I don’t even know how to start this post. I guess with this: I’m feeling much, much better. Not perfect, but there is no comparison to how I was doing last weekend.
Seriously, I don’t know how to start…. Hmm.
Well, Monday was actually pretty low key. Mr. Hossain, the man here working on his masters degree, and I were supposed to be going to visit different branch offices of VSSU each day this week. However, early Monday morning he found me and said we were not going to be able to do a branch visit that day because he had some paperwork due that he had been unable to finish on Sunday. With my supervisor gone this week to a conference in Goa, I wasn’t sure what to do with my day. Darpan, my supervisor, told me to talk to Nilanjana, the head of finance in the office, if I had any questions, so I asked her if there were any little jobs I could work on throughout the day. She didn’t have anything for me, so I spent the day reading more reports, finding academic articles on microfinance, and when I was really out of ideas of ways to use my time, researching graduate schools.
Tuesday was WAY more exciting. Mr. Hossain and I were up very early, and we left the VSSU office at 6am to go visit the Namkhana branch office. To get to Namkhana, a VSSU driver took us to the Lakshmikantapur train station, which is about 20 minutes away, where we then caught a train to Namkhana, about an hour from Lakshmikantapur. We arrived at the Namkhana station around 8am, and were greeted with the smiling face of Ramen, the Namkhana branch manager. He can’t be more than 25 years old, but Ramen runs the most successful branch of VSSU: Namkhana has a remarkable 100% repayment rate among all of their loanee’s and they have since Ramen has been in charge of the branch. Anyway, as we left the train station, we got on what Ramen called a “manual van,” but its not anything like a van. It can more accurately be described as a very large tricycle, and on the back, rather than having a seat like a normal rickshaw would, it has a wooden palette. The person you hire pedals it, and everyone else sits on the palette while you travel to your destination. I’ve seen these used mainly for transporting animals and bags of rice, but they work for moving people around too! So we climbed on this manual van, and rode it until, to my surprise, we reached a large inlet. I didn’t know, but Namkhana is actually right on the Bay of Bengal. We jumped on a ferry and crossed the inlet, where we got on another manual van. After about a 10-minute ride, we got off at what seemed to me like a random point on the road, but turned out to be the home of one of the VSSU clients. It was hard for me to keep up with what was happening during the visit to Namkhana because Ramen doesn’t speak English, and clearly I don’t speak Bengali. Mr. Hossain was able to translate for me, but it was still a bit of a challenge.
The first place we visited was one of VSSU’s women’s savings and loan groups. We sat in on their weekly meeting, which is held in one of the member’s homes. This particular group, Ganga group, has 12 members, but two of them had already repaid their loans in full and were not in attendance at the meeting. The ten other women sat cross-legged on the floor, while Mr. Hossain, Ramen, and I all sat on a bed in the corner of the room. We watched as all the women made their payments on their loans and Ramen collected and counted the bills. After that was completed, Mr. Hossain and I spoke to each woman briefly, learning a little bit about her, her family, her life, and what she has used her loan from VSSU to accomplish. It was very neat to hear about how resourceful and creative each woman is, often despite extremely difficult circumstances. One woman ran a very successful artificial hair business, and earned 30,000 rupees (about $525) per month, which is a very high income here, to support her family of nine. Another woman has five children, and although she is now a widow, she hasn’t missed a single payment on her loan, and is still able to independently support her family with the 4,000 rupees (about $70) that she earns per month, even though that puts her family well below the internationally recognized line for extreme poverty. Another woman was married when she was only 9 years old (yes, NINE!) and now runs a successful snack shop.
Watching the women interact was fantastic. They are clearly all close friends, even though they have widely ranging levels of income, family situations, and backgrounds. From the few short observations I was able to make, I could see that this was clearly a supportive environment, and that they also had a very good relationship with Ramen and VSSU as a whole. All the women had been given the opportunity to visit the VSSU headquarters, and they said they really enjoyed that experience. What I also thought was remarkable about their group (and I later found out was a standard thing with the women’s groups), was that, when their group formed in 2006, only 2 or 3 of the women were literate. Now, as a result of their involvement with VSSU and each other through their weekly meetings, they can all read and write. Truly wonderful. Even though VSSU’s aims are financial on the surface, because of the structure of the organization and its operations, they are able to achieve much more than just increasing the earning power of their clients.
We took a few pictures of the group, and then the three of us thanked them, said goodbye, and left. We went to two more groups that were very similar, although the second group of women was considerably larger. That group numbered 19 women, but the stories and their experience with VSSU were very similar to Ganga group.
After the third visit, Ramen asked, through Mr. Hossain, if I would like to see the beach. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I said if it wasn’t too far out of the way, sure, I’d love to see the beach! So we hopped on a bus, and about 15 minutes later, we arrived in Bakkhali, a small town right next to Namkhana. We walked for about 10 minutes, and then we were at the beach. Being India, I was expecting the beach to be covered in trash, and while there was some garbage, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might have been. We walked down to the water and I just cracked up because the women swim in saris. I can barely walk in a sari, let alone swim in one!! I went down to dip my feet in the water (come on, I have to be able to say I’ve waded in the Bay of Bengal!), and Ramen and Mr. Hossain thought that was really strange, but I did it anyway. I laughed out loud when my feet hit the water- it was hot. Not warm, but actually hot. I don’t know what I was expecting, it was about 110 degrees out yesterday, but I still was caught off guard. Anyway, we all took some pictures, walked back to the bus stop, and took the bus to the branch office, which we hadn’t visited yet.
The Namkhana office occupies the top floor of a branch office of the Bank of India. We walked up the external staircase and into the main room of VSSU’s branch, where we saw the two other employees of the office, collection officers, busy writing down the day’s deposits in the books. We sat and cooled off for a few minutes (I’m telling you, it was ungodly hot, I was more sweaty than I care to describe), and then Ramen, Mr. Hossain and I sat down to lunch. Yet another whole fish. I am gonna be so good at eating whole fish by the time this internship is over. But I’ll never be as good as Mr. Hossain and Ramen… they both ate the head. I don’t think I can or want to get to that point. Anyway, after lunch, we talked about the branch office a little bit, and then killed a little bit of time before our train back to Lakshmikantapur left at 4:30.
On the train ride back, I had to fight to stay awake; it had been a very long hot day in the sun. By the time we got back to the head office, it was 6pm, 12 hours after we left for Namkhana. I managed to read a little bit, and then I passed out for the night.
Wednesday, Mr. Hossain and I visited the Lakshmikantapur branch, which is only a 15-minute drive from the head office. We met the branch manager in town around 8:30. This visit was markedly different from Namkhana. Rather than visiting women’s lending groups, we visited individual savings clients. We were not in a rural setting, as in Namkhana, but rather right in the middle of the teeming Lakshmikantapur marketplace. Lakshmikantapur is quite something. It is loud, dirty, and smelly. But it is vibrant. There are people everywhere, all rushing to get somewhere, or buy or sell something. There are virtually no paved roads; they are all muck and mud, so even just walking down the street is an adventure, trying not to slip in the mud or land in a puddle. But despite all of that, for some reason, I kind of like it there. I’m not totally sure why.
VSSU’s savings plan is fascinating. They recognize that a major problem for Indians, particularly low income Indians, is that they do not have the same access to conventional banks as we do. This is very obvious, and also extends to their lending philosophy. But it’s difficult to save for many reasons. First, many individuals are not saving large enough sums to even have a bank account. Second, going to the bank regularly to deposit means losing valuable income earning time during the day. VSSU has overcome these two major challenges with their daily and weekly savings plans. Any person can opt for a daily deposit savings scheme, which means that a VSSU collection officer will come to their home or place of business daily to collect their savings, which can be as little as 10 rupees (about 20 cents) per day. Each time they deposit, they receive a deposit slip. VSSU’s collection officers work 365 days a year to make these plans possible and help low-income individuals overcome the barriers to saving. Saving is crucial for people with low and unstable income because it helps combat unexpected expenditures that arise like medical bills or a death in the family. Even saving the equivalent of 20 cents per day can add up and help a family get by through an unfavorable circumstance.
So this is what we witnessed. Mr. Hossain and I walked around with Nitya, the Lakshmikantapur manager, as he collected the daily savings deposits from his clients. All of the people we visited are business owners, and we saw everything from a Coca-Cola wholesaler, to a small rice shop, and a street vegetable seller, to a pet shop owner. These individuals, again with vastly diverse income levels, have all committed to saving a small amount every day, which shows a lot of discipline and planning for their future.
We visited clients all morning, and then around noon, Mr. Hossain and I came back to the main office. After lunch, we both started working on the tasks that we accumulated while doing the visits. I started writing out all the dozens of case studies I had collected both in Namkhana and Lakshmikantapur, while Mr. Hossain continued working with his data for his thesis. This is how I spent the afternoon, and when the day ended around 6:30, I went upstairs to air out my always oven-like room.
I spent the evening reading and journaling. But I also realized that I hadn’t listened to any music since I’d arrived in India. How strange. I’m not one of those people who would say “music is my life,” but I do love it. I listen to music getting ready in the morning, at the gym, and as often as possible while doing homework. I love that different music has the ability to calm you down, motivate you, or bring about certain memories or emotions. So for the first time since being here, I turned on my iPod, and listened to a playlist I had actually made especially for this summer. It’s funny how a song can mean totally different things at different times in different situations. I often associate music with a certain event or time in my life. For example, Shakira’s Waka Waka. That song has always reminded me of a class I took my freshman year at Wooster, Peace Studies, when a group I was in for a project had to pick a song that represented our topic. We picked Waka Waka, and it quickly became our group’s theme song. We hummed it in meetings, and we played it at our presentation. Then I listened to Waka Waka as I was flying into Kenya for the first time last fall, and now that song brings a mix of memories of both Peace Studies and Kenya, and both blend together in a very unique way. All of a sudden, that was happening with all of the music I was listening to, sitting on my bed. All the associations I had with particular songs are now morphed with the views of rice paddies, the feel of sweat running down my forehead and cheeks, and smell of the night’s curry being cooked down the hall. It made a one-of-a-kind, multi-sensory soundtrack for my summer.
After I turned my iPod off for the night, feeling great after a busy day and some time listening to all my favorite music, I laid down, and promptly had a praying mantis land on my stomach. After a quick freak out and relocation of that particular insect, I went to sleep.
Today, we did not do a branch visit, but rather stayed in to catch up on other work. I spent the morning finishing all my case studies, and I was quite surprised with how long it took, even though I wrote more than 40 of them.
A bit of a side note… yesterday I got a text on my Indian phone saying that I had to register it by providing a copy of my identification and a letter of residency in India. I had those papers, and this is a standard procedure, so I wasn’t too bothered. That is, until I found out that I can’t register in Lakshmikantapur, but that I have to go all the way to Kolkata, more than two hours away, to do this. And the texts I was getting said if it wasn’t done in two days, my phone would get shut off. Great. So after a phone call last night to Anders, another Wooster student currently doing an internship in Kolkata, I sent him a copy of my passport and residency letter, and he said he would try and register it on my behalf, so my phone won’t get shut off (it’s the middle of the week and I can’t very well take a day off to go to Kolkata just to register my phone). Thankfully, he was kind enough to use his lunch hour today to go take care of my issue, and it should keep working as long as I’m here. Thanks, Anders!
After lunch, I got to do something new- checking all the most recent deposit ledgers (which are giant handwritten books here- no computerization in that particular system!) to make sure all of the maturity dates and payouts were calculated correctly. While this isn’t exactly a tough task, it was a good way for me to familiarize myself with all VSSU’s formulas for payouts, etc. After a few hours, I finished the review, and then went into Mr. Mondal’s office. I’d talked to him this morning, and he said he wanted my help writing a short book (40-60 pages or so) about VSSU and it’s history. Since I had finished all my other work for the day and there were still two hours of work left, I went into his office to ask where I should start. Boy did we get off track. We ended up looking up the Wooster and my house in Alaska on Google Earth because he wanted to be able to visualize where I’m from. It was pretty hysterical, especially when he thought Alaska was Florida. Anyway, after we finished that little digression, he told me that yes, he wanted me to work on the book and he made a couple of suggestions of where to start. He also said, however, that whenever I have finished my tasks for the day and still have time to kill, he wants me to research grants that VSSU is eligible for through American organizations such as USAID and the Ford Foundation. Yikes! Those are big organizations with, I’m sure, lofty requirements, but I’ll do my best. If I find anything, I’m supposed to start working on an application on VSSU’s behalf; I’d say that’ll keep me busy for a while.
And that brings us to now, 8:30pm on Thursday, and just about time for dinner. This week has been flying by, which I think is a good sign. I’ve learned a lot this week and had some great experiences, and I can’t wait to have them continue through the remainder of this week, and into next. I’ve attached some pictures below, hopefully they’ll give a little look inside what I’ve been up to so far!
The street in Ullon village, home to VSSU
VSSU’s monthly feeding program
Some of the women of the Ganga group in Namkhana
Some of the women from the Mamonesha Group in Namkhana
L to R: Ramen, me, Tapati, Jamina, Bashanti, and Panchani (the leader of her women’s group) in Namkhana
Fishing boats on the inlet in Namkhana
Urmila, a rice vendor in Lakshmikantapur market
Me in the VSSU office (trying!) to show the Spot the Scot logo while reviewing the deposit ledgers
A woman walking her cow up the street in Ullon