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Self-Employed Women’s Association – Week 6

EDI-SEWA-group-photoI cannot believe that the internship has finished. I sit here in the EDI campus just a few hours away from my flight home and I am still trying to take it all in. I have had an amazing time, and I have met so many wonderful people here, from students and teachers to managers and RUDIben (self-employed women who sell RUDI products).  It has given me a completely new perspective on how businesses can work, and has shown me the true determination and power of the women involved with SEWA and RUDI.

I have personally found our last week of the internship the best out of all of them. It started off on Monday with the presentation of Tim’s and my 5 year business plan for the Surendranagar District of RUDI.  To finally show our finished product and receive such positive feedback made all the hours that we spent working on it worthwhile. In the evening we met up with Sharmishta and all of the intern’s supervisors at a beautiful restaurant to be served a feast of Gujarati dishes. Sharmishta had the chance to meet our supervisors to whom we had all grown very close, whilst we filled our bellies with some delicious and rather strange food.

But our work had not quite finished there. Tim and I were then informed we would be making a trip to another district that had just started up so that we could create a short report on it and come up with a few recommendations on how they can improve. So on Tuesday, Dimpleben, Tim, and I set off to Rajasthan for two days.

It was great to be out in India again, peering out into the countryside and visiting various centres that provide support to so many people. A few hours later we arrived at our destination and were warmly welcomed by a group of RUDIben and their children who took us on a tour of the village, stopping off at various houses to be served sweet chai and spicy food. When we returned to the centre, we gathered the information we needed, helped the RUDIben load the car, and went to stay the night at one of SEWA’s manager schools before setting off back to Ahmedabad.

On the Thursday I spent my time writing the report and playing football with the Indian students with Jordan and Addison. We had come to look forward to the 6 o’clock kick off like eager children on Christmas Eve.

Friday came quickly, the last day of the internship, who could believe it?! The SEWA interns had a meeting where we showed our work and discussed the internship with our supervisors. They were all impressed with our work and effort over the course of the internship, and us with their kindness and help along the way. We also had the chance to talk to a couple of people who had been brought into SEWA to come up with a strategy for the next ten years; one of whom was a professor from Cambridge who was from the midlands, so after a brief while of talking football about Birmingham (whom I support) and West Brom, we discussed our work with them. To get more praise for our work from such people made Tim and me even happier, it really made us proud of our work. But things weren’t all so positive… we then had to say bye to Dimpleben, with whom Tim and I had grown so used to going into work and seeing her smiling face and hearing her little jokes. But Dimpleben wasn’t the only person who we were saying goodbye to; Addison left that afternoon, followed by Jordan, Jamie, Harriet, Su and Alex who set off on their travels around India. Lola and Bradley left in the evening, leaving me alone for Sunday.

But it wasn’t all so bad; I went to a market with a few Indian friends I had made on the campus and bought a kurta for my little nephew, and I cannot wait to see him in it! I had my last meal out which consisted of plenty of chicken and rice and returned back to the campus to pack my bags and write this blog.

It has been a truly memorable 6 weeks and I can look back on my experience with a fondness for this crazy and wonderful country I never thought I’d have. India has been so welcoming and friendly, and I have gained so much invaluable knowledge and seen sights that you cannot see anywhere else. I know I will return one day, and sooner rather than later I hope.

SEWA women at work

Self-Employed Women’s Association 2014 – Week 4

museumRather than the usual Monday morning, this week we were treated to a trip to the Calico Museum of Textiles, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ahmedabad, and considered essential to our work (I was informed that my supervisors would not allow me to leave the city without paying the museum a visit).

The museum was based on a carved wooden house, traditional to Gujurat, which was over 200 years old and could be broken down and transported, which is a very interesting detail.

