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Grassroots Leadership

4 Mar

Reflections on a Participatory Rural Appraisal

What does a village know? Rather than enter a village as “experts” with something to teach, the Bajaj Foundation first helps villagers recognize everything they already know. The process is called a “participatory rural appraisal” or PRA. We had the honor of participating in a PRA in a small “tribal” or indigenous village. Here are short reflections on that experience…

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Mahendra Phate listens as villagers construct a cost-benefit analysis of their crops.

As the farmers gathered into a quiet group, Mehendra Phate, our Bajaj Foundation coordinator, scratched a perfectly aligned grid onto the blue paper. Through hushed conversation the men and women calculated the input and output values of growing cotton, wheat, soybean, pigeon peas and chickpeas. Buying seeds, hoeing, insecticide, manure, fertilizer, irrigation – the list of demands grew faster than the weeds plucked from their fields. After the farmers had calculated each cost, we added them together and determined the final profit of each crop. Cotton, wheat and soybean were negative, under by thousands of rupees per acre. Astounded, we ran the numbers again, but they remained stubbornly below zero. Mr. Phate explained that while wheat and soybeans were sometimes profitable, cotton never has a positive output. We struggled to understand how the farmers could grow such cruel crops.

Because of market demand and the region’s farming history, “Changing crops is like changing religion.” While the Bajaj Foundation is a successful organization, the farmers have been hurt by countless broken promises from the state government. Additionally, any investment in new crops brings more risk to their already precarious line of work. But the farmers are working to transform their livelihoods in spite of these immense challenges. Their ambition to change what is perceived as irreparable in their farming community is a brave act.

—Marielle Saums

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I’m grateful to have had continued opportunities to work with Preshant over the last few weeks.  From our very first conversation at the Bajaj Foundation headquarters early in our time here, I had asked him why he chose this work.  Sometimes when English isn’t your native tongue, things spill out in beautiful, unexpected ways.  He told me that he saw the struggles of the rural farmers – his own community – and that he “feels”.  I knew I was in good hands when we did our biogas and grocery store visit.

I was captivated by the way Preshant spoke to the crowd at the beginning of the PRA. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but I understood the feeling.  Listening really is a full body experience and whatever energy and excitement in that room flowed through me as well.  It was evident that Preshant was in his element after 10 years of community organizing.  There are certain people in life who I know would help cure the illness that runs rampant in politics.  I saw a lot of my brother in Preshant and I sometimes wonder what people like the two of them could do in our dysfunctional system.

During our small group exercises, I really tried to hone my ability to listen.  (I keep a list of quotes that syncs across my laptop and phone and one of them from Harriet Lerner is especially relevant here: “If we would only listen with the same passion that we feel about wanting to be heard.”) Even if you don’t speak the language, you can learn a lot from watching people speak and how the translator responds.  Manasi and Preshant are really good translators for this very reason: you can glean a lot of info from their reactions.

Marcy and I definitely enjoyed the session.  At the beginning the group was very shy but by the end we definitely had a cast of characters.  The way the women would interrupt to correct something always made laugh.  The playful chiding of the young scribes illustrated the age dynamic in India and the group loved it.

I was honored when Preshant told the villagers that he didn’t need to translate as much because we had listened with our hearts.  The idea of public service is still so far off in my mind, but if I ever get there I hope that compliment can still hold.

—Daniel Nesbit

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“The men. They do not appreciate the work that we do.” Asserted a young woman clad in a fiercely beautiful turquoise and silver sari. She sat in a circle amongst a collection of her fellow women villagers who all nodded their agreement. With a marker in had, she directed her attention to the list of twenty-seven tasks the women had compiled of daily duties. Children wandered in and out of the circle, a constant reminder of just how many responsibilities the women must juggle at any given moment.  When asked what time the women begin and end their day, a resounding 4am to 10pm echoed in response. That is an eighteen-hour day. This initial assessment of the type/amount of work women do in their village was only the first exercise in the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) the Bajaj Foundation conducted. The Bajaj Foundation leads PRAs with the profound understanding that the villagers not only know more about their village, but also the solutions to whatever problems the village face. In that way, the role of the Bajaj Foundation is that of an organizer/facilitator of change.

