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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Understanding and Culture: Understanding Culture

            Rachna and I have been busy organizing the Chidiya members to complete an order of 42 sample necklaces for a U.S. company called Yala that is partnering with Nest for the first time. This is the third and hopefully final round of samples, so we are all hoping to see Yala making orders from Chidiya. These new Yala orders will supplement Nest’s orders, which means more orders for the women and an increased opportunity for them to make a sustainable income.  For these gypsy women, this means a reduced need to travel in order to sell their beaded jewelry and a heightened level of stability in their nomadic lifestyle.
            India really is a fascinating country. Indian culture is extremely rich, ever-lasting, but complex. Along with the beautiful saris that we see women wear or the chai tea that we drink perhaps three times a day, there are more complicated ideas like the caste system and arranged marriages that are still a very strong reality in some parts of India. To make things more confusing, there are many sub-cultures that exist within India’s diverse, tribal population. I have heard that there are over 300 languages spoken in India, and yet the country is united. The Narikuravar gypsy culture is unique to other Indians, partly because they have been historically excluded and seen as the most backward caste. A lot of the traditional ideas that are viewed as alien in Western culture still permeate throughout daily life here in the Narikuravar communities, like child marriage. The harsh lifestyle for the Narikuravars have improved since Seetha and Makhendran started their NGO, the Nariuravar Education and Welfare Society (NEWS), where they work effortlessly to spread awareness about the importance of education and elimination of practices like child marriage. Although they have gained some traction, they still face challenges due to the strong cultural traditions that remain a stronghold in Narikuravar life.
            We have faced challenges in understanding these cultural issues within the context of Chidiya. This is where Rachna and I have really experienced the intriciacies and complexities that lie within development work. As outsiders, there is only so much we can try to understand in regard to the local culture. In our case, a lot of what we have been exposed to is really novel, but we have been trying our best to keep an open mind as well as understand our own limitations. We have been talking to Seetha, Tintu, and another core member of Chidiya named Poongodi in order to truly understand the challenges that Chidiya is currently facing. We have been hearing a lot of the problems being attributed to the “gypsy culture”- their lack of education and nomadic lifestyle that make organization and management that exist within any American business exasperatingly difficult.
            We plan on having a group discussion with the Chidiya members, as well as Seetha the manager and her husband Mahendran who is in charge of NEWS, tomorrow to talk about the future of Chidiya and the direction that the women want to take. I hope to see that the women are open in discussing their true opinions but also their willingness to listen to others. Working within a group is difficult in general, so I certainly do not blame these women for having problems. I am a strong believer in communication, so as long as everything gets put out in the open, we can only move in a positive direction.
            I figure that we need to really get into the core of the problems that Chidiya faces in regards to their organization and management before we start the business training. I’ve heard from Tintu that when Chidiya was first founded, it started out a lot larger with 35 women. However, there was too much conflict, with women screaming at each other and even getting physical- hair pulling and all. I hope tomorrow’s discussion does not reach a similar boiling point, but I guess it’s always best to prepare for the worst. 

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