Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reflections Upon Return to the US: Rebecca

It’s been a little over a month since JC and I returned from India and I’ve found it immensely difficult to explain the fullness of the experience. Everyone asks ‘so how was India?’ and there is no simple answer. I respond ‘it was great’ and explain a little about the work we did, but I always feel there are pieces missing from my description. There is something so profoundly indescribable about being welcomed into a community or invited to share a special moment. Words are simply not enough. 

But where words fall short, connection prevails. I really underestimated how much society relies on language to communicate. It was very isolating being unable to speak Tamil. I felt uncomfortable pronouncing words or rude asking those who spoke English to speak slowly. I realized, however, that more can be expressed in a gesture or a kind glance than in words alone. It became most important for me to understand the customs of Padavedu and the cultural meaning of social interactions. I didn’t need to speak Tamil to observe and reflect on how relationships are built. I will be a better social worker because I understand, with new meaning, the importance of connection.

This was my first experience in another country for a significant amount of time. For me, it was an opportunity to challenge myself in a completely foreign context. I wanted to understand my role as an outside ‘helping professional.’  I wanted to share my experiences and understanding of social work with others. I wanted to experience life in another country. As a social worker most of us will work with communities outside our own. It is our duty to understand our role, especially as it relates to power and privilege, and to find our niche as agents of social change.

Although I’d acknowledged my privilege as a US-born citizen, I understand my position in relation to the world with a new lens. My understanding of needs and resources was limited to an American framework. I cannot dismiss the reality of global poverty as I used to. Armed with a new understanding I feel compelled to act. I must acknowledge the effect of my actions as a social worker, as a women, as a consumer and as an American on people across the globe. 

Even now, as I reflect on the experience, I feel driven by emotion, not language. I sense an acute change in my interactions with others. It’s such a nuanced difference but has immense power in developing a helping relationship. I feel grateful to CUSSW for creating this opportunity and honored to have been welcomed by SST and Chairman Joshi. As a final word I would like to deeply thank those who shared their lives with us. I appreciate your willingness to welcome us and am grateful for having met each of you.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Returning Home: JC

What is community development? The Tamil word for “community” is samudayam. It is a compound word composed of sama (“equal”) and adayam (“resource”). When Tamils talk about their community they are literally talking about their “equal resources.” I don’t know to what extent this linguistic denotation is also the conceptual understanding of the word for most people. After all, what native English speaker fixates on the root derivatives of more complex words? Nevertheless I like the Tamil construction of “community,” which to me has an inherent element of social justice not found in the English construction. Samudayam expresses something above and beyond a body of people that share similar characteristics. A community is an entity in which each member contributes to, and has a right to access, the combined products of that entity. Community development involves increasing and improving assets for everyone through, I would argue, the combined effort of everyone in that community. I wonder what the world would look like if more people adopted this progressive interpretation.

It’s now been three weeks since I returned to the U.S. Our last few weeks in Padavedu were rather whirlwind as Rebecca and I rushed to analyze and report on the results of the survey, and also take advantage of as many cultural opportunities as possible before leaving. I learned a lot about rural community development in Tamil Nadu through observing SST’s strategies for community engagement and participation. In an effort to be able to better contribute to NGOs like SST in the future, my coursework this year focuses on organizational and human resource management, program evaluation, and issues of international social welfare (with a focus on rural development strategies). Moving forward, SST will always serve as a case study against which I can test development theories learned in the classroom or during future experiences.

So much of social work involves forging relationships, and “terminating” those relationships (as one says in social work parlance) when the time comes can be difficult. I like to think that my “termination” with SST does not signify a complete severance, but represents more of a transition in my relationship with the organization and its staff members. As I learned during first year in my Direct Practice class, it is foolish to think that only the “client” changes and that the “practitioner” remains static. The “practitioner” may change just as much through her experiences with the “client.” I’d like to think that whatever changes I imparted on SST, its staff, and the Padavedu community were as positive as the changes they affected in me. I look forward to going back at some point, and that I’ll be able to learn a bit more Tamil next time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Week 6: Rebecca

SHG  members gather at SST center to participate in survey

SHG member filling out survey
After many discussions with SST staff and faculty at CUSSW, JC and I developed a project for the remainder of our time here. We are examining the impact of SST supported SHGs on the wellbeing of women. We are assessing the level of improvement across SST’s six development sectors: environment, agriculture, economic development, health, education, and infrastructure. We also included a brief section on women’s empowerment.

