Being Immersed from the Get-Go

Hi CASI followers! I hope you are all doing well and enjoying your summers! If you feel like the Chirag interns have been a little under represented on the blog we have been without internet for at least two weeks! If this post goes through I am an extremely lucky person! Hopefully internet will be up and running soon; I am using one of the employees hot spots from his phone to send this. A lot has happened since I last wrote… I will try to keep this blog post as short as possible and include lots of pictures!

So my homestay was quite the experience! I reached Chirag, the ngo I am working for this summer, on Monday May 20th and was sent to a home stay for six days, from Thursday, May 23rd to Wednesday, May 29th. At first it seemed like a fairly daunting task to be facing by myself: living with a family of twenty-one members, of which only two members spoke very little English; with no phone, electricity, or running water for six days, but by the end I made some great friends and learned a lot about the culture of the hills region in India!

I was definitely overwhelmed on the first day I arrived at my home stay because of two factors. Number one the language barrier; it was the biggest hurdle to overcome because the mother and daughter-in-law were the two members of the family who were around the most and they did not speak any English. It caused me to have to learn some basic Hindi words and phrases fast such as food (khana), boiled water (ubla hua paani), thank you (dania vad), I am going to Kasiyalekh (mai Kasiyalekh ja rahi hun) and other such phrases. In addition, there was, in my opinion, an abnormal amount of flies in and around the house; that took some getting used to. It got to the point where I was okay with flies being on any part of my body except for my face, there were just too many to try and fend them all off, especially when you were eating. Below is a picture of the house I stayed in during my home stay (panoramic view), and the room I shared with the youngest daughter, Pooja, who was 23.

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Once I was able to accept that these two factors would be a part of my life while I was at the home stay my remaining time there was a blast! I learned so much about the agricultural lifestyle because I was living it. The family would go to sleep around 10pm and wake up at 4:30am; they would start their day by collecting fodder to feed the animals, milking the cows, collecting water from the pump by the road, cooking breakfast, and then heading up the hillside to start harvesting their crops. While I was there the family was harvesting their wheat (gahoon) crops. I was lucky enough to get to help in the process! Once the women collected the wheat the entire family would sit on the porch and pound the wheat on the ground to collect the kernels. They would then sort the kernels from the wheat stocks and the kernels would be sold in the market; the whole process would take around two days to complete per section of wheat brought down from the hillside. I helped the family with the pounding of the stocks to collect all of the kernels. It is a very tedious and time consuming process and certainly gave me more respect for the amount of work the women and men have to put in to provide for the family. After the women let me help them with the wheat they were more keen on letting me complete other tasks…often it was more a form of entertainment for them rather than a help because I was not as efficient or skilled as them!

I helped everyday to carry water up the hillside to the household. There was a communal pump for the village next to the road where everyone would go to get their drinking water. I was only able to carry a bucket half the size of the other women on my head and even then I had difficulty not spilling it all over myself! It is amazing how they are able to balance jugs of water on their head and then walk/hike up a hillside at least six times a day! The women also let me try to make chapattis; chapattis are the flat, round bread that is eaten with most meals. The chapattis were made from scratch before every meal and I would often sit in the kitchen and watch the women make them. It looks simple enough to do, but wow I was wrong. Not only was my chapatti not circular (it ended up having more of an oval shape), but the woman had made at least three more chapattis by the time I had made one. After that experience I left the dough making to the experts, but helped out wherever else I could!

Below is a picture of my host mother, Contie, carrying a bucket full of water on her head. They would walk around with the jugs on their head as if it was nothing, but in reality they weigh a ton and are really hard to even lift off the ground!

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This is a picture of Koumla, the daughter-in-law, who was the best at making chapattis, and me attempting to help in the kitchen cooking dinner!

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After the first couple of days where I explored the region and helped out at my home stay I visited the Chirag office in Kasiyalekh. Chirag has remote offices in surrounding villages where various activities take place and Kasiyalekh was the perfect fit for me because of the project I have decided to work on while I am here. I will be working with Kumaun Grameen Udyog (KGU), an organization started by Chirag. Chirag is a non-for-profit organization, but KGU is a for profit firm who feeds all of its profits back into Chirag health and education programs. KGU has created a shop called Kilmora, which sells all local goods made from efforts spearheaded by Chirag. There are garments, shawls, stoles, and scarves created by a local weaving center; toys, hats, gloves, and tea cozies made by local knitting groups; and chutneys, spreads, apricot oil, and apricot scrub made from local fruit cooperatives. I will be working with KGU on various fronts, but the most pressing matter is their operations management system. As of right now their entire inventory as well as sales and delivery processes are done by hand, which is very inefficient and causes for a lot of unnecessary duplication of information. I am going to computerize the system by creating excel documents, which the employees and administration can utilize, and also hold a training program for the employees to learn how to use the new system. I am very excited for this project because I will get to utilize a lot of skills I have pick up from Wharton classes, and I will get to learn about the cultural differences which cause businesses to run differently in India than in the US.

Here are some pictures of the weaving center, apricot product process and a knitting group in Kasiyalekh.

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About Alexandra Iqbal

I am an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. This summer I am traveling to the northern region of India where I will be working for CHIRAG - The Central Himalayan Rural Action Group for 10 weeks. I will be working with micro finance and supply chain management of the fruit cooperatives in the region. I am looking forward to an exciting and cultural experience this summer! My journey in India starts on May 17th when I arrive in New Delhi.