Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Queen of the Road

It has been now 2 months that I’ve arrived to India and more specifically Punjab, enough time to get to know the camps, the neighbours, the village and region and not enough yet to still be fascinated by little things of everyday life here. And surprisingly my heart has settled down to one thing, the bus.

They just look like beauty pageant competitors, to who will have the most patriotic painting, the most elegant name as Queen of the Road, the most flowery decorations, the most colourful neon’s. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I usually get particularly silent on bus rides, might they be for 10 minutes or 6 hours. I watch what is going out around me. You can meet anyone on the bus, the neighbour with who you start a meaningless conversation about weather, the students having a last look at their manuals before class, the lady and her child with who you share a warm smile, the ticket guy in great performance of his balance skills as the bus goes through rough roads, the old lady who will thank you for let her your place so many times it becomes uncomfortable, the shadow of workers hanging huge bags on the roof, the old man who will talk continuously despite your interrogative and lost looks.

But mostly, it’s outside that I’m staring at. I try to grab a glimpse of the so many landscapes we go through. Nothing is more captivating for me than seeing people in their daily routine for the quarter of a second. And nothing empties more the head than seeing the landscape scrolling through the widow from the fields and jungles of Punjab to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, from villages as Dholbaha to cities as Hoshiarpur, from the waste dumps and migrant camps around Hariana to the breathtaking view of Naddi.

So now you are warned, I’m a terrible travelling buddy!
Claire de Nale, France
Microfinance Project Manager, Punjab

Sharing Responsibility for the After-School Programme

In the past month, fun club has become increasingly interactive, providing a glimpse into how quickly it could progress into a truly holistic programme which will thrive on the enthusiastic participation of both interns and children alike.

As I prepare to leave EduCARE in the next month, I have recently been concentrating my efforts on assuring the smooth continuation of my projects after my departure. In order to do this, I have been more actively seeking out other interns to lead lessons so that they can become more comfortable with the format while I’m still here to assist and so that they are scheduled to prepare and run classes in the weeks after I leave. While some interns were definitely excited to have the chance to work with children, others were apprehensive, not knowing what to plan or how they can relate it to their projects. I sent around a project manual I had written up to address this problem of confusion or hesitation and met with quite a few people to discuss potential ideas and my experience up till now. In order to meet the children and gain a better understanding of how the programme works, several people decided to tag along to the next lesson (there are also only a handful of people here who knew where the fun-club room was, so showing them the location was a pretty vital first step!).

Expanding fun club to include other interns began last week when Emma ran a finger-painting activity. We had around another 5 interns show up as well…which outnumbered the kids 5-0. There was no one there and the town was strangely quiet for such a beautiful day, so I wandered around trying to round up some of the regulars. They were nowhere to be found, but I did find some children I didn’t recognise who decided to come along to see what we were doing. It turned out the children in Naddi are on holiday right now and many have gone to visit relatives; I believe the ones we did end up teaching were here from out of town because they spoke very little English. This shows the challenge of an unpredictable group – we were lucky it was an arts and crafts focus this week because they could all enjoy the hour without understanding much of what we were saying. Emma had brought paint, paper, some examples of finger-painted peacocks she’d made as inspiration, and – crucially – a big bucket of water for washing up afterwards! While they didn’t seem all that interested in painting the national bird of India, or any other animal, they certainly were excited about using all the colours and by the second sheets of paper colours were blending together and everything was beginning to become slightly brown…

Because we were unable to communicate well with the children this week, there was little educational about this activity, but it was a great chance to interact with some new kids, for interns to become more comfortable with the idea of fun club, and it was a really fun way for us all to spend an hour.

Lucy Di Santo, USA
After School Program Project Manager

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

First day in Naddi: Culture shock is a rite of passage

It’s 7 am on a cold and cloudy day in the middle of January in a small village named Naddi at the foothills of the Himalayas. The time of day coupled with the overnight bus from Delhi make the vague outline of the mountains seem surreal. A local teenage girl approaches me and my new colleague, she has a sweet demeanour and a kind face (I will soon find out this is a common trait amongst the villagers). She knows our names and introduces herself as Milan. I don’t know how she found us or whether she was even looking for us at the time, but apparently she’s been expecting us for over a day. Our lack of respect for the rush hour traffic in Delhi two days previous had cost us our seats on the bus. She brings us to her home where we meet her family, they feed us Chapatti (a local type of fried bread) and Chai tea.