Narrowing the project questionnaire was far from an easy process. When the survey was originally drafted it was a whooping 18 pages. It was too long, but there were so much content to explore within each sector that I found it hard to compromise depth for length. Knowing that a three hour survey was unrealistic for both staff and SHG members, we collaborated to prioritize certain question types.

The SST surveys we have reviewed generally assess quantitative measurements, therefore this survey could be used as a tool to also assess qualitative measures. The questions are structured to elicit responses which assess the member’s perception and priorities. 

SST staff administered the survey to a small focus group and three problems arose: length, complexity and literacy level. The main challenge was the 15 or so open-ended questions. SST staff informed us that many of their surveys are filled out by the administrator in a face to face interview, so this may be the first time participants were asked to write their responses. I assumed that the question format would be somewhat self-explanatory and took for granted that surveys are culturally specific documents. SHG members had difficulty understanding questions that asked them to rank their responses numerically. Most skipped over the open-ended questions. I thought that rating questions could be answered regardless of literacy level, however, illiterate women could not recognize the numerical values. SST staff suggested reframing open-ended questions into rating questions and to offer more assistance to women with low literacy proficiency.

The entire process was tedious and frustrating, but worthwhile. Once finalized, the survey was successfully completed by 103 participants (possibly more if it is administered today). JC and I are beginning to analyze the results for an internal report to the Chairman of the organization. I feel proud of the questionnaire we’ve developed with SST and hope the results provide insight for future development programs. None of the work over the last few weeks would have been possible without the insight of SST staff, our advisors at Columbia University School of Social Work and the SHG members, thank you all!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Week 6: JC

Rebecca and I have been developing a survey tool that SST can use to evaluate its impact on the lives of SHG members. It has been a wearisome process involving several false starts and many modifications. The first time SST administered the survey, the frequency of one entry stood out significantly in the Excel results: “NR”. As Rebecca and I examined the data we talked about the many reasons for these No Responses. A combination of miscommunications, delays, confusing survey questions, and other factors contributed to participants’ survey-fatigue and my own feelings of exasperation. With these things in mind, we then strategized with SST staff to prepare for next time. What could be done to improve the survey and the survey-taking conditions so as to encourage total question response?

I learned some sound advice about working with people during my first year studies. HBSE made me more cognizant of the way multi-level factors influence individual and collective action. In Research Methods I was taught that making one’s own measurement tool is extremely difficult, and that one should use an existing tool whenever possible. In Intro to Community Organizing students discussed ways to run an effective community meetings, such as offering refreshments as an incentive and courtesy, starting the meeting on time, and making sure that administrative tasks were delegated beforehand. Had all of these learning points been implemented perfectly, there is a much larger chance that our first survey attempt would have run more smoothly. But it’s harder than it sounds to put it all into practice. The reality on the ground is that even with the best theories behind you, and even with the best of precautions in place, unforeseen challenges may still surprise you. There’s nothing to do but to roll with it and problem-solve as best you can. The way you approach the situation can help too, as one’s expectations are culturally informed. Baskar reminded me that patience is a skill that social workers must learn, and he’s right. I would rank patience right up there with empathy. It’s frustrating for me at times to have to work through translators or to have our schedule changed last minute, but patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor have helped me re-frame these otherwise stressful situations into golden learning opportunities.

