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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A "Love Marriage" Story

Rachna and I have been meeting with some of the Chidiya members to talk with them as they make their jewelery. One of the younger members, Brienga* (name changed), told us a little about her own personal story, which I thought was super cute.

In the traditional Narikuravar gypsy culture, arranged marriages are still highly practiced. It is very rare for couples to defy this tradition and marry for love, but that is exactly what Brienga and her husband did despite both of their parents' disapproval. Brienga refused to marry the husband that her parents chose for her, and since she chose to marry her current husband, she has been put to shame by her family. She must care for her family on her own. She has an 8 month old baby boy who is always smiling and has the largest, cutest eyes. She also has a 4 year old daughter who is very shy but adorable nonetheless. Brienga depends on Nest for her income, so it is very important that the Chidiya group receives steady orders from Nest, but at the right time. She explains that during the religious festival season, from December to March, the Narikuravar gypsies are busy selling their jewelery which is in high demand. But during the rest of the year, it is extremely hard for the gypsies to sell their products. If Nest can consistently order products from them to sell in the US market, this would be an enormous help for women like Brienga who need to feed her two children and send them to school.

During the next few days, the women in Chidiya will be busy making samples for an upcoming order. Hopefully this is the final round of samples, so that the women receive a large order soon! The requested samples need a few adjustments and it is absolutely imperative that the women make the samples perfectly so that the order can be made. Other than that, Rachna and I will be starting the business training soon next week!

Monday, June 27, 2011

First Meeting with Chidiya

Yesterday, we had our first formal meeting with the Chidiya women and our translator. Chidiya, which means jewelry in Tamil, is the name of the group of Narikuravar female artisans that Nest gives loans to. Nest provides interest free loans for them to purchase raw materials. Nest will then give Chidiya orders of jewelry throughout the year to sell in the US market. You can check some of the products that the Narikuravar women make under the necklaces section on :)

The women explained that the local market in South India is extremely difficult. Before Nest came into their community, the women had to sell their necklaces for much cheaper prices out of necessity. When the women needed money right away to feed their families, they would sell their jewelry for whatever price the customer was willing to pay. Due to poor market conditions in South India, the women and their families would have to travel to North India by bus or walking in order to make a decent living. With the help of Nest opening up the US market to them, their need to travel has been diminished, thereby allowing the women to send their children to school.

In the meeting, we were also able to learn about other impacts that Nest has made since working with the women. The women explained that their community is ostracized from the rest of Indian society. The bus does not stop in their community to pick them up and they are largely looked down upon by other Indians. Nest shares the stories of these women so that people around the world can learn about them and their culture. They are very thankful to be given access to the outside world. By partnering with Nest, they have been exposed to new technologies and foreigners. They welcome help from NGOs as they hope to improve their living conditions, since the Indian government is indifferent to their hardships.

I had a very good time listening to the women talk about their experiences with Nest firsthand, and was relieved to hear that they would be more than willing to cooperate with Rachna and I as we work with them in the next month. One of the older, vivacious women *Lolita (name changed) was very sweet in saying that she would force any of the members who decide to not show up out our meetings. I am so excited to work with these amazing women who are working to uplift their community by providing for their families. 5% of the profits that Chidiya makes go towards the children’s school, food, and health necessities. I can only hope that I can help make a positive difference for these women while I am here. From the meeting, it seemed that what the women really need is a bigger market. They have the time and materials to make and sell more necklaces but they need more customers. This is a call that goes out to all of you! Check out Nest’s website whenever you are looking to buy jewelry for yourself or as presents. These women are highly skilled at their traditional craft of making jewelry and their work is absolutely beautiful. Plus, your purchase will go towards bettering the livelihoods of women who really need the income.

On another note, monsoon season is upon us! I’m kind of excited to see rain after the crazy heat that we experienced last week.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Internet Cafe

Rachna and I decided to go to the Internet Cafe in the closest city because the internet in the village was being way too slow. We were unable to post on our blog using the village internet no matter how hard we tried everyday. Thankfully, the internet here is a lot faster and this is the reason why I uploaded so many blog posts all at once! Unfortunately, we are still unable to post pictures on the blog because the internet here will not allow us. I was able to upload some pictures on Facebook if you want to check some of those out.

So if you're ever wondering why my blog gets updated with many posts all at once, the slow internet in the village is the reason :)


Today was very exciting for Rachna and I because we got to meet with the Translator that will be working us in the next two months. His name is Antony and he is a professor at a local university in Trichy. He got his Masters in Social Work and he has been translating for various NGOs in India for four years now. This afternoon meeting with Antony was more for introductory purposes. We briefed him of the work we will be doing in the next month with the Narikuravar female artisans who make the beaded jewelery. We will basically be needing a translator for the teaching of Nest's business curriculum and also for administering one on one surveys for the purpose of evaluating the impact of Nest's programs on the community.