Before I’m aware of what’s going on another young girl takes me by the hand and leads me away to her home. Her name is Sunana and she informs me that I will be staying with her and her family for the foreseeable future. This 11 year old girl knows a lot more than I do about the “new westerners” living arrangements and I am tired enough to trust her implicitly. I am obviously not the first person to pass through here like this; the locals are very accustomed and welcoming. It seems that children are the only ones who speak any English; I am immensely grateful for this as my Hindi is severely lacking. Sunana shows me what’s to become my temporary room where I contemplate contacting someone from EduCARE but I pass out before I can even find my phone.

I wake up in a daze at around 2 o’clock, although you could never have guessed the time as it is so dark, cold and wet. What on earth am I doing here on this rock hard bed, in this freezing room, in this small community on the outskirts of this small village at the base of these enormous Himalayan Mountains? I’m daunted by what lays ahead of me and just want to retreat under the covers until the sun comes out, even if it takes a month. I tell myself I’m too tired to face making “small talk” with Indian children and “small amateur sign language talk” with Indian adults.

“Wrong attitude Alex! Stop being such a wet blouse, grow a pair (pardon my French), go out and face the day. You signed up for this, paid your way to come here and have been looking forward to this for months. I put on about fifteen layers of clothes; it probably takes me about ten minutes to get dressed. In time I will realize that everything takes longer in India, in this instance even something as simple as getting dressed...

I step outside my room into the rain and bump into my colleague that I travelled with. We comfort each other with the fact that we have been going through similar emotions of uncertainty. I make a quick stop in the toilet, as I expected, it’s an outhouse with a hole in the ground on the side of the path leading up the hill. Hearing people walk by the little toilet shed and talking makes me uncomfortable.
“Get used to it, this home for now.”

Walking up into the village we are met by two familiar faces, familiar not because we know them but because they are not Indian,. They are from EduCARE. We’re brought to a hotel for our first induction meeting where five other uncertain faces greet us. Other new interns! It’s explained to us that we are to spend two weeks in the “homestays”. These are part of the micro finance project set up as a type of guest house to help develop a small home business in hospitality. It’s not just a place for new interns to stay but also for tourists when the season comes. The aim is to encourage cross cultural learnings, for the guests and the hosts whilst making a few Rupees for the families. 

The vision and philosophy of EduCARE are explained to us, but I think it passes over all our heads. We're reassured that this is normal and that it will take a couple of weeks worth of meetings and discussions before we adjust and understand what it is that we are doing here. I'm not reassured, just more uncertain.

The afternoon is coming to an end so we head back to our respective homestays for dinner. The kitchen is small, without tables and chairs, there are just a few mats on the floor surrounding a small fire with minimal ventilation. The family are incredibly nice and welcoming, even if we have to communicate through Sunana. Feeling comfortable on this floor happens very fast.

I’m the first to receive my plate of food, but it doesn’t come with cutlery. I wait and see what happens next. Sunana gets her dinner and dives straight into it with her hands. When I was her age, this would have been expressly forbidden, my parents would have told me to stop playing with my food. I would have loved to have been allowed to eat this way. Now I’m older, with 30 years of conditioning in the ways of western dinning behind me. I make an awkward attempt to grab my food with my fingers, rice, lentils and sauce pour down my hand. What’s left of the food that I hold is about to fall from my grasp. At the same time I try to throw it and shove it into my mouth. I miss. The food on my face and my jumper creates a bonding laughter between me and the family. Sunana chooses this moment to offer me a spoon. If they thought this ironic gesture would be funny, they were right.

Despite my wants to fully experience this culture, I can’t resist the temptation of what I consider to be the practicalities of cutlery. I look to my side and Sunana is already finished, every last grain of rice is gone from her plate in what I would consider record time. This is a clear lesson to me that there is no right or wrong way for anyone to eat their food.