SST administered another round of revised surveys again this week. This time I had a good feeling about the results. As SST staff thoroughly explained the concept behind the Likert scale questions, Rebecca and I offered tea and biscuits to the attentive women whose time and honest answers were greatly appreciated. There were also some delays this time around but more importantly there was good participant turnout and an excellent response rate. Rather than being exasperating, the experience was pleasurable—which is how interacting with others is supposed to be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Week 5: JC

Yogaramar Temple Exterior

Renugamban Temple Festival at night

These days SST is a well respected and trusted NGO in the Padavedu area.  The organization encountered many challenges when it first started working here ten years ago, and had to develop innovative strategies to gain communities’ trust. One of these strategies was helping communities renovate important cultural and religious sites that had fallen into disrepair. In addition to restoring temple architecture, temple grounds were also outfitted with basic infrastructure needs such as a compound wall, toilet, and drinking water facilities for visitors. Temple functions and personal poojas comprise an important part of people’s lives. For SST to recognize and act on this fact reveals its sensitivity to community priorities.  It is no surprise that working with people to preserve and strengthen an important cultural asset helped SST express its collaborative mission and become a stakeholder in the community. By partnering with temple officials, SST demonstrated its respect for existing socio-cultural leaders who—because of their standing within the community—then legitimized and promoted SST’s other projects and awareness campaigns. 

Government housing structure and SST staff member

Community toilet built by SST using government and community funds
SST now has a wonderful working relationship with temple swamis who can often be seen in the SST office. Since we've arrived here the temples in the area, especially Padavedu’s Renugamban temple, have seen an increase in pilgrims due to it being Aadi month—the month of festivals in the Dravidian calendar. SST organizes volunteers from TVS and SCL, as well as SHGs from the community, to help with crowd control, provide meals for worshippers, and take preventative measures against potential sanitation and hygiene issues. On the one hand, it is great that SST is working with the community to deal with the influx of temple visitors. On the other hand, it makes me wonder: why is the government not taking responsibility for these precautions? It reminds me of the trend in the U.S. in which government bodies step back from social welfare responsibilities and rely instead on NGOs to fill the service gap.

The Indian government has a wide variety of earmarked funds to help rural communities develop. The formations of SHGs and their linkage to credit sources is an obvious example. But other programs are not so transparent or accessible to the community. Furthermore, the relationship between communities and local government officials is often filled with tension. For instance, when I asked members of one SHG why they thought they did not get a perfect score on their government rating, they blamed it on government corruption. 

I like how SST tries to be more of a facilitative entity whenever possible. The organization strives to strengthen political and social structures already in place, thus addressing the breakdown between the development of government programs and their actual implementation. SST staff may educate SHGs about government schemes and help them apply for the funds to build better houses, construct roads, and improve their community in myriad other ways. Or they may partner with government public schools to help identify and engage “slow learners” in the classroom. But at times what the government is willing to provide may not be enough, or it may not be suited to the community’s needs. As a result, community action is the only recourse for the moment, such as in the case of crowd control for Renugamban temple festivals. In this particular case it is wonderful to see community organizing at work. I am also conscious that many years of relationship building between SST and the community had to occur in order for this action to take place.  But at the same time I wish the government were more hands-on in terms of quality service delivery. NGOs may mediate the relationship between the people and their government, but at some point the latter needs to step-up and address its shortcomings. Towards this end I see more room for macro-level political advocacy work on the part of all community stakeholders: SHG members, swamis, and SST alike.

Sweets and religious items for sale at Renugamban Temple

Temple vendor stall

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week 4: Rebecca

JC and Rebecca present "Foundations in a Flash" to community animators.

This week SST conducted a refresher training for all the field animators at the Padavedu site. We were asked to lead a brief lecture on social work practice in the United States. JC and I developed what I like to refer to as ‘foundations in a flash.’ We discussed strengths-based practice, client-centered approach, self-awareness, transaction theory, ecosystems perspective, and holistic approach. Self-awareness was the most challenging concept to embrace, which I think is true for most social service professionals. The process of becoming more self-aware requires reflection and insight beyond our time allotment and training ability. Our goal, however, was to introduce and share a few guiding principles from our studies. We wanted to emphasize the interconnectedness of various sectors across multiple levels of intervention. I was unsure how these theories would translate (literally and figuratively) in another culture but animators were quick to participate and share examples from their practice.

