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schuhrkej-1My FSD internship here in Jodhpur is with an NGO called UNNATI (the word unnati means “progress”) and is centered on their disaster risk reduction program. The major disaster here in the desert of Western Rajasthan is drought. My previous experience has dealt with hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, which tend to be very visible events with a clear beginning and end. It is easy to see their impact because you can clearly see the difference from before and after the disaster; it’s dramatic and typically gets a lot of attention when it happens. Drought is different because it has no clear beginning and end, and so its impact is more difficult to see. It becomes a regular part of people’s daily lives, and therefore doesn’t seem as dramatic and gets less attention. It’s insidious and gets to the true nature of disasters as more than just one-time events.

The ongoing drought here in Rajasthan weakens food and water security, and it severely hurts rural livelihoods. People lose valuable time and money just trying to get water, so they can’t maintain their crops and livestock, and are often forced to migrate to cities for work. UNNATI is trying to counter this in a few ways. One project they’ve undertaken is providing some funds for families to build water-harvesting structures like underground tanks able to catch and store as much rainwater (which is extremely minimal) as possible. These tanks can also store water pumped in from tractor-hauled tankers that bring it from various sources like ponds and canals, though the owners/drivers of these tankers often charge unfair prices. For this, UNNATI is buying some water tankers and tractors and will give them to village committees, which will manage and oversee their use, and will charge fairer prices.

The organization has also undertaken a horticulture development project with about 30 households. The women of the households oversee their own plots of berry and plum-producing plants that require little water. The plants can provide extra food and fodder during times of scarcity, and are also reliable sources of income when the families sell the fruits.

schuhrkej-2UNNATI did not originally do this kind of work. Instead, the organization has traditionally worked to empower the Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”. In India’s ancient caste system, the Dalits were given what were considered the dirty jobs like dealing with waste and corpses, and were thus seen as permanently polluted and literally untouchable, and were treated as sub-human.

Since the time of India’s independence, the government has sought to eradicate “untouchability” and engender equal rights. While the overt mistreatment and oppression of Dalits has mostly ended, there are still subtle ways they are discriminated against. They are often systematically denied decent jobs and livelihoods, as well as access to quality education and other basic opportunities. It’s easy to draw comparisons to racism in America, which has also become subtler in recent decades.

This discrimination is very similar to the drought. Both are forms are of deprivation—one is a sort of environmental deprivation while the other is a sort of social deprivation; and also both are insidious and subtle, rather than dramatic, overt situations that get a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, the Dalits tend to have the least access to water, often living farthest from water sources, and also not having the money to afford storage tanks or tanker-delivered water. So, while UNNATI originally worked with Dalit activists to help them assert their rights, it now also works with them to reduce their vulnerabilities to drought.

schuhrkej-3Many of my Indian colleagues are ashamed of the continued discrimination against Dalits. Speaking with Indians about Obama’s election back in my home country, a lot of them seem to think such problems in America are all over and only India is dealing with negative discrimination now. I try to tell them it’s not that simple. As proud as I was to see Obama win on November 4th, I was disappointed and ashamed at the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar measures in other states.

But the election of Obama is definitely a mark of progress for the U.S. Looking at all the struggles for social equality that have taken place throughout my country’s history and how far we’ve come, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So I don’t despair the passage of Proposition 8 or the continued discrimination against Dalits, but instead have the “audacity to hope” that it’s only a matter of patience, faith, and dedicated effort before the long drought of injustice finally ends.

clerkint-1-with-captionLiving with a host family has been one of the more interesting parts of my time here in Uganda, and the best way to fully experience Ugandan culture. There is no better way to fully understand a different culture than getting to know local people on the deep level that you do when you live with another family for two months. Not only do you have the opportunity to eat white ants and other local dishes, but also you get to experience the culture and all the traditions, such as women kneeling as a sign of respect and the importance of greetings.

I have had the privilege of not only getting to know and learning from my own host family, but also the host family of another FSD intern, Daniel, as well. His family, the Kintu family, was gracious enough to invite Daniel as well as myself to an introduction ceremony. An introduction ceremony, one of three Ugandan wedding ceremonies, is an important Ugandan tradition where a woman introduces her fiancée formally to her family and is given away to the groom. The Kintus were introducing a nephew to his fiancée’s family.

The day of the introduction, Daniel and I dressed in the traditional Ugandan garb. The Kintu family lent us some of their clothing to wear to the ceremony. Men wear a long white robe called a Kanzu with a suit jacket over. Women wear a dress called a Gomesi. The dress is a wrap around dress that buttons on the top and is tied with a thick sash. The dresses vary greatly in fabric, pattern, and color. My dress was a pale pink with a pattern of flowers and animal prints. My sash was a brighter pink with a gold design. I felt extremely foolish in the large dress, especially with the pointy sleeves coming up to my ears!