The second exercise began as young men from the village distributed petite cups of tea. In between slow and deliberate sips, the women shouted replies to the questions: What challenges do you face in your personal life? And, what forms of adversity affect the entire village? The list was capped at ten challenges/issues. Upon completion, the Bajaj Foundation staff took a step back and broke the women down into three groups. As I watched the women gather into small circles, I thought of the projects that the Bajaj Foundation spearheads, all of which could solve about half of the problems on the list. I wondered why the staff wasn’t leading a larger discussion to initially offer the option of participation in these projects. Then it became clear. Each small group was given the task of assigning a number between one and ten to each challenge/issue on the list. One signified that the challenge/issue was not urgent and could be addressed at a later time; ten signified that a solution was needed as soon as possible. The results were tallied and each challenge/issue was allotted a final number between one and thirty. “We will start with the two problems assigned the number thirty.” The Bajaj Foundation staff member said. “Now, think of solutions. Discuss.”

—Alexandria Hernandez

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I sat in silence during the car ride home because my mind was racing. It was such an interesting day doing the PRAs. My primary thought for the rest of the night centered around one main idea. How can I be as effective at teaching/leading/being a role model? Watching Prashant and Mahendra was such an uplifting experience. It truly is an honor to work with people like them. Prashant has such charisma and knowledge and can really connect to those he works with. As I watched him lure people out of their reticence and get excited about the activities, I wondered how can I obtain those same skills and energize and motivate those around me.  Observing  Mahendra, I saw how he pushed the villagers enough to think through their answers and keep developing them until they had a solid idea of the concept at hand.

I love giving other people the tools and skills necessary to be able to create more value in their lives or in other people’s lives. But I’m always terrified of imparting the wrong information, not being able to answer their questions, not being able to adapt to whatever the situation is or not being able to convey the information in the clearest way possible. I think the activities that the Bajaj Staff conducted during the PRA were all excellent. They were not overwhelming the villagers with too much information. The Bajaj Staff gave them the power of sharing their information. Each of the activities were very useful at conveying a lesson or a message. It was so awesome to see the whole PRA come together in that way.

—Asha Thomas

We sat in the entryway to the school, and by the time we finished our conversation the sun had moved from our laps to cover the wall of the school with the diamond pattern of the wrought iron window. We had been talking with a group of farmers about the history of their village, Pargothan, located in the Arvi block of Wardha. We divided a large sheet of paper into five ten-year blocks, and we learned that from 1963 to 1973, outbreaks of typhoid and cholera had spread through the town. Within the next ten years, what is still the nearest hospital to Pargothan was built in another Arvi village 50 kilometers away. Between 1983 and 1993, the government introduced hybrid versions of cotton and soybean crops, and since then knowledge of indigenous plant species and how to cultivate them went unused and was forgotten. Today, all of the crops grown in Pargothan are hybrid varieties.

At one point, a man carrying a young child began to observe our conversation. Between making contributions to the timeline, different group members took turns entertaining the little girl, smiling and gesturing to her. Maybe some day they’ll be telling her the history that they told us.

—Marcy Held

I was really impressed by our experience with the participatory rural appraisal. While I knew all along that it was something unique that the Bajaj foundation does It didn’t really hit me until we were there witnessing it. From the moment we arrived it was amazing to watch the Bajaj Staff connect to the people in the village and get them excited. Then we broke into groups , where we got to witness everyone sharing their thoughts. What our group did was all the women listed their daily activities. I was amazed by the women and their list of 38 meaningful things they do every day. Then they listed some of the challenges they and their community face. All of the women collaborated to form this list of things they want to see change. They assigned each challenge a number based on how detrimental the challenge is to their lives as a way of ranking all of the difficulties they face. After our small groups we got back together into one big group. I was in awe of how these activities really created a sense of community and a hope for a better future. It amazed me even more that this excitement and hope was not imposed by the bajaj staff but created by the members of the community.

—Marie Avilez

Moving slowly against the backdrop of sunlight in the doorway, I could see villages peering in. Their tall thin forms waved back and forth like the tall grasses of their farms as the shuffled into the green school room. I tried to gage what they must have been feeling, but their faces seemed impossible to read.

We jumped right into the exercise of mapping their village, and in doing so discovered it’s strengths and it’s possibilities for improvement. The villagers moved at lightning speed, pointing out where things were, how big, and how many. I was envious of their cohesiveness. There was no tension, criticisms and corrections were well received though not always honored. Theirdesign. was masterful

Once map making was finished, our Bajaj staff member went on to other tasks, leaving us alone together. Manasi asked if anyone in our group (comprised of mainly boys my age) had any questions that they wanted to ask. The discussion that developed was less of a Q&A session, and more of a general discussion about inequality. They routinely mentioned what a rich country America was, and that India was not rich. There seemed to be a general sense that most things in America were better, and many expressed a desire to go there.