During our planning I was concerned our training might come across as common sense, but then I realized how easy it is to forget. At field placement I found myself distracted by immediate concerns: does this person have housing, what is their affect, is this child safe, etc. It is a constant struggle, especially as a direct practice student, to remind myself that immediate crisis’ are correlated to community, policy and cultural ramifications. In class the connection is clear, however, in field I rarely examine the larger implications. This is the Achilles heel of social work. I worry that direct practice narrow-mindedly fixates on the (dis)functioning of an individual without addressing the root cause. Even if the practitioner recognizes the macro-level connection, are direct practice positions malleable enough to encompass community development? My experience here has strengthened my interest in community organizing and confirmed its importance in empowering others. I feel my challenge upon returning will be to fuse community development and direct practice in a meaningful way.

My favorite part of our mini-lecture was when we posed the question ‘how does society benefit from self-help groups’ to the animators. An eager hand decorated with gold bangles shot up and explained that SHGs empower women. Such a simple, almost obvious answer, but the weight of that statement in the context of transforming an entire culture reminded me that nothing is fixed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Week 4: JC

Tamil Nadu Coastline

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 rocked the coasts of southern Tamil Nadu, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and Sri Lanka. Americans understood the phenomenon through media images of wrecked coastlines, displaced villages, and faceless figures tallying those injured or dead. Countries and individuals were asked to donate to the humanitarian relief efforts of organizations dispatched to the scene.  Fast forward to my own experience sitting in a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health classroom last Spring. In the Child Protection in Complex Emergencies class I took that semester, our class discussed the impact of the various organizations that responded to the tsunami.  A point was made that although international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were better funded (a result of their “brand-name” recognition amongst international donors), their interventions were not as effective as those of local NGOs that were more familiar with the local context pre-disaster.

Last week Rebecca and I made a day trip to Chennai, the state capital, to speak with Mr. Joshi, Regional Chairman of SST. As a student concentrating in Social Enterprise Development (SEA) next year, I value these meetings with the Chennai staff and Chairman Joshi in particular because of these individuals’ insight about the challenges of project planning, program development, and human resource management. We all had lunch at a restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine. We shared dishes from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, each delicately spiced (the hotter the better for me!) according to regional preferences. To my American taste buds, it is miraculous how dishes made of the same spices only in different proportions can produce unique but equally delicious curries. The food was spooned onto banana leaf plates and we ate with our hands, as is customary here.

Lest this degenerate into a “foodie” blog let me say that our lunchtime conversation was even more thought provoking. I learned about SST’s efforts during the tsunami relief in comparison to that of INGOs. INGOs used their financial muscle to provide material resources (such as motorized boats) for affected fisherman. Although this may seem like a good idea, it is questionable whether the practice promotes sustainable community development post-disaster. The impression I got was that INGOs gave items disproportionately to the community’s capacity to maintain them, or that the items were incongruent with local tastes. As a result resources were disused and money wasted. In comparison, SST spent far less money with greater success at community capacity building. One of the problems in humanitarian relief is building long-term sustainability into short-term emergency-relief projects, and for this INGOs would do well to consult or partner with local NGOs such as SST that have sustainability clearly in mind.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Week 3: Rebecca

JC, Analakshmi, and Rebecca (L to R)
SST employs a holistic approach through addressing economic, health, education, environment, agriculture and infrastructure development. Social workers are therefore responsible for a host of overlapping service areas. On Monday, Analakshmi took us to a busy intersection where she and other SST staff were vaccinating and selling chicks to SHG members (a micro-enterprise women’s cooperatives) and local farmers. Last week she helped complete anemia testing and awareness training in a nearby village. She also assists SHGs to better negotiate with creditors and collaborates with village panchayats (local governing body). She exemplifies what a social worker should be: advocate, organizer, leader and, most importantly, ally.

What I find the most remarkable about social work in this context is how much a part of the community social workers become. Social workers are members of the community. They live in the area, buy goods from the local economy and develop close friendships with individuals in the community. Analakshmi lives in Padavedu and returns to her home village once a week. There is very little separation of personal and professional, yet it does not seem to bother anyone. In fact, I think it eliminates many of the barriers between ‘outside helping professional’ and the community. This appears to create a deep relationship of trust and mutual commitment.

