Posts Tagged ‘udaipur’

A look at the summer lives of four undergrads working on an environmental development project with the Foundation for Ecological Security.

Friday, July 17, 2009: Cribs: The Village Edition

Alice 1This week marked an important occasion: we moved into a village about 2 hours away from Udaipur and began working on our project. FES has asked us to make an assessment of one particular region with the eventual goal of developing a relationship with those communities and implementing environmental projects there. Our work this week mostly consisted of holding meetings with community members (all men) to create a map of the community’s resources and to get a general overview of life in the village. The meetings went well, although it can get really frustrating to watch people have an animated conversation in an inaccessible language and have to keep interjecting “what did he just say?” or “can you ask this?”. It’s hard not to feel like things would be much easier for everyone if the white girl in the corner with her notebook and expression of earnest confusion would just go sit in the jeep and eat biscuits. But we persevere, and so far the work is going well.

The living situation in the village is also better than expected; we have electricity (and a generator that helps protect against the frequent power outtages), running water (this one is actually pretty iffy, there have been some close calls with the toilet), and meals are provided. It should be mentioned that Asha is hands-down winning in terms of food consumption in India. This thoroughly endears her to every person who has cooked for us, and makes some of us look really bad. Skipping a meal is absolutely out of the question here, and people look shocked and a little frightened when one of us says that we’re not hungry. We’ve figured out a variety of ways to cope though (see Alice’s post on tiffin removal techniques).

The next two weeks will be similarly scheduled, with us “in the field” for the majority of week days and returning to Udaipur close to the weekend, so we won’t be close to a computer to update the blog frequently. We’ll update as much as we can though, and wish us luck seeing the solar eclipse on Wednesday!

Friday, July 24, 2009: “This is Truly A Most Auspicious Day”

Alice 2I managed to declare this phrase immediately before stepping into a large pile of cowshit in the middle of the street – but truly this week has been a little of the magical as well as mundane.

The “auspicious day” in question was the 22nd of July and our musings on it’s significance were largely due to the solar eclipse which Lizzy valiantly woke up at 5:30 am to run outside to catch only to return to bed defeated five minutes later declaring it was too cloudy to see anything. However, that was just the beginning.

Later on in the day during a village exercise in a place called Jakara Lizzy and I attempted to befriend a group of teenage girls. While at first they were painfully shy, as time went on we tried asking them questions that had been translated into Hindi for us by one of our colleagues, and we soon began to laugh together over our complete unintelligbleness (although it is quite possible they were laughing at us). They even taught us a game which involves picking up stones, similar to jacks, and at the end, as you do, we took a group photo with a goat.

That night we visited the house of our driver, Sunder, in the village which we were staying in. The house was made entirely of mud/clay and had an indoor stove which smelled amazing but made my eyes water the entire time. His 100 year old grandfather was there, we drank buffalo milk (delicious!) as well as something very akin to vomit that I made the mistake of taking seconds of to be polite. As we left an electrical storm lit up the entire sky, at times making the night look like daytime and sending clear lightning bolts across the sky into the forests and hills beyond.

Then, naturally, came the cowshit – sending me reeling hysterically holding on to Ari trying to scrape it off as we all just stopped and laughed at the general absurdity and irony of the proclamation I had just made.

As well as just the fact that, well, shit guys, we are in India.


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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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India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else?

After my first two and a half weeks trying to find my place in the charming chaos of India I can confidently say that the sight of a traffic jam caused by a 52 sheep pile up, the shameless stares of complete strangers on the streets and the new function of my hands as dinner utensils is quickly become routine. The 6 Udaipur interns, including myself, are all stuffed with stories (and chipatis) and are enjoying a friendly competition for the most compelling chai rendezvous, most bizarre host family member and best Indian fashion sense. I could stand to learn a lot when it comes to the fashion sense.