I told them that although America had a lot of money, it struggled just like India with severe inequality. This came as a shock. Somewhere, somehow, they had been sold a narrative that Americans had moved beyond inequality. Everyone in America was assumed to be rich. I told them that millions of people in America struggled with food and debt, just like farmers. And we had a fruitful conversation that led to the conclusion that money cannot change the problems being faced in India or America. There has to be a change in philosophy. The conversation cooled, as they wobble their heads back and forth smiling. And the sea of perfect straight white teeth, with just enough money for toothpaste but too little for routine access to refined sugar sparked a thought. I told them that they all had amazing teeth-movie star teeth- and that most people in America had to pay thousands of dollars for teeth as nice as theirs. They seemed most entertained by this, and smiled a lot more after that.

— Wesley Hall

During our stay in Wardha, I noticed how the work of the Bajaj Foundation (KJBF) is efficient and of important value to their beneficiaries in many ways.  What distinguishes their activities is that the staffs are in continuous contact with the beneficiary either through consultation, trainings, assistance or financial help and planning. Last week we learned about another approach that adds more to the efficiency and effectiveness of the KJBF existing work. This approach is called the PRA. PRA stands for Participatory Rural Appraisal and it is about engaging the villagers to appreciate their own lives, to recognize their own problems, and to identify some possible solutions to tackle them. The way these activities are run and set is outstanding and well organized. The number of the village leaders was about 60 or 70 in total composed of both genders. So, in order to make the discussions more beneficial and to meet the activities scheduled for that day, KJBF staff divided them into 5 to 6 groups most of which were composed of both genders and two were composed of just women or men. The activities lasted for about 2 hours and included interesting discussions exchanged between each group members. The activities were about telling stories about the leaders’ villages, about the daily life of these leaders and about talking about some problems related to their own jobs and life. The group I stayed with was composed of many women of different ages and they were all married. The first activity they had to finish was to state all the tasks they do on daily basis. The second one was about stating all the problems they face every day. All members in the group were energetic and participated in the discussions and brought in different thoughts and ideas. When Mr Pawar explained to me their tasks and the problems they face I realized that these women were very powerful and strong indeed. Everyday they had to finish 25 tough tasks, they had to walk for 4 to 5 kilometers, they had to feed their families and they had to work in the field. When I compared these activities with my own, I praised these women even more and admired their determination to lead a better life in their families despite all the difficulties and problems they face.   

— Mariem Fekih 


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Women’s Collaborative Reflections

28 Feb

Some of our most meaningful exchanges have been with members of a Women’s Collaborative. The Bajaj Foundation encourages women’s empowerment through organizing and facilitating self-help groups. These groups help women come together to pool their resources and ideas in order to generate alternative means of income. They also serve as a vital support system for the women. Here are some reflections on our experiences with these remarkable women.

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Marcy Held, Alexandria Hernandez, and Molly Berntsen discuss ideas with members of the Women’s Collaborative in Vijaya-Gopal

Marie Avilez:

Kalpana values the importance of satisfying her social and financial responsibilities in business. She has two business plans to address both of these responsibilities. First, she offers water for free to anyone. However most of the time when a mom would come for the water, her son would ask for pepsi that’s next to the free water and the mother would end up buying the pepsi. This increased her profit tremendously. Similarly, many times people go to her to help with paperwork and applications, she offers help free of charge and then she charges them to make copies on her photocopier.

Molly Berntsen:

Almost all of the women in our interview group said that before they became involved in the women’s collective, their husbands and families wouldn’t allow them to leave the house by themselves, let alone join a group for women. Many of them joined the group secretly and then, once the benefits of the collective became obvious, revealed their membership to their families. In the interviews, they spoke about how becoming involved in the collective has increased their confidence, social skills, and standing in the community. It’s hard for me to even fathom the enormity of what that means, especially having grown up in a family that has both allowed and encouraged me to be independent. I can’t help but think that these interviews had just as big (if not bigger) of an effect on me as an interviewer as they did on the women I was talking to. My mind was expanded in ways that I didn’t expect at all going into the experience, and the women in the collective were given a chance both to tell their stories in an open/receptive setting and to practice their English.

