Monday, November 24, 2008

In Ushamaska with the UN

Set deep inside the Karlapat Forest Reserve, Ushamaska is one of the tribal villages where Antodaya has been encouraging women to form self-help groups. Membership is Rs10 (~12 ½ p) a month and this money is put in a communal bank account together with income derived from selling brooms etc and donations from government bodies. It is then used to buy food and other essentials when times are hard. These initiatives are designed to cut out the money-lenders and make people more responsible for their finances and in development lingo it's called micro-finance - micro it certainly was, few communal accounts had more than £30. Karen had been sent from the UN to look into how these types of accounts were run as part of an investigation into best practice amongst uneducated communities - in Ushamaska very few of the women could count let alone read the numbers in their pass-books. I had been invited to accompany her because I am the only female-Westerner in town and, by default, we must have a lot in common! Fortunately, Karen turned out to be really nice woman from Germany, although you couldn't tell from her perfect American accent, and in between her work we discovered we did, in fact, have a lot to talk about. We set off at 6am for the bumpy four-hour journey on what were mainly dirt roads and travelled through the forest where, apparently, wild elephants and the odd tiger roam. Needless to say I didn't see either but then I never have had much luck when it comes to spotting wildlife. Ushamaska was much smaller than I had imagined but it was in an idyllic location set half way up a mountain and surrounded by forest. On arrival we were met by the women from Ushamaska and also those from "nearby" villages – some of whom had walked 10km to attend the meeting. There were some feisty individuals amongst the crowd - the work that has been carried out to make them aware of their rights and give them a "voice" certainly seems to be working! They also had a wicked sense of humour and laughed out loud at my attempts to speak Oriya and gave me an impromptu pronunciation lesson – their continued giggling indicating that I still haven't quite got it. I'd give the bumpy ride a miss if I could but I'd love to go back and it was great to meet the people I'm working for face to face. Click here to see more photos.

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