On a more professional note, we are all gradually coming into our own development projects at our respective NGOS. I am working with the Sahayata Organization with a group of cheerful and motivated young professionals and a delightful supervisor nicknamed Babuji. The Sahayata Organization is as an emerging urban micro Finance and Livelihood initiative in Rajasthan. It was started by a team of professionals who were aware of the large gap that exists between traditional means of finance and the economically marginalized sector of society. Sahayata has successfully established itself as a revenue-based service provider in order to achieve the dual objectives of social and economic empowerment of the community as well as the sustainability of this intervention. Now Sahayata is in the process of expanding the organization to include a non-profit financial literacy program.

Not only will the financial literacy program be advantageous to the women of Rajasthan, but it will be one small step towards a more financial savvy India. India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else? In the last fiscal year the GDP growth rate was 9.1% and India’s economy established itself as the twelfth largest economy in the world and the second fastest growing economy, after China. However, despite the new boomtowns of Bangalore and Mumbai, most of the Indian population is still hovering below the poverty line, untouched by the rising national wealth. According to the new financial inclusion index, India is doing very poorly when it comes to the rate at which people use banking products and make investments. The financial inclusion index “is a measure of the availability and usage of banking services in key nations of the world, and is based on indicators like the number of bank accounts per 1,000 adults, numbers of ATMS, and amount of bank credit and deposits” (The Economic Times, 24/7/2008). In order for the majority of Indians to benefit from their profitable economy, financial inclusion must be the key priority for the NGOs, the government and banking institutions in the upcoming decade. Through our financial literacy program, Sahayata hopes to be a catalyst in the push towards a larger middle class and a healthy India.

Currently I am doing a needs assessment survey with our loan clients to evaluate their level of financial literacy and find out if they would be interested in a money management tutorial. The response from the clients has been overwhelmingly positive.

We have already recruited a great teacher from the nearby college who is well-versed in economic policy and financial management and we hope to begin the pilot project in two weeks. The pilot project will consist of three groups of women. One group will be familiar with basic financial terminology such as Budget, Risk, and interest. This group will consist of women that have bank accounts. The second group of women will have some idea of the basic financial terms but no substantial knowledge and approximately fifty percent of these women will have bank accounts and the other fifty percent will keep their savings in their homes. The third group of women will have little to no knowledge of financial management and will consist of women that do not use banking institutions. Our teacher will meet with each group twice a week for a period of eight weeks. After which each group will have a final examination so we can evaluate and monitor the success of the pilot program for each group.

I would have to say that the largest obstacle in the way of my success in this internship will most likely be the language barrier. However, with the help of our language teacher Retchna, we are speedily becoming acquainted with Hindi and in the interim, big smiles seem to be the best way of building a good rapport with new friends.


Nina Robbins

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As a nine week intern in India, time is short and work is hectic. Although, I have limited time here, I was still able (with the support of the FSD site team and my co-workers) to implement and obtain funding for a project. The Institute for Local Self-Governance and Responsible Citizenship, my host organization, conducts bi-weekly, trainings for members of panchayati raj (India’s village government and representative system). The Institute does not have any substantial data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of its trainings. This lack of evidence has started to become problematic for the NGO because donors and future investors want proof of the trainings’ positive impact.

In an attempt to help the Institute evaluate its trainings, get funding, and improve the quality of the training itself, my co-workers and I designed an interactive evaluation game entitled the “Rainbow Game”. This game is color coordinated by training categories. The rules and questions are simple. The game will be played by participants at the end of all six-day trainings. By recording the amount of incorrectly and correctly answered questions for each category, the institute will be able to document the amount of training information retained by representatives. In addition, the game will be fun, colorful, and easy to follow, especially since the majority of trainees are illiterate.

In the picture: From Left to Right: Ms. Varsha Jhanwar and Mr. Pratapmal Devpura edit the questions and answers section of “Rainbow Game”.

As a foreigner, who does not speak a word of Hindi, it was very difficult to design and develop a project. The work and living environment has been nothing less than challenging. However, it has been a positive and humbling experience. Since this is my first time out of my home country, it was hard to admit my vulnerability and deal with the fact that I am a burden to my host family and especially my host organization. Before the internship, I knew that I would be a drain on my organization’s resources, but I could have never prepared myself for the task of embracing my limitations while discovering which skills (that I possess) could be used to the Institute’s benefit.

