple of their other projects in the sanitation sector:
 

User Experience Research
for Safe Water Strategies in Base of the Pyramid Markets.
 

[vimeo]7733886[/vimeo]

 
The Ripple Effect Film. Quicksand’s documentation became an important medium for IDEO and Acumen Fund to demonstrate the value of design thinking in driving issues pertaining to social development and impact.

Related posts:
Women Together: Incentivising Savings
Disrupting Urination Norms

[All images via Quicksand and The Potty Project]

I was recently invited to participate as an external advisor, from here in New Zealand, on an extensive research project currently being conducted in India. The exploration is focused on sanitation in low-income urban India and has been dubbed The Potty Project.   The study entails a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to [...]

Amplifying African Ingenuity


Next week ushers in this year’s Maker Faire Africa which celebrates the spirit of African ingenuity, innovation and invention. I recently interviewed one of its founder’s Emeka Okafor for Design Observer: Tinkers, Hackers, Farmer, Crafters. He spoke with conviction of

“the interchange between the emerging global dynamics and local inspiration in Africa. This speaks to a far-reaching conversation in which the questions are posed: How do we regain our creativity? How do we redefine what we mean by a society that is advanced?

He went on to describe the experimental platform which is neither a science fair, conference nor trade show – but which rather values all makers who have uniquely responded to a need with an adaptive sensibility.

“If you place a tinkerer who works on the side of the road next to an Ivy League engineer, dynamics are bound to get interesting. Folks begin to recognize, reassess and remix value… This is something I came to appreciate in curating TEDGlobal in Africa. When you place the biochemist next to the poet or the visual artist next to the physicist, you can rely on synergies springing from their shared curiosity.”


Last year’s MFA featured a potent mix of inventiveness from robotics through to black-smithing and agricultural innovations – punctuated by recycling endeavours and global-local craft mash-ups. The event had it’s own locally fabricated radio station and endearingly analogue black-board blogger, Alfred Sirleaf.
 

This year’s MFA promises another round of multidisciplinary ingenuity. Digital fabrication is set to feature alongside artisanal eyewear. Workshops will share solar technology skills with young people and mobile hacking tips with all ages. The event will also see the African launch of Steve Daniels’ book Making Do: Innovation in Kenya’s Informal Economy. Steve’s rigorously insightful book provides a comprehensive exploration of jua kali – informal artisans who work in industrious clusters across Kenya:
 

“Wandering through winding alleys dotted with makeshift worksheds, one can’t help but feel clouded by the clanging of hammers on metal, grinding of bandsaws on wood and the shouts of workers making sales. But soon it becomes clear that this cacophony is really a symphony of socio-economic interactions that form what is known as the informal economy. In Kenya, engineers in the informal economy are known as jua kali, Swahili for “hot sun”, because they toil each day under intense heat and with limited resources. But despite these conditions, or in fact because of them, the jua kali continuously demonstrate ingenuity and resourcefulness in solving problems…

… Steve Daniels illuminates the dynamics of the sector to enhance our understanding of African systems of innovation… The study examines how the jua kali design, build and manage though theoretical discussions, visualizations of data and stories of successful and struggling entrepreneurs.”

Maker Faire Africa promises to shine a light on a wealth of African talent and turn up the volume on their diverse voices of inventiveness.

Related posts:
Indian Grassroots Innovation
Creative Waves through Collaboration

[Images – 1 + 2: From White African’s Maker Faire Africa set on Flickr, 3: from the portfolio of C. Kaibiru, 4: cover detail of Steve Daniels’ book Making Do]

Next week ushers in this year's Maker Faire Africa which celebrates the spirit of African ingenuity, innovation and invention. I recently interviewed one of its founder's Emeka Okafor for Design Observer: Tinkers, Hackers, Farmer, Crafters. He spoke with conviction of "the interchange between the emerging global dynamics and local inspiration in Africa. This speaks to [...]

Life’s Inevitable Transition I


For much of the year so far I’ve been chipping away on a fascinating project with the government’s Office of Ethnic Affairs. In the pursuit of community-focused insights I’ve guided group discussions with various religious and ethnic groups – including Filipino, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Mexican and Colombian. The topic of exploration has been diversity in attitudes and approaches to death, dying and the afterlife – both in the New Zealand context and in countries of origin. Themes have included the lead up to death, body preparation, funeral rituals, customs of remembrance, attitudes to afterlife and surrounding superstitions. Much of the investigation was centered on the uncovering of personal stories which reflect community practice that will contribute to an exhibition and public programmes at the Museum of Wellington later next year.
 

To compliment the group sessions I also sought out the input of a couple of established local funeral directors. They provided insights on the developments in cultural sensitivity within their profession as New Zealand has culturally diversified. I also met with Yakub Khan Tasleem – a Muslim community funeral director who additionally owns a popular Newtown halal butchery. Tasleem spoke of being guided and provided with a brave heart by his Creator to serve other Muslims via his halal services and role as a funeral facilitator. He praised the Wellington City Council in their willingness to support local communities to honour their dead in their own ways. He reiterated the description I’d received in our group sessions of perfume being applied to the parts of the body of the deceased which would usually touch the ground in prayer. The forehead, nose, palms, knees, shins and feet are all anointed in preparation for the ultimate act of submission to the Creator.
 

