Friday, August 15, 2008

Hand In Hand

Last night, the group had dinner at a beautiful beach resort on the Bay of Bengal. Due to the gray and rainy disposition of the weather, plans for a meal outside were scrapped for one inside the dining room. It was a nice buffet meal that included food items from the garden as well as the sea.

Just up the road from the resort is a fishing village, where many, including young children, venture through the inter-coastal waterways on flat boats to drop down their nets.

In order to do so, they must go down into the water. Nobody uses fishing waders here. The nearest Cabela’s store is on the other side of the planet. Even TV fishermen Roland Martin and Bill Dance would have to admit that it’s hard work.

It’s also hard to imagine that any of the locals have spent much time within the walls of this resort.

For the second year in a row, the Kelley School has arranged for students to visit a rural community here in South India. Hand In Hand (, one of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helping to fight the practice of child labor in Tamil Nadu, is taking us there.

The organization’s vision is a world “where all children are in school, poverty is eradicated, women are empowered, where democracy stems from the grassroots, where healthcare is for all and where development is sustainable.” Obviously, these are goals for many worldwide, but here the challenges are steep.

What Darjeeling is to tea, Kanchipuram is to silk. While it is primarily known as the “Golden City of a Thousand Temples” – our guide, Beulah, tells us there actually are only about 160 of them there – this is where you can find a terrific deal on an embroidered sari or similar garment. Nearby is the small village of Thirumangalam Kandrigai, where Hand In Hand’s micro-financing efforts are underway.

Typically, silk merchants approach skilled crafts people and pay them by the piece for each embroidered work they complete. Since they’ve provided the raw material, the merchants stand to profit from their sales.

The saris can take several days of detailed hand work to complete.

Interestingly, those who are the focus of these self-help efforts are women. Hand In Hand organizes the women in the village and provides them with business and skills training, provides them with cheap credit and helps them build sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families.

Women receive the loans because the company found that they were more likely than men to spend the money on the business and thus are more likely to pay back their loans. Hand In Hand helps more than 280,000 people in the area and was started about four years ago.

At the same time, Hand In Hand has established schools and sought to strengthen those run by the government in order to prevent children from becoming laborers.

Unfortunately, we were unable to visit one of its schools this year. Last year’s group was able to see a school, where many children were learning to read and write as they entered their teen years.

About 10,000 people live here in several types of traditional housing, including grass huts. The streets here are carved from the earth, lacking rock or pavement, and are shared with the local livestock. While cows are considered sacred, that hasn’t prevented some young boys from placing a rope around the neck of small calf, so they can lead it around like we would with a dog.

Apparently, some houses have some form of running water, but many get their water from faucets that emerge from the ground along the side of a road. Women literally use their heads here as we see several carrying water in buckets like a crown.

Due to the monsoon season, most are unable during this time of year to do their embroidery work. Hand in Hand has been instrumental in supporting for the demand of a concrete building for the embroidery artisans, which was provided by the local government. It helps them do their work during rains.

A few students have found a good deal on a sari here, much to the delight of local villagers.

Also bringing delight are the visitors. Many of the children are glad to have their pictures taken and even more excited when they see their beaming faces on the digital camera screens. As we drive away, many of them jump and wave.

The cynical among us may question the long-term value of this experience on a group of business students, but previous Kelley trips to India have silenced some doubters.

Alumni of similar trips abroad led some students to establish the Kelley Microfinance Initiative. This spring, a group of students traveled on their own to the African country of Ghana to lay the groundwork for a partnership with an NGO called Women in Progress. Like Hand In Hand, it seeks to alleviate poverty through growth of small women-owned businesses.

During the previous school year, Kelley students organized several fundraisers for Hand In Hand. Several of this year’s group indicated that they want those efforts to continue.

During their meeting with Hermantha Kumar Pamarthy, managing director of Hand in Hand Micro Finance Ltd., this year’s group presented him with bags of good, toiletries and an envelope of money they had collected among themselves.

As they did a year ago.

"The bagful of eatables have been distributed personally by me to the students of Poongavanam School, our Residential school in Putheri, Kancheepuram, on the 11th August itself and needless to say the students were delighted," Pamarthy said in a follow-up e-mail.

As I embarked on creating this journal, I also included an interactive survey for you about what would be the most memorable experience of the trip for these young people. Most of you – 56 percent so far – suggested that it would be at the Taj Mahal. That assessment probably remains true.

But if asked what experience will mean the most looking forward, many will tell you it was when they met the families who sold them the saris in Thirumangalam Kandrigai.

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