What are we doing here? Final reflections as a WLC intern

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My time as a World Literacy Canada intern is almost over. It feels like I just started, but these seven weeks flew by very quickly. During my last few days here, I have been reflecting on my role in development as a whole. While I have studied International Development at the University of Guelph for the past three years and loved all of it, no course could have taught me what I learned here. I am walking away from this experience thinking about the importance of three words: local, skilled, and small.

What makes an NGO* strong? Thinking local helps. What I have noticed at WLC is that it maintains close, long-term connections with communities. Our project locations are close to our main office (within driving distance) and our Group Leaders who manage most of the on-the-ground development projects (i.e. Mahila Mandel women’s groups, scholarship students, libraries etc.) have been going to their set communities for 8+ years. All of our staff at the Varanasi office are Indian, and most people in the office only speak Hindi. Why no English? English is much less prevalent in North India and as we are involved with lower income communities, Hindi is also the language of those who access our programs.

How do skills play into it? To run an NGO well, you do not just need good intentions and commitment but ability and experience.  A number of our staff members have master’s degrees in Social Work or other relevant fields. While I will soon graduate with a BA, my role is not, and should not be, as important as a local staff member. Local and skilled are not mutually exclusive but are closely intertwined elements towards good development. Another skill that is worth acknowledging is the staff’s ability to cope with crazy-hot Indian summers, for weeks now the temperature has been higher than 40 degrees! To me 30 degrees is hot (sleeping with frozen water bottles has worked wonders) but even Indians do not like this heat. I tip my invisible hat to our staff whose daily work takes them out to the baking hot sun every day.

Now when I say small, I do not necessarily mean a small organization, but small in the sense of small actions that accumulate into something much bigger. Recording the weekly 20 rupee contributions at a Self-Help Group meeting, helping a kid check out a Hindi picture book, or going to sit on a tarpaulin mat with 20 women every week to talk, are all seemingly mundane tasks. But over a period of time they can enable a woman to take out a loan when it would previously have been impossible, help a young adult acquire a firm knowledge of his mother tongue so he can search for a good job, or encourage a woman to vote in a local election for the first time. This is what our Group Leaders do every day and this is what it is all about.

When I look back on it, these principles of local, skilled, and small seem obvious, but they are not. Rather this type of development stands in stark contrast to what we are exposed to back home, especially in regards to our personal roles in development.

Voluntourism, where people pay to go to other countries to volunteer with short-term development projects, is an activity that has become extremely popular for young people in the West in the last few years. We are often told by university campus groups and other youth-oriented organizations that we are full of potential and can change the world. These organizations advertise opportunities to take care of orphaned elephants and children, or build a school for 2-4 weeks. While the notion that a teenager or young adult can make all this difference in another country comes from a very good place, it is deeply flawed. This modern version of colonialism oversimplifies development, and could not be more different than the work I see here.

I am thankful that WLC did not assume I had any inherent value by virtue of being a young foreigner. I worked to my abilities and used my skills as a writer to tell the world about WLC. This has been an amazing learning experience and I wish I could stay longer and say more! But as I leave it is important that I remind myself that I am only one part of a larger aim. While communicating to the world has value, it is the substance of that communication that is the most important; the local, skilled, and small on-the-ground work that our Indian staff are doing here every day to educate and empower women and young people.

International Development is a complex beast and makes its fair share of mistakes. It is impossible for any charity to do everything right all the time. But it is important to acknowledge and appreciate that the development that we support is not westerners going to poor places to ‘save’ people, we use ideas from Canada, India, Nepal, but the development that we support is local.

After reading this, one might ask: if my role isn’t to go to another country to make change, what am I supposed to do? I firmly believe that support is not just monetary, although that is vital. Encouraging literacy in your own community and city, staying informed about the world and social (in)justice, and encouraging dialogue are key if you want to work towards a better world. What’s even better is it is a never-ending role, there is always something to be advocated for or discussed.

The roles we play are all different. I am glad I got to play mine.

Thanks for reading,

GJ

 

*NGO: Non-Governmental Organization (i.e. a charity like World Literacy Canada!)

Operation Groundswell visits World Literacy Canada!

This week World Literacy Canada’s Varanasi office is hosting 13 visitors from the organization Operation Groundswell to teach them about our work in women’s empowerment. OG runs 5-6 week ethical tourist trips to different locations around the world, visiting NGOs and learning about local issues. This is the first time OG and WLC have worked together. Most of the participants are in India for the first time and are not only learning about our organization, but a whole new place!