At first I could not understand why Analakshmi is not “burnt out.” She has been working in the field for 7 years, she works long hours, travels often, and barely has time to eat, let alone cook. She is clearly passionate about her work, but this is not enough to prevent burn out. I think what prevents internalizing the stress that can come with this profession is the feeling of shared commitment and collaboration. Analakshmi has a vested interest in empowering the people of these villages because she knows them personally as well as professionally. The rapport she has with individual villagers, especially animators, enables her to instigate change and elicit information in ways that an outsider could never breach.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Week 3: JC

Rebecca (in blue) and JC (in white) with SST Staff Members
SST operates Monday through Saturday. On Sundays Annalakshmi sleeps in, does laundry, watches Tamil TV, and prepares a homecooked meal if she’s up to it. During the week she eats exclusively from the village “tiffin” shops—run by SHG members—since she’s too busy to make food herself. This Sunday Annalakshmi takes me and Rebecca to Rajamani’s (an SST community animator) home for lunch. It’s a pleasant 10-minute walk past the Padavedu market and across a small river abloom with too much algae. Annalakshmi makes a point of saying that she usually rides her two-wheeler to Rajamani’s. Village residents take full advantage of her first time on foot, eagerly asking about the two foreign visitors and insisting we eat at their houses. Annalakshmi deftly declines the invitations. As an aside to us she smiles and says, “All of these people are our SHG members. They’re so nice, I like them so much.”

Annalakshmi’s relationship with the people she serves is inspiring, and her commitment to social work no less than admirable. When Annalakshmi leaves the apartment with her bags packed at three in the morning because SST has asked her to visit a project site 7 hours away, I think about how social work is much more than a 9-5 job. It reminds me instead of being a doctor always on call, and more of a general practitioner than a specialist at that. Annalakshmi and other SST Community Development Officers (CDO) wear multiple hats that transform them from direct service provider to case manager, project manager, and advocate all in one day. Providing financial counseling for an SHG, facilitating a partnership between villages and the Department of Forestry, or supporting residents as they petition for the removal of a corrupt local government official all fall under the CDO job description. Whereas social work in the U.S. has largely drifted away from its settlement house roots, I’ve noticed that community development in this context retains the principle that living amongst those you aim to help greatly enhances service effectiveness. Although to portray Annalakshmi as the Indian equivalent of Jane Addams would be overly romanticizing, it is fair to say that she serves in the same spirit. It is also fair to say that she could benefit from some personal “self-care.” I wouldn’t want Annalakshmi to burn out one day on account of working too hard.  
SST Office and Padavedu
I often read The Hindu newspaper at the SST office. It is filled with social welfare stories, some of which are similar to issues in the U.S. and others that are culturally specific. Recent articles have covered a job fair for tribal youth, government issued higher-education loans for girls, the number of homeless families in urban centers, government commitments to providing safe drinking water for all, efforts to stop land-grabbers from preying on senior citizens and widows, and new services to students with disabilities. Dedicated social workers like Annalakshmi are a valuable resource in this complex social landscape. They are also in short supply in India.  Annalakshmi's graduating class size was 30 students. Although both the number of MSW programs in India and their graduating class sizes have increased since the early 2000s, the numbers are hardly enough given the country’s large population.

Not all of SST’s CDOs are MSWs. Other CDOs hold degrees in anthropology, criminology, and engineering. Many employees are retired government foresters. This past week SST hosted three groups of young engineers from Sundaram Clayton Limited (SCL) as a first step in getting SCL employees to work as CDOs in the future. The point being that social work is not the exclusive domain of MSWs and can be done by anyone interested in improving peoples’ lives. It can even be done—and should be done, in my opinion—by whole businesses (SST is the social arm of SCL and the TVS Motor Company). Unlike many corporations that appear to take on social projects for publicity’s sake alone with no regard for sustainability, SCL and TVS are consciously working on sustainable development through SST. So far I haven’t been able to spend much time with non-MSW staff but I hope to do so. I wonder how their community interactions compare given their differing subject backgrounds and expertise. It’s exciting to be working with such a multi-disciplinary team.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Week 2: JC

SST Animator demonstrates honey collection
After saluting the government appointed guard at the gated entrance we begin our winding drive through the Jadhavu Hills. This is a designated “tribal area” and the landscape varies considerably from the “plains area.” Here millet replaces sugarcane, goats and sheep supplant cows, and thatched-roof houses are still the norm. Villages are so tucked away that standard staples of development such as roads, medical care, and educational facilities are relatively recent. Access to markets and hospitals located outside of the hills continues to be a problem for these communities.