Rachna and I are responsible for separate duties. Rachna is currently working on a "LookBook" that showcases the jewelery products that Nest has ordered from the women. She will be listing the sourcing for all the beads and materials used for the necklaces as well as detailed descriptions of the products accompanied by photos. While Rachna is more in charge of marketing for the products, I am mainly responsible for administering the survey/interviews to the women. Nest's intention on conducting annual surveys to the female artisans that they give loans to is for the purpose of evaluation. Nest wants to measure the impact of Nest's programs on the livelihood of these women, because the purpose is for the women's income to increase so that she can better provide for her family. I will also be interviewing a control group of women who are not currently working with Nest for the purpose of comparing the livelihoods of these women versus the women that Nest works with. The control group of women could also possibly a future group that Nest can work with. Another duty that I have that will involve the translator is to gather testimonials from each of the women in the NEWS cooperative (called Chidya which means jewelery in Tamil). By gathering these women's stories, consumers in the United States will be able to know that their decision to buy their jewelery through Nest will empower these women to lift themselves out of poverty. It makes their decision to buy the certain product more personal.

We will be giving the Translator the new Nest Survey that needs to be translated tomorrow. Once we get the survey translated we can being scheduling the interviews with the women! I just hope that I can formulate relationships with the women that will make them comfortable enough to give me honest answers. I learned today from talking with the translator and some of the NEWS staff that the Narikuravar gypsy culture is somewhat isolationist. The gypsies do all that they could to preserve their culture and have managed to resist assimilating to the mainstream Indian society. I am worried that this means that their attitude towards outsiders will not be very friendly. The most I can do is account for behavioral hints during the interviews that I can take note of so that the surveys are as correctly administered as possible. I'm excited!

Nest's Work with NEWS and the Narikuravar Gypsies

The Narikuravar Gypsies are a traditionally nomadic people, and as a result they are rarely able to make a sustainable income, are largely illiterate, and lack traditional development resources. The Narikuravar family that I am staying with, Seetha and Makhendra, have responded to their community’s plight by starting their own NGO called NEWS (Narikuravar Education and Welfare Society). NEWS has been striving to make it possible for the children to receive quality education and self-employment. The source of income for the Narikuravar gypsies has been through their traditional jewelery making. Although the artisnas are highly skilled in beaded jewelry making, they lack the collateral for the necessary raw materials and also the competiveness in the local market to make a decent income. This is where Nest has come in to help the Narikuravar gypsy community improve their livelihoods by providing them with interest free loans and marketing assistance for their products. 

The colony in which the Narikuravar Gypsies live is 30 minutes outside of the major city of Trichy, off of the highway. The village is pretty large, catering to about 100-150 families living in make-shift houses. Through NEWS, my host family built a hostel for the Narikuravar children and there are around 30 of them. NEWS provides school and housing for the children. Setha and Makhendra’s work is really remarkable and I feel blessed to have met such amazing people. They dedicate their lives to these children and uplifting their community, and I feel honored to work with them in this process.
I have been slowly formulating relationships with the Narikuvar people, but especially with my host family. I have become friends with Swetha, the daughter of Seetha. Swetha speaks English pretty fluently and she even showed us around Trichy for a little bit yesterday. She took us to a famous temple, called the Rock Fort Temple. It is a Hindu Temple for a God I forget the name of, but supposedly if you climb at least 200 steps of the temple you will be blessed with fertility and an easy childbirth. Sounds good to me! Once we got to the top of the temple, we sat and enjoyed the very nice view of the city. After that, we did a bit of shopping in the market place. I got a beautiful maroon Indian scarf in a wonderfully air conditioned shop. Spending time in the city was nice, but very loud and chaotic. It also felt uncomfortable being stared at. From what I saw, I was the only foreign looking person in the places that we visited. I’m sure I stuck out like an eyesore. I had fun nonetheless, especially in the taxi car ride. Supposedly India is the number one country for automobile accident deaths. I definitely saw that be true. There are no real traffic rules from what I saw.  There is a lot of honking and cars maneuvering around each other and PEOPLE! I almost got run over by a motorbike because I didn’t look carefully enough. 

I wish I can post pictures of what I’ve been doing and seeing on the blog, but the internet is so slow that it seems near impossible. Using the internet here is definitely testing my patience. It’ll turn on and off and sometimes load a little faster than other times. Sometimes it won’t work at all. It gives me the feeling of being isolated but also encourages me to go out into the village and spend time with the Narikuravar people instead of staying cooped up in my room. 

