I opened Instagram to a flood of posts of freshly baked banana bread and newly painted canvases. Though a visually pleasing productivity spike, I stopped after seeing a girl’s typical mirror selfie.
“Coronavirus is taking over the world, and it’s all because of idiots in China eating bat soup.”
I stared at this caption, reading it over and over. Idiots in China? I’m also feeling distressed about the current state of the world. Like many, I’m feeling robbed of the opportunities I had set in motion for 2020. A new job, travel plans, turning 23. Not that the latter is a huge milestone, but it would be nice to celebrate my birthday outside with people.
Why was I feeling so hurt and frustrated over a girl who said something so dense? I had to remind myself that’s exactly what her caption was, insensitive. The girl who posted it was around the same age as me, but she was caucasian. Was I so affected by her words because I am also from a culturally and ethnically diverse background?
I was born in Australia to Singaporean/South-Indian parents. There were no cultural delicacies exposed to me growing up. Most of my early childhood consisted of Vegemite and Weet-Bix. But as I got older, facets of my Indian background began to unravel. I couldn’t stop drawing unexpected similarities to other cultures.
Similar to myths about the health benefits of traditional Chinese medicine and eating wild animals, there are a plethora of myths in Indian culture. Almost any Indian grandmother has a list of homemade skin lightening remedies permanently ingrained into her mind. Whether it’s tomatoes, organic yogurt, turmeric, or lemons, Indians being told to lighten their complexion is not new.
Pull the lens back further, and you’ll find these myths go much deeper than applying topical ingredients to the skin. Saffron infused milk, otherwise known as Kesar milk, is widely consumed across India for its health benefits. Especially during pregnancy, but not for the reasons you would think. In many Indian families, the belief that if a pregnant woman drinks Kesar milk, her child will be born with fair skin.
Picture yourself as a child in a South-Indian village. Imagine your mother tells you every day that if you rub tomatoes and lemon juice on your skin twice a day, you will become fair-skinned. Now, imagine a young Chinese girl, born into a family of farmers and living in a rural town. Her mother tells her to take her medicine for good health, a medication that has the scales of pangolin in it, otherwise known as the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal.
Told to eat, drink, and apply incredibly specific things to your body from a young age is no isolated incident within many cultures. It’s something we all share in common, yet we fail to acknowledge this.
I navigated my Singaporean and Indian identities while raised as an Aussie. But I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. This background has allowed me to see similarities between different cultures, and to better interpret them. I’ve always been grateful to have this heightened cultural sensitivity and awareness. Yet I often forget that not everyone has this same level of sensitivity towards other people’s values and customs.
The moment I read that Instagram caption, I instantly felt disturbed how someone could casually make fun of a stranger, let alone an entire nationality, without ever knowing where they came from? What their lifestyle was like, or how they grew up?
To people, I probably seemed too sensitive and over-dramatic. But I believe my culturally-complex upbringing and awareness of other cultures has made me incredibly understanding towards minority groups—a quality often absent in many who have not experienced life like a minority.
War Against Ethnic Minorities
In times of significant disruption, scapegoating ethnic minorities is rampant. The 9/11 attacks sparked widespread racial intolerance of Muslims, among many who fit the Muslim-Arab stereotype. In Australia, the 2005 Cronulla riots saw the outbreak of mass violence against young men of Middle-Eastern appearance, instigating derogatory attitudes towards them. Just two years ago, Australia dealt with its “African gangs” outbreak, which saw South Sudanese-Australians faced racial abuse and intensified police profiling.
It’s disheartening to admit we are no strangers to news of an ethnic minority falling victim to the latest public racial attack. Whether they wore a turban or hijab or have different eating habits, one thing all minorities share in common is the label of the other.
Xenophobic attacks against Asians continue to accelerate. Much of the international response to the pandemic is Chinese have brought this on themselves due to wet markets and “unnatural” customs. The assumption is no better than victim-blaming. But it is precisely why ethnic minorities need to come together to stand up to racism. Ethnic minorities relate to the experiences of racism that Chinese people are currently facing more than anyone else. We are frequently left exposed to marginalization and the first to know the consequences when no one helps. All minorities have experienced personal battles with discrimination. We must remember it is these battles that unite us. If we value multiculturalism, we need to fight off xenophobic attacks against people by calling others out.
Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals.
After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center. The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs.
Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career. This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.
How and when did you create ADVP?
“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”
ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projectsinclude building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community.
Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.
“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.
Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”
Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.
What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year?
“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.
In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”
Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.
When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.”
She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”
By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.
How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?
“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”
What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?
“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”
Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational.
To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.
To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.
Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall