The post-adaptation phase at ViKAAS Centre, Harike
The intensity things are lived with here in Harike village that speed up the adaptation process, making one feel an integrated part of the community in no time. There are still of course, some aspects of life here that are difficult to adapt to but that one can learn to endure with a touch of patience. Take for example the distracting mosquito at night (which are then replaced by flies in the day) I will never adapt to these little guys but one gradually pay less and less attention to them.
Harike is a village on the banks of a river confluence and wetland bird sanctuary adjoining a national highway in north Indian state of Punjab where I work as a volunteer-intern with EduCARE India, an NGO engaged in rural sustainable development and community applied research.
Once the adaptation phase comes to an end, the real work begins at the Harike ViKAAS Centre (ViKAAS means development in Hindi) . The novelty of being one of the only few foreigners in a rural village wears out pretty quickly and locals slowly start treating you like one of them this means losing the luxury of being treated like some prestigious princess from a faraway land but it also means gaining people's trust and respect, vital if you are attempting to reshape long-standing dynamics and mentalities.
When I first arrived in Harike, I knew I would be designing and implementing a project in what they refer to as "Women Empowerment", however I was unsure as to how I, a women from Europe with its culture of equality and opportunity, could ever be able to empower women who knew the hardships of life more than I could possibly imagine and who had become thick-skinned to battle through the daily challenges/hardships they faced.
I had a vague idea of the various ways women were increasingly being empowered around the world (micro-finance projects, language and IT skills, practical skills development etc.) but I needed to find something that not only the women in the community would benefit from, but that I would also feel capable of carrying out. The first thing I had to decide was whether I would be working with adult women or concentrating more on girls and teenagers. Considering my stay in Harike was only three months I decided that whatever project I did would have a longer lasting effect on the younger generation.
With the freedom of choice made available by the NGO to volunteer interns for developing leadership skills, I wanted to design a project that encompassed as many aspects of EduCARE India's holistic SHEEE* approach as possible. I was adamant to start an innovative project that would eventually be community-led, run by the very same participants. The moment I became aware of the lack of opportunities for girls to practice team sports outside of school, I didn't have to think any further - I was going to start the first Girls Sports Club in Harike. Sports is the perfect vehicle towards empowerment since it fosters confidence, self-worth, team work and an endless list of skills to improve the quality of life of a woman.
All the motivation, the dreams and aspirations were there and of course a bag filled with optimism (whether that was genuine or forced). However, the less romantic side of me also knew that I had to be realistic and that it was very probable that my project would flop or not even take off. To avoid disappointment in this unpredictable field of development, I told myself that as long as I tried my best I would be happy with the project results, regardless of whether they were a success or not.
I had already had two very positive GSC sessions at the local government school, but the success of the project was going to be judged the following week, when the sessions were to be moved from government school to the ViKAAS centre. The girls were not going to be forced to attend the sessions by teachers anymore and it was going to be entirely up to them whether they wanted to show up or not. Aware of the difficulty in gathering a specific group of people, in a specific place at a specific time I spent the entire preceding week reminding the girls where and when to attend the session, never forgetting to transmit enthusiasm.
The day of that initial session at the ViKAAS centre arrived and I was bouncing with excitement and utter dread - what if no one showed up? What if my sales skills were so terrible that I hadn't even managed to convince a group of girls to attend a weekly sport session? After spending two hours setting up the room and the workshop (we were going to discuss the importance of breathing correctly) I went outside the office and began pacing up and down, hoping that the afternoon would run smoothly.
I checked my phone and felt a wave of sadness when I saw that it was 16:10 and no one had showed up. "It's fine" I told myself "it's all part of the experience" but deep down I was gutted. As soon as I turned around to go back into the office I heard my name being shouted from behind. I turned around and about 10 overly excited girls started running in my direction. I am not exaggerating when I say that my heart was filled with extreme happiness when I saw that they were all wearing sports gear and all had a bottle of water in their hand (just as I had told them). I began the session with some breathing exercises and stretching and girls wouldn't stop showing up. Twenty minutes into the session and I was in charge of a class of 20 girls, my project was working after all. The session was extremely successful, so much so that the number of girls was increased to 35 the following week. This made me realise that once value is created among the community, half of the work for your project is done.
Girls Sports Club