WELL and ME:
Tayka is an American university undergraduate who came to Auroville on a study-abroad programme. An important part of this programme is “Service Learning” where the students join in workplaces in Auroville to get on-the-job experience of another culture.
I have met nineteen of the most beautiful women in the world. They are Tamil women from three different villages who come together everyday for work. While they might not sound spectacular or look extra-special at first impression, it has been through sitting with them daily for the last two months that I have come to understand yet a new meaning of beautiful.
I was initially very apprehensive about working with WELL-paper. I was unsure immediately, and then even more so when I met an Israeli couple in an empty disorganized room in Auroville and only one Tamil woman around. My second introduction was entirely opposite but still quite un-confirming. While all other students had met their destinations in Auroville, I was taken alone to a far village to a room on the second floor of a villager's house full of loud Tamil women who couldn't speak English sitting on the floor and weaving newspaper rolls into baskets. No one met us there, and I spent three days alone sitting on the floor not knowing what I was supposed to be doing, what I could be doing, or what these women were saying to or about me. I felt overwhelmingly like the new kid at school that doesn't fit in and is doomed to have a miserable time. Finally I was able to meet with Danny, of the Israeli couple Danny and Orly who run WELL, and was able to come up with work for me to do at WELL. As an outsider not connected with the program but able to spend hours there for seven weeks, I was could observe current operations in the workshops and between the women and report my feedback and findings to the program creators. For myself, it was an incredible opportunity to meet the oppressed women I'd been reading about and the local people of India , especially those native to the area we'd be studying and living in. Little did I know, it was to bring so much more.
“Good Morning! How are you!” I call when I step barefooted into the workshop room every morning. “Good Morning, Tayka!” the chorus of women's voices greets me. I then go and sit down, they try to offer me a straw mat and offer to turn on the fan and I always refuse. The defining interactions for all three hours I'm there each day are the smiles we constantly pass back and forth. I tried rolling newspapers to help them in the beginning but mine looked so terrible I just stopped because I was sure I was just wasting their paper. Some time in the middle I picked it up again and now I roll like a pro and I'm proud to have my rolls go into their handmade baskets. We talk and they teach me Tamil, I've learned a lot, but we still communicate in a mix of English, Tamil, hand gestures, actions, and drawings on paper. They go about their business as usual, which I think proves I've done an excellent job of fitting in, and I just roll and be there, listening and smiling all the while. Though I have now the most basic Tamil language skills, it is amazing how much I can pick up about their group dynamics from just watching who does what when, observing body language, and also listening for the emotion in their words. Our relationship deepened as they invited me to stay longer with them some days for lunch, digging out of their own pails and buying some extra food to share. I began bringing photos of my family and cookies and cool drinks for snacking, and finally I was invited to a wedding of a relative of one of the ladies. The experience was incredibly intimate and turned out so well that my relationship to the group was cemented. At first I felt like and outsider but now I just feel like a younger child who doesn't quite understand all that's being said or going on, but is loved and belongs. I am so grateful to them because I've seen another side of India .
There are two main objectives to the WELL project, one is to emancipate the women by helping them set up their own companies, and the other is to provide a livelihood that helps the environment by recycling wastepaper. Tayka's observations of the groups' meetings and decision making showed that the project is indeed on track with both objectives.
The way that WELL integrates environmentalism most directly is by using printed extra copies of unsold newspaper to make their products and give these women livelihood. Indirectly, there is a social aspect to the program that betters the women's lives so they can live more healthfully and environmental-friendly, and strengthens relationships between Auroville and the villagers. Training with Danny and Orly lasted seven months for the first group, and four months for the second group. Training consists of newspaper rolling, counseling, group discussion, English classes, business classes, yoga, health classes, parenting classes, and more. Now that the women are out of the training program, the social programs are less and the emphasis is placed on running the company together. However, a woman from the Auroville Health Services still comes by every week and yesterday she was teaching the women how to use their extra kitchen water to water a home vegetable garden, how to compost waste, and many uses for cow dung.
What I've noticed is the huge amount of trust between the Tamil ladies and the Aurovilians which spreads into each of their families and beyond. My report has been helpful in building the bridges between Auroville and the villages through this project. This is what I have given to Auroville, but what I've personally received has been even greater. I have never met such happy, playful, and light-hearted women who are in reality not care-free whatsoever. Village life is a hard life. The women's concerns are always how to afford their children's education, how to afford their daughters' dowries, how to work through the pain of sitting on the floor and bending over all day, caring for their extended family, and how to get all they do done each day. Some even walk forty-five minutes each day just to come to work. They always ask me what I ate for breakfast and when I got up, and smile softly in a “oh that would be nice” way. One woman was even kicked out of her house by her husband for having a third daughter and still no sons.
The beauty, which i have found here, is the grace with which these women live everyday despite these hardships. The beauty is in the friendship and sisterhood these women found in each other to get through these hardships together. The company is theirs and they have made collective decisions to allow advances to women who have special situations of need. The group together confronted the husband who kicked out his wife, scolded him for doing so, and convinced him to apologize and take her back in. When I spent time questioning each of them about basic things and differences in their lives since they made the company, my last question to each woman was what is her favorite part of being part of the company. The unanimous answer was ‘being able to leave home and come to this loving group of women everyday'. And they are so loving! Laughing, teasing, and singing everyday, in spite of their troubles of daily life, they work so hard to improve their lives all while living in an incredible faith in God. This is my new beauty.
Service Learning Paper 2007
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