After dinner I retreat to my icy room which has been supplied with plenty of blankets. No amount of blankets would be enough. Like in the afternoon, it takes me what seems an age to get undressed and then dressed again. For this first night I decide it would be prudent to sleep in a hat with 3 layers of clothes, a sleeping bag and 2 huge blankets. After a few minutes the bed warms up and I am actually quite cosy. I think to myself about the struggle to get out of this warm bed that awaits me in the morning and then it hits me; I forgot to go outside to the toilet before bed, Lesson learnt! I won’t make that mistake again, but there are many more mistakes to make and solutions to find as I settle into this very foreign village.  

- Alex Moran, Ireland
SWASH Project Manager, Naddi

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The interns who make EduCARE

In mid-January, six new international interns joined EduCARE; Alex (from Ireland), Sigrunn (Norway), Emma (USA), Viktoria (Germany), Lucy (USA) and Mimi (Canada). There is always a sense of nervousness and anticipation when new personnel arrive, but after a month all six have adapted to life in Naddi extremely well. Many of the projects have been given a new lease of life, with the energy brought by the new interns motivating the whole organization.

February has been a difficult month in Naddi, with periodic intervals of snow, rain, sunshine and storms. Despite these meteorological challenges, work has progressed apace. A series of productive meetings of the microfinance team (Lucy, Mimi, Sigrunn and I) have resulted in a whole host of new ideas and plans to be implemented. The ReStore has been reopened by Mimi, and a new range of products is being created and tested. After surveying consumer demand and analysing which products are not currently available in the area, Mimi has developed a series of prototypes. I am in the process of developing links with shops and caf├ęs in McLeod Ganj who have shown interest in stocking products made in a sustainable manner by the women of the community.

Lucy has begun work on several of the microfinance projects, and has worked hard and shown a great deal of initiative in developing them in new directions. Her editing skills for the homestays booklets, committed approach to the chicken coop project and focus on community engagement in JDM community will all reap dividends for EduCARE in the future. She has also taken over running Fun Club, and has developed a host of new ideas for stimulating activities for the younger children.

The proposed EcoStore in JDM community shows how several projects can fit together within a holistic framework. An existing local shop will transition towards stocking alternative products that are not available elsewhere in Naddi. It will also stock eggs produced by the chicken coop, and many other locally sourced items. Sigrunn is working hard to develop a range of items that can be produced locally, thereby creating business for the local community and ensuring economic and environmental stability in the future. While the project is in its development stage at the moment, Sigrunn’s attention to detail and positive engagement with the community to find out their needs should ensure that the project is a great success.

All of the projects that are being developed by the new interns reflect a model of development that focuses on the needs of people on the ground and allows them to develop their capabilities and achieve self-empowerment. Such an approach is, in my opinion, the only truly sustainable one.

Rick Parfett, UK.

MicroEmpowered Project Manager

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Journey of Rubbish…in Naddi

This weeks Shenney Fun Club activity was organised by none other than the waste management heroes themselves – the SWASH team – and as expected environmental education and awareness was on the agenda.

More specifically the activity was focused on the different ways we can dispose of our rubbish and what the environmental consequences of each are.

Hence the first activity consisted of creating a big mind map of The Journey of Rubbish as shown in the photo below.

The use of photos also proved to be an effective tool to the mind map to life for the children, though we had a hard time sticking them to the damp blackboard!

This activity was then followed by a short educational music video in Hindi – An Anthem for a Garbage Free India – that the kids loved.

And of course finally what more could we do than to empty the rubbish bins! In theory it was a brilliant plan, however in practice is proved to be much more difficult!


Because most of the older children were absent the muscle power was to come from the interns as we lugged the blue bins all the way to the other end of Naddi.

Surprisingly this proved to be a hit amongst the children, they loved the excursion, especially rolling the barrels back down the hill!

As usual the activity had its ups and downs but all in all it should be considered a success as most importantly the rubbish made it safely to the bin!

By Veronica Noetzli, October 2013

Friday, 30 August 2013

Financial Literacy and Generational Change in India

A survey conducted by MasterCard this spring concluded that financial literacy in India is at the bottom of 16 countries in the Asia-pacific region, with Japan trailing behind in last place. The term financial literacy refers to the basic skills of money management – saving, investment, planning for old age – which according to this survey is severely lacking in Indian society. My financial literacy session last month aimed to raise awareness of such concepts among the women of JDM and Shenney community, as well as informing them of their economic rights and entitlements. There was a large turnout from both communities of women and girls of all ages.

