After a very long journey which taught me a good lesson that perhaps traveling overnight sleeper class alone may not always be the best idea, I safely arrived in beautiful Dharamsala. Although I live in the mountains myself, I found the mountains of this place to be quite unique and refreshingly different from what I have grown used to in Kumoan. The setting of the Kangra Valley that seems to run right up to the snow-covered mountains was breath-taking. I received a warm welcome in the home of Sarah and Bhumi as I tempered my jealousy of where they live. In the days that followed I learned a great deal about life and work in this place and met some incredible people.
While visiting Jagori Grameen, the organization of Sarah and Bhumi, I found it quite inspiring to encounter an NGO that not only promotes women’s empowerment through projects, but is also run largely by women, many from local villages. While most NGOs have the best of intentions, I feel that the feminist perspective is very much lacking in the field of development work. I have great respect for Jagori’s founder Abba Bhaiya for recognizing this gap and establishing an NGO that hinges on the importance of bringing a feminist lens to the field of rural development.
On the day of my arrival, I accompanied Sarah and Bhumi to a village where their team was preparing materials and props for the upcoming Youth Fair. We helped out making props, recounting rusty arts and craft skills. During this time I had the opportunity to interact with Gayatri, the team leader of the Agricultural Team. We talked in general about the different areas of Jagori’s work with farmers, women and youth. Given the people working on the Youth Fair activities, I was happy to learn that every team was contributing to activities to be held during the Fair. The agricultural team, which Gayatri leads was responsible for depicting environmental issues through various crafts.
The following day was my first visit to the actual campus of Jagori Grameen. I was inspired by the beauty of the place which was clearly built with much forethought and care. In this way, it reminded me a great deal of the Aarohi campus. At the campus I was able to have a more structured interview with Gayatri about Jagori’s work with farmers. Wanting to strengthen the backward linkages with farmers in the project area has been an emerging theme in Aarohi since my arrival. I asked Gayatri how Jagori first made connections with the community and how they have maintained these relationships over time while bringing up several different issues. She explained that in the beginning Jagori went house to house asking locals about traditional medicinal knowledge that had become somewhat obsolete with the introduction of western medicine. Jagori was compiling this information in order to make a booklet to promote traditional medicines, and through the process emphasized the importance of local knowledge. According to Gayatri, having the first interactions with the villagers be focused around learning from their traditional knowledge, Jagori was able to gain the trust and interest of many local people. My interview with her carried on as she explained how Jagori has since worked to motivate different sectors of the community to form their own groups, including farmers. Jagori has acted as a facilitator in their meetings and also as a guide to overcome various obstacles. At this time, these farmer groups are the medium through which the Sarah and Bhumi’s Market Project is able to function.
On the third day of my visit, the girls and I attended and helped out at the Youth Fair put on by Jagori. In a hodge-podge of activities and stalls, I had the pleasure of helping out with thumb print painting which was quite enjoyable. I met several people on this day that work with Jagori and was encouraged to see everyone communicating their message to a young audience in such creative ways. I think all too often development work is a subject of the “adult realm,” but ultimately if the minds of young people are not informed and engaged with these issues, how will any such work be sustained? In this way I was able to see the Youth Fair as more than just a few days of entertaining kids. Indeed such events have the potential to be an investment in the future development of such communities.
In addition to the my interactions with the organization, I had amazing time just hanging out with Sarah and Bhumi. The whole experience was so positive, I found myself brainstorming on how I could stay longer, encouraged by all those around me. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. And so I made my way back to the Kumaon region of these Himalayas, reflecting all the way on the good people, the good work, the good places and the good times that I have been so fortunate to be “exposed” to.