I got to take a group of OG participants on one of their site visits on Saturday! The five of us joined Gita-ji on her rounds in Katesar, a rural area across from Varanasi. Our first stop was the local gumpti library which was absolutely packed with eager readers of all ages. OG participants also got to meet local scholarship students whose education is fully funded by WLC.

The highlight of our visit was when we got to attend the local Mahila Mandel (women’s group) meeting. Despite our limited Hindi we were able to follow the general feeling of the discussion. The theme of the meeting was women’s education, but after a while everyone started to talk politics and even the quieter members became very animated!

The group returned after a 2-hour visit to Katesar, knowing more about OG programming and how it affects local women. The rest of our members of OG went to visit the local Mahila Mandel and gumpti library in Batuapura (southern Varanasi), while the last group spent the morning with the kids at Tulsi Kunj summer camp!

Here are some photos of our visit to Katesar as well as OG’s intro to Hinduism lecture on Sunday!

OG participants light candles at the Gayatri temple

OG participants light candles at the Gayatri temple

OG participants visit the local Mahila Mandel

OG participants visit the local Mahila Mandel

Gita-ji (yellow and white) speaking to Mahila Mandel members

Gita-ji (yellow and white) speaking to Mahila Mandel members

Thanks for reading,

GJ

Tulsi Kunj Summer Camp is in full swing!

For the last few weeks I have been able to help out at WLC’s very first summer camp! Taking place at Tulsi Kunj Library, kids get to read, draw, do crafts, and play for three weeks at the library. The structure of camp here is very different from camp in Canada, but is more attuned to the needs of the community.

In Canada we would have structured activities and crafts where everyone would be required to get involved. Instead, activities here are more informal, with only a small group getting involved at once and kids trickling in and out all the time. During a regular day at Tulsi Kunj Camp, you could walk in and see kids playing carrom, chess, making puzzles, or doing crafts, all at the same time, each person doing the activity they want to do. The relative informality of camp was also appropriate for the weather. We are currently experiencing weather of 40-44 degrees during the hottest part of the day, and time-sensitive, large group activities that we would have at a Canadian day camp would not go well in the heat.

Day of of our chess competition

Day 1 of our chess competition

Another big difference compared to camp is Canada is the focus on competitions. At the end of camp Tulsi Kunj we had 7 days of different competitions for chess, drawing, writing, and typing among others. I have a background teaching at camps so I came into it with lots of preconceived notions about what camp is and what activities you can do. I have always been taught to not focus on competition at camp, but here it is the norm. Kids welcomed the opportunity and even wanted more types of competitions that we had originally.

All in all it has been lots of fun going to Tulsi Kunj Library. I got so spend time with the same kids every day getting to know each other better by playing games, drawing, and speaking in a mix of Hindi and English! Today the whole camp of 40+ kids got together and we played musical chairs! Here are some photos of today’s fun!

Kids of all ages wanted to play!

Kids of all ages wanted to play!

Everyone watches the game intently

Everyone watches the game intently

Thanks for reading,

GJ

 

Support in hard times

Recently I went with Neetu-ji, one of WLC’s group leaders, on her site visit to a Mahila Mandel meeting. Mahila Mandels are local women’s advocacy groups, and are unique to WLC. Women come together once a week to talk about the problems they face, learn about government programs they can access, and advocate for issues they feel are important. The Indian government has a number of different poverty alleviation programs, but knowing about all of them and how to access them can be difficult.

We sat in on the meeting of the Garondi Mahila Mandel, the oldest one at WLC. Founded in 1999, Garondi has had many different members but has stayed strong over the years. Before going to meetings, members said they did not have a group to go to when they were dealing with everyday problems. While before they had to solve everything on their own, these women can now reach out to other women for help and advice on government services or what to do in difficult family situations. As one member put it very plainly “Now we know our rights.” I was very happy to notice that every woman in the group voted in the federal election last week, and they were proud to show me their ink-stained finger nails for proof (in India to show that you have voted, the fingernail on your left index finger is smeared with black ink).

The theme of the meeting was saving. Many Garondi members are also members of Self-Help Groups (savings groups), separate from their Mahila Mandel meetings, giving a number of these women important leadership positions in their community. Many of the 20+ women in the group also use other WLC services. It was a really positive environment to be around. I felt very welcomed by the group members, they were open to answering my questions, and they were curious about who I was too! But as the meeting went on, I was reminded that these groups were here for a very good reason, and the discussion got very serious.

An elderly woman and her grandson joined after 20 minutes. They were visibly shaken up and they told the group about how a woman in their family had been badly burned by her husband. As they kept talking the two became quite distraught, but the group was very supportive. In South Asian countries, more than 20% of woman have
reported being abused by the man they live with, and often women in India are at risk from violence from their husbands’ families as well. But this does not tell the whole story as many women are reluctant to report cases of domestic violence or other types of abuse with up to half of  cases going unreported. Thankfully in this case, I learned that the group members had gone to the police station together to help the victim. Mahila Mandel members have a stronger support network than I could have ever imagined, and they definitely need it. This visit helped me understand the importance of maintaining such a group around you during both the ups and the downs in life.

While I do not have any photos of the visit (out of respect for the situation) I do have photos of today’s drawing lesson at camp where I taught the kids how to draw faces. I hope you enjoy a bit of lightness after a blog post that was more serious than usual.

Today we learned how to draw faces while making sure eyes, noses, and mouths were positioned exactly right

Today we learned how to draw faces while making sure eyes, noses, and mouths were positioned exactly right

Thanks for reading,

GJ

 

Sources:

Waghamode R.H., Desai Bhavana and Kalyan J.L., “Domestic Violence against Women: An Analysis.” International Research Journal of Social Sciences. Vol. 2(1), 34-37, January (2013). http://www.isca.in/IJSS/Archive/v2i1/7.ISCA-IRJSS-2012-077.pdf

Ghosh, S. “Violence against married women in India – can the data tell us anything?” Ideas for India. February 11, 2013. http://www.ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=105

A beautiful life

Recently Satyagyan Foundation finished 6-month training of tailoring students and recognized their top students for their efforts. And as soon as one group of tailoring left, we welcomed a new group of beautician students! Project manager Nitu Singh met with her newest group to tell them about the beauty parlour program. Most of the women Nitu spoke with work at home, where hours of effort do not result in any sort of paycheck. When asked why they decided to join the course, every woman said she wanted to make money outside the home and be more independent, but didn’t know how.

Satyagyan Foundation offers a two-month course in beautician training for unskilled women where they learning waxing, threading, makeup application, and other procedures. In the last few years demand for beauty parlour services in India has skyrocketed and women will be able to find jobs relatively easily after completing this course.

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Nitu-ji sets out the goals for the course with her newest students

But giving women skills is not all Satyagyan does. Nitu makes sure that she sets out the goals for the program when women start training. “You need to say why, so they are more focused when they are in the course…you need this commitment to learn and change your life” she says. The women who come often have lots of social pressures to work against. Many households do not want women to go outside and earn money, and these women have to convince their family members of the value of attending skills training. Satyagyan actively works to reinforce positive thinking in their students when such problems arise.

After finishing one month of training and one month of practicum, students look for parlour or door-to-door jobs. Many women don’t like working in someone else’s parlour, with pay starting at 500 rupees ($10) a month. Door-to-door service is much more profitable and many students take this route instead. One former student, who does private service doing door-to-door and group services, earns over 4,000 rupees ($80) a month! Whether women are making 500 or 4,000 rupees a month, they walk away not just with skills in cosmetology, but positive thinking and the knowledge that they can take charge of their lives.

Summer camp at Tulsi Kunj!

World Literacy Canada has officially started its first year of summer camp at Tulsi Kunj Library. Just over the road from our WLC office, Tulsi Kunj camp offers programming for kids all day from May 14 to June 5. For our first week, kids will be preparing for drawing, writing, craft, chess, and other competitions by practicing their skills through a variety of fun activities.

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Yesterday I got to join the kids in learning how to make origami frogs! In the afternoon we played carrom, a game that is very popular in India. I had never heard of it before, and even the youngest kids were pros compared to me! The object of the game is to hit one round piece on the board by flicking it with your fingers and using it to hit other pieces into holes in the corner of the board. You need good aim and coordination (something I am still working on!) and everyone was really good at the game.

Carrom games can be very serious business!

Carrom games can be very serious business!

As well as having programming for all ages. Tulsi Kunj Camp also has song and movement programming for our younger visitors. Yesterday everyone sang and enjoyed moving to the music!

Next week we will have lots more fun activities, and our essay competition will start on Friday!

That’s all for now,

GJ

Getting ready for summer camp!

Getting ready for summer camp!

Tulsi Kunj library will start its first summer camp on May 14! The kids at that library helped me make posters to get everyone excited for next week!