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Archive for December, 2008

gregoryj-11Following the introduction to my new family, I was to start my internship with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) the next day. Abi, my co-intern, and I arrived in good spirits, ready for organizational integration. We immediately set out with Sateesh, who is responsible for the Agoli Block Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs), to visit the Vishnu Nagar and Jashti villages. Our mode of transportation was an open-door jeep, which lacked seatbelts, but came fully equipped with a driver who had relinquished any sense of danger probably at birth. For anyone who has not traveled by open-air vehicle through a desert before, the best way to simulate the experience would be to turn on your hair drier and blast your face for two hours.

The Marwar region, located in the western portion of Rajasthan, occupies areas of the Northwestern Thorn Scrub Forest and the Thar Desert. It is known as an arid and inhospitable region, yet paradoxically is the most densely populated desert in the world. Climatologists typically define a desert as having an annual rainfall of 250 mm or less; the Marwar region receives somewhere between 100 to 500 mm. To make matters worse, its water table is falling at around 1 to 2 m each year, and up to 5 m in some areas.

Enter JBF, its genesis is based on the principle of developing “a persuasive alliance with the people of Marwar to make the region water secure.” Their modus operandi is to educate and mobilize rural communities around water issues, such that by providing them with financial support and engineering expertise, disadvantaged communities can empower themselves to achieve local water sustainability. JBF’s straightaway success encouraged generous grants from foreign development agencies, which has been used to employ over 100 people and facilitate the installation of over 250 projects in only five years.

gregoryj-2Ironically, our project has little to do with JBF’s core operations; rather, we have been instructed to develop a system for encouraging micro-enterprise businesses within their SHGs. These groups are bodies designed to build social and financial capital in disadvantaged communities; they have been integral to the microfinance movement within India since the 1980’s. Originally, they were established to allow the poor access to basic monetary systems, including savings and credit, by dispersing the risk amongst many women. Over time, they have grown into social empowerment tools for their members, and they are currently regarded as mechanisms which could facilitate diversification vis-à-vis alternative livelihoods and income generating activities (ALIGA). JBF has been establishing SHGs for about two years and presently operate a total of 54 groups. Predictably however, they are unsophisticated and wanting in comparison to their counterparts to the South, who have been operating in earnest for over 15. Both Vishnu Nagar and Jashti are among the A grade JBF SHGs, yet nonetheless appear woefully behind the progress in the rest of India.

gregoryj-3However, even possessing this knowledge cannot dampen the sense of advancement, ambition and optimism radiating from the women within these groups. Not all possess this glow, but presumably the ones that do will pass it on to those yet to fully comprehend their own potential. The Vishnu Nagar women have recently bought a mechanised flour mill for the bajra (a grain similar to, but coarser than wheat) grown in their fields. It allays the necessity of traveling four km by foot to purchase flour from Agoli; minuscule, but demonstrative progress.

The Jashti women have adapted the SHG model to their pre-existing wholesale embroidery business. Some women in the group have been practicing their craft for 25 years or more. The results are impressive and symbolically Indian. Upon asking one of the men if he has noticed any changes in his wife Meenakshi since the establishment of the group, he tersely replies “she has become more talkative,” which spawns an eruption of laughter from the group and one abashed lady. Although a couple questions later, her self-confidence replenished, she brazenly elucidates her desire “to be the owner of a shop at the Mehrangarh fort [in Jodhpur]” … and moreover, to have husband work for her! In the end, she gets the last laugh.

Our task at hand appears overwhelming at this stage of the internship. However, hopefully by the time we have crossed the last “t’s” and dotted the last “i’s”, some of these women will be on their way to achieving their dreams and escaping the poverty trap.

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“I just hope it was ok, I know it wasn’t perfect, I hope in the end, we can laugh and say it was all worth it…” – Ani Difranco
motsingerh-1I have now been here 75 days. For those 75 days I have been working with the Centre for Women’s Studies, a small department of a local university that is working to empower women throughout the tribal blocks of Rajasthan surrounding Udaipur. I have now been here 75 days. I have spent 75 days getting up around 7:30 in the morning, having breakfast with my wonderful host mother, and walking out the door by 9 am to ensure that I make it to work by 10 am, the time the Indian work day begins. I walk down the stairs of my apartment complex, wave good morning to the security guard who I’ve become “buddies” with that works at the grocery store in the bottom of my apartment building, and mentally prepare myself for the never-ending beeping of motorcycles, government buses, and auto rickshaws that whiz through the narrow roads of Udaipur. I take a 15-20 minute refreshing morning walk (mornings here are cool, though days are hot) to Court Chariya where I catch the “big rickshaw” or tempo to take me all the way to work in Pratap Nagar for 5 Rupees. I could catch one earlier without the 15-20 minute walk, but have found my sanity in the quiet back streets of early-morning Udaipur.

I squeeze into the jam-packed auto and ride for 20-30 minutes, dependent on how many times my driver wants to stop and try to convince more passengers to climb into his already over-crowded vehicle. I arrive at work, usually around 9:45 or right on time at 10:00, and then actually begin the workday around 11:00 when all of the staff has finally reached the office, and we have finished our first cup of sweet, hot, cardamom infused chai.