When we arrived at the home, I was amazed at all the commotion and splendor. Outside the bride’s home the groom’s family was assembling to process into the ceremony together. Nearby, several trucks and cars were overflowing with gifts for the bride’s family and more were still driving up the road. I had been told the groom’s family brings gifts for the bride’s family, but I had no idea the amount was so large. There were baskets upon baskets full of fruit, huge sacks of sugar, wrapped gifts, crates of soda and beer, couches and even a large chicken! The yard in front of the house was transformed to the party area with three huge white tents decorated with lights and flowers. In the middle a smaller tent was set up and several mats laid out on the ground. The children in the neighborhood were all crowding around to see what was happening and to admire the beautiful Gomesi’s.

clerkint-2-with-captionOnce all the family members arrived, the men and the women lined up in their respective lines and we were all given bows with chocolates attached to pin to our clothing. I think this was a token of hospitality from the bride’s family, but I am not sure. Either way, the chocolate tasted very good. We entered the yard of the bride’s home and sat down in the designated tent for the groom’s family. After that, the ceremony began. The families sang two anthems from the two areas of Uganda, Buganda and Busoga.

Soon after, the groom’s family presented the gifts. The entire clan left the yard and began carrying in the gifts. Women carried baskets on their heads—those are hard to balance!—and knelt down to present them to the family. Men carried in the heavier items, and Daniel carried in the large chicken to be given to the bride’s brother. It seemed like a never ending procession of women dancing slightly with baskets on their head or gifts in hand, intermingled with men carrying huge crates of gifts. Once all the gifts were given, the groom’s family returned to our seats.

Then began the long series of greetings and introductions. Various members of the bride’s family took turns greeting the groom’s family. The aunts and the bachelorettes of the bride’s family performed dances and a series of greetings to the groom’s family. Eventually the bride came out and was dancing with her aunts. Her bridal aunt presented her to the groom’s family who accepts her into their family.

After all the ceremony, the families feast on a huge array of traditional foods. Everyone relaxes, listens to music, and dines on the delicious food. My favorite was chicken cooked inside a banana leaf, a Buganda dish called Luwombo. After the meal, the groom’s family leaves, taking the bride with them.

clerkint-4-with-captionExperiencing the introduction ceremony has been one of the most interesting parts of my time in Uganda. Daniel and I got to see first hand the importance of tradition in family life, especially concerning weddings. Both families were so happy to be meeting with each other to celebrate the union of the bride and groom and celebrate their love. Despite the differences in Western wedding traditions and those of Uganda, the joy at the celebrations of either culture is overpowering.

solitarioc-1For almost seven weeks, I have had the privilege of spending every day with the women of Mi Perrito Cooperative in Villa Elisa, Argentina. Through my internship, I have had the ability to see the trials and tribulations that face start up business in impoverished communities. I have also witnessed the power of community support as the women of the cooperative have tried to create a successful project with the hope of providing not only for their families, but for the improvement of their neighborhood.

The sewing cooperative was started two years ago by a couple of mothers whose children attended Arco Iris, a community center that provides educational and social development as well as nutritional meals to over 70 children in the neighborhood. Before I arrived, the group had focused solely on the production of dog clothing. This endeavor had been fairly profitable, but the group had reached a plateau in sales. Also, this past February, a terrible flood hit the area, wiping out a significant portion of their stock, as well as forcing them to spend much of their budget on the repairing of their sewing machines. A few months previous to the start of my internship, though, they received a contract from a fair trade association based in La Plata called Otro Mercado to make baby clothing.

solitarioc-2Within my first few days, representatives from Otro Mercado came to the cooperative to bring the necessary materials to carryout the order, including a professional fabric cutter. After two or three days of use, it was obvious that this machine would become a lifesaver for the group. Work that used to take them and hour now took ten minutes, as they were able to cut multiple layers of fabric at once. In turn, the project I ultimately decided to pursue was the purchase of a fabric cutter and other organizational materials that would turn the workspace into a sewing shop. I realized that what the cooperative was lacking was neither skill nor initiative to further their production capacity, but simply capital. The women were fully capable of creating higher quality products, yet without the necessary tools, they were forced to rely on dull scissors and faulty machines and to work in a cluttered room that doubled as a closet for the center.

One of the women, Isidora, corroborated my discovery as she recounted her history with the cooperative. She told me that when she first started with the group, she imagined what it would be like if one day they could have professional sewing machines and a workshop that no longer used second hand tools. There is no way to completely recreate how her eyes lit up as she described her pride and excitement when, after only a few months, the new sewing machines the group had bought with a loan arrived. She had always dreamed of running this cooperative as an actual business, but the women had never been given the opportunity to utilize high quality capital.

solitarioc-3The aspirations of all the women are as equally apparent as those of Isidora. When their children run into the workshop to see what “Mom” is working on, they have a great deal of pride as they show them the newest design or technique they are using. At the end of the day, all of their work is done so that their children will have better opportunities. However, they don’t even realize their most significant impact, though it is apparent to all those around them. No matter what financial gains they make for their family, the most important aspect of their work is the example they have set for all the children of the neighborhood as female entrepreneurs, succeeding even despite their poor odds because of their location in an impoverished community.

paulm-1When I first arrived at Likoni Community Development Program (LICODEP) I was not sure which direction my internship would take. Located just south of Mombasa, Likoni is a bustling community with a rich culture and a diverse set of development issues. LICODEP is the flagship community development organization in the area and they work on issues ranging from advocacy to public health to microfinance. After several weeks of observing and trying to find my niche, I decided the way in which I could have the biggest impact on the community’s development was to help develop a small business management class with LICODEP’s fledgling microloan program, Mikopo Ni Maendeleo (MIMA), which means “Credit is Progress”. I was impressed by MIMA’s staff and clients, all of whom have come to entrepreneurship for different reasons and had to overcome serious obstacles.

Having started just a year ago through the work of another FSD intern, the program has been serving its clients very well. It started with just 50 clients last September and has over doubled its clients since. The clients join MIMA in solidarity groups of five, usually consisting of friends, neighbors, and sometimes family members. They meet each week with a MIMA staff to contribute their mandatory savings and discuss the status of their loans as well as who will be next to apply for the loans. In addition these groups serve as support for one another on various business issues.

This program serves a wide range of clients, most of whom are women running microenterprises with in the Likoni. After conducting a survey of clients, we found entrepreneurship is one of the only viable options for many individuals, especially women. Unemployment in the area is estimated to be as high as 48%, according to Action Aid Kenya. The jobs that are available often require higher degrees or specialized training, options which are out of reach for the poorest individuals in the community. It was only five years ago when primary education became free in Kenya, so MIMA clients grew up in families unable to afford education for their children. Over half of MIMA’s clients only completed primary school and less than one quarter completed secondary school, thus inhibiting their abilities to compete for the few jobs available.

Because of the lack of education, the sheer numbers of people who turn to business ownership, and the status of the economy, running an efficient and profitable business can be very difficult. When asked how MIMA could serve them better, clients responded overwhelmingly that they needed some small business training classes to help them run their businesses. In an interview with Hope Nyali, a MMA member and small shop owner, she said “I opened this business to cater my life and the life of my family. It is my hope that they will help me to run my business better. I want be a smart business lady.”

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.

“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!!!!!”

perakisj-1-with-caption1Western Kenya is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world, putting tremendous pressure on natural resources in the region. In Kakamega district, agricultural expansion, cattle grazing, fuel wood collection, and logging have reduced the once mighty indigenous rainforest to only 240 square kilometers. This trend is likely to continue, it seems, despite efforts by government and non-government agencies to combat forest destruction.

For almost one year now, I have been working with a local environmental conservation group in the southern part of the Kakamega Rainforest. Despite the unfortunate political conflict earlier this year, I was able to work with my organization to research and develop programs that address deforestation and simultaneously address the needs of the community. In particular, we developed a fuel briquette initiative to reduce the demand for firewood that is collected from the forest. Fuel briquettes are made from everyday commercial and agricultural residues and can be used as a replacement for traditional sources of energy. The system has been successfully implemented in other parts of East Africa and will certainly benefit the communities living in and around the Kakamega Rainforest. In July, we held a comprehensive workshop to train community members to make and use fuel briquettes. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support for the project.

That same month, however, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was expanding its rural electrification program to include the communities living around the lower half of the forest. In less than three weeks, and without much warning, a major section of the forest had been cleared to make way for telephone poles and overhead electric wires. Acres of indigenous forest were lost, forming small forest islands that are unable to maintain a significant level of biodiversity. In one instance, where there was a choice between indigenous land and plantation land, the indigenous land was cleared while the plantation land remained unaffected for no apparent reason other than shear convenience. The most devastating part of this all was the fact that only a handful of people raised any voice of concern, and only after the trees had been felled. I think everybody was happy to have open access to firewood and timber and even I myself was excited at the prospect of electricity. But all of this made me reflect on my own work in the forest and the value of small-scale environmental conservation programs in the face of larger-scale development issues. The immediate needs of the community seem to be more numerous and more varied than could be addressed by any one strategy for forest protection. Moreover, the pace of development in the region, in terms of infrastructural improvements and changing land-use patterns, seems to be too rapid to sustainably coexist with the forest. Though what we saw with the rural electrification program in the Kakamega forest represents unnecessary destruction caused by a hasty, careless, and close-minded approach to development. The desire to bring electricity to the region overwhelmed the need for careful sustainable planning to implement the project. In order for environmental conservation to work, we need to take time and create innovative strategies which allow for human development, but which also protect our natural resources. But who are we to deny electricity to people who have waited so long to reap the benefits of industrialization? Similarly we might ask, who are we to deny agricultural land to those who choose a subsistence lifestyle? These are not question to which I, or anybody else for that matter, have complete and unarguable answers. Finding creative ways to combat deforestation caused by fuelwood extraction is part of the solution, but without a comprehensive approach to environmental management, it appears the fate of the forest is uncertain.