We park our car on the hillside and pack up our provisions. It is still another 3km descent on foot into the hill valley where monkeys and wild elephants are known to live. Today we are accompanying Baskar, an MSW and SST community developer. Baskar has been partnering with “community animators” – village residents who act as liaisons between SST and targeted communities—to promote improved honey collection techniques through awareness and training. Yesterday Baskar explained the new method and today we have come to observe whether village residents can practically apply the information. The men put on the bee suits correctly, collect the comb, and extract a half-liter’s worth of pure honey. But still I question whether the community will continue practicing this new technique when the equipment isn’t new anymore and they no longer have an audience. The village took part in an agriculture training several months back but still the majority of millet fields are not spaced properly. Will something similar happen with this training?

SST staff tells me that progress in the plains communities is easier and faster than in the tribal areas. Why is this the case? As a student trained in ecosystems theory I am aware that the reasons are multiple and complex. Relationship-processes happening across generations and system levels have contributed to tribal communities’ structural and social isolation, suspicion of outsiders, and hesitancy when it comes to accepting development schemes. I spend my days here trying to understand these relationship-processes and how SST enters into them. Using a strengths-perspective I think about how farmers are not acting irrationally or stupidly by refusing to readily adopt new development schemes. Rather, they are exercising the highest prudence and risk-management. Why would a poor farmer, who has everything to lose, invest in something that he is not absolutely sure will be profitable? It is natural to want someone else to try it first.

The onus is not on the farmer but on the developing agency to find effective strategies to help communities discover for themselves whether technique X or scheme Y is worth doing, despite the risk. But what makes a strategy effective? Trust—in the message or the messenger—is a definite ingredient.  So I observe the animators, studying what makes them effective community organizers. Going back to social work basics I try to see if and how the three facilitative conditions of the therapeutic working relationship—empathy, authenticity, and positive regard—are employed in this context. Is there a way to improve the working relationship here so that change occurs faster?
Jadhavu Hills, Tamil Nadu

Week 2: Rebecca

At CUSSW, we are taught that self-awareness is essential to social work practice. It helps us identify our biases, develop our identity as practitioners and better understand the communities we live in and work alongside. With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about my relationship to Padaverdu (the village we live in), to SST (the host organization) and to India as a whole.

What is my role as both outsider and helping professional? We’ve spent two weeks becoming familiar with SST and the surrounding villages, but like any society the nuances and customs which define a culture are intricate. Right now, I see my role as observer, soaking in information and seeking understanding. I am not sure how my social work education relates to a rural context but by observing community development in practice, I see the importance of relationship-building, trust and cooperation.

Clearly, I stand out as a foreigner here. Everything from my size 10 sandals to my bright red hair sets me apart from those around me. I knew that people would be curious about me just as I was curious about them, but I had never felt the scrutiny that comes with being analyzed. At first, I felt ambiguous about my “otherness.” I was uncomfortable being examined, but wasn’t the very reason I came to India to study another culture? Although I look very unusual here, it’s curiosity which has overcome this difference.

I am learning that showing interest and demonstrating respect earn you some serious outsider "brownie" points. If this means I need to clear my plate regardless of what or how much is put before me, then by all means pile it on. The more I ask, the more people answer. The more Tamil I mispronounce, the more people laugh and gently correct me. At first I worried about being too intrusive or butchering the language but it honestly does not matter, as long as I show enthusiasm and demonstrate care.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Week 1: Rebecca

India is a profound country. When I stepped off the airplane and into a mix of auto-rickshaw drivers shouting for fares and family members eager to embrace loved ones, the raw energy of so many people packed into the walkway of the Chennai Airport overwhelmed my senses. Amidst this sea of people, I nervously searched for something that signified that I belonged here. I found a driver holding a small sign with my name in fine print and we headed towards his car. The ride was a blur of persistent car horns and darting 2 wheelers.