Mariem Feikh:

The second meeting with the village women who are part of the Bajaj Foundation Women Empowering Program was way too inspirational and interesting to me. Throughout this meeting, I was able to listen to these women telling their stories openly and expressing their eagerness to learn and to improve their personal skills. Most of them joined the program because it offered trainings and gave them the chance to visit Ahmadabad in Gujarat where they were exposed to different workshop sessions about how to speak confidently. According to them, the main help that was received from the Foundation was in business skills. They were taught that business has two sides: financial and social responsibility. Previously, if they had to buy something, they had to travel to another village and so they would lose that money and the day’s wage. Thus, it is better to have business with the community. They are in the process of starting a business of buying local produce and setting up a processing plant and preparing the food to be sold in the market.

In addition to sharing with us their history with the Bajaj foundation, they also told us about their future dreams for themselves and for their children. Most of these women view that education is essential to their wellbeing and to the improvement of their financial situation. They also hope to get more training and learn more about how to use computers and learn English language.

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Molly Berntsen and others teach each other Marathi and English collaboratively.

Wesley Hall:

Almost all of the women that we interviewed were married with at least one child. Some pursued love marriages, while many had their marriages arranged for them. The most striking point in our discussion seemed to be that whether women’s husband was chosen by her heart or by her family, the challenges that she would face in married life were likely to be very similar.

For most of the women, their relationship with the Collaborative blossomed slowly over time. For nearly all of them it was a struggle. Many found their husbands were less than enthusiastic about their participation and some were even forced to resort to sneaking out to go to meetings. One of the most beautiful things about the women was the candidness with which they spoke. They were not afraid to recount what life had been like before joining the Collaborative. All of them seemed to echo the same themes. Marriage had brought some frustration, and them all a sense loneliness.

In joining the collaborative, women became the arbiters of their own destinies if only for a few hours. They controlled their own money, in their own space, in a relationship that they had chosen to be a part of and could leave anytime. There was definitely a sense that this simple notion of each woman’s right to determine what she did with a small piece of her time and money had opened a gateway to a much bigger store of autonomy and self-confidence. The benefits of the Collective radiate out beyond the walls of the gathering space as women become fuller participants in their households and communities. Being able to take out loans, or start their own businesses has given women a voice at home. More importantly, it breaks the patterns of isolation experienced by the women that we interviewed. They begin to feel that they have the right to interact with their communities and to have their opinions represented in the presence of their husbands and in-laws.

Most hopeful were their descriptions of how they would work to create a better future for the girls to follow them. Education was paramount and the women all wanted their children to at least complete high school. I did not feel that the women were shooting farther than their beliefs allowed them too or placating our audience. Their hope was tempered by the realism that these women must employ to get through life. They dreamed of their children becoming engineers, and they dreamed that dream because many of them expected to fall short of it. But in falling short, they knew that their children would complete high school. The most hopeful thing about the women’s collaborative was exactly that-a spirit that didn’t expect miracles, but planned for them anyway.

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Emily records stories of the womens’ lives, and their dreams for the future.

Marcy Held:

It started raining soon after we got in the car. We’d spent most of the day going over English vocabulary that the women already knew: “The apple is round,” “The egg is white,” “The orange is orange.” We spent the rest of the time butchering the Hindi and Marathi translations of these phrases. “I have one sister,” “I have no brothers.” Language simultaneously served as a point of interaction and as a barrier as we bided our time speaking these small phrases while we waited for a translator.

After our interview began, the wind picked up and the clouds moved in. The women talked about how their membership in the collaborative helped them to buy school uniforms for their children or medical care for their families. The group gave them a certain level of financial autonomy and even the ability to leave their house when they wanted to, a few freedoms that they had not previously experienced. Our interview began late, and some women were unable to stay because of other work they had to do. We would not get to hear what they had to share, but they’d spent their entire afternoon with us, sharing information about their families, encouraging our fumbling Hindi and Marathi pronunciations, and giving a generous gift of their time. After we’d finally wrapped things up, the sky had darkened to a severe gray.

Now rain pattered the exterior of the car, and we waved goodbye. It seemed as though the whole town came to see us off, despite the turn in the weather. People beamed as their hair began to stick to their necks and their clothes draped heavily over their limbs, beginning to swing slowly with water. The cows parted to give a final, confused goodbye as our cars bounced over the uneven road.

