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Jamie Myrah - Blog 1: The Universal Truth of the Bonding Nature of Food

Jamie Myrah - Blog 1: The Universal Truth of the Bonding Nature of Food

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Lunchtime is my favourite part of my workday. Perhaps that seems like an obvious, even cliched, statement to make when living in a city as famous for its food as Delhi, but the reasons for it go far beyond the deliciousness of the home-cooked meal that is served. At 1:00 each day, the entire staff of PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) leave their offices and cubicles for 30 minutes and eat lunch together. I've worked in non-profit organizations for over 10 years and while it's hardly uncommon for colleagues to gather for lunch, I have never known an organization (especially as large as PRIA) to so routinely - and purposefully - take time out each day to share food together. It goes to the very heart of what PRIA is all about: bringing people together in collective action.

Whether in the realm of capacity building, research, development, or policy advocacy, participation is the foundation for everything PRIA does. What has become remarkably clear to me over the past couple of months is how the values that drive PRIA - inclusion, equality, justice, solidarity - are lived each day in the very structure and culture of the organization. I don't wish to romanticize PRIA as some sort of uniquely enlightened NGO; in many ways they are a very corporatized organization, marked by a complex matrix of hierarchy and departments and comprehensive policies and procedures for everything from tracking your time to claiming your expenses. Yet, in the midst of all the formalities, they manage to maintain a strong sense of connectedness to one another and to the communities they work with, not by circumstance, but by design. 

Take for example "Participatory Lunch Day". Held quarterly and planned by a committee representing all areas of the organization, the entire staff of the head office are assigned to a team that becomes responsible for preparing one part of the meal. For February's event - in celebration of Valentine's Day and the coming of Spring - the feast took two days to prepare. Meeting rooms were transformed into kitchens as vats of northern Indian dishes simmered on large gas burners placed in the middle of the floor. The morning of the lunch, instead of sitting at my desk, I was making pumpkin pie for a crowd that would be tasting it for the first time. Thankfully, coming up with spices like ginger and cinnamon is pretty easy to do in India! 

Participatory Lunch Day is a testament to the value placed on communing and celebration at PRIA. Although more research-based think tank than grassroots development organization, PRIA nevertheless understands that people matter more than paper. As such, celebration is a regular occurrence around here. Birthday cakes, celebratory sweets, a special meeting to recognize those receiving performance awards... we take time out to honour one here another at PRIA.

This can be especially important for an outsider such as myself. Interning in a large, national organization with multiple offices and departments can - perhaps ironically - be a very solitary experience. In my experience, one of the differences between small community-based organizations and large NGO's is that in small organizations, due to a general lack of human resources, everyone is constantly pitching in to do a little bit of everything, making even the most mundane tasks often highly collaborative. In organizations such as PRIA, with significant organizational capacity, it's more common for people to have highly delineated roles. As an intern - unfamiliar with the local context and here only temporarily - it's easier for me to contribute through very discrete, independent projects, rather than to necessarily be involved in on-going, long term, team-based work. 

So when 1:00 comes around and I get the chance to look up from my lap top and join my colleagues for some dal and a walk around the block in the sunshine, it's easily the best part of my day. It's the time when I most interact with those around me; when I get to learn not only about the degrees that they have and the jobs they perform, but about where they come from (because almost everyone in Delhi comes from somewhere else), their families, and their lives outside of work. And so far, it seems to me that this is where the true cross-cultural capacity gets built.

Now excuse me... the people we celebrated with sweets on Monday are about to thank us with samosas in the lunch room!