The Last Page

Journey to Insecurity

By Janis Graham ’78

“Why, of all people, did they choose you?” asked Jane P., another mother at my son’s soccer game. The query was in response to my news that the U.S. Committee for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had invited me to travel in India for two weeks on a mission called “Personalizing Population” — a project intended to create a network of journalists capable of raising public awareness about issues of population, reproductive health, and women’s rights.

Besides insulting me, Jane P. struck a vulnerable nerve, since I knew her question wasn’t unreasonable. I’m a journalist, but I write primarily about health and fitness for U.S. women’s magazines. I had never filed a story from overseas or covered international issues, and I had never been to India (or any country in the “developing” world for that matter).

Was the UNFPA crazy for inviting me? I wondered myself. Not that my worries were only work-related. No, I had all sorts of nagging, little personal concerns. Such as: The itinerary included visits to sprawling urban slums and remote impoverished villages. I had never been exposed to poverty on a grand scale. I hadn’t been near open sewers or deformed lepers either — things every guidebook warned me I would encounter. Would I freak out?

And how would I hold up traveling 24/7 with a team of five American print and video journalists, a British photographer, and assorted UNFPA staff? I’m accustomed to pretty solitary days, working out of a home office on a little farm in Ithaca, New York.

But I didn’t let my misgivings stop me. I went — and did fine (maybe even better). Professionally, the critical skills I use to get a thorough medical story served me perfectly “in the field.” The only time I faltered miserably was early on in the trip. I was trying to interview several adolescent girls from the Delhi slums who were attending a UNFPA-funded program that promotes sex education and job skill acquisition. To every question I asked (“How do you feel about marrying a stranger of your parents’ choice?”), my stubborn translator insisted on answering himself (“Oh, these girls are happy with the Indian custom of arranged marriages.”). When I bemoaned how badly things went, an experienced UNFPA staff journalist gave me a quick course in “Asserting Yourself with a Translator 101,” which turned out to be the only lesson I needed.

I didn’t get weak-kneed, as I feared, when surrounded by limbless beggars, swarming flies, or free-floating human waste. I can’t completely account for why I didn’t get rattled, but it helped that I was constantly “up close and intimate” with the human face of problems. One day I spent interviewing mothers whose daughters had been burned alive when dowry demands hadn’t been met. On another, I met activists who risked their lives regularly in order to rescue kidnapped children from illegal prostitution. How could I allow myself to indulge in wimpiness when all the women I met were so brave?


Janis Graham
Janis Graham

Of all my worries, the one about traveling with the team turned out to be the most unfounded. I loved the hours we spent exchanging life stories, world views, and warped jokes over meals and during countless hours driving to remote villages. It had never occurred to me that I might be starved for stimulating adult company after years of work isolation and being in “mommy mode.”

The U.S. Committee for the UNFPA didn’t make a mistake inviting me. The trip turned me into a journalist committed to championing their vital, good works as well as one who has a newfound commitment to covering international women’s issues. On my desk, already, are magazine assignments to write on Indian midwife practices and dowry abuse.

So why did I squander so much energy being insecure beforehand? As I tried to answer this, I realized my worrying wasn’t a waste of time at all. It was an asset in disguise: It pushed me to prepare. It prodded me to prove that I could do something different. It helped me stay observant, questioning, and open to learning.

A friend joked that I was doing the “I” countries (2001 and 2002 family trips): First Italy, then Ireland, and now India. She forgot “Insecurity” — a place I’ll no longer mind returning to as long as it never stops me from going somewhere new!

Graham is an author and journalist living in Ithaca, NY. She writes a monthly health column for Redbook and contributes regularly to Good Housekeeping, Parents, and Shape.