My creativity, my determination, my adaptability, my pride, my previous conceptions about Indian culture, and especially my patience have all been challenged during my stay in Udaipur. Yes, the Indian work culture is at times frustratingly slow, but in order to make any difference I learned to adapt, embrace, enjoy, and respect this different way of life. Random power outages, six chai (tea) breaks a day, office gossiping, and the hierarchical work system can be wearisome at times. However, the atmosphere at the Institute has been by far the most enjoyable office environment. At work there is always an endless supply of jokes, laughter, invitations to homes and celebrations, curiosity, respect, challenges to video game competitions, and offers for rides home. It has truly been my honor and privilege to work at the Institute for Local Self-Governance and experience the good, the bad, and the quirky facets of India’s work culture.

In the picture: Taken from the rooftop restaurant Mehwar Haveli, this is one of many breathtaking views of Udaipur. It reminds me of something my co-worker and friend, Ms. Varsha Jhanawar, said to me when I was frustrated, “Ashley, you need to stop stressing, go take rest, and watch the sunset”.

Although I have felt uncomfortable, lost, and frustrated, the experience of working in Udaipur has been empowering in its own way. My project is nearing completion and will be implemented next week at a monthly training session on women’s empowerment for elected representatives of several wards (local districts). Despite the obstacles (such as language barriers, cultural differences, limited time, and disagreements over the development of the “Rainbow Game”), it will be used and played. To have left something not only beneficial, but sustainable has been acutely rewarding and significantly outweighs all of the negative experiences.

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I arrived in Rajasthan in September ready to learn about microfinance. I was dissatisfied with my previous life in the corporate world, and was yearning to do something meaningful and deeply fulfilling with my life over the next 8 months. Seven months later, my mind has begun to discover the intricately multifaceted nature of development work and my heart has found a life-long passion for alleviating poverty.

Rajasthan, IndiaI have been working with ACCESS Development Services, an Indian non profit company, which has a presence in several Indian states. ACCESS partners with local Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to upgrade the livelihoods of India’s poorest and develop local financial services that can support their income generating activities. I’ve been working with a microfinance consultant, a livelihoods consultant, an administrative assistant and our fearless team leader. I have been involved with various projects, but I will focus on my involvement with the Microfinance Insititution (MFI) incubation project.

I have learned about the steps involved in incubating MFIs by helping the team incubate the first 8 MFIs in the region. So, what have I actually been doing? I have participated in Institutional Capacity Assessment Tests; written Business Development Plans, funding proposals and operations manuals; organized workshops; participated in exposure visits, developed management information systems (MIS); and trained MFI staff on various financial, human resource and microfinance concepts. At the Towards Sustainable MFIs workshop that I was asked to organize, we spent 2 days walking the participants through critical concepts that they must master to become self sustaining organizations.

In order to reinforce some of the concepts shared through workshops, we organized an exposure visit to a well established MFI, the Maha Shakti Fountation (MSF), on the other side of the country. It was a long train ride! Below, on the left, the partners are learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MIS. On the right we are visiting a family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF. This exposure visit made a world of difference as vague theoretical concepts became concrete action plans in participants’ minds. Listening to MSF’s history gave participants the confidence to move forward. If they could do it, so can we!

Learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MISA family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF.

While group learning is very helpful, an important part of my role has been visiting partner organizations to give their microfinance staff one-on-one support as they gain confidence with some of the concepts shared in workshops. We have spent a lot of time with microfinance program directors such as Jayesh from PROGRESS (pictured below in red). One year ago Jayesh didn’t even know the meaning of the acronym MFI. At this point he is an empowered manager with ambitious expansion plans. On the left, I was enjoying some chai, while reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh. On the right, Jayesh is appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program. These 11 women are an example of the poor people that microfinance aims to help by providing contextualized savings, credit and insurance products that can support their livelihoods.

Reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh.Jayesh appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program.

