“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
― Henry David Thoreau
The days following the last blog post have been packed with a trip to the Sunderbans with Radha and Dipak, interview and filming visits to rural Namkhana and Laksmikantapur Anudip centers, a weekend of adventure in Jaipur and Agra, and wrapping up final aspects of our projects in Kolkata.
The Sunderbans are a series of hundreds of islands across the coast of West Bengal and Bangladesh where all rivers meet the Bay of Bengal. They are some of the largest mangrove islands in the world, and the area is known for the presence of the notorious Bengal tiger, crocodiles, sharks, and many other exotic species. The tide goes in and out by over twenty feet twice a day, and given the landscape, communities here are very dependent on the will of nature. Almost everyone is a cultivator or a fisher. Travel is done by boat, and it’s amazing the distance people will go from the Sunderbans to reach opportunity. Before visiting the Sunderbans, we had met some young students at Anudip training centers that travel hours each way to reach the classes, at the prospect of becoming income-earners for their families someday. The Sunderbans weekend was more of a leisure trip than a work trip, but seeing the area made us think about rural populations there and how gritty life can be in such wild nature. Anudip is reaching these marginalized populations with a center nearby in Namkhana and plans to expand deeper.
The week following the Sunderbans trip entailed mine and Phil’s final rural center visits. The visits are something we have thoroughly enjoyed. Getting to see this other side of West Bengal beyond the busy city of Kolkata has given us a glimpse into the reality of most Bengali’s livelihoods. We’ve been lucky enough to be accompanied by new friends that work at the Anudip head quarters, and the 3 hour rides on local trains offered a lot of quality bonding time. During this week we went to Namkhana and Lakshmikantapur. Namkhana was like many other centers we visited, but looked notably successful as each room was packed with students, both men and women. I was struck by the sign in the corner of the center that advertised 100% job placement guarantee after training. Anudip has a strong partnership with an NGO at this center.
The highlight of my week was visiting one of Anudip’s DREAM centers in Harindanga, just outside of Lakshmikantapur. DREAM stands for Developing Rural Entrepreneurs through Adoption and Mentoring. I see a lot of potential in Anduip’s budding DREAM program. It is reaching people that are motivated to improve their livelihoods but in a different direction than IT and computer-based work. The DREAM program’s mission is to help rural individuals and communities start their own businesses, such as beautician shops, tailoring shops, goods kiosks, and much more. The goal is also to use technology in these rural shops to give them an advantage over competition, so the courses teach computer use for records and accounting as well as basic business skils. The Harindanga DREAM center has a large group of women attending, learning how to specialize in tailoring. Right when we walked upstairs, we could tell something beautiful was taking place through DREAM as more than twenty beautiful faces greeted us in a room lined by old Singer foot-powered sewing machines. The women have just recently began their training, so they were able to show us samples of Indian kurtas, salwar pants, and petticoats. They shined with pride in their work.
We were able to interview the women as a whole group, so we asked how they heard about the DREAM program, what motivated them to begin the courses, how they are changing and developing personally, and what their dreams are for starting their own tailoring businesses. Similar answers echoed amongst the women, many of whom were already mothers and have been housewives up until this point. Their husbands are merchants and farmers, but the families struggle to make ends meet. DREAM is the first chance these women are getting to gain skills and become income-earners to fill in the missing expenses that their husband’s salary can’t quite cover. The women have a renewed sense of purpose, a self-confidence that comes from learning a new specialty, and the pride of providing for their families. Just one afternoon spent at Harindanga showed that this tight-knit group of women is one of support and positive change as they are becoming more and more empowered each day.