A day later I am sitting on the roof of our apartment in Padaverdu watching a woman dry and sift grain. Behind me are the Eastern Ghats, petite rocky mountains which surround the area. The village is busy with activity and it is only 6 am. On the patio, a young girl is having her hair braided by her elder sister. Young girls often wear their hair in looped pig tail braids accented with sweet smelling jasmine flowers. Middle aged women wear a single braid that extends down their lower back.

Spice filled aromas fill the apartment during meal time. Our mentor/guide here, Lakshmi, is busy mixing and crushing vegetables and spice into a commonly served dish, sambar. We try to watch and learn; however, the vastness of flavors and mastery of culinary technique is not easily absorbed by foreign eyes. I find myself mesmerized by daily life here, whether it’s cooking a mid-day meal or preparing for the school day.

Week 1: JC

Padavedu and surrounding villages
Padavedu village is located about 2.5 hours outside of Chennai in the  state of Tamil Nadu. Villages here are moderately sized (400-1,000 families) and packed along the thin paved-but-potholed roads so that it’s easy to walk into an entirely different village without knowing you’ve done so. Banana, sugar cane, rice paddy, and coconut palm fields—each their own vibrant shade of green—fill in the gaps between villages. Padavedu has no less than three temples each dedicated to different Hindu gods, and countless roadside and household shrines. Yogaramar temple—dedicated to Rama and Sita—even boasts its own resident elephant trained to bless temple worshipers on their heads. The small but well-stocked market sells basic food and household necessities. Snack shops, tiffin eateries, tea and coffee sellers, and one very delicious looking sweets shop line the market outskirts. Children walk in flocks to and from school wearing colored uniforms, the girls uniquely adorned with fresh flowers in their meticulously braided hair. Women wear colorful saris or churidhas (a long shirt over pants combo) of every imaginable color while men mostly wear a traditional cloth wrapped around their waist.  
We live across the street from the SST office in an apartment we share with Ms. Annalakshmi who is one of SST’s community developers. Another family also lives in the apartment building. The neighboring family, Annalakshmi, and the rest of the SST staff are extremely hospitable and have been indispensable in helping me understand the cultural practices of this region and to begin learning basic Tamil. Our neighbors are as curious to learn about American cooking (if you can say such a thing exists) as I am to learn about South Indian cooking, and the highlight of my evening is exchanging little “tastes” of our meals. One of the most interesting and challenging cultural activities is figuring out which of the million available spices are used for the redolent and healthy sambar and rasam dishes.  
This past week’s primary purpose has been exposure to SST’s development projects in the area. In a region where villagers complain of other NGOs abandoning projects or implementing unsustainable interventions, SST has a reputation for being a “model” NGO and at this point is sought out by community members themselves. SST and its community partners have also received awards from the Tamil Nadu government. In addition to basic infrastructure development (i.e. access to safe drinking water, toilet construction) SST’s foremost intervention seems to be the formation of Self-Help Groups (SHG) for which SST provides training and support. Through their participation in SHGs women are able to collectively borrow money from the bank and implement income generating activities (IGA) individually or as a group. Although anyone can form an SHG, those formed under SST have proven to have higher loan repayment rates and to have substantially increased members’ income. Members have used this new found income to construct better houses, send their children to college, and improve village amenities. So far this week we have been able to visit or hear about different IGAs including tailoring, banana rope making, shop keeping, flower garland making, milk-sweet production, and cattle raising. Through my interactions with the women themselves it is evident that they are sincere when they say that SHG participation has increased their confidence, awareness, public standing, and public visibility. As one woman put it, “We no longer have to rely on anyone else…that means our husbands!” 

Milk candy production in the village; one of many SST projects.

 Banana rope product

Tailoring project

Vermicompost project and SST staff