Friday, December 30, 2011

Of Awkwardness & Ambiguity

People always say that learning begins at the end of your comfort zone.   And as a person who finds awkwardness in nearly every situation, well this zone isn’t particularly wide.

Growing up in Jamaica and slipping in and out of different cultural communities throughout my life, I learned my first lessons on this.  But now my experience here in India is propelling me even further along this path, teaching me anew (and with it, reinforcing some of the old).

Lesson 1: Building a systematic understanding
I like structure.   Need structure.  And over-information.
But now, I find myself part of an entirely new system:  an intricately woven web of social norms, where standard protocol is defined along the lines of caste, gender, and tradition.   I’m trying to learn the rules.  Catch on to the subtleties and nuances of daily life here.   

And so, I ask the silly questions that seem so obvious to any native resident, like: why would a married woman not be able to walk freely around the village?  (Here many married women only walk outside their house in the company of their husband or other family members, and when they do they must observe purdah – covering of their body and face.)   And as I ask these questions, I find (or rather, lose) myself in conversations where I am really working to understand not just the literal language (thank goodness for, but the social subtext as well.

Lesson 2:  Finding the right balance
No doubt a Jam-indian girl with a thick Amriki accent will stand out in a small Indian village.  But, I embrace full immersion.  I try to make the adaptation as seamless as possible – changing my jeans and t-shirts for kurtis and leggings, seeking to adopt local customs, mimicking body language, etc.  It’s inevitable though, that my foreign-ness slips out, and reveals itself.  And while I would normally find myself irritated – really, embarrassed - I’m slowly learning to just accept it.  I still wholeheartedly strive to immerse myself in my new community (and I’m eagerly awaiting the day I can take a rickshaw without immediately being quoted an NRI price), but for now I will just let this process take its natural course.

Lesson 3: Pushing through communication barriers
Growing up in the Balani house of nomadic chaos, clear and succinct communication has always been critical.  And now here, faced with: phone calls dropping mid-conversation nearly 80% of the time, different levels of education and understanding leading to varied personal interpretations of a conversation, and the common habit of speaking over and on top of one another to be heard, clear communication has become more essential than ever.  I’m learning to embrace the confusion, though, as I study this essential art in another language (really, adha-Hindi, adha-English).  And along the way, I am re-learning the value of patience and the importance of admitting when “I just don’t get it.”  Sure, the joke isn’t always as funny after the 3rd round of translation and explanation, but even this process can provide its own comedic relief. J

Of course, the lessons are endless, and the above is just a sampling.  More to come…

Monday, December 19, 2011

Beautiful, Smiling Faces of Saurath

Short clip of me trying to teach Bhavana's kids - Mittu and Madhu - a bit of English

It's amazing the power that a child's smile has.  Its ability to change one's outlook - and by that I mean both one's perspective, as well as one's physical looks (body language, facial expression etc.)

Seeing many of these smiling kids here in Saurath, and sheepishly testing out my Hindi (and my limited Methali - see above video) with them has really been the most rewarding part of my experience here outside of my work with the Women's Shop.

Now let me preface this by saying that I usually have some qualms about posting lots of pictures of smiling children living a harsh life of poverty - I guess I always thought the images lose true meaning and become almost cliche as they are used more and more in fundraising efforts to invoke certain emotions in the viewer.

BUT, I just can't help it and I feel compelled to share these.  

Most of these kids get incredibly excited to get their photos taken and go through fits of giggles and laughter upon seeing the image.  But as I've seen with others, their smile can be somewhat restrained - and I can't help but think it partly due to shyness, and partly to the fact that their life is one of scarcity where indulgence and overconsumption are not the norm.

I hope these bring a smile to your face as they did to mine:  

Meet Pooja (C), Manish (L) and Anjali (R) who I met while walking to Rangoli yesterday
Pooja, the eldest, seemed like a maternal figure for these two, encouraging them to smile & talk with me

Madhu (Bhavana's daughter) and I
Mittu (Bhavana's son) and friend

Meet Satyam - a friend of Mittu's
Kids so excited to be a part of the picture

Meet Shekhar - avid kite flyer :-)
Hangin' with Madhu  and her friend

Rakhee (daughter of Drishtee caretaker - Bhogi)
& friend
A few kids I met on a field visit

A group of Madhu & Mittu's friends the night after Rangoli's grand opening

Friday, December 16, 2011

Winter Beginnings in Saurath

Winter has set here in Saurath, and everywhere I turn, families are shivering and huddling over open fires, drinking copious amounts of chai (even more than usual!) in the hopes of finding some warmth. And I am no exception - I'm now at 4-5 cups a day - this die-hard Dunkin Donuts Hazelnut coffee fan is slowly turning into a chai addict!

