Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Cultivating Community Projects: What’s Really Involved

This blog is usually used to communicate, celebrate and reflect on EduCARE’s successes; be it a successful health project, a significant milestone in community relationship building, or the start of a village-wide environmental awareness campaign. We love to share the photos of smiling interns side by side with satisfied community members, and recount that special feeling of achieving something amazing together. This blog is usually a record of the fruits of our labour.

In this post I have no grand event to report, no milestone to reflect on and no photos of a crowd of community members with EduCARE staff snapped after a long but fruitful day. This post contains no fruit at all, only carefully prepared soil and the first suggestions of a fresh green shoot.

Every morning and afternoon, our landlord, a seventy-something year old man with a neat moustache and gravelly voice, helps us tend our garden at the Rait intern house. With one of our main centre goals being to maintain a sustainable house project, the veggie garden is very important to us interns. With years of agricultural experience, “Uncle” demonstrates how to prepare the soil, explains where and when to plant each crop, and diligently monitors the watering schedule. We are all very excited with the prospect of soon cooking and eating our own home-grown vegetables;perhaps, a little too excited and a little too quick to throw seeds into the unprepared soil of a new garden bed just in front of the veranda.

Our Uncle just shakes his head at this, patiently gets the shovel and instructs us to loosen the soil in the small plot of land. “Do we plant the seeds now”, we ask, Uncle shakes his head and smiles. The next day, he brings a bag of cow manure, directs us to scatter it across the small plot of land and then work the nutrient-rich goodness into the soil. “Do we plant the seeds now”, we ask, Uncleshakes his head and smiles. The next day, he brings three huge bags of dried leaves, scatters them over the plot of land and leaves them there. We don’t ask about seeds this time, we just watch and wait. The leaves stay there for days, weeks even, getting no attention other than the occasional watering. As I write, we still haven’t planted any seeds in that plot of land in front of the veranda. We realise now that there’s more to gardening than throwing seeds into the dirt and hoping for the best.

Similarly,there is more to community development than just throwing a project at the community and hoping it will take root. When the Rait centre first initiated its figure-head women’s empowerment project in March, the Young Women’s Association, it was assumed that a range of other projects would inevitably shoot off, including skills development and training programs, self-help groups and micro-enterprises. Things are never that simple.

The women’s empowerment team in Rait has learnt the importance of leg-work, liaising with stakeholders, comparing options, exploring new avenues and finding creative solutions to unexpected challenges. Take our mushroom farming project, for example. The project design involves training a group of women in the art of mushroom cultivation, providing a small interest-free loan to help with training and start-up costs, and helping the women source materials and equipment to start their own mushroom micro-enterprises at home. Sounds simple enough, right? Hold on, don’t throw those seeds in that hard, compacted dirt just yet.

We’ve spent the last two months travelling to agricultural research institutes and universities, communicating back and forth with professors and mushroom experts, learning about mushroom cultivation techniques, preparing cost analyses, and comparing training options. Only once all of this behind the scenes legwork was done could we go to the women, who expressed an interest in growing mushrooms, to tell them the good news. But wait, you may have broken your back turning that soil, but you haven’t introduced the manure yet!

The women of Rait live diverse and complicated lives. Their time is split between domestic duties, child care, social and community obligations, and a diverse range of income-generating activities. There is a diverse mix of living and housing situations, from large multi-roomed complexes, which house entire extended families, to simple two room structures, and single rented rooms that are shared by each family. The diversity of these women’s experiences poses some interesting challenges for designing a project suitable for each of their living situations, schedules and needs. From difficulties with finding two consecutive days to attend a training course,to identifying a suitable spot in the house to allow the sensitive young mushrooms to grow, communicating with each of the women requires multiple visits to their homes (and lots of cups of chai). The language barrier poses another problem and we often have to enlist the aid of a native-speaker. Every visit presents a new challenge and requires some creative problem solving. It may not be so glamourous, but this is what community development work really looks like.

It takes time and a lot of back-breaking labour to get the soil primed and ready for sowing.
We’d love for this blog post to be about the success of our first mushroom farming training workshop, or to include a photo of a smiling woman proudly presenting her crop of home-grown oyster mushrooms. In the future, we hope to bring you these things, but for now all I can share with you is the nitty-gritty of what community development really looks like. We’ve put a lot of effort into laying the foundation of this project, anticipating and solving challenges in creative ways, and tailoring solutions to meet the individual and the collective needs of the women of Rait. We are currently putting together individual contracts for each of the women, to ensure the micro-credit process is both transparent and specific to each woman’s needs. We plan to hold our first training workshop in early June; our first mushroom crop should be ready by late July or early August.
We might not have anything to show for our efforts just yet, but with such rich and carefully cultivated soil, we are bound to have a successful crop soon enough.

Katherine Woolnough - Australia
Women's Empowerment Project Manager, Rait

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