The first field note…

16.12.17 Rubini & the Samugam Foundation 

by Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr

We’ve started our second day in India with our first yoga session on the roof of our Guesthouse Mitra at 7 in the morning, before we took the bus to Pondicherry. On this Saturday we had four NGO visits schedule. The ride to Pondicherry – such a loud, crowded, colorful and culturally different place and the overall heat – was overwhelming. We were confronted with the real Indian experience already. And then we stopped at our first NGO, the Samugam Foundation. I was so fascinated with the city trying to absorb everything I saw, that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for the Samugam Foundation. So I stepped out of the bus and was completely surprised by the children that were waiting for us. They grabbed our hands, talked to us, introduced themselves, hugged us and pointed at different things. It happened so quickly and suddenly every one of us got picked by a child, taken by the hand and accompanied to the house they live and get educated in.

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Rubini (r.) and one of her friends

My girl was Rubini. She is 6 years old and wore a beautiful blue dress, my favorite color. She was smiling the whole time and was full of energy and excitement. She showed me the kitchen, the bedroom, the music room, she introduced me to her friends and taught me a clapping-singing game that they all love to play. She seemed happy and like a normal child. Although we didn’t speak the same language we communicated through gestures, pointing at things and facial expressions and hand signs. We spent 20 minutes together before she showed me my seat in the room we were about to hear a presentation from the founder of the Samugam Foundation.

This nonprofit organization gives shelter to the gypsy, street and poor children, providing them with a home, food, education, sanitarian care and overall protection with the mission of giving them a chance to become a part of the society. These children grow up in poverty and misery facing illness and death because of non-existing hygiene standards concerning food and body care, being unaware of their destiny because of a lack of education. This NGO tries to give the children a chance for a better life. I was sitting in this room, watching the videos about gipsy children eating dirty food from the dump, living so close to this polluted area being excluded from society with no possibility for a change. It was hard to take and almost overshadowed the fun playful 20 minutes with Rubini. She was one of them and I felt very helpless. My eyes were wandering around in the presentation room and suddenly I saw a quote by Ghandi on the wall that gave me hope in this moment of brutal reality; “only through education we can change the world”. Inequality and unfairness exist and there is no sense in being upset with the world how it is, we just need to keep this words in mind and help the people through education to change their destiny towards a better one. I went back to the bus with gratitude for my life and hope for Rubini and all the other beautiful children that welcomed us so friendly at our first NGO visit in India.

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Read more about the Samugam Foundation on their website: http://www.samugam.org

A Day With Disposable Cameras

By: Beatriz Salgado

 

My day started out with the usual morning breakfast at Morgan’s, scrambled eggs with toast and milk coffee. Then, I went to the Matrimandir for the first time, one of the most intriguing experiences yet, but I’ll leave that for another blog entry.

I’ve had an idea for my personal project before I even left for India. Working with children in Brazil and establishing a genuine relationship was always something I felt passionate about. So, my idea was basically to get children to walk around Auroville and take photos of something, I hadn’t really thought about what that something was until I started volunteering at Wasteless. I mentioned my idea with Rihbu, the organization’s founder, and thought he could help. He really liked the idea and thought it could be great if the project complemented Wasteless’ new educational program kNOw PLASTICS. Together we decided the kids would take pictures of plastics. They were to think about where they got their plastics? How did they use plastics? And where they threw their plastics away?

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I had already been to Aikiyam School the day before to observe the pilot testing for Wasteless’ new educational program, so I had met the principal of the school, Shankar and he said I could meet with the kids on Saturday afternoon. The next day, I got all my gear, which included three disposable cameras, a laptop, water bottle, my journal, and a charger and headed for Kulapalyum Road. While I waited for Shankar to confirm, I had a delicious lunch at Frites with my classmate Imani and later coffee and brownie at Marc’s café, an indispensable place to drink coffee while in Auroville.