The first 75 days have been humbling, infuriating, educational, enjoyable, hysterical, frantic, and hectic, tiring, and the list could go on and on and on. I spent the first two weeks reading research project after research project in hopes of understanding the mission and previous projects of CWS. I spent the next month and a half losing hope that I would make any meaningful contribution to my host organization and the larger community. Numerous project ideas failed, work on existing projects and research with CWS couldn’t be undertaken due to a lack of funding, and communication barriers made the process of expressing our ideas difficult on a good day.

motsingerh-2Finally, upon having every urge to cry and pull my hair out as we were unsuccessful time and again at coming up with a sustainable project (however small), my boss asked me if I would develop a nutritional toolkit. “Nutritional toolkit?”, I said. I inquired about what this meant, and the only response I was given was “you know, like a scale and a thermometer and a few medicines and feminine hygiene projects that we can distribute at future health workshops and trainings.” To me, this sounded like aid, first aid, and not sustainable development. This wasn’t our collective goal. This wasn’t going to assist in the long term betterment of livelihoods for these village women. What to do? What to do?

Then it dawned on me. They were asking me for a nutritional toolkit. They obviously had some concern for the “nutrition” of village women, although our definitions of “nutrition” may be slightly different. I realized that wait a second, the Centre for Women’s Studies has done research on the impact of male migration on women and families and on the prevalence and conception of abuse against women in tribal communities (among others), but the organization had no information regarding the nutritional status of women and children in the surrounding communities.

As I began researching this topic a bit, it became even more apparent how nutrition can affect so many facets of village livelihood. With an insufficient diet, women often fall victim to iron deficiencies, and pregnant women often give birth to low birth weight babies that struggle to stay alive, only adding to the problem of a high infant mortality rate. Men and women are ineffective in their valuable jobs that ensure at least some sort of financial security and children that suffer from the common cold often end up with an incredibly grim diagnosis as without proper nutrition, immunities are weakened and the body can’t sufficiently fend off illness.

Since presenting the idea to my organization to undertake a research study on the nutritional status of tribal women and families and the nutritional divisions that may exist between men and women, class and caste, I have started spending my everyday in the field with one of my fellow co-workers as my all too valuable translator. The hour and a half haul to Gogunda (the tribal block I am working within) via government bus is absolutely nerve-wracking, but one of those experiences that makes this adventure all the more exciting. We speed through winding, bumping roads and fly off our seats if we are so unlucky as to get stuck in the back of the bus. We clinch our teeth and hold on to our seats for dear life as brakes aren’t used here, only blaring horns that say “get out of the way or we will run you over!” (said jokingly, kind of!) We walk, walk, and walk some more from hamlet to hamlet as transportation through the expansive villages is pretty much non-existent. We eat lunch with locals and as I can’t speak the language, the village women and I smile at one another and laugh at our inability to talk. Somehow through the laughter, we sometimes begin to understand each other, if only just a little. We sometimes receive incredible responses to our survey and feel as if the end result is going to be fantastic, and other days we want to run quickly back to the bus stand as responses are nothing short of vague and unclear. This is just how it goes…

motsingerh-3I have realized through these days in the field and in pouring so much effort into developing a meaningful project in collaboration with my host organization that ultimately, my time spent here isn’t about the project or about implementing “change” throughout the duration of my time here (something that just isn’t going to happen in 4 months). In laughing, in becoming so incredibly annoyed by things I just can’t control, in talking to my co-workers and to my host parents about life in India and my life in the US, in sharing our experiences with one another, and in sharing our frustrations and joys, I have realized that the most beneficial thing I can give and take from this place are the one or two incredible relationships that I have formed with a co-worker, a host mother, and a village grandmother that insists I eat her chapatti and dahi (yogurt) even when I feel as if I can eat nothing else. In these relationships, we begin to understand one another. We begin to develop a sense of the importance that must be placed upon an individual’s history and a specific locale’s history in reaching the sustainable betterment of livelihoods of every individual throughout the world.

I have realized that although I may not finish the surveying of 100 women as I had hoped, my time here still will be a success when it ends on December 18th. If I only finish 50 surveys, write a theoretical research report, but know that I have positively impacted the life of at least one individual while also being given the greatest learning experiences about life, and work, and persistence, and the importance of hope and faith in this world of sustainable development, my time in Udaipur, India will have been worth every single second. This work is hard. This work is challenging and often infuriating. This work makes you laugh and it makes you cry. It makes you want to pull your hair out and run into the middle of a forest just to scream at the top of your lungs for 20 minutes. It makes you so incredibly happy and excited, and it builds your patience like nothing else possibly could. It takes you on the greatest ride of your life. This place. This project. These people I have encountered. My host mother and my host organization. They have been my teachers. They have been those that have enhanced my understanding of myself, of this life, of this world and of this thing we call “sustainable development”. I suppose in the end, we can laugh… cry… scream… and confidently say, “I guess it was all worth it!!!!!”

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