I want to learn more about the history of this community and their lives, but I understand that this is all very sensitive considering their social status as the lowest caste. I am trying to build relationships with the villagers so that they can feel comfortable enough to eventually open up to me. Wish me luck!

Worlds Apart

There is another Nest Fellow here who will be my roommate for the next two months, Rachna. It's nice to have her with me on this journey to experience with and reflect with. We are staying with the family of the Nest loan facilitator here whose name is Seetha. She is incredibly kind and is always smiling. Her daughter, Swetha, has been our guide to the village. She is a year younger than us and speaks English quite fluently. Swetha is a lot like her mother. She is very lively and joyful, to the point where it is infectious. 

Rachna and I share a bedroom with two single beds and our princess canopy-like mosquito nets. Our bathroom and shower are both outside, and that has taken a little getting used to. It’s just inconvenient when the water decides to go out halfway into your shower. The electricity is the same way. We don’t have air conditioning in this weather but instead, two fans that are good enough except for when the electricity goes out. Rachna and I are pretty good sports about it. We just laugh it off and try to get our minds off the heat by going out to play with the children.

Our little hut is right next to the Narikuravar gypsy hostel for children whose parents are away trying to make money or whose parents whereabouts’ are unknown. The children are incredibly joyful and full of life. I just don’t know how they manage to play outside in this horribly hot weather. I see the boys playing cricket and the girls jump roping sometimes. They frequently look at us, smile, and yell HI in their cute little voices. They are good children. When Swetha’s grandmother tells them to fetch something, or clean a plate, the children promptly listen and obey without any fuss. This really amazes me and makes me think of American children that I see at home, making a scene at the gas station for not being able to buy a toy.

As we ate our first dinner, Swetha had a very fun time watching me. It was my first time eating food with my hands and she could tell right off the bat that I was not used to eating without a spoon or fork. She exclaimed to me that conversely, eating with her hands is all that she knows and that she wouldn't know what to do if a fork were placed in front of her. This made me think:  where you come from speaks volumes for our individual journeys because what we know will shape and direct how we feel about each new thing that we experience. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

An Epic Journey

2 transfers. 36 hours. 1 epic journey to a far off place geographically and in every way imaginable. My first stop was in Hong Kong, and on the way there, I had a nice conversation with an older Chinese man who was sitting next to me during the 14 hour flight. I was surprised to find that he was completely fluent in English, which is due to the fact that he moved to the United States very early on once the Communist Revolution began and Mao rose to power. He was especially in danger during this time because he was an educated man who had graduated from Peking University in Beijing.

As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong, I met good fortune: I found out that I had been upgraded to business class for my flight to Chennai! Can you say suh-weeet?! I had never even known that this could be possible. I remember seeing it happen for Lisa and Bart on an episode of The Simpsons on TV but that was it! I was pretty damn excited. Being upgraded definitely made up for the fact that I had grown two huge zits on my face that were totally bugging the BEJESUS out of me. Heh.

On my flight from Hong Kong to Chennai, I was again lucky to be seated this time to a charming, friendly young man who had grown up in Chennai but now works for FedEx in Memphis. He was interested to hear about what I would be doing in Trichy, about Nest and the type of work I would be engaged in. I was more than happy to talk with him about Nest, but I also began to feel more and more apprehensive. I guess I hadn't been thinking too much about where I was going during my previous filght. I hadn't been thinking much really about the details of the new life I would be experiencing for the next two months, and how different and new it would really be.

I arrived in Chennai at 1:30 am and my next flight to Trichy was at 2:15 the next afternoon. I felt scared as I was trying to figure out what I would do until then. I was trying to see if I could just wait at the airport, but the airport security would not let me in because my flight was so much later. The combination of the time of night, being a girl, and being/looking completely foreign to this new place exacerbated my fears. I was approached by a man at the airport who asked if I wanted to be transported to a hotel for the night, but I felt uneasy and declined his offer. Then I began to think about where my fear and distrust was really coming from. What exactly is the line between not giving in to internal prejudices we might have to different people and the imperative of being careful for the purpose of safety? The next man that approached me had an airport security ID tag, so I admit I felt a little more inclined to trust him. He directed me to a shuttle to a Hotel called Mount Heera and I decided to stay the night there to wash up and rest. I am happy to say that I got transported back to the Chennai airport for my flight to Trichy safe and sound.

My flight to Trichy was only an hour away. I felt ecstatic about meeting my host family and finally reaching my destination. There is a certain uneasiness and loneliness about being a person "in transit" versus being where you are supposed to be. I couldn't have been more correct about my feelings as I got off the plane to see my host family with a sign with my name on it. I have never felt more welcomed and so excited. I had definitely seen those signs being held up at airport arrival areas before, but never for me! I had finally made it to my home for the next two months, the Narikuravar gypsy colony located on the outskirts of Trichy.