As a team, our efforts over the past 7 months have enabled our partner NGOs to disburse an additional USD 125,000, giving over 1000 men and women in Southern Rajasthan access to a microloan. I am thrilled to have been a part of transforming the lives of those people! By interacting with consultants, managers, bankers, funding agencies, government officials and clients I have learned that microfinance is a small part of a larger package of solutions that must be delivered together in order to make a lasting impact. I am grateful to ACCESS because the experience that I have gained in India has prepared me for my next role as a research assistant in microfinance and livelihoods in Peru. Thank you FSD for putting me in touch with such a great organization!

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I came to Udaipur, India with FSD to work as a teacher in a small school for poor children, called the Talent Academy. I was told that I would be working with the school’s English teacher, helping supplement conversational English lessons. I have previously worked teaching art to elementary school students in the U.S., so I thought I could teach some art classes as well.

Talent AcademyWhen I started at the Talent Academy, my supervisor told me that the English teacher was on vacation and would be back in few days, so I began teaching on my own. I worked with about 120 students daily, in sections of ten students at a time. In the mornings I worked with the seven year olds, and in the afternoon I worked with eleven year olds. For my first lesson, I had planned to have my students draw their favorite animals. I thought this was a good lead-in to learning the names of animals in English. I had assumed that, since the students took English class, they would know enough English for us to communicate, but they didn’t speak any. It was incredibly frustrating to realize that I was unable to communicate the simplest of ideas, like “favorite animal” or “draw this” or “sit down and be quiet.” By the time the fifth graders arrived, I was tired enough to let them play “English” hangman for the whole afternoon. Everyday since the first, they have begged me to play hangman again.

The English teacher never came back from vacation. I had no idea how to teach English, especially considering how little Hindi I knew at that time. When I asked people for help, I got the same explanation again and again of “lesson plans.” There seemed to be a pervasive conception that if I planned my lessons the night before, my students would understand it. I was given the English course reader to study, a grammatically incorrect English book that taught sentences such as: “He is a simple boy,” “This is a red color,” and “He is a playing cricket.”

ClassroomI decided to focus on the art lessons, since I’ve been told art is a universal language. The biggest challenge with the art classes was convincing the kids to draw from imagination. Previously, they had been taught to copy from a book. Whenever I asked them to draw something, they asked me to draw it on the black board first (“madam, banaona!”). Then they would copy it line for line. So I had them draw themselves, their families, their homes—things that held personal, individual, and specific meaning. It was exciting to watch them experiment, and to watch them find their own style. For the first time, their drawings emerged completely differently from their neighbors’. When I was younger, I watched the Sound of Music and wondered how it was possible for a whole family of children to simply not know how to sing. Teaching my art classes, I felt like we were truly starting from the very beginning, and I was Maria von Trapp Meets India.

At one point, I brought in some American children’s books that my mother sent me from home. When I showed them to my students, I realized that the books were a complete novelty to them. I also realized, though perhaps I should have noticed before, that my students had no free access to story books.

Students at Talent AcademyWhen I was a child, I didn’t enjoy school, and I spent most of my time reading. Part of the reason I loved to read was that, in those moments, I got a chance to be elsewhere, to escape the things in my life that made me unhappy. When I showed the books to my students, I spent a lot of time explaining the pictures—a merry-go-round, a circus, an ice-skating rink—things that I took for granted in my own childhood. In a lot of ways, my students have a more difficult childhood than I had, and it upset me that they didn’t have the opportunity to escape the realities of their own lives the way a child can only find in a book. I decided to apply for a grant to open a library at the school.

Sometimes while I’m teaching, I try to remember my own student teachers, and I barely can. When I began teaching, I thought it would be a miracle if I could remember everyone’s name. Now I can’t imagine forgetting them. It’s strange to think that I’ll only be a vague memory to them soon. I asked my mother to send me some of my favorite books from childhood for the library. Those books were so important to me as a child that leaving them here feels like leaving a part of me. I doubt that my students will think of me when they read the books, but they might think like me, get excited about the things that excited me, love the things I loved, go the places I went. I think that opening the door to reading, which is in some senses opening all doors, is the most important thing I can give them.

All photos by Inga Peterson.

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