22 Mar

I am more than my sickness.  I am more than my stomach pain, however tormenting and however frustrating.  I am a human with a unique story waiting to be told to the world. My sickness is a temporary infliction brought upon me by misfortune and it’s a distraction as my hand tries to write the next chapter.    Sickness is only truly devastating when there is nothing to combat it.  Thankfully, through the help of others – doctors with medical advice filtered through dependable institutions, friends with back rubs and family across the globe wishing good thoughts my way – I will avoid any devastation that this sickness could offer.  I get the chance to continue the writing of my story because someone’s got my back.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Every day, millions succumb to sickness without the support that I enjoy.  Some have never seen a doctor, some don’t have the resources necessarily to do anything with the knowledge that could save them.

Sickness isn’t just about the the individual and the physical body, though.  Sickness is found in groups, in systems, and in ideas.  If there’s anything I’ve learned traveling the last few months it’s that I am incredibly blessed because of the opportunities and support that exist in my life that I too often don’t notice.  My health, my education, my freedoms – these are all aspects of my life where any sickness I encounter is met with firm resistance and support.  I can’t imagine the difficulty one might face when sickness runs rampant in those important parts of life.  What I find so inspiring about the eclectic group of people gathered together for this semester is the innovation and determination that each person brings to the table as we all wage a war on sickness.

Physical sickness is an exercise in immense humility: the body and mind are breaking down.  You become incredibly grateful for any reprieve.  I hope that as I recover and come out of my own personal destruction, I will use that humility in my efforts to find ways to prevent and treat sickness – in its many forms – in whatever way I can. If someone has me, I’ve got them.

– Daniel Nesbit


In the Going

18 Mar

I have my head pressed against the car window and watch all of the activity outside on the street like I usually do. I watch a lot of things pass by… a funeral procession, two weddings, lots and lots of cows and goats and dogs and chickens, and people doing anything from chatting to eating to fighting to praying and everything in between. There’s also everything on the ground, like food, flowers, trash, poop, and shoes. And at any given time, people are yelling, kids are crying, music is playing, and cars are honking their horns. But there are also moments of stillness if I look closely, like a baby sleeping or a woman sitting quietly on the ground washing vegetables. And the whole time, the car is bouncing up and down, swerving all over the road, and speeding, braking, speeding, braking.


I read a wonderful piece of writing the other day by a friend who wrote “It’s not in the getting, it’s in the going.”

In a program like this and in a place like India, no one can count on getting. It’s all going, and in order for any of us to be happy, we have to learn to love the going. Get up, scarf down some breakfast, pile into the car, and go learn, teach, try, explore, speak, listen. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes all I want is to go back home to the familiar, but other times I experience something truly remarkable and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.

As a traveler in India, I am in a unique position to learn to love the going and set the getting aside. On top of the uncertainty and unpredictability of traveling in a new country, this is India, where it seems that getting is rarely guaranteed. Water, electricity, education, and even crop yields are all things to which, through our service, we are learning that access is often not a given. For me on this trip, the only given has been that nothing we do or see is ever what I expect it to be.

Nico has said that as a teacher, before loving the people you see your students becoming, you first must love the students as they are. Similarly, before we can shape and fully understand our visions for India in the future, we must first love India as it is. And the more we can love the process of working towards our goals, the more successful we’ll be.


It is a joy to see our small community both forming our own group identity and figuring out our role in so many different contexts (as teachers, students, peers, foreigners, young adults, etc). We’re learning to be flexible but resilient, open but questioning, and to dream big but act now. I feel so fortunate to be here with this group and the ideas I’m learning are ones that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

-Molly Berntsen

Village Volunteers

7 Mar

Village Volunteers are representatives from every corner of the Wardha district that function as intermediaries between citizens and the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation (KJBF). Our group held workshops with them to learn more about their work and recognize their critical role within KJBF.

People become Village Volunteers for a variety of reasons. Some hesitantly join at the urging of friends and family, while others jump at the chance to have a leadership role within KJBF. Whether shy or outgoing, they are selected because of their dedication and ability to work hard. Women, men. landowners and tribal members come together to guide water, farming, and microfinance initiatives within their villages.

Village Volunteers discuss the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions at workshop organized by CMU students.

Village Volunteers discuss the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions at a workshop organized by CMU students.

The program strengthens the Volunteers’ confidence, initiative, and public speaking abilities. Through mandatory leadership training, women like Sushna found “the courage to not only leave [their] village, but also speak in front of large groups of people. Prior to her involvement with the Baja Foundation, Susha claims she was unable to leave her home, let alone her village.”