Finally, I heard from Shankar and walked to Aikiyam School under the hot afternoon sun, not to mention it was winter. I went to the science room where the teacher and students were doing extracurricular work and waiting for my arrival. They usually have some activities during the weekends to keep the students busy. Before heading out for our photography exploration, I decided to talk to some of the students and interview them about plastics. Though they were a bit shy in the beginning, I was surprised by how much they knew about the issue.

To start our photography hunt, I divided them in groups, two girls, Deepa (13 years old), Roshini (13 years old) and two boys, Chandru (14 years old) and Chander (13 years old). Later, we met up with two other students, Arjun (13 years old) and Thiru (13 years old) who decided to join our expedition. I gave each group one disposable camera and explained to them the objective of taking the pictures.

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The purpose of the assignment was to take photographs of plastics in their point of view by keeping in mind the three questions mentioned above. As soon as we stepped out of the school, they immediately started taking pictures of the waste they found right outside the school: plastic bottles, bags and even a CD! We walked along the main road and headed towards Kulapalyum village where the kids lived. As we strolled around, the students entered different shops and interacted with people explaining to them what they were doing and why they were taking photos of plastics. Then, we started heading to each of their homes. What was interesting to observe were the different perspectives they had on what was clean and dirty. One of the questions was if they thought where they lived was a little, medium or a lot dirty. Most of them answered little or medium and that it’s sometimes clean and sometimes dirty. I remember thinking, ok, so they live someplace decent. I was wrong though, what was surprising was their notion of somewhere clean turned out to be a completely different conception from my reality.

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During the interview, they all answered that they threw their trash and plastics in dustbins in their homes and that they don’t throw waste on the streets. One student even said they separated organics from non-organics at his house and that after it was separated, the “people that do the duty comes to pick it up” (Arjun).

The small comfort that I did have, despite seeing those kids’ environment and their reality, was that they were still being kids and had so much fun taking photos with a simple disposable camera.

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I cannot help my self

It has been argued that one can only recognize the self through the “other”. This is because the “other” confirms what the self is not. This argument is one which is salient when people promote “colour blindness” as a solution when it comes to racial prejudice. Those who are in favour of the understanding of the self through the “other” bash the notion of colour blindness because of the perceived inevitability involved in self identity formation of identifying the other and participating in “othering”.

Some collectivist societies openly recognize that the notion of the self is one that cannot exist independently without the other. There are languages that do not have an equivalent word for “the self.” The pronoun “I” is often the closest word to the self. In South Africa where I am from, the philosophy of ubuntu summarizes how the self cannot endure independently from others.  Ubuntu is the belief that you are who you are because of your interactions with those around you who also contribute to your development.

In India this inability to exclude the self from community is apparent.  All of the NGOs within and beyond Auroville all participate in contributing towards developing India in a sustainable way for future citizens of India and of the world. Auroville’s charter is one that candidly echoes the sentiment of ubuntu and selflessness:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the divine consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

Here, the definition of the self is dependent upon the recognition of constant interaction with the other. In order for Auroville to keep evolving, individuals would need to continue to learn and share from each other.

The NGO that I am working with is called Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG). The organization has self-help group sessions for its members who reside in the local villages. This may seem a little contradictory in some ways right? A self-help group in a community that doesn’t fully recognize the self without considering its community and “others”.

Self-help is a process embedded within psychology. The field of mainstream psychology often promotes the self through wholly focusing on the individual and personal development. How then does personal development resonate within a society that prioritizes the need for the development of the self through others? AVAG has managed to integrate this within its organizational practices.

AVAG self help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG self-help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG’s self-help groups reflect the NGO’s ability to incorporate the concept of the self in a relevant, contextual manner.  This could also be an indicator of perhaps why the self-help groups have been sustainable. Anbu Sironmani is the Director of AVAG. She argues that AVAG combines the self within its collectivist context by putting emphasis on the fact that individual development is a precursor to the sustainable development of the community. Anbu mentioned that since the self-help groups have started, the suicide rates have dropped significantly within the villages.

AVAG’s model for its members recognizes that multiple factors contribute to the self reaching its highest potential. AVAG’s services include: self-help groups, education, microcredit, community service, social enterprise and community development.

