Thursday, February 10, 2011

One Month in India

Yesterday (Wednesday) was the first training session with the “master trainers” for our project.  It was rather complicated planning for the initial training not being sure how many language barriers we would encounter or how many other issues could come up.  I think we prepared pretty well – flexibility being the key.  Interestingly we had many more women come who had not attended the introductory session last week than we anticipated.  Obviously there is some enthusiasm for the project, which is crucial if it is ever to grow into a successful enterprise.  Training most of the women was pleasurable – only a few of those who considered themselves tailors and above following instructions presented any problem and I think we did well at graciously corralling them.  Christa and I worked better together on both preparing the training and providing the information than I had anticipated and I was very grateful there were two of us so we could offer more direct hands-on for the ten women who were there.  We started them off learning the backstitch to hand sew around a frog.  This taught them how to transfer a pattern to newspaper, how to leave the fabric intact until after sewing, and how to stitch around the pattern as Christa likes to do for her toymaking.  We then transferred to working on elephants with each team of three or four sharing the work of one elephant.  Dividing into teams became more of an issue than anticipated as women arriving late wanted into groups which then pushed other women out and into other groups.  The only older woman in the group suffered that fate and I couldn’t help but feel it was a rejection of some sort – though think she got the better end of the deal transferring to the group with Sathya who has already been working with us.  The elephant project got them working on the sewing machines a bit – which was interesting to see.  We were trying to ensure that every woman in the group got to try everything – a bit of hand sewing and a bit of machine sewing.  Since there are only two sewing machines to be shared by the three groups, this seemed like it could be helpful.  There were some in each group who felt they were masters of some portion of the work and who felt they had to do it all for the group – so teaching them that they need to strengthen the other group members as part of their work as future trainers obviously needs to be further stressed.  We are approaching this training differently than teaching sewing skills (though that is certainly a component) where we really want to focus on empowering them to train others.  It is also important to impart the concept of quality in the products created for the market, not something inherently present in their work. 

The return back from Rameshwaren seems to be an adjustment for everyone – we’re all moving a little slower than usual, though the increasing temperature may also play a role.  Kitu is feeling better after a full night and day suffering from apparent food/water poisoning and is eating a bit of regular food in addition to the biscuits she swears are keeping her alive.  No one else suffered any lasting effects other than being a bit run-down.  Christa headed into Madurai today to meet with the shopkeeper but also to take care of quite a bit of personal business before she leaves.  Kitu accompanied her hoping to spend time in the temple there while Christa takes care of her errands.  There are a few supplies that Christa will be picking up for the project and we’re really hoping for some feedback on the initial delivery last week.  She is making the remainder of the delivery except for three cell phone bags (I completed seven of the ten requested).  I tried to make a variety of sizes and flap styles but all seven are the same multicolored mix of fabrics.  The eighth one pieced (but not yet lined) I pulled together a color family (rust, red, black, gold) and I think it provides a very nice bag.  Unfortunately working with scraps doesn’t allow me the selection to work with very many attractive groupings like this but I’ll keep in mind that this is more what I should be looking for as I choose fabrics to cut into strips.  Today (break between class days) Sathya will be coming in and I will be showing her the cell phone bag construction.  I think that creating a nice lining requires some detail work that I am not certain I can adequately explain to the women without assistance and think Sathya can catch on and then describe the process in Tamil, which should help.  We will not begin cell phone bag construction until next week (Monday and Wednesday training days) but this will be my last opportunity to prepare with her since we have a Friday training.  We also have a few thing to pull together for the Friday training as well.  For the elephant training Christa had prepared the initial pieces for each elephant sewn but not turned and stuffed so that they would serve as examples.  She intended to demonstrate sewing on the belly piece and the back of the head after the lunch break and left all of the pieces out for the women to reference while we left.  Unfortunately all had disappeared by the time we returned and no one knew anything about them… a lot of work wasted.  Christa was quite disappointed but it taught us a lesson about exactly how to prepare items and what we could expect if we leave anything out.  There seems to be a real problem getting them women to understand there are limited resources – which seems so counterintuitive since you’d believe they’d be used to conserving.  However, they use things like needles and pins, set them down on the ground, and never pick anything up again.  They also have an incredible habit (same as the refugee sewing project in Austin) of cutting a small pattern piece from the center of a piece of fabric, wasting so much fabric for future use.  We are trying to retrain them in this respect but don’t think we have a reasonable approach and am not certain we can overcome this mindset.  If anyone has suggestions, they’d be welcome!

The soap project here at ODAM headed by Kate and Ramsey has reached a point where it is ready to be marketed.  They have completed several long term parts of the project within the past week and Kate sent an email to all previous ODAM volunteers asking for any suggestions for marketing contacts – and immediately got a response from a company in America who sells to 300 stores and is interested in placing an order.  They are ecstatic to be seeing the culmination of this project as it prepares to go into full fledged production.  Since I am hoping that our soft goods can follow the supply chain they establish for the soaps, this bodes very well for our project as well.  If they can overcome exporting items, we can follow along and provide our enterprise with a much better market than Madurai.  Keep those fingers crossed and for the soaps created from the glycerine byproduct of the biofuel process – another income generating project for ODAM and the poor of the Tiruchuli area.

