Driving through the washed-out, slush-filled village roads in Malur, I marvel that life still goes on despite the dismal conditions. I watch a little child with plastic covers wrapped around his feet like bandages, his makeshift shoes; he wades expertly through ankle deep slush. I hold my breath: Will he slip? Will he fall? But his feet take him nonchalantly to his destination. He doesn’t seem bothered by the rain, certainly not as much as I am, sitting inside protected from the elements.
We reach the temple portico in Minsandra where we are to meet the women. My teammate Gangadhar and I confer quickly: it’s better we go and meet the women at their homes. How will they come out in the rain? As we’re talking, we see the women trickle in. They’ve thrown towels over their heads and they’re making their way to the temple portico to meet us. They flash us dazzling smiles as introductions are made all around. ‘Yes, you had called us, we remember. How are you? Why don’t you come home and have a cup of coffee?’ My racing mind, waiting to check off my to-do list of the day’s tasks, relaxes instantly. Suddenly I want to know more about them. Who are these women? What’s their life like? Do they want the same things for themselves as I want for them? Their lives are governed by a different idiom. Do I even understand their idiom well enough to know what’s good for them?
We start talking. ‘We need a community engagement person, a Buzz Gelathi…’ I begin. The women listen. That’s another thing that strikes me. They really listen when you talk. Of course they have questions, opinions, suggestions but they respect others enough to simply listen, consider, ask insightful questions and gently ease themselves into the conversation. They approach the conversation with curiosity and respect and I’m aware of my heightened sense of inadequacy. Really, what is it that I’ve come here to teach them? I can learn 10 lessons from this single interaction.
I begin to enjoy the conversations just for their own sake. And then they open up. They say how our financial literacy program has helped…and how it hasn’t…and why. They talk abouttheir lives: who are the decision-makers at home…what is a woman’s role…what is their sphere of influence. They talk in simple, unaffected ways, not realizing the profundity of their words or their impact on me. It hits me that these women are “masters of the scene” – they know how to manage husbands, children, in-laws, situations, communities to their strengths. But they don’t know that they know! Their solutions may not be urbane solutions but they work in the village. And they have enough sense to know when and when not to rock the boat. They can teach me a thing or two about “management”.
I take in the bucolic scenes: a woman carrying such a huge stack of hay on her head that her upper body seems to have disappeared into it; a goat darting in and cocking his head to look at us curiously before scampering away; the wet, neatly swept, concrete streets of this hamlet; the little girl walking barefoot in the rain, smiling shyly at us. In the village, everyone stops and looks at you. They ask where you’re from, who you want to meet and the ubiquitous question: ‘Why don’t you come in and have a cup of coffee?’ Time marches to a different drum beat here.
After all is said and done, we can’t ignore the reality of poverty. My ask must be framed within this context. I have to completely accept and respect their reality before I launch into what I need from them…and why. The “why” has to resonate with them. Because underneath the polite civility, the women are sizing me up. They will come to the table only if they trust me. And it takes much more than one interaction on a cold, wet day to build trust…and much less to lose it.