Monday, October 09, 2006

Remember Rafe Bullick

Rafe Bullick was a Scottish charity worker who died in a landmine blast in Darfur, Sudan, in 2004. Today is the second anniversary of that day. Rafe had a special bond with India, being a longtime volunteer at Seva Mandir, Rajasthan, and later working in Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake. After Gujarat, he moved on to Mozambique, then Bangladesh, before going to Sudan to work with a British NGO Save the Children. He was only 34 when he died, but left behind hundreds of friends across the globe.

I only knew him briefly when I was at Seva Mandir, so I asked my friend and ex-colleague Mamta to share her memories of Rafe, and she generously obliged.

Guest entry by Mamta Vardhan

I first met Rafe on a winter afternoon on the Seva Mandir terrace in 1997. Looking back at that sunny afternoon, I remember him talking knowingly about rural development and Joint Forest Management, a program I worked on at Seva Mandir. He was eager to visit a village to see what forests in Udaipur villages looked like. A couple of days later we went to a village called Bada Bhilwara- in a public bus. All through the bus journey he kept asking questions about the local people, the denuded hills along the road and almost about everything else. Rafe loved to talk, I came to know. During the return journey from the village, we were wet from an unexpected rain shower and extremely hungry. The last bus to Udaipur was especially crowded and it stopped all along the way to allow people to jump in and out, but Rafe seemed at perfect ease all through the drive.

My professional contact with Rafe was rather limited as he worked on a different program, but I often ran into him - in the SM library, or on the street. Rafe always seemed busy with an agenda, and at times very annoyed with the way things worked in India in general and at Seva Mandir in particular. Listening to him, I sometimes felt that he would soon quit development. And sure enough one day I saw him retreating hastily from the library, he said that he had donated all his books to the library and was returning to Britain to continue his studies. But he was back after a few months, and it was a surprise to see another Rafe, one who had agreed to question his assumptions about things and also allowed others to question him.

Rafe became a regular at Seva Mandir then, coming year after year and staying for months together. Reflecting upon his work at Seva Mandir, I can now say that although all development work is intangible, Rafe worked on the most invisible part of it: improving work conditions for people who “do development”. He chose to introduce vehicle safety conditions and practices among Seva Mandir staff. In hindsight, it is a very important but often overlooked part of any work environment. Especially in Seva Mandir, people rode or traveled on motorbikes and jeeps on very rugged roads (or virtually no roads) for a substantial part of their work hours. With road safety practices non-existent on rural (and all other) roads, driving poses an occupational hazard. Rafe worked relentlessly to improve vehicle conditions and train workers against a significant inertia to adopt safe driving habits. It was an uphill task all through, and Rafe faced significant challenges across the board. But he steadfastly held on; as he organized follow-up road safety trainings for Seva Mandir workers and moved on to include Vidya Bhawan staff as well. Long after Rafe was gone, substantial number of Seva Mandir workers could be seen wearing a safety helmet or crossing over their seat belts quite as a habit. An achievement indeed!!

I got a glimpse of a gourmet Rafe at the Dewali guest house. To my greatest surprise, Rafe had learnt to cook not only the usual Indian fare of paneer-matar, but authentic Mewari recipes, from dal-bati to lapsi. He loved his food for sure. And he was shopping at the “localest” of places, going all around Hathi-pole bazaar on his bicycle. I still remember the new-year eve’s dinner he cooked for friends after he moved to his new apartment: it was dal-bati (made from home-milled flour!!) served on a red jajam with fluffy cotton pillows for support (all bought at the Khadi mela). He was becoming not an Indian, but a Mewari. So Rafe knew no short-cuts, he lived each moment of his day fully- be it cooking for friends, organizing a match for orphan children or just cycling around the lake on his own.

Rafe with Mamta at his family estate in Scotland

I came to know Rafe as a friend when I went to Edinburgh to stay with Rohit (my husband and a colleague at Seva Mandir). Despite our rather limited interaction at Seva Mandir, it was a revelation for both of us when Rafe introduced us to his family, proudly as his friends from Seva Mandir. Over an Indian dinner, he showed us photographs from Udaipur, and spoke fondly of his days there, as he handed a gift to be carried for chaiwale Nathuji at Seva Mandir. Spending time with Rafe in Edinburgh, it was evident how greatly he valued development work, and cherished deeply his association with people and places connected to Seva Mandir and Udaipur.

I have a memory of Rafe in my mind’s eye: walking over to meet us, one beautiful spring day coming to say goodbye to me and Rohit before he flew over to Africa and to another world.

The Bullick family instituted a foundation at Seva Mandir to carry on Rafe's work. Read more abour Rafe here.

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