Friday, November 6, 2009

First impressions of a desert village and the sambhali trust

It is a long and surprisingly bump free road to Setrawa passing not the typical desert we think of but a land of hardy trees and shrubs living in the sand amongst people, goats, dogs and peacocks. As we sat on the bus and the suggested time of arrival had passed we began to worry, oh no did he miss understand us or miss the stop and not want to admit it. The tension rose as we hoped we would make it to our new home. But at last, only one hour later than expected, we arrived in Setrawa. Our host Usha, the teacher at the school was tracked down as school was shut for lunch. She came up to us smiling with a group of girls all curious to see who the new foreigners were. Immediately we were put at ease by the friendly nature of Usha and her friends. We were taken to a lovely blue and green house and were plunked down and offered tea and food. After filling our hungry bellies we talked about ourselves and must have met at least 20 aunts and cousins. Who all came waltzing in the door saying hello and then proceeded to try and talk to us in Hindi, stare at us or wonder off. Everyone was so welcoming and excited for us to be here.

Soon it came time for our very first class and many girls showed up at Usha’s to greet us and take us to the school. Holding our hands they pulled us along and soon we were seated surrounded by bright shining eyes. The girls were all fascinated by us and all was joyful except when they heard we would be staying for only 5 weeks. “Why do you only stay one month?” they asked us, which made me realize how much these girls need long term volunteers. However, I know our time spent with them will be magical and rewarding. The rest of our first class was used as getting to know you time. Some girls were painfully shy and others were right in our faces. Their English abilities varied greatly as did their ages. They are the perfect little crew of girls to play and have fun with.

After class we went home and ate some delicious food completely made of Onions, I must say this is a first for me. Usha is such a lovely woman opening up to strangers and helping take care of us all. We went to bed early as we were very tired from our day’s travels. In the morning the alarm went off at 5 to tell us it is time to wake up and do our yoga practice, but my exhaustion kept me in bed and suddenly out of nowhere a group of women began to bang on the door shouting Usha’s name. In they came and the morning’s puja was performed with much chattering. From that point on our morning was very relaxing; first yoga on the roof, then tea and planning and later some tasty and salty Poha for breakfast. Many people came to meet us and despite the language barrier there was complete love and welcome in them.

Finally it came time to go to school to meet the women, but this time there was no one who came to fetch us or even waiting for that matter. So we set about looking around and I began to wonder whether any women at all would come. Finally three girls came in, all 15 yrs old. They no longer attended school having stopped after fifth grade. Only having joined about 10 days before they were incredibly shy not used to foreigners but we sat together and embroidered sharing smiles and encouragement. It was sad for me to see these beautiful young women with so much potential who had been taken out of school so young. But coming to Sambhali is a good step in the right direction, learning skills that they can use to make money and help their families.

Of course, First impressions can be deceiving. Despite the fact that I knew I was coming to a village to help women at first it never quite seems that way, smiling faces and invitations to dinner can often be misleading and as an outsider you remain on the outskirts of what is really going on. But here in Setrawa we have experienced a phenomenal thing, an insiders view in a mere two days. On the Friday following our arrival a meeting was held with the women of the village to discuss the development of the Sheerni project. Sheerni means Tigeress which is more than appropriate for these women. The meeting began with women slowly showing up and general banter and curious discussion about what would happen. Once all the women had arrived the meeting began and the real issues of the village were brought to light.

The main issues centred around education, child marriage, the Nreja and Anganwadi projects, the rapidly dwindling water and food supply and of course the sheerni project itself. I was shocked to find that only 4 of the 20+ women had gone to school and only 4 read the newspaper. Literacy as we found out from Govind merely means the ability to sign your name, doesn’t matter if you cant read what you’re signing. This has lead to a large problem in regards to the Nreja project, which the Indian gov’t has set up to help poor women in times of drought. Women are given 100 days of work at 100 rupess a day in order to survive until the next monsoon, or at least they are supposed to be given. But as many women testified in the group they were only paid 30 after they had signed a form that they could not read at which point it was too late. Sadly the women did not defend each other in trying to get their full wage and the men will not step between their wives and the gov’t. Similar corruption has been seen in the Anganwadi project which is supposed to ensure that children and pregnant women get enough to eat. This of course is a logistical nightmare with the number of people in India, and to make matters worse it is now being controlled by private self help groups who close early, don’t stock supplies and seem to be generally inaccessible.

All of these issues and more are what the women and girls of Setrawa and I imagine Rajasthan and India at large face. But on Friday the Sheerni project was given life and now 15 women have access to micro financing for projects they deem worthy. Some of these will be sewing, cattle farming and cooking. These women seem so resilient and determined I hope it brings them new hope and opportunity.

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