In search of a more ethnographic-oriented angle I was keen to talk to people in a relevant context of their actual lives while retaining respect for the sensitivity surrounding our topic. I found my chance when I discovered the free monthly bus to Makara Cemetery which is run by the good folk at Wilson Funeral Home and Harbour City Funerals. The bus takes an ambling route around southern and eastern suburbs before passing through the city then heading out to Makara. Many of the passengers join the journey every month to visit the graves of their dearly departed – with some having been every month since the service launched 18 years ago.

On board I encountered Samoan Catholics, Greek Orthodox widows, a fifth generation Chinese descendant and Polish refugee widows. Many rich stories emerged from this vehicle which brings together a vibrant mix of characters and cultures. Once at their destination passengers are dropped off at relevant areas of the sprawling cemetery where they have around an hour to pay their respects. As I moved between zones I noted the difference in graves from the simple Muslim markers to the more ostentatious Greek tombstones complete with special alcoves for oil-burning candles and Chinese graves which sometimes featured incense holders. Visitors performed various rituals respective to their faiths before we all re-boarded the bus and returned to the city. More stories unfolded – closer to the subjects of departed loved ones and cultural cues of remembrance.
 

“As you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields – watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.” – Kahlil Gibran

Related posts:
Life’s Inevitable Transition II
Sweeping Change

For much of the year so far I've been chipping away on a fascinating project with the government's Office of Ethnic Affairs. In the pursuit of community-focused insights I've guided group discussions with various religious and ethnic groups – including Filipino, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Mexican and Colombian. The topic of exploration has been diversity in [...]

One Billion and Counting


Last week Design Observer featured my article India’s Epic Head Count:

“More than 1 billion people of diverse cultures, languages and religions are united by India’s national borders. Between 2010 and 2011, the country’s census will not only count and categorize them by gender, religion and occupation, but also probe their access to technology, toilets and personal transport. In a monumental orchestration, aided by a newly designed census form, government departments, local councils and 2.5 million census collectors will continue the increasingly complex national effort to tally India’s inhabitants, which it has conducted every decade since the late 1800s.”

With challenges posed by linguistic variation and literacy levels, the census collectors play a vital role. Officially known as enumerators but unofficially as census-wallas, they record all responses on forms that are later collected, scanned and read via character recognition software. [continued…]

I first became intrigued by the process on reading of Deepa Krishnan’s census experience insights. I poked around a bit further and became fascinated by the scale and complexity involved. I also discovered that my former colleague Rupesh Vyas from India’s National Institute of Design developed the new forms and the article on Design Observer goes on to describe their efficiencies and user-centered orientation. But of course the difficulties faced by census enumerators are not all able to be solved by the form alone…
 

An official marks a house after collecting census details. From Reuters via the Irish Times

Willingness to be counted and questioned in detail has been varied, with the initial phase
requiring 35 questions to be answered. Some census collectors reported that it was easier to gather such details from the less well off. “In a slum, everyone is eager to be counted and they all want to make sure they are not left out if any card or official document is being distributed.” Meanwhile I was told by one friend in Mumbai that she was impressed by the peaceful and professional approach of her enumerators yet was surprised that her affluent neighbour refused to be questioned, citing the flimsy excuse that she was monitoring her son’s study for exams.

Some people have mentioned that they faced judgement or hesitation by enumerators over issues such as live-in romantic relationships and the retaining of maiden names by married women. While India may be changing, attitudes amongst form-fillers may pose barriers to accurate accounting of some developments – though it is expected that such misrepresent- ation would be well under 1%. Elsewhere, I wonder how things went with transgender citizens (hijras) who were granted specific status by the Electoral Commission last year but not by the National Registry who govern census collecting.

Enumerators nationwide have to noted a number of further challenges. In areas such as Himachal Pradesh “road connectivity remains poor and enumerators walk hours to reach scattered hamlets atop high mountains, close to the snowline.” Recollection of exact age is a common problem. Sometimes details get so confusing that censuswallas end up using their erasers more than their pencils. Irrelevant complaints may be loaded onto the enumerator who is seen as just as just another government bureaucrat – prompting the rehearsed reply
“I am here just to count people, not problems.” But my favourite would be the account from Assam where the census collector asked:

“Age?”
“I think I am around 65.”
“And your wife?…”
“She was about five years younger than me when we got married.
I think she is still five years younger to me.”


Image from India Struggles to Count It’s Millions, via Agence France-Presse.
Plus their video news report, of the same name, makes for interesting viewing.

Related posts:
India Gets Behind the Wheel on Urban Mobility
Painted National Pride

Last week Design Observer featured my article India's Epic Head Count: "More than 1 billion people of diverse cultures, languages and religions are united by India's national borders. Between 2010 and 2011, the country's census will not only count and categorize them by gender, religion and occupation, but also probe their access to technology, toilets [...]