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Monday, August 1, 2011

Challenges on this Emotional Journey

When anyone says development work isn't easy, they really mean it. I'm beginning to think it's even harder than performing a complex operation on someone's brain. Okay, maybe it's a different kind of difficult, but the work is challenging all the same. Answers and solutions are really hard to come by. Even when you think you have identified the problem, it's hard to truly understand since there might be so much history behind the issues and because of your position as an outsider to the community you're working with.

I've faced a number of challenges while working with Chidiya, the cooperative of gypsy artisans that Nest makes orders from and makes partnerships on behalf of, all for the purpose of trying to provide these women with a higher and more sustainable income. I've been living with this gypsy community for almost two months now, and I have seen and even lived through the poverty that they face. I have learned about the deeply embedded internal issues that the community has faced, due to the great changes that they have endured in the last generation alone. Before Seetha and Mahendiran started NEWS (the Narikuravar Education and Welfare Society), the Narikuravar gypsies had virtually no literacy among their population. Since Mahendiran took over the abandoned school in their village, he has revitalized the building and encouraged most of the village children to attend. This change comes along with the fact that the village was only recently founded 40 years ago, and was the first time that these gypsies had their own permanent homes. In one generation, the gypsies have been given access to housing and education. These are great steps forward for these people, but these successes were not made without any setbacks.

Due to this takeover of the school by NEWS, Seetha and Mahendiran have become leaders in their community. However, I have recently found that their role as leaders is not widely accepted by everyone in the village. But then again, how often do you really see a leader that is liked by everyone? Seetha's role in the education projects that Mahendiran has undertaken seems to have been meshed with her role in Chidiya. Half of the women in Chidiya have expressed their concern that they don't always feel like they have a voice in the way that their cooperative is run, that their loan facilitator, Seetha basically runs the show. This to me, sounds like this cooperative is not truly being run like a cooperative if all of the women aren't making collective decisions and if information is being withheld from them. Hearing this negative feedback has been emotionally conflicting for me personally, because I have formed a close relationship with Seetha. I live in her house and have grown close with all of her family. This is one of the many ethical dilemmas I have faced while I have been here.

When Rachna and I first got here, the women explained that they did not get enough orders and that they can make more money through their personal businesses. We completely understood the lack of incentive for the women to come if they were only going to get 3 orders of 100 necklaces a year. But, what is really confusing, is how there is this huge Yala order of NINE HUNDRED necklaces, and still only half of the members come to work. The work has come, the women have the need, but they still don't come. It is for this reason that Rachna and I really wanted to explore why half of the women weren't coming. From our one on one discussions with all the women, we have found that the reason the women don't come circulates around the community's perceptions and views of Seetha and Mahendiran and their takeover of the school. The wider community's historical issues inhibits half of the women from coming to work, even though they need the help. It's really hard for me to wrap my head around the power dynamics within the community, but the women who don't come have issues with the way Chidiya is managed (by Seetha) and because of past misunderstandings. The half of the women who don't come got this idea, this MISidea, somewhere that they were going to receive 10,000 rupees of materials EACH by Nest. Because they haven't received anything, they automatically assume that the loan facilitator is withholding these materials from them. It seems like the women have been thinking this way towards Seetha for a long time, even if their opinions are misguided by false information. The task of re-educating these women so that they can really understand the conditions of the Nest loan and processes truly seems daunting, because it is really hard to get them to believe something different.

Nest has an amazing program, this awesome idea of microbartering that can really make a tangible impact on womens' lives, but because of community wide issues and power politics, some of the women in Chidiya have not been able to be helped by Nest even though the help is there. This has been emotional for me to deal with, because there is so much potential for this cooperative of women, but because of cultural issues that I can't fully understand, their potential is blocked.

Rachna and I are living with this community of Narikuravar gypsies in their village, so we have been given the valuable opportunity to really learn about the challenges they face. We frequently talk late in the night with our amazingly sweet India facilitator, Shaina, but being on our own here was quite mind-blowing once we started finding out about everything. From our conversation last night with the oh-so-insightful and positive Shaina, I learned something really important: Development work is not easy. Nest's program is not going to work for each woman, but be inspired by the women that are being helped. This is when I think of the other half of Chidiya, the women that do come to work and are making bank since they're doing the work that the other half of Chidiya should be doing on top of their own. These women are being impacted by Nest, and they will have made a significant amount of money once this order of 900 necklaces is finished. They will use this money to feed their families and cover medical/educational expenses. These women have personally expressed their gratitude towards us and Nest for getting them this order.

It was absolutely wonderful to sit down with one of our most talented and artistic artisans, Nithya, this past Sunday. I still can't believe she is only 24 years old and already has two young children, along with her three younger siblings that she also has to look after since both her parents passed. Nithya has invested in Chidiya's success, as she is one of the most active members and one of Chidiya's best designers. Shaina has notified Rachna and I of American Eagle Outfitter's interest in seeing some samples made by Chidiya that will be for their Spring 2012 jewelry line. American Eagle- are you kidding? That's a HUGE company. & to think, I'm going to be helping the women to design jewelry samples from the color palette for Spring 2012 that AE has sent us... I almost feel like a real designer! It was really exciting to work with Nithya in designing our very first sample. We picked out the colored beads for her and made a suggestion to use thread on the bottom half and metal for the top half, and then we just watched Nithya's creative juices flowing as she worked! She is amazing. She personally thanked us for the Yala order, because if it weren't for the order, she would have faced a financial crisis since her family would have run out of money this last weekend.

I must remind myself that it is for women like Nithya that makes development organizations like Nest all worth it. The implementation of development is rarely ever going to be perfect, with every individual positively impacted. But even if there is only one life changed, one life helped, that is worth everything. I have had the most fulfilling summer of my life here, and I can't believe I only have one more week left. I'm so thankful for the women that I've learned so much about, the women that I respect for their ability to remain strong under the harshest of circumstances. They are survivors on behalf of their children, working so that their children can have easier lives then they did. These are women I can really look up to.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy reading these. Your writing sounds like you're just talkin, keep it up!