The sustainable development of the community is the utopian ideal for AVAG.  It is the reason behind why I, as a self that is not mutually exclusive from my colleagues, have come to learn from this community. I cannot help my self but be inspired by the work of AVAG and its members.

One of the AVAG self help group members

One of the AVAG self-help group members

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nolwazi Mjwara

 

 

 

 

A Utopia of Networked NGOs: Is it Scalable?

As an intentional community located in Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, Auroville is a place to experiment and bring forth innovative ideas working towards all aspects of sustainable development. Aside from the beliefs and values held within the Auroville Charter, it is also a microscopic model of how communities can operate collaboratively to achieve many of the sustainable development goals as outlined by the United Nations. The priorities and values of Aurovillians is admirable and desirable in my view as someone from a Western upbringing striving to work in International Development, however is this microscopic laboratory a replicable model throughout India and other communities in the Global South?

After visiting about thirty non-profit organizations in and around Auroville over the span of seven days, we have been exposed to a broad array of inspirational projects that are working towards one or many of the sustainable development goals. They ranged from environmental and agricultural sustainability, to social development issues promoting education, equality and empowerment. In Auroville specifically, many of these organizations and the people involved work as an interdependent public to support their overall common goals of sustainability and development. For example, several organizations that utilize recycled or reusable materials and have a zero-waste policy such as Upcycle Studio, Eco Femme and WELL Paper are supporting the primary efforts of the organization WasteLess whose main objective is to raise awareness and education on harmful habits that threaten the environment. Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) and WELL Paper are also both working to empower women through skills training and autonomous self help groups, or SHGs. AVAG assists in the selection process for the women who will be trained in creating eco-friendly products for WELL Paper. All of these are Auroville based NGOs, and there are many other instances of visible support and collaboration between the NGOs here.

It is clear that the organizations within Auroville support each other’s visions towards a common goal through various projects. However, even between Aurovillian NGOs and NGOs that we visited in Pondycherry, such interdependency and support is not so apparent. Therefore, can this model of networked NGOs who support and promote one another to succeed in their goals be applied in other areas of India and the Global South? Like anything in the field of development, it would need to be adapted for each particular culture and context. And it is likely that this is already the case in some communities, but perhaps not to the extent and concentration of Auroville…at least not to my knowledge.

While NGOs around India and globally likely do support one another within their realm of development, this high concentration of sustainability and development in almost every aspect of daily life and business that is visible in Auroville seems out of reach given the international complex systems of government, political views, social issues, and the corporate world…just to name a few. This paradox continues to follow me during my time here in Auroville, however I do remain optimistic as a future professional in the field that progress within NGOs and towards a healthy networked NGO model can be made as long as cultural context is first and foremost in assessing the development needs of any community.

-Cristina Castello

Auroville Invites Itself To a Great Challenge!

What does it mean to create a sustainable city? The citizens of Auroville attempt to answer this question with the creation of their innovative city in the South of India. This is a place where all the NGOs are invested in certain aspects of sustainability. From micro finance organizations, transgender politics to social entrenepreneurships, Auroville’s entire ecosystem is based on embracing sustainable lifestyles.

As newcomers, almost half of our team attempts to better understand the idealistic city by posing a lot of questions as student researchers. We are trying to understand if Auroville truly stands for what it aims to be. What will the future of Auroville look like? Is this type of city, free from independent organized governance, the only alternative way of establishing a democractic society?

So far, many of our questions remain unanswered.
However, it is hard to deny the power of knowledge and intelligence that are invested in this city. From creating a co-op grocery store, to creating a botanical garden in the land of red soil, and a library that includes a multitude of languages, Auroville puts great effort into achieving its goal. It is certain that Auroville Foundation aims to provide better life standards for those around the Auroville community.

For me, Auroville is a new born baby in a country with a colonial past. It is hard to assume that a place with social pressure would be attractive for entreprenual spirits and innovation. In fact, it is not only our group that has been trying to find answers to our questions about Auroville, nowadays Aurovillians are challenging themselves with the  same questions as well. “We are trying,” say the guest speakers from Outreach Media, who oversee the media in Auroville. We don’t know if we will succeed or fail, if the methods we are pursuing are going to help us to solve our difficulties or not.This is what almost every researcher who comes to Auroville asks. They are sceptical but we are trying. When we fail, we learn from our mistakes. Because this is an attempt to find better ways to live.”

