Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The building blocks of change

Belaku started as a small health research project in rural Karnataka. But then the women said it was all very well to tell them about nutrition and eating right, but who was going to pay for it? Thus began the livelihoods initiative, Kirana.

Belaku Trust started as a small health research project in rural Karnataka, in 1995. One of its founders, Dr Saraswathy Ganapathy, a paediatrician turned public health professional, recalls how bleak the project appeared then. “The women wouldn’t speak to us, or even look at us. The nutritionist came out from the first health session and wondered how to talk ‘calories’ to them.” But soon, she says, they understood that they were also in Kanakapura to learn and grow. “We came in thinking we knew all the answers. It took us very little time to realise that we knew nothing.”

Once the community and the founders joined hands in the learning process, Belaku grew in unprecedented ways. Now, Belaku’s block-printed scarves and kurtas are worn in France and England; they are unique in design and craft. And its paper pens and innovatively bound and decorated handpaper books and greeting cards are much sought after at sales in urban spaces.

In the villages, Belaku has provided multiple job options to women who had very little choice in their lives. They are gainfully employed as trained teaching help in government-run anganwadis or in Belaku’s embroidery unit. A few local women are conducting a pregnancy care research project across 60 villages.

Belaku’s development charter in the region was defined by the community, especially the women. Dr Ganapathy remembers that at the end of workshops on food and care during pregnancy, the women said: “It’s all very well to talk about eating right, but who is going to pay for it? Whatever daily wages we earn our husbands spend on drink. We would like to form a group and start an enterprise that will bring in some money. We can protect the money from our husbands if it is the group’s income rather than our own.”

Thus was born Kirana, a micro-business group engaged in the production of recycled paper. “Friends volunteered to train the women to make paper. What they initially made was like cardboard. They’ve worked really hard to reach the quality they have achieved now. They continuously improvise and come up with their own new decoration techniques,” says Dr Ganapathy, who is always on the look-out for markets for the products.

It’s been seven years since the papermaking unit was started in Kadahalli village. A visit to the workshop (a tiled-roof house with long barred windows) on a windy December morning proves enriching. The yard along the house is lined with freshly made red paper set out to dry like papads. Some women are working red pulp through rectangular sieves; others are pressing it dry on a board. “Red paper is in great demand during the Christmas season,” they explain. The half-dry paper is rolled out and set to dry again. The women display how hibiscus leaves and grass are used to give a varied texture to the paper.

The women chat in a mix of Kannada and English with visitors from Bangalore and France. They discuss and argue business concerns with Dr Ganapathy. They laugh and celebrate recent successful sales in Bangalore. They display their work samples and clinch an order from the French visitors. “You will have to learn French next,” says Dr Ganapathy. “Oh yes! Kaleetheevi madam!” they say readily.

The women say that the quality of their lives has improved over the years with Belaku. “I don’t give any money at home because I am not asked to. I don’t ask for money either. I save what I can and have bought insurance policies,” says Nirmala. Not everyone can afford to do the same, however. Pudchenamma is decorating handmade cards with rangoli. She uses a plastic paper cone filled with chalk paste. She places the dots symmetrically and is undisturbed by the loud talk in the room. She doesn’t respond to a compliment about her skill. “She is mute and deaf,” says her co-worker.

Next door to the papermakers is the government pre-school, or anganwadi, which is “brilliant in concept but abysmal in execution,” says Dr Ganapathy. A study by Belaku revealed that most of the anganwadis in the region were badly in need of teaching help, and repair. The government-appointed anganwadi workers are trapped in paperwork and a threat-oriented teaching style. Training sessions did not change their teaching methodology. With support from its funders, Belaku trained and appointed ‘gelathies’ or ‘friends’ of the anganwadi teachers. These ‘friends’ support the anganwadi worker with more child-friendly classroom strategies.

“They’ve added colour and life to the classrooms,” says Jyoti who is in charge of the anganwadi programme at Belaku. Jyoti went on a door-to-door campaign in one of the villages, urging the community to invest in the repair and maintenance of their anganwadi. “We collected Rs 9,000 in cash and building materials worth Rs 3,000,” she says proudly.

When Jyoti graduated in Kanakapura and joined Belaku nine years ago, she didn’t expect to be such an agent of change in the region. “I learnt to write better, communicate with people and work for my own people,” she says. “My husband is learning to get used to my job. There are ups and downs. My son is very supportive and shows me new things to teach at the pre-school. Yesterday he taught me how to make a helicopter with paper, on condition that I went to school and told everyone that he had taught me this,” she laughs.

Asha, the ‘gelathi’ at Kadahalli anganwadi is five months pregnant. “She was under pressure to have a third child as she has only two daughters,” says Jyoti. “She has made up her mind that this will be her last child, even if she has to fight the family,” Jyoti adds. Asha is busy with the children, who are outlining the first alphabet in Kannada with little pebbles. “Last week we were learning about trees and plants, so we were doing the rounds of the fields and gardens in the village,” says Asha. “Next week we will talk about mountains and I am wondering which small hill to make the children climb.” Radish leaves “grown by the children” are washed and ready for lunch. As coconut is grated, the smell of mullangi soppina saru fills the air. The ‘gelathies’ are also informal counsellors and campaign with the families for a more nutritious diet for the children.

“For Deepa, the block-printing unit in Halasuru, we tried to choose the most helpless, poorest women in the community,” says Dr Ganapathy, as we pass small, pillared houses with tiled roofs. The abandoned house that serves as the workshop for the block-printers is spacious and beautiful. The women are more sombre here than the papermakers; their children are playing outside, noisily. Some of the women are engaged in binding books with block-printed raw silk. Others are at the worktable, printing the fabric carefully. The women block-print on cushion covers, napkins, books, paper, stoles, dupattas and scarves. Samples are displayed and improvements discussed. “Some of these women face severe violence at home, regularly. We have been counselling them. They say work is their only respite,” says Dr Ganapathy.

Mani, who is in charge of Belaku’s relatively new embroidery unit, says that her job has given her the courage to face many crises in her personal life. She joined Belaku 12 years ago, when her husband deserted her and their nine-year-old daughter. “Only when I became financially independent and got support from the other women at Belaku did I feel that I could bring up my daughter on my own.” She says she shares her experiences with women in the villages that Belaku works in. “We urge them to send their children to school, not to keep changing doctors, to reserve nutritious food for themselves...”

Juliette Jaulerry, a funder of Belaku Trust and founder of the French NGO Namaste, says: “We work with many NGOs in India, but few of them have been involved in as many sectors as Belaku.”

Belaku Trust
697, 15th Cross Road
JP Nagar Phase II
Bangalore 560 078
Tel: +91 80-2665 4145

By Charumathi Supraja


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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