Once inside the museum, we were bombarded with textiles on every wall, floor and ceiling. The early sections boasted fabrics and cloths from the 15th Century. As our guide pointed out, some of the shapes were not the most flattering, but “they did their best.” As we moved deeper into the museum, we learned more and more about different embroidery and decorative techniques, from the very small and neat cobblers’ stitch (developed by cobblers using hooks to sew leather shoes), to the precision of the Punjabi embroidery style, whereby the embroidery would count the threads the stitch would cover to create perfect geometric designs.

The traditional techniques of people in Gujurat and other Indian states were all on show in the museum. One large hall was completely covered in an intricate canvas tent from the Mughal period, along with modesty screens, which they used to allow women to observe without being seen.

Each room in the museum had a different theme and so we were able to walk from a room of quilted, 3D designs to one in which everything was covered in tiny beads, painstakingly sewn together in complex designs and patterns. In some of the later rooms we learnt more about styles such as tie dye and weaving. One technique involved the weaver dyeing every single thread individually in multiple colors so that once they were all woven together a design was created. The artisans creating such pieces would have no written instructions, but would translate designs from their mind’s eye to the loom. Other hand-embroidered pieces would take two artisans up to three years to complete, with each embroiderer starting from opposite ends and working towards the middle, creating a symmetrical design. Each stage in designs such as this were passed on through song, with the artisan creating the design, singing the instructions to their partner at the other end.

I think we were all thoroughly impressed by the meticulous skills of these artisans, and their patience!

On Tuesday night we decided to go out for dinner to celebrate the return of our very own prodigal sons (also known as the EDI boys). The plan was to meet at the beautiful Kankaria Lake; however, some of us got a little side-tracked, staging a daring rescue of an injured bird with the help of our trusted rickshaw driver, Manglesh. Instead of going to the lake, we instead went to a veterinary clinic that accepted injured animals off the street (for the cynical amongst you, they had a huge enclosure full of pigeons so I’m confident that they didn’t just put our little bird down). There we encountered an adorable little dog, locked in a cage with a bandaged leg, yapping inconsolably. When we asked why no one had changed his bloody bandage, we were informed that it was in fact rabid. Oh.

On Thursday I was lucky enough to visit Jamie’s work place, known as Gitanjili. Here I had the chance to meet some of the waste pickers who had joined SEWA and now worked making recycled stationary. I was immediately impressed by all the Gujurati Jamie had learned, as she was able to hold a pretty decent conversation with the women there. I, however, had absolutely no clue what was going on, but managed to make friends whilst learning their special paper counting technique (which was actually much harder than it looked!) Overall, Jamie and I had a lovely time, with Jamie conducting interviews with some of the workers whilst I struggled to get the right paper flicking technique. That was until The Rain became ridiculous. Yes, I have deliberately capitalized and italicized The Rain in line with my new found respect for the beast.

At around 4 o’clock, one of the ladies came upstairs to ask how Jamie and I were planning to get home. We were confused by the question until we looked down the stairs and saw the water level standing at lower shin depth on the street outside, despite the fact that the road was sloped.

Initially Jamie’s supervisor Neelimaben was going to come to our rescue, offering to take us in her car to a point where the water wasn’t so bad so our rickshaw driver could collect us. This plan was quickly scrapped, however, when we saw the parade of broken rickshaws outside the gate, including one which had been washed onto its side. Eventually we decided that we would have to brave it and walk to meet our rickshaw on higher ground.

As we made our way through the gate we were met by our very soggy rickshaw driver sans rickshaw (he had, however, brought along his trusty radio wrapped in a plastic bag). He informed us we would have to walk through knee deep water to get to the rickshaw. He lied. Jamie and I are not the tallest people in the world anyway, but by the time we made it to “the puddle,” things had become somewhat worse. The water was up to the tops of our thighs and we had to wade a good 100 meters through it. Never have I tried harder to put mind over matter. I still refuse to think about what must have been in that dark brown water…

Nevertheless, Jamie and I survived the ordeal and lived to see another day (meaning a hot shower involving epic amounts of hand sanitizer and soap!)