As a result of this weather, business has slowed down a bit, giving us some time to focus on developing other critical parts of the model.

For starters, over the past 10 days I have been working with Bhavana to help her fully understand the inventory, the costing behind it, and how to keep a constant track of it. We have also been working on monitoring daily sales and understanding the underlying profitability. And in the process, she is improving her math skills and learning to use the calculator with greater speed and accuracy.

We are also working on enhancing the Rangoli customer experience to give the women of Saurath something new and different from their usual shopping experience. As it's so easy to get engrossed in the day-to-day business activities, I have to keep remembering the larger picture and vision of the model in creating this brand new experience and space for women that's not just about the products sold.

And finally, community mobilization. Word is slowly spreading about Rangoli, but we are working on identifying ways to reach more people, and create a special kind of connection between the store and the female population.

As we try to identify creative ways to do this, I started thinking about some of the U.S. equivalents - the draw that exists between stores like Sephora, Victoria's Secret, Claire's etc. and the female population, often reaching across lines of socioeconomic class, age, etc. The female experience is certainly quite different here, but I can't help but think that there are certain basic elements that exist across geographic borders. Perhaps it really does boil down to the desire to feel "beautiful," and essentially - desired. But I'll keep thinking...  (Time to put on my girly hat - no easy task for this tomboy!)

In the meantime, here are a few pictures out and about in Saurath:



Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Women’s Shop Has Officially Launched!!

On Wednesday morning, Rangoli opened its doors to the Saurath community. And many were in attendance for the inauguration ceremony, including the sponsor team from Japan! The ceremony started with a lighting of the diya and a few speeches:

Lighting of the diya by Bhavana & her husband and the Ricoh team

And then of course, serving of free mithai! J There was quite a crowd of young girls and women who came to see what the store is all about – it was completely packed for the first few hours! So it was all hands on deck to help serve the customers:

And many customers bought too, making for a pretty successful 1st day.

After the many long nights of planning and preparation (and lots of bargaining with vendors!), it’s great to see the store up and running. But there’s still a lot to do to make this truly successful and self-sustaining.

So now I’m spending half of my days with Bhavana at the store to help her understand how to manage daily activities – recording sales, managing inventory, tracking customer information etc. It’s funny how much this reminds me of growing up and helping my parents at their store – though I had no idea back then all the work that goes into the planning and management!

And in return for this training, I’m doing a bit of learning myself! I’m learning more and more Methali these days (or at least trying!), and I’m also learning quite a bit about the life of women here – like the tradition (or “duty” as it has been explained to me) of wearing certain jewelry after marriage (nose ring, toe ring etc.), but then discarding all of these and pursuing a very simple lifestyle that also includes many food restrictions if one is widowed.

Though I can’t always fully understand the conversation, it’s quite refreshing to be in an environment like this where women seem to be really comfortable and open. I hope word continues to spread and more and more women get excited and involved with this model!

A few more pics from the day, including some snaps of the team setting up, and the many people that came to see what Rangoli is all about:

Friday, December 2, 2011

Women's Shop Update: 5 Days to Launch!

The Women's Shop project is well underway and we are only 5 days from launch! It has taken some time to find the right female entrepreneur to lead this initiative, but now that we have, things are moving along quite well.

Her name is Bhavana and she has 2 children. She has completed her education up to the 10th standard (something like 10th grade in the U.S.) and so knows how to read and write, making her among a small population of women here in Saurath. She is quite amicable and welcoming, always joking with us when we visit, and offering us chai of course. And, slowly but surely, she is even trying to teach me Methali (the dialect here in Saurath)! For those of you who know how terrible my Hindi skills are, you can appreciate that this is no small feat :-). Her husband has been a small business owner for years, running a snack shop in front of their house. Relatively-speaking, their family seems to be making enough money to survive, and educate their children. In fact, last night her son read to us from one of his English schoolbooks (a story about Old McDonald's farm), and today her daughter told me her favorite subject is Math.
Bhavana's husband's snack shop Inside courtyard of their home

Initially, our work was focused on developing the business plan, including identifying all the set up costs and merchandise planning. Now over the past week and a half or so, we have been focused on the physical set up for the store - we are trying to give it a special look, since it will be the first shop of its kind in the village. The store, to be called Rangoli, will be set up in the front area of Bhavana's house (pictured above). As we meet with masons, carpenters, and electricians I'm definitely learning a lot about what it takes to physically build and maintain a store. And of course, I'm continuously getting lessons on what it means to negotiate here in India - like when the carpenter initially tells you his labor charges, and you respond by offering 50% of the asking rate!