Daniel Nesbit:

Kalpana Dhange is a fiery woman who doesn’t seem to know her own strength just yet – but she’s learning. When we first encountered Kalpana in a larger group, she came across as confident and outspoken; however, upon translation, we found out that she said her voice was shaking.  She was surprised to be speaking in front of so many new and confusing people who had come to learn about the power of these women’s groups.  Later, in a smaller setting, we learned just how much the women’s confidence had improved with their involvement in the support groups. For many, the group’s activities were their first opportunity to venture outside their homes.  As they’ve grown closer over time, their confidence in telling their own stories has made leaps and bounds.  The almost month-long retreat that some attended gave them a chance to hear their own powerful voice, both individually and collectively.

The strength of that group fabric was evident as one woman, Sushama Chaudhary, shared that the challenge of her eyesight often makes her feel weak. This moment of faltering confidence was met with the gentle but firm support of her peers, who saw the challenge of her eyesight as something that only made her stronger and more capable.  With the help of her group, Sushama has battled through these difficulties to become a Village Volunteer, one of the group’s leaders.  Village Volunteers, part of the Bajaj Foundation’s community network, oversee multiple support groups, relay concerns and needs to the Bajaj Foundation and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Kalpana is also one of the group’s leaders.  In fact, the group was so important to her that instead of running in local elections, she opted instead to take on a leadership role.  31 years old and running a small general store in her village, Kalpana is taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.  Kalpana’s business strategy for her shop draws from the training she received during the retreat where they taught the women about merging the social and economic ends of business.  In an ingenious interpretation of that training, Kalpana offered free water to villagers so that they would come by with their children.  The children were good for business: Kalpana had put Pepsi for sale next to the water.

The strength and innovation of these support groups is an untapped resource.  Sushama’s perseverance and Kalpana’s fueled ambitions are testimony to the notion that true power comes from within.  Sometimes you just need a few friends to help you remember that empowering idea.

Marielle Saums:

Village Volunteers like Padma Munjewar, 38, hold monthly meetings with beneficiaries to manage bookkeeping and projects. They also act as a KJBF liaison for the beneficiaries. Each group has between twenty to thirty members. Padma joined a WC group because the few NGOs that previously worked within her community gave out money but did not provide any training.

The purpose of WC groups is to build a seed fund that is sustained by its monthly contributions from its members. WC groups then grant microloans to help start small businesses within their community. Women have been able to start a variety of shops, from print stores to daal processing plants. When local businesses are established, women do not have to travel long distances to urban areas for goods and services.

Members of WC groups gain much more than financial assistance. The program provides valuable computer, accounting, and business training, and they get to travel to large cities for workshops. Members can meet other women and practice public speaking, which helps them gain confidence and expand their social network.

The women are given tools to advocate for themselves and their children. Sindu Marudkar, 43, wanted her two sons to receive an education, and was more concerned that they become responsible citizens – the jobs would follow good consciences. Padma also hoped for her two daughters to get good jobs after graduation, as she had completed her bachelors degree but had been unable to work due to family circumstances.

The women of WC groups were busy establishing a strong foundation for their kids to complete higher education, as well as improving their own lives. Yet there seemed to be a pattern of escape, of children leaving the village to pursue other opportunities. As programs like the WC groups continue to develop, these sons and daughters will hopefully bring those urban prospects back to their home communities.

Asha Thomas:

One of our most riveting experiences thus far has been our visit with the Women’s Collaborative. During one of our interviews a woman told us, “Before joining the group my life was very sad.  Now joining this group I am very happy and I want to live. For a while I have struggle with life. My in-laws are very torturous. Now joining this group I am free.” I felt my throat close and the tears form in my eyes as Shital told me her story in Marati. The sorrow in her brown eyes was evident. Her pain tugged at my heart. I had to take a couple of breaths to compose myself before I could continue with the interview.

We were in the village of Vijayagopal talking to the Women’s Collaborative the Bajaj Foundation had helped establish. The collaborative is a self-help group where the women contribute a certain amount of money to the group every month. Members can take out interest-free loans for things they cannot afford such as their children’s school uniforms. They also pool their money for group income-generating activities such as sericulture. However, this group does not only help support them financially. The women found they can also rely on each other for moral support. They have also gained more confidence, self-worth and independence.

These women have faced a lot of challenges. As the translator said, “Their husbands will not permit them to go outside. Some men will take money. Some banks will take back their money. Husband will question why they’re going to meetings. They believe they should work at home only.” Despite the challenges, they speak of hope for their children and for themselves. Primarily they want to not only provide higher education to their children but also make their daughters independent. Each woman had a moving story and by the end of the day of interviews we were all keen to come back to the community to further develop the relationships we had formed that day.