By Yui Nakamura, Womens Feature Service
I live as a student of Poverty and Development on the seaside campus of the Institute of Development Studies at Brighton, surrounded by famous nightclubs and pubs. Young people here hang out even at 3 am! Sometimes, the contrast between the subjects of my study and my location strikes me strongly.
The one thing I do have is a room with a sea view, important for me since I come from Japan, an island country. The sea allows me to imagine the lives of people located far away and I invariably imagined revisiting India, where I had worked as a development practitioner for four years.
What drew me to this sector? Well, when I learnt about a job for a programme officer with a Tokyo-based agency supporting anti-poverty initiatives in South Asia, which entailed travelling to India’s poorest states, I was excited. My grandfather had spent the most crucial period in his life almost a century ago in India, studying yoga and spiritualism in the Himalayas, and this whetted my interest.
At the final interview for the job, the last question put to me by my future boss came out of the blue. “Are you ready to spend three-four months a year in rural India? In fact, we are concerned that if you have plans to marry…” Before he could finish, I interrupted, “Unfortunately, I don’t. Unless I meet someone extremely attractive in India.” Everybody in the room laughed. Probably because of this self-deprecating joke, I landed that incredible job.
On my first working day, I discovered the reason for that question. I was the only woman on the staff. Most of the others were married men whose partners looked after the home front when they travelled. While this could be seen as another example of women’s subordination in Japanese society, it also explains why development practitioners do not focus enough on everyday realities, especially those of women.
One of my first discoveries on the job was that most people were interested in what I was, not what I was doing. Being a single Japanese woman in her mid-30s, I aroused curiosity among both colleagues and ordinary Indians. “Shadi shuda hain?” (Are you married?) I was constantly asked. My response, “Ji nahin” (No), aroused responses ranging from dismay to sympathy. Marriage in India has a significance far greater than in many other societies and arranged marriages continue to be the norm. I also observed that unmarried women tended to be excluded, socially, culturally and economically. This meant that while some saw me as a highly educated professional from a donor country in the North, which was what I tried to be, most perceived me as a vulnerable woman travelling alone without a husband’s ‘protection’!
I came across many women and listened to their life stories while identifying their problems. Perhaps because I was situated in a marginalised position as an unmarried woman, I noticed I was looking for like-minded female friends. This might be termed a researcher’s bias, I admit, but my primary concern was to faithfully reflect women’s lives and the unequal power structures embedded within them. This is not printed on official documents but lingers elsewhere, mostly in women’s hearts.
I remember attending a meeting of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in a West Bengal village, whose members were all Santali tribals. I felt proud when my field report convinced my organisation to support them financially. The aim of a subsequent visit was to assess their progress, with each group representative reporting back. I was happy being in that small village in the middle of the forest, listening to people tell me how their lives had improved thanks to our intervention. The vegetables growing in a nearby field indicated that the irrigation project we had supported had made a great difference.
After the meeting, a woman stepped forward to talk to the director of our partner NGO. She revealed that a member of the SHG had committed suicide the previous night. I tried to recall the dead woman’s face. Finally, I remembered her as having walked with me to a dry field adjoining the village last winter. Taking me by the hand, she had explained in Santali how badly drought had affected them. Someone translated her words into Hindi, but the tone of her voice had already told me everything. She looked happy though, perhaps because she was walking hand-in-hand with a strange foreigner. “If they feel your hand, they will never forget your warmth,” a colleague had explained. I remembered her hand: it was the rough, work-worn hand of a peasant.
Later, the women waited to bid me farewell. This is the moment I liked most – when we faced each other as friends rather than as donor and beneficiaries. But now I was shattered by that tragic death. It had happened the day before, but no one referred to it, possibly to save me – a special guest in search of “success stories” – from embarrassment and a ‘wasted’ trip.
The car started to move and everybody waved. Looking at them, I could not stop asking myself what I was doing there. I felt stupid leaving without knowing why that woman had committed suicide when vegetables were growing in the watered fields. Clearly, our activities focusing on ‘women’s economic empowerment’ were not enough to save her life.
That same trip yielded another moment of learning. On the night before I was to visit a local women’s organisation in rural Uttar Pradesh, one of its staff members, Ranjana, had met with a serious accident. When I reached, everybody was depressed because she was in a coma and had to be rushed to a hospital in Lucknow, six hours away. This organisation, established by an energetic feminist activist, Niti, a single mother with a US degree, had been helping survivors of domestic violence, a widespread crime in this feudal region.
I offered to cancel my visit so that the staff members could travel in my car to Lucknow to be with Ranjana. But they – mostly survivors of domestic violence themselves – wanted the programme to go on. As we visited neighbouring villages, we were constantly stopped by local women wanting to know about Ranjana’s condition, some crying with anxiety.
I then travelled to Lucknow with a few staff members to visit Ranjana. After dropping them, I was about to leave when Niti asked me to stay. She reminded me of what I had been told before: people never forget the warmth of a helping hand. Niti believed that my presence could help. I walked into the hospital room where Ranjana lay with her face swathed in bandages. I could only take her hand. I told her about how innumerable women back home were worrying about her. “This means you will recover, because you’re such a wonderful woman… people still need you.” As I spoke, Ranjana responded by pressing my hand often. Her daughter seeing this burst into tears.
Later, Niti told me that Ranjana would have to undergo another operation, although her chances of recovery were slim. Ranjana’s husband, it seems, had turned up the previous night and had reluctantly handed over Rs 4,000 (US$1=Rs 49.8). I donated a small amount I had handy – it was even less than what her husband had brought – but I knew it’s not money that Ranjana wanted, but the support of friends and a little hand warmth.
Shortly after leaving Lucknow, I learnt that Ranjana’s operation was a success. Suddenly, the touch of her hand came back to me – the soft, warm palm and the gentle, plump fingers. I realised then why Ranjana had kept pressing my hand despite her critical condition. She was encouraging me to carry on.
That was the first time I cried on that trip.
(Some names of individuals have been changed/withheld to protect identity.)