Some pictures of the masonry work going on

Now our biggest task is to mobilize the community around this idea. Through word of mouth, notice of the upcoming grand opening is spreading. And we are also working on hiring a rickshaw with microphone to announce the upcoming store launch all around the village. But our work will have to be one of continuous improvement. In the upcoming weeks, we will closely monitor the community's response and feedback, and determine how we can evolve to meet their needs. Over time, we will add and alter services and identify how we can get more and more women involved through things like local manufacturing opportunities, or perhaps simple inspiration around what women can do for other women.

More updates to come soon. In the meantime, here are some photos from my visit across the village for another upcoming project to train women on making papad (an opportunity to own their own micro-enterprise):

These adorable kids were so excited about me taking their picture. They kept asking me to take more, so they could look at it and laugh! :-)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Week 2 in Saurath, Bihar

I'm finally at my project site in the ganv of Saurath. Saurath is a small village in Bihar, about 6 hours away from the main city of Patna, and it has a population of less than 5,000. As is typical with most rural areas, access to education and resources is very limited here, particularly for women. What makes the situation more complicated though, are the many issues that exist around caste and one's social image and reputation.

Take for example, the upper caste business owner we met this week. Now this man's wife won an idea competition some months ago to start a masala micro-enterprise. Since the initial idea and micro-loan submission, though, the woman's involvement has drastically declined and there's been no real work done to date. In reality, they have indeed faced issues in finding cost-effective packaging to maintain margin. But I also found out that there's another concern that revolves around his daughter's upcoming marriage. See, for some, having this masala business has a certain social stigma attached to it. There's concern that they may not find the right match if he appears to be a "lowly masala-vala." But,as we discussed in our meeting with him this week, why not try to focus on this business' ability to elevate his his family's financial position (essentially an indicator of "increased marriage-ability").

And as I've seen in talking to many of the people here, a child's wedding is often the main concern in any family decision, financial or otherwise. So many are willing to spend extra money that they do not have in order to throw a fancy wedding to show the rest of the village. And for many, the extreme financial burden this places on the family prevents them from making other investments (educational, business, personal etc.), that could really raise their family's standard of living and uplift them.

On the project front, we are making progress slowly but surely. The women's shop is set to launch in less than 2 weeks and there's still a lot to do! But, more on this a bit later...

For now, here are some pictures from my first few days in the village.

A few scenes from across Saurath and nearby villages:

My visit to a papad family business in a nearby village to understand their process and production capabilities:

Me at the office with a few new friends:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

First Week!

What better way to celebrate a new year than with an adventure? That's why I'm starting my 25th year of life here in my ancestral grounds of India. I'm filled with eager hope (perhaps idealistic naivete) that somehow I will be able to bring change to the women of Saurath, and "find myself" somewhere along the way.

And after a 16+ hour commute, I am finally in Noida and ready to get to it. The week began with learning more about the Saurath community, the work done to date and the objectives of our current project. Over the next few months, our goal is to empower the women of Saurath through the establishment of a "women's shop" - a shop run by women and made exclusively with female needs in mind. The shop will provide goods and services previously under-supplied (if at all) - from small cosmetic items to child care tools to hygiene and other women's products.

See, what I have learned is that not only are many women's products not available or too expensive in rural areas, but many women often go through their male counterparts or older women in the family (if they are younger) to make all the shopping decisions. And because of certain social barriers and stigmas associated with buying these products, particularly from the vast majority of male shop keepers around, many women are often left under-informed and ill-equipped.

So I got to thinking about the female experience here in India. Granted, I've only been here a few days, so I really don't know much yet. But I can tell you what I've seen. And as I told a friend of mine who just moved back to India from the U.S., I've seen that it takes real cojones to live here as a woman. From dodging the shameless stares and whistles of the male passer-by (this is why I'm grateful for ladies only cars on the Metro!), to trying to convince others that you still have time on your ticking "biological clock" for marriage, to cautiously avoiding traveling alone after certain hours - there's a lot of can-not's and should-not's for a woman. Not that this doesn't exist all over...

But enough of my feministic rant. What I am most anxious about now, is to see and experience the life of a woman in rural India. To understand the unique set of circumstances and history that have created the social structure that exists today. I'm hoping to really immerse myself in the Saurath community (gotta build those Hindi skills!), so that the solution we are building through the women's shop won't just be a one-time, short-term fix but rather a sustainable solution that really meets the needs of the women there. And so much so, that it will eventually be owned, driven and pushed even further by the female community itself.

Let's see how much I can push the Jam-indian girl in me to dig deep and identify with another.

PS - I don't have many pics yet, but here's a few from my place: