Keystone Connections

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Madeleine Gefke '20 is the 2020-2022 Fellow at Keystone Foundation. This is her first year narrative. 

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What is my story? My narrative? I think the best words to describe my Shansi story so far are “an unexpected, long limbo period.” Yet even as I continue holding my breath and hoping I can make it to my site in Kotagiri, India, the world continues to revolve and life goes on. I am finding so many contradictions in my life, as exemplified in the wide range of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and emotions that popped into my head as I was brainstorming for this report. I have formed these ideas into a tree-shaped word cloud (above), because even though this period of my life right out of college is one of the most uncertain and confusing times I have experienced, where everything seems to be at a standstill, I also believe steady growth is happening in the midst of it all.


An update about the work I am doing with my mentors at the Keystone Foundation so far:

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The highlight of my work with Keystone is most certainly the connections I am making with my mentors at the organization. My excitement to eventually find myself at my site continues to grow as I listen to my mentor Anita warn me of the monkeys that will take your things, after she has already gotten up to close the windows just in case. As field work and travel opportunities open back up in India, I love to hear the stories that Bhavya brings from the field and learn about the places I might someday travel to for work with Keystone. Outside of Tamil lessons, Sharada and I have started up an exchange of our artistic endeavors. Sharada is an incredibly talented artist and her beautiful scenic paintings are such a joy to see. In return, I have shared some pictures of my crochet projects and even a song I wrote recently.


I have also had the great privilege to tap into the Shansi community and connect with other Fellows, both current and alumni. Current Fellow Kate Little at Lady Doak College in Madurai, has kindly answered my many questions about living in India and shared her Shansi stories through a video call we did together. Kate started a site guide for Kotagiri when she visited the Keystone Foundation last November, so she also shared this great resource with me that I hope to build on when I travel to my site.

In December, I participated in a Shansi community conversation to provide a current Fellow perspective. I enjoyed listening to the experiences of the other Fellows and the entertaining and uplifting comments we received from Shansi alumni. Barbara Johnson, one of the earliest Fellows at Lady Doak College in Madurai from 1960-62, kindly reached out to me afterwards and we set up a video call! I loved hearing her Shansi stories, the lessons she figured out on the job, the lasting friendships she made that continue today. In some ways, this conversation really solidified the Shansi community for me, as I realized I am now one of a long line of Obies who have sought new and different opportunities and connections in Asia over the years.

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My conversation with Barbara Johnson (Shansi ’60-62) pictured above, 12/28/20

An update about my life and pursuits outside of work responsibilities with Keystone:

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Pictures: (Left to right) biked to D.C. to pay tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court, marched in the annual Women’s March, went on a run to drop off my ballot before I worked the polls in the general election, wrote 150 ‘Get Out The Vote’ letters!

Lots of history made recently in D.C., both empowering and terrifying. Although I wish I was at my Shansi site, I sense the importance of living through such monumental events so close to the nation’s capital, experiences I won’t forget.   

And last but not least, cooking! To embrace the Shansi spirit and get a taste of traveling abroad, I have had so much fun trying new recipes from different cultural cuisines of Asia. I will not claim that my cooking is “authentic” in any way, as I do not originate from the cultures behind many of these dishes. But I have enjoyed the learning process so far and appreciate the recipes, advice, and inspiration from friends along the way! Some of my happiest memories involve cooking with my friends and gathering to share a meal together. I sorely miss these experiences, but will continue to practice my cooking skills in anticipation of once again sharing meals with wonderful people.

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Feature story: Learning about Pongal festival


In one of my favorite Tamil lessons so far, Sharada and I discussed Pongal, a three day festival to celebrate the new harvest. For this session, Sharada spoke sentences to me in English and I translated and spoke them in Tamil. I learned as I translated that long English sentences can and should be condensed into just a few words in Tamil that have many suffixes. I started out with simple literal translations of what she said, but Sharada pushed me to think about how people would actually say the sentences and then try again with more Tamil language structure.


Here is a snippet of what I learned about Pongal through our speaking and translation exercise!

(disclaimer: excuse my mistakes, there are probably many)

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English translation:

This year, January 14th to 17th Pongal is celebrated. At this time in many places farmers harvest important crops such as rice and sugarcane. Different states have different names for Pongal. In some places Sangkaraanthi is known as Pongal festival but in South India the name of this festival is Pongal. For this festival they decorate the cows. They will cook Pongal. Sweet Pongal is called Sarkkarai (sugar) Pongal, savory spice Pongal is called ven Pongal. After getting up, worship the sun. After that they will come together and hold a feast. During Pongal it should not rain but this year the rain came for three days. Waters flow like floods so crops were damaged. Farmers are not happy.


Finding inspiration from such an interesting Tamil session, I decided to go ahead and try my hand at making Pongal!

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Pictures (left to right): Pongal ingredients, boil the rice and moong dal, make jaggery syrup, roast toppings in ghee, mix all together, and ENJOY!

In our conversation about Pongal, I began making connections to my own experiences at home and how they compare and contrast with those that my mentors are living across the ocean. As they are seeing atypical floodwaters in this season, my home in Maryland is going through a milder winter than we have had in the past. As Sharada is in the midst of Pongal festivities, I am just wrapping up Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. As my mentors are beginning to travel for field work and go into the office more, I am still unable to eat in restaurants or go to museums, let alone travel between states without taking the utmost safety precautions. Two very different worlds, the one I hear about from afar and the one I currently exist in, but I hope these worlds will combine soon enough into the full Shansi experience I can’t wait to live.