I began by relaying some of the statistics on financial literacy; another survey, this time conducted by Visa, found that 34% of Indian women and 29% of Indian men claimed to have no savings. Similarly, it revealed that 43% of Indian women do not discuss matters of money management with their children, due in large part to their own lack of understanding. It is no surprise that in a society where women are less likely than their male counterparts to engage in paid work, and are therefore not expected to undertake decisions relating to the family budget, they do not educate their children in these matters. My own surveys conducted in July this year revealed much of the same; when asking women in the JDM community whether they had a household budget, many responded that they did, but that their husbands were the sole determinants of how this money was spent.

However, it seems that India’s younger generations are more financially aware than there elders. When I asked how many women owned a bank account, nearly all of the teenage girls raised their hands, whereas none of their mothers did the same. This was a more hopeful finding from both the MasterCard and Visa surveys, suggesting that across both the urban and rural parts of India, financial literacy is on the up. The internet is becoming increasingly accessible to India’s youth, providing information about financial services that was previously unavailable to older generations, and may offer an explanation for these trends.

I then informed the women that their own Self Help Groups fit most of the criteria for a bank loan. The Union Bank of India states that the group must have been in ‘active existence for a least a period of six months’, ‘have undertaken savings and credit operations from its own resources’ and have ‘maintain[ed] proper accounts/records’. Both of the Shenney and JDM treasurer’s had brought along their record books, showing that both groups of women consistently put in their share of 50 rupees a month. It may often seem that commercial banks are disengaged from the agricultural communities of rural India, but schemes like this show that large banks are becoming increasingly aware of the need to support micro-entrepreneurs. The statistics may, at first, look disheartening, but generational change is producing a new cohort of Indians more empowered in matters of financial literacy.

Anna Cooban, UK

JDM Self Help Group Project Manager

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Gardening in Rajhol

It’s only right to start this blog post by thanking the neighbors that made my farm possible. In our small village of Rajol, Himachal Pradesh, farming is the only way of life. There are a few shop owners and restaurant owners, but even they tend their farms after work. The day I started working in my field, all the neighbors came over to see what I was doing and to offer advice and assistance. The neighbor to the back of our house, Ramchander, helped me rent a hand tractor to till the field and sent his son, Teju, to teach me how to use it. The neighbor next door gave me a lesson in Indian fertilizers (khad) used to grow corn (makki). Finally, even the restaurant (dhaba) owner down the street weighed in saying that okra (bhindi) would be my best bet for vegetables to grow in monsoon season. The outcome of all this support: bhindi is my best vegetable crop and the makki I planted continues to grow at a steady rate.
While the growing okra is mutually appreciated crop between my neighbors and myself, the corn is a different story. The debate surrounding khad seems to be unending. My current understanding of this word, “khad,” is that it is the Hindi word for manure or compost. Where my knowledge is lacking is in the chemical make-up of this compost and whether there are artificial and chemical additives in it. My neighbors clearly think that my corn will fail without the khad and I am worried that might be true. However, this is an organic initiative and the benefits of fully organic farming may not be seen in this first experimental phase. The bottom line is, we need to investigate different varieties of khad, see what organic and chemical khad is available and probably apply organic khad in the cornfield.

Moving on from manure, the most interesting part of Indian monsoon farming for me has been the initial field preparation. In monsoon season in India, which generally lasts the months of June, July, and August, heavy rain is a daily expectation. In response to these conditions, farmers employ strategies for diverting water to and from different fields. Corn needs relatively dry soil, whereas rice needs to be submerged in water. Both of these crops are monsoon crops and grow simultaneously. To make this unlikely combination possible, rainwater is diverted from the cornfields through channels and is sent to the tiered rice paddies. These intricately contoured fields hold a consistent depth of one to three inches of water behind short walls surrounding the individual fields. This makes sure that the rice get plenty of water, and that the corn doesn’t drown. Similarly, the vegetables need to be protected by channels. These channels, when dug, elevate the soil level in the planting area slightly above the water level in the channels. Additionally, the soil dug from the channels is put on top of the area to be planted in. Since there is so much rain, the plants still get plenty of water but the roots are protected from being flooded out. Most importantly, however, the channels help to add a cool aesthetic element (water feature) to the garden separating each planting and each individual vegetable.
By Owen Jollie