Some sort of festival is approaching and this morning music began blaring through the street again – it’s been a couple weeks since the last musical imposition.  At least it didn’t begin too early.  They are constructing a large archway into the village – so far they have created a long roof structure with lights and fringed hangings but this morning they were adding a tall framework that will apparently hang a large banner of some sort.  The huge speakers are right by this construction and the music near here is blaring so loudly that you cannot even pass comfortably.  It is practically impossible to do business with the shops on the main street as you cannot speak to them or hear their responses.  Jayama, the cook in the mess, explained it was the first day of ten days of “pocham” (no idea what this means) so hopefully we don’t have ten more days of the music.  Trying to carry on a phone conversation in my room this morning was difficult even when I closed my windows (which is unpleasant so prefer not to).

Evening before last I was the first down to the mess for dinner and came upon Jayama with an old man from the village.  They were sitting on the floor in front of the door and it appeared he was telling her fortune.  They had an incense stick burning and water was spilled on the floor which I believe had something to do with the process (unclear).  This little old man often sits at the shop on the corner of our alley and the mainstreet and he always greets us with such enthusiasm.  I sat quietly on the stairs watching as they finished and then he turned to me and blessed me placing white powder across my forehead (as he had done for Jayama – his entire forehead was marked).  About this time Kate came down and went in and sat with him for a while.  He was simply beaming to be talking with her – and her lovely smile along with his was really beautiful.  He was enamored with her dimples and gave her a nice blessing as well as telling her she would live to be 98 (I thought he said 90 but she thought 98 so I bow to her choice).  He had no English and Jayama is a poor translator but we got a good deal of his background.  He says he is 81, which means he would have been about 18 when India achieved independence.  I would love to ask if he has any recollections of that time and how it impacted the typical Indian, especially in rural India, at the time.  We’d need a much better translator to approach something that complex.  What we got was that his wife died either at 78 or when he was 78 and that he now lives with his sister’s daughter who cooks for him.  He never had children of his own.  He has such a joyful energy and his eyes twinkle with excitement – it was a real joy to sit with this small black man in a diaper.  When the rest of the group came in he blessed each in turn and was almost as pleased with Paul’s dimples as he had been with Kate’s (good thing Paul had shaved his beard!).  He told Ramsey he wanted to read his palm but would have to do so in the daylight – it couldn’t be done at night.  This would absolutely require the presence of a better translator but would be great fun to arrange sometime.  He was a genuine pleasure to meet and I look forward to greeting him on the street in the future.

Last week at the KGBV girls school I spent time with a lesson on the differences in the diversity in India and America since they seem confused about white people.  Every time I describe someone n my family (a subject always dear to their hearts), they ask if they are also white – as though this is a fascinating concept.  I tried to explain that there are many white people in America but that its history allowed for many other cultures and ethnicities as well.  I’ll be continuing that lesson a bit this afternoon but am showing them some really great photos from the internet which show village life in several different countries so the images are somewhat similar to what they are used to but people and clothing look different enough that I think they will find this interesting.  The countries I have to choose from are in Central America, Vietnam, and Laos.  Hopefully I can find similar online resources to build a better collection.  I have started collecting some images from Africa as well.  At some point I want to find better city images to contrast but have to see where I’ll go with that.  Last Tuesday my phone rang during the class and I told them I didn’t need to answer because it was probably just my husband calling to let me know he was up and I could call him back.  I didn’t realize how excited they would be at the thought I had a call from America so at the end of the class I called him back to let them talk to him.  He was a very good sport to be awakened first thing in the morning to talk to eighth graders in India – but we had problems with the connection, likely because the classroom is in a cement building and the concrete probably prevent adequate reception.  I promised them at we would make the call on Thursday when I returned and set that up with Rusty.  Since Texas is going through a cold spell, I got some great images from Christa (from Switzerland) of snowy images and folks in ski gear.  We started the lesson talking about snow and cold and showing them images on the small laptop that Jesse loaned me for the trip.  They were fascinated and even one of the old women who cooks came over to the side of the room to view the slides.  I loved that she would come over to participate and tried to casually include her so she would feel welcome to do so again if she wished.  Once we completed the lesson on cold weather, we went outside to the veranda to make the call and I used the flip camera to film the girls as they talked to Rusty one by one.  They were so excited to be speaking to him on the other side of the world (believe me, we looked at the globe and the map a couple times to reference this properly – great lesson material).  It was great fun and by the time we finished, he’d spoken to all of the 8 standard grade (I don’t meet with all of them usually) and also the tailoring teacher, Salima, who comes some evenings to the school.  Even she seemed pleased to have a brief conversation with him.  He probably would have continued this all evening but the girls were very protective and only allowed the 8th graders to talk to him – none of the younger girls.  My husband is the BEST!

It has now been a month since I’ve been in India.  I feel I have acclimated pretty well to the environment; have had a chance to travel to both Salem and Rameshwaren; have established a good rapport with the girls at the KGBV school; have spoken at three events and  appeared/performed at one more (Pongal); have made tremendous strides in providing impetus to a great project which I hope will outlive my stay; and have enjoyed the experience immensely.  Three more months to go!

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