Even with the best intentions, it is human nature to bring self serving qualities such as ego and greed. Not surprisingly, when a former worker from the surrounding village wanted to take what he has learned from the community and to open a pottery shop in his village, the situation created tension. In cases like this the community does not feel like a winner. It feels like one contributer less. It is the Foundation, what the Aurovillians rely on. Accordingly, individual attemps that are outside of the organization are not beneficial to community. And, since the Foundation has no juridicial power, Aurovillians try to prevent unwanted situations by using social pressure. Maybe I understand it all wrong. Maybe I am confused. But realizing the power of extraordinary know-how brought to the community by the villagers carries an importance. However, limited funds with great facilities that the Foundation provides for its villager workers, seems to be an another local employment challenge nowadays for Aurovillians to overcome.

Elif Ogunc

Decision Day

Today, most of us woke up with a mixture or nerves and excitement.  No longer would we spend the day completely together visiting different organizations-this early morning, we were going to pick which organization we would spend the rest of our time in India working with.

We sat down on the floor of our meeting room- where in the middle of the room Professor Talcott, in addition to the other organizers Sacha and Tanya, had fanned out pieces of paper each containing one of the NGOs we had visited.  There was over twenty-five in all.  We then had to go around putting our names on our top two organizations.

What is interesting about our group is that we are all coming in with different levels of experience and educational backgrounds.  Therefore, as we sat in the room ready to pick one of the amazing organizations to work with, there was some apprehension that went along with the excitement because of the responsibility we were about to partake in, especially among some of us who haven’t had this type of experience before.

At the end of our meeting, most of us were able to pick our first or second choice and it was time for our initial meeting with our NGO to go over their needs and come up with a specific project that we would be able to complete within our alloted time.  I think that this meeting revved most of us up to hurry to get to work and simply do the best we can.

For me personally, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that we are working within a Self-Help Group (SHG) framework.  The key is to listen first, act second in ways that our NGOs can later carry on themselves.  What we are doing is giving our skills to incredibly motivated, passionate and hard-working people who have so many odds against them, but are still able to make a powerful impact.  We are helping them with their vision-not forcefully imposing our own.

A few days back when we were visiting Mohanam Cultural Center, the owner Balu informed us before we entered the building that the door-frames were made low purposefully so that in bowing our heads in order to enter, we would humble our spirits.  I believe that this is one of the most important aspects while we’re with our NGO-to work humbly.

Mimi

Creche Visits and Microfinance Insights – Welcome to My Days at PSDF!

Indra Muthu – Creche Teacher and Self-Help Group Leader

Indra Muthu – Creche Teacher and Self-Help Group Leader

I am nearing the end of my internship with The People’s Social Development Foundation (PSDF) and have had an incredible experience. PSDF works to improve the socio-economic welfare of the Dalit community and women in the rural and slum villages surrounding the city of Pondicherry through awareness programs, childcare support services, disaster relief, family counseling, micro-credit entrepreneurship programs, and vocational training.

My favorite day of my internship thus far included site visits to 3 of the crèches (daycare/ pre-primary education centers) that PSDF runs in coordination with the Government of India’s Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme. The Rajiv Ghandi National Crèche Scheme For the Children of Working Mothers was started by the Government of India (GOI) in recognition of the “failure  to meet the needs of working mothers” in need of “quality substitute care for their young children while they are at work.” As free, public education is not provided for Indian children until they reach 4 years of age, families unable to afford private daycare fees must care for their young children on their own until they can begin school. Most of the children’s parents work as day laborers in factories, and while this provides generally consistent work, wages are very low, between 80-100 rupees day (approx. $1.30-1.62), and no benefits are provided. If both parents are able to bring in these wages consistently, the family can cover its basic shelter, food and clothing costs, but face difficulty any time a large or unexpected expense comes up, such as school tuition or sickness. Mothers who have to take care of children are unable to work at the factories as they provide no childcare services, thus imposing a great amount of financial stress on these families. Even if the child remains at home with their mother or another relative, it is rare for them to receive the kind of educational attention provided at the crèches, as many families are illiterate and/or do not speak English. Children thus enter school with little prior experience in reading or educational activity, making it easy for them to fall behind quickly.