So yes, just another quiet week in India…Museum-2

Self-Employed Women’s Association 2014 – Third Week

Su and Lola with SEWA helpersThis week at SEWA has been a fascinating learning experience. The SEWA unit I work for is called the SEWA Manager ni School. Like its name says, it provides the members of the organization basic lessons on different aspects of business and the economy that will help them better manage their micro enterprises. The difference between this school and any other management school is that its target audience includes literate, semi literate as well as illiterate women. All of them, however, are still the primary sources of income for each of their households through various forms of economic activity.

One of the modules that is taught to the SEWA members is about financial management. Because the module was created some time ago, my task is to give insight regarding what topics are still relevant or not, propose new ones and make the respective changes. Once this is done, I will include it in a larger more comprehensive micro enterprise development module, which I will also review and modify. In order to better understand how these modules work, I was able to sit on one on Monday and Tuesday. I was really glad to meet the women upon whom the module has a direct impact. Because many of them are illiterate or semi literate, the classes are required to be very interactive and include activities such as role playing and various games. I was amazed at how quickly these women were able to work as a team without having met each other before.

Interns at private temple AkshardamThe sessions are normally given in Gujarati which is the local language. However, Salmaben, the instructor, asked them to speak in Hindi so that Gunjan (my coworker) could translate to me. I could not express enough how grateful I was for the extra effort they put forth just for me.  One of the words I learned, together with the SEWA members was “Udyogsahsikta.” In Hindi, this means “entrepreneur,” but the beauty of it is that “Udyog” means business and “sahskita” is related to courage. Together we learned that to be an entrepreneur, one must be courageous and accept all the risks that come with starting a business.  As we, the interns, approach the halfway point on our journey, we could not be more amazed at how much we have learned and grown as travelers, business students, and people. I cannot wait for what the next three weeks have in store for us.

-Su Lau

Self-Employed Women’s Association 2014 – First Week

SEWA“No. Never. Absolutely Not.” are the words my mother stuttered from the phone when I first announced that I had been accepted to intern with the Self Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, India. Somehow, only three short months later, I now sit under the blanket of humidity that coats the entire city of Ahmedabad, and I would venture to guess, the rest of the country. How long can I survive in this over 100o temperature?  How can I work in India for over a month despite having never left the United States for more than a week? Will I be able to assimilate into a workplace that does not always use English for communication?  Only time will tell. However, while the odds may seem to be rapidly rising up against me, I can certainly say I have found these questions to be exciting challenges, and I have found my first week in India to be incredible.

Upon arriving at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Ahmedabad on Saturday, the other interns, and I were all acquainted with the rooms, our campus, and one another. The institute is divided between five different buildings surrounded with well-manicured lawns, foliage, and the occasional dog, peacock, and even monkey. Located in the rural district, the campus is detached from the main part of the city. Despite the fact that classes did not begin until Monday, two days after we arrived, some students were already on campus. We found all of them to be very nice and welcoming, and they gave us advice about the city and the area. A few even brought us with them to a beautiful Hindu temple down the road. The campus quickly became our base and, even more importantly, a home-away-from-home.

These lazy first two days were quickly interrupted by the Monday we all started our internships. The four interns working with EDI remained on campus while the six of us working with SEWA left for their office in our first visit to the inner city. The bustling chaos of Indian traffic lived up to all the stories we had heard. Driving laws, lights, and lanes are merely suggestions, and horns are used by drivers simply to declare: “I am here.” Amazingly, the bustle of cars and bikes flow like water through the streets. Once we arrived at our destination, we learned that our first week would serve as an introduction to SEWA’s goals and purpose. The first facility we toured was the textile branch of SEWA. On the first two floors, women were trained to sew with machinery and put together various articles of clothing. Only SEWA’s most skilled worked on intricate hand stitching on the top floor. We then toured the Gintanjali and SEWA Manager Ni School. Gitanjali helps women learn to turn recycled papers into notebooks and other paper-based materials. SEWA Manager Ni School provides management and basic business training to literate, illiterate, and semi-literate women. Overall, meeting new and senior members of each branch of the organization allowed us to see the opportunities SEWA creates for women throughout Ahmedabad and India.

