On a lazy October evening in 2015, I decided to go over to a friend’s place because I was feeling particularly anxious. That familiar anxiety that’s not unlike what I feel these days, now that I’m steadily but surely, heading towards the end of this Fellowship program. The reason I was anxious back in 2015 was because I was to graduate from my Master’s program in the coming month. I wasn’t sure what the next step was going to be. What I was certain of, however, was that I was in desperate need of grassroots experience in the Indian development space.
My friend then had mentioned the AIF Clinton Fellowship in passing; I’d have missed it completely. I didn’t, however. I immediately went back home to google what this was all about. One of the things that attracted me the most to this fellowship was the opportunity to spend ten months working in the grassroots development space in India. When I applied, I didn’t expect such a variety of experiences that come with grassroots exposure. Since the Orientation in Delhi to the 8th month of service, I’ve been exposed to various live examples of implementation, impact, and lived experiences of development initiatives. Sometimes, I’ve just gotten to witness mere glimpses and only heard vignettes from communities, even so, for a novice with a few months of work experience and a plethora of theory to show for, this has been most valuable.
Entering the grassroots arena, there were a few things that I did expect: understanding cultural nuances, witnessing impact (or the lack thereof), community engagement and mobilisation… What I didn’t expect, however, was to see the deep extent to which these things manifest, and the indomitable resourcefulness and resilience that development practitioners invariably exhibit.
Early April, 2017
My project at Gene Campaign had finally seemed to move from theory to practice. Apart from a Mela in November, I hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to engage with the community for my project. I was most excited to finally be able to take part, and host, the training and demonstration sessions on Millet Namkeen making to various women farmers groups across Kumaon.
The objective of the training was to:
- Demonstrate to women farmers a way of making a value added millet product (namkeen/savoury snacks).
- Demonstrate various aspects that go into the working of a value chain: hygiene training, preparing the product, packaging, and labelling.
- Imbue entrepreneurial interest in the women farmers.
The first of three training sessions was to be held in Okalkhanda block. Now, this block is around 70 kilometres from my office. The only way to commute is either by share taxi, a rickety bus, or my colleague’s motorcycle. The share taxi is far too unreliable and takes too much time; same goes for the bus; thank God for my colleague.
So this is how I found myself lugging a bag full of flour assortment, a namkeen press, cooking oil, various utensils, and myriad spices while simultaneously being a pillion on my colleague’s bike. Now, it’s all lovely when you think about it: me, on the back of a bike, jetting through the Himalayan foothills, off to cook with a group of amazing women, what a great job I have!
Yes it’s true, I do have it good. There are, however, some days where the lack of resources and logistical options leading to jugaad arrangements cease to be charming. Especially when you have to ride 140 kilometres on a bike and your Gluteus maximus develops an aching throb. Nevertheless, we trudged on to our field site.
Where does one find a venue that accommodates 40 women and 10 men, a cooking station, good lighting to take pictures for documentation, AND fits our budget in a village that’s no bigger than half of Saket Mall?
With the help of local networks, which largely involved my colleague calling all his uncles and them calling their associates from what seemed to be like across Kumaon, we managed to conduct sessions at a local government schools over two days.
The part that makes everything worth it is seeing the community respond to your trainings. Starting with the hygiene training, my colleague and I demonstrated – from scratch – the method for making Millet namkeen; we packaged and labelled the products right in front of them. This seemed to particularly encourage the women because they witnessed how millet could go from raw material to a competitive sale worthy finished produce in the span of two hours. Part of the training also involved tasting. We had to pass the taste test from the toughest critics around, the children.
When the children gobbled down the namkeen ravenously, one of the women quipped:
“If the children like it, then you’ve sold the product!”
This was heartening to hear, my colleague and I felt appropriate job gratification. Now, all we had to do was get back home.
The perks of living and working in the Himalayan foothills are several, including but not limited to:
- Pretending to be Maria Von Trapp on an almost daily basis.
- Pretending to be Friedrich Nietzsche, gazing poignantly at the mountains.
- Always have a glorious view… unless the weather decides to be unhelpful.
This is how my colleague and I found us stuck in a small government school kitchen, with 20-25 people, and a wood fire for almost two hours.
While we were being productive inside, the weather decided to be destructive outside and unleashed a storm of Biblical proportions upon us. We waited in a dingy room till the winds stopped and forging through ambiguity, and potential fever, we rode home despite the rain and clouds.
We made it home fine, thank heavens. However, what I gleaned from this experience was the resilience and perseverance that is demanded of development professionals. Of course, I’m not implying that this is the case everywhere, but when there are namkeens to be made and rural women entrepreneurs to mobilise, how can one not persevere?
Development despite stormy weather: this is what they don’t teach you in graduate school.