Sunday, July 3, 2011

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

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