Village Volunteers not only help run KJBF initiatives, but they are transforming citizen involvement within Wardha. Rebuilding the trust of villagers is key in a region that has suffered from government mismanagement and little outside assistance. Not surprisingly, villagers are initially skeptical of proposed KJBF projects: Farmers fear that KJBF might exploit their land, and microfinance group members have difficulty trusting one another with money. Volunteers allay these fears by “effectively communicating the goals and methods of KJBF and providing villages with an accessible support system.” This dedication and clarity helps to rebuild trust between KJBF and villagers so that projects will be embraced and cared for by the community.

The Village Volunteers are knowledgeable teachers to the Social Change Semester students. Not only does the program allocate critical on-the-ground support, it emphasizes to both Volunteers and villagers that they are valued members of KJBF.  As the Social Change Semester aspires to expand into year-round partnerships and involve more CMU students, it has to continue building support and trust amongst Wardha citizens. While this relationship has begun through our various workshops and field visits, the challenge is now to continue these interactions once we return to the United States.


All quotations are from the transcription notes of Alexandria Hernandez.

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…


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


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


“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


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 

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.


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.


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.


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.


20 Feb

Mosquito nets enclose me as I lay on my hard bed with a firm pillow beneath my head and I cannot help but appreciate the simplicity of it all. We only have what we need. There is something beautiful about living a life without luxury. It is so gratifying to wake up with the sun and take bucket showers with frogs of every color, to eat fresh vegetarian food every meal and to be in a constant state of reflection, soaking in our surroundings and trying to optimize everything from our time and talents to our resources and relationships. I feel as though this is a spiritual and mental cleanse for me. The only true stress I have here is making sure I am spending my time wisely and taking advantage of everything this opportunity has to offer.


I have noticed that many of my priorities and the lens in which I view them have started shifting. The simplicity cuts straight through the distractions and helps me to understand so much more about myself and the world around me. I try not to see life through just my own eyes here. I strive to see India through the eyes of those around me: my group, the Bajaj staff, the beneficiaries, our drivers, our cooks and the people we pass by on the streets. I feel as though my lead role in life is not cast as a consumer or as an individual like how it is in the States. My conventional divisions of labels like who can be a student and who can be a teacher have been completely challenged. I no longer just focus on my own future—a mindset that is easy to get lost in as a last-semester senior on the cusp of entering the real world. Rather, I endeavor to decipher the intricacies of the present, past and future of this country that is so rich in history and that provides such a different context of living.


In the process of viewing my surroundings from the eyes of others, I also am acquiring a better understanding of myself through their vision. It actually seems to be contributing to the identity crisis I seem to be having these days. I find this crisis more amusing than confusing. Being an Indian in America is a bubble I have grown up in and therefore I understand my place and my role in society. I know how to act around my family and other Indians and I know how my actions and thoughts contrast to when I am around my friends and other Americans. But here in India there exists a strange balancing act of my American self and my Indian self. It is not that these two selves are complete strangers to one another. That is not the case at all. I just realize that in the US there are many things that I understand as something I am doing that I can attribute to my Indian culture and other things I can attribute to my American culture. Being in this group here in India has made me conscious of the choices I make that make me lean more towards one culture or the other. I now question simple things like whether or not I should eat the food here with my hands or call Indian elders aunty or uncle regardless of their relationship to me—both things I would normally do both in India and the US but do not do here.

In America, I view myself as an Indian in America even though I was born and raised there. But here I feel like I am an American in India. Sometimes I feel like an outsider to both cultures. Most of the time I feel so lucky that I have two cultures to embrace and to choose from. One of the strangest sensations was after we first landed in India and we were driving through the streets of India. I got this sense of homesickness. However, it was not for my home back in the States rather I ached to be at my grandma’s house in Kerala with both her and my mom. I previously had such a different, intimate view of India through just the eyes of myself and my family. It has been an eye-opening experience to be able to see India from this different perspective—see the bigger context of where all of the little intricacies that I am familiar with fit in.

-Asha Thomas

Relating to Doha

14 Feb

“I was trying to find something that would fit, something that would be relevant. I wasn’t looking for a technique or a method. I wasn’t and you know, I still am not. That’s not what I’ve ever been interested in. I was looking for a process of how to relate to the people” – Myles Horton

Sitting at the edge the edge of the gulf of I stare across the open water toward the dancing lights of the towers of Doha. The wind blows at a perfect pace. Not enough to bring on a chill but just enough to keep my hands from overheating if I alternate the fingers that hold my steaming cup of karak tea. In this moment I am forced out of myself, to appreciate the beauty of the place and moment in which I find myself.  The people around me are somehow at once irrelevant to this moment and irreplaceable in its construction. For a few minutes the world submits to my tiniest preferences and created my perfect night-in February.