On Wednesday and Thursday Michael, my internship partner, and I finally learned about the group we would be working under directly: Rudi. Rudi provides agricultural assistance to villages to help promote village and farming sustainability for its members. We visited two separate processing plants and met some of the women we would be directly working under. It was quite comforting to find such kindness and hospitality behind the dust and sand of Gujarat’s more arid regions. Even more surprising was the fertility of this land. Not only could the land be farmed after the rejuvenation of the seasonal monsoons, but there were also vast amounts of valuable and profitable salt deposits. Rudi is concerned with all resources produced by the land as well as the farmers cultivating them all.  The drive to these destinations were two to three hours long but passed by quite quickly thanks primarily to our very entertaining boss, Dimpleben. Between comparisons of British and American culture to Dimpleben’s Hindi lessons, the fields of Gujarat quickly raced by our cars windowsills each day.

Now I wait to leave for a village in Surendranagar district where I will work for the next twelve days. There, I will analyze and write the business strategy for the Rudi’s Surendranagar branch and then create a new business plan for the next five years. Once completed, this analysis will be given to Rudi and SEWA for consideration. Meanwhile, the other SEWA interns will each work for their respective departments within the organization. With introductions of SEWA, the country, and the other interns complete, I look forward to the approaching rainy season and the next five weeks on my exciting adventure in India.

-Tim McCall

Self-Employed Women’s Association 2014 – First Week with Jamie Kim

Jamie Kim and SEWA coworkers

The first few days here were quite chaotic. I now feel that I have settled in and am able to write about the work I am doing here in Ahmedabad at SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. I would have liked to describe the logistics of this trip, such as my accommodations and hostel-mates, but I am trying to avoid making this entry longer than it has to be.

During the first week, SEWA gave the interns an orientation and introduction to some of the different sectors and their respective offices. SEWA was established in 1972 and has more than 1.3 million women members who seek stability and self-reliance through employment. This sort of employment ensures that these women receive security and benefits, both of which were not received in the members’ prior work. SEWA also extends to the SAARC countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. After visiting the offices and learning more about SEWA’s progress, I was enthused to be working with such a forward-thinking non-governmental organization.

Today was my third full day of work at Gitanjali, SEWA’s branch for stationery creation. Gitanjali was formed in 1995, and its objective is to supply an alternative livelihood of various paper products through recycled paper waste incorporation while providing a more sustainable career for women workers. Many of the employees of Gitanjali are also working as “waste-pickers.” As waste-pickers, these women are exposed daily to poor sanitation and the danger of cuts leading to diseases. Women more oftentimes fear suffocation from heaps of waste burying those working at the bottom. Gitanjali has helped organize waste-pickers and provide opportunities for women to develop skills in creating handmade stationery products out of recycled materials. With continuous orders from companies like Staples, Accenture, and Goldman Sachs, Gitanjali has developed immensely. During these first few days, I have been observing the production line and the 30 employees at Gitanjali. My assignments are to produce case studies of the women, create marketing materials, examine the finances, and identify operational deficiencies. I am dumbfounded by each story I am told and more and more amazed at the work SEWA is doing.

In regards to living in India, it has been quite nice. Along with the other interns, I am living in EDI’s (Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India) International hostel. I am blessed with air conditioning, single room, private bathroom, cleaning service, laundry service, and WiFi. I came with the idea that I would lose weight but have put on a few pounds instead, due to the lavish plates of authentic Indian food provided on campus. I did not expect such comfortable accommodations and am extremely grateful. The students attending the institute have also been very welcoming and helpful. If only the heat would be more kind…

-Jamie Kim