I headed out to the crèches in the hopes of gathering lots of information and individual stories about the children in the crèches in order to assist my grant-writing and fundraising for PSDF and was able to gather quite a bit of good material even if it wasn’t what I was expecting!_MG_3322

I did not anticipate that so many of the crèche teachers would be involved in or lead PSDF Micro-Credit Self Help Groups (SHGs) as well as teach in the crèches. I was struck by how both of the women that I interviewed more intensively really focused in on the social/non-economic impact of the SHGs and microfinance plans. I kept pushing questions about how/if microfinance had raised their living standards and what kind of income micro businesses generated in relation to other jobs – but after awhile my translator Segar laughingly told me that this topic didn’t seem to be what they were most interested in. Instead, the women kept telling him about the support system that the SHG had created for them.

Standing with Creche Teachers who are also SHG Members

Standing with Creche Teachers who are also SHG Members

Instead of simply grouping together in order to be able to have access to loans, PSDF requires its SHGs to save on their own through monthly contributions (usually 50-100 rupees) by each member. The women talked about how having this pool of savings took away their fear that even a small misfortune, such as a family member falling ill, could wreak havoc on their family financially. All of the women understand that misfortune could hit anyone of them, and thus know that even if their savings are going to help someone else in the immediate term, in the long term it is also providing security for them. Furthermore, the women told me about the strong bond that the SHG creates. For example, one told how in her group they are “each other’s biggest cheerleaders” and that if one woman opens a microbusiness, the group all comes on the first day to be her first customers. They then make sure to wear/show the products they bought around the village and surrounding villages, as a form of free advertising by word of mouth. The sari she was wearing that day was made by a member of her SHG, and she said that she drops that fact into conversation as much as possible to get the word out. Furthermore, through the education and awareness programs that PSDF conducts each month with the SHGs, the women bond even more by talking about issues that are often taboo, such as menstruation, domestic violence, dowry issues, and child abuse. The women see that they are not alone in their problems and can brainstorm ways to help each other or encourage each other to bring large issues to the Family Counseling Center at PSDF.

Listening to the children sing and recite in English - very impressive for only 1-3 years old!

Listening to the children sing and recite in English – very impressive for only 1-3 years old!

I did not expect that my main takeaway from these visits would be learning so much about how microfinance participants view the value of the assistance that microfinance provides them! It is a good lesson for me that while economic empowerment and a raising of one’s monetary standard is important in the context of impoverished peoples, “non-economic” empowerment is also extremely important and perhaps even more important to some, as these women indicated. This provides an important counter to the connotation that often comes with the term “non-economic empowerment” in the development community that denotes that this is somehow a lesser achievement than economic empowerment. I’m thankful that the women resisted the way my line of questioning/interviewing was going and instead shared what they really cared about – it’s difficult to be sensitive to that on my own when going through a translator, so I feel lucky to have gained this insight despite my preconceived notions about how microfinance worked. In the words of Radna Gandhi Madhi, a PSDF Self-Help Group Leader and Crèche Volunteer Helper, “Microfinance goes beyond improving one’s economic position, for me it is even more about the social effect of coming together.”

If you are interested in learning more about PSDF’s Crèche Program and how you can help them, please click here to be taken to their website. PSDF is currently conducting a 1 month “Crèche for Success” fundraiser to raise money to reopen 5 crèches that have been closed in the past 2 years due to lack of funds, leaving 125 children without free care and education during the day. $14 and 5 minutes of your time is all it takes to cover 2 children’s basic educational costs for an entire year! Thanks in advance for your interest and generosity!!

Anna Wiersma – American University of Paris