Most travel magazines feature glossy images of place just like this, as do travel blogs and specials on TV. To many, I am experiencing the height of travel. Sitting in a beautiful place that only locals know about, relying on the knowledge of local Qataris to extract the countries best sights, sounds, smells, food, insights, stories and perfect nights like this.  I have been told by my culture that travel is about me. It’s about hopping on a plane and traveling thousands of miles away from my home and my stresses and my problems, to be taken into the arms of the world and allowed to indulge in the unleashing of the part of me that craves freedom and adventure. To the degree that I can escape my problems and pursue my sense of whimsy, I have succeeded in the common man’s definition of what it means to be a great traveler.

The great paradox of modern travel is that it exists in a cultural climate of maximum extraction. We seek to absorb the best of our destinations, demanding the country’s best beaches, most flavorful dishes, and museums in which the country’s history prostrates itself naked before our eyes. We demand excitement, wonder, peace, depth, risk, mystery, beauty, and most troubling of all, authenticity.

The trouble with these demands is that they all take place in the vacuum of our own indulgent adventurescapes, where the entire country exists just for us. We expect to become children when we travel. We expect that somehow we can be stimulated, cared for, and educated-all in exchange for nothing. We impress our own needs and goals onto our destinations without considering that perhaps they too have needs and goals. Perhaps they too have dreams to chase and problems to flee. The issue with us as travelers is that we are firmly planted in a cultural climate that endorses the idea that it is perfectly normal to demand the best of our destinations, without sharing the best of ourselves.

Coming to Doha had reminded me of what real travel is about – reciprocity. I have aggressively demanded an authentic experience from Doha. I have made friends with its people, and gone to some of its private and most intimate places. I have seen its best and its worst. But I have also tried whenever possible to be as authentic with Doha, as Doha has been with me. And in pursuing a relationship supported by a keystone of mutual authenticity, Doha and I are constantly able to show the most beautiful sides of ourselves to each other.

Many of us travel to escape tragedy or pain or hopelessness. It’s understandable. We fool ourselves into thinking that these things can’t hop into our cars or onto our planes and follow us, and perhaps we are correct in this regard. But tragedy and injustice are like birds. You don’t have to take them with you, but wherever you go in the world, you will find them, just singing a slightly different song. Nevertheless, we often choose to avert our gaze from the darker sides of places we go, because we only go there to forget the darkness that resides within us. We want to believe in places where the air is so clean and the water is so clear that it can cleanse are souls and spare us the hard work.

Interacting with the migrant workers of Doha demands that I bring the darkness of my past with me. Like many systems in the world, Doha has been structured so that these workers and people like me never see each other. To them I am supposed to be sir and to me they are supposed to be nameless. I am to count on them to cook my meals, keep order in the places I live and study, and keep watch while I sleep, but to remain invisible while doing it. And the sad part is, I can see how that might be the easy thing to do if my notions of travel came from a leisure magazine.

Not so long ago, my grandfather worked as an engineer, calling people sir. It didn’t matter if these people had more experience than him, or even if they had degrees comparable to his own, they were still sirs. I personally hate the word sir, because in most cases around the world it’s something that people are born into and not something that they earn. It hurts my heart every time a migrant worker calls me sir, because it means that they do not see me, and may not believe that I can see them. I chose not to leave my authentic self back in New York. I chose to bring my struggles and my family’s struggles, the dreams and the fears that I have with me to Doha. Perhaps if I could be Wesley the ideal traveler, I could forget that the word sir leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. After all, it is a word that denotes that someone is here to help bring you closer to the ideal moments that we chase when we travel -moments that are fueled by our own self indulgence. In the eyes of all of these workers I can see my grandfather, looking at men their same age and calling them sir. I almost want to run from the magnitude of it. I want to let them call me sir, and let the words roll off of me and onto the ground. But I cannot do it. The best part of me, the most authentic part of me, just won’t let me do that.

Tipping is not expected in Doha but it’s appreciated, so the best me always tips.  Many students don’t address the security guards when they see them but the best me always says hi, so that’s what I do.  The best me is the authentic me. He is the person who understands that I am not special, and that under different conditions I could easily have been in a similar position as any of the migrant workers who call me sir. I was born in the best time in the best place to the best parents anyone could have asked for, so I rarely count my successes as my own.

Doha has been so graciously kind to me. It has been so open and so authentic, and for the time I am here, it has brought out good things in me. As I stare out onto the skyscrapers towering over the water I think of the hands that built them and the dreams (many unrealized) that fueled those hands. And I am happy, that I don’t simply drown in the beauty of this place, and that I can still see them. The men attached to these calloused hands are not hidden from my view because they are the Doha skyline; they are the pickers of the tea leaves in my karak and the people who make the artificial dream of these few minutes possible. And I wonder in my heart, how I could ever become comfortable with any of these dream weavers calling me sir.

— Wesley Hall