Blistering sunlight broils our small group as we gingerly perch around the edges of the raised bed our hosts have set out for us in front of their hut in Godha Village. We’ve come to visit a few of the 100 ultra-poor women in rural Uttar Pradesh recently employed by our local partner, a social-venture dairy firm called Samridhi Agri Products.
A funding chain connects Samridhi, invested in and advised by my nonprofit partner Upaya Social Ventures in Seattle, to my San Francisco foundation, which has partially funded and advised Upaya. Our family foundation deploys both seed grants and social-impact investments to innovative organizations providing self-help to end poverty. It’s simple: we want everyone to have the same shot at school, work, and self-determination that we’ve had. We believe intention matters, with every dollar and hour we give.
We’ve supported local scholarships for homeless and low-income teens; global adult education and health care delivered through microfinance channels; recycled bicycles for schoolgirls in Africa and college loans for youth in developing countries; a Laundromat microenterprise in Appalachia and a nutrition program for impoverished kids in East Dayton. Our funding targets pragmatic solutions—rather than temporary relief, life-changing opportunities. We also provide storytelling for innovative nonprofits, to broadcast their courageous day-to-day efforts to change the world. Often, as here in India, our financial and literary investments overlap, and I find myself face to face with clients who’ve benefited from, in this case, jobs.
The dairy farmers we’re visiting haven’t been told anything about the financials. They’ve only heard we are American “cousins” of Lokesh, the founder of Samridhi. And they know that “Sushma” (my temporary Indian name) has traveled from the United States to gather their stories to take home to America.
However, I don’t look too much like Lokesh’s cousin. My ghostly pale skin and hair really stand out here, and I don’t speak a word of Hindi. I’m just a bumbling American, touring through the backcountry of one of India’s poorest regions. I don’t feel out of place as a foreigner, though, because people look directly into my eyes—no aversion—and then give me big, toothy grins. Actually, I’m having a five-star experience amid this cluster of kaccha huts.
These cow and goat farmers cannot imagine my life back home, because they have no electricity here for television or Internet—thus, no way to cultivate two-dimensional stereotypes of life in faraway places. They don’t know that my walk-in closet is the size of their houses, that we have four televisions, or that I have a personal chef named Trader Joe’s (it’s a West Coast thing). They just shake their heads when asked what message they wish to send back to America.
What they do know is that they’ve bumped from 50 cents to $2/day income through steady, home-based employment, with livestock assets of their own accruing in the process. They are eager to talk about their work.
“My three goats are eating well. I am excited about this program,” says Saraswati, a 42-year-old mother of three who asserts that her goats have distinct personalities. “One of them was very angry when he was little, but now they’ve all calmed down and become friends.” She smiles, curling her ringed toes into the dust at her feet and flinging her hands wide as she speaks.
“Well, my arthritis really bothers me,” her 60-year-old neighbor Draupadi chimes in, “and my husband works in a traveling wedding band, so I’m the sole caretaker of my goats. However, compared to other jobs, this is better.”
Other jobs Draupadi has worked: trash picking, stone-splitting, and begging.
As the sun beats down, I lift my scarf to create a canopy of shade with one hand, while my other hand scribbles notes. Lokesh asks questions in the women’s dialect and translates them back to me. I lose some layers of cultural nuance, but the process gives me time to record quotations and impressions. Besides, we have Sriram from Bangalore and Garima from Lucknow, whispering insiders’ commentary: “A woman riding a bicycle and working as a veterinary assistant is completely shocking here. Usually, the women’s husbands bring the milk to the village collection center because it’s more acceptable.”
I ask questions constantly: How old is she? How does she spend her extra income? Why is she wearing such a fancy sari on a workday? What would she study if she had the chance to go back to school with her kids?
We visit three villages. The huts we visit represent 67.8 percent of Indians—who live on less than $2/day and work as farmers tilling soil as share-croppers, surrendering half their harvest, or walking for hours on the unpaved dirt roads, government card in hand, hoping for a few days per month of unskilled labor at a road or house construction site.
Until now, village residents accepted the status quo. Samridhi’s 22-year-old Garima Siwach says she has seen “deeply ingrained multigenerational poverty, in which several generations just continue to repeat the lifestyle of their forebears without questioning it or trying to advance.” Having recently completed graduate school in Mumbai and turned down city life and corporate comfort to build the ultra-poor program here, Garima has seen the beginning of a shift. “When we gave the first trainings, only the husbands showed up,” she recalls. “Later, the women came”—and the animals were signed over in their names, allowing the men to continue as day-laborers. Families saw their incomes double and triple through the women’s new jobs, which paid steady wages with bonuses for higher milk quantity and quality.
During this trip I will travel through north and east India with my notebook in one hand and a camera in the other. I will take a hundred of pages of notes for two NGOs (Upaya Social Ventures and Freedom from Hunger). I will catch a nasty cold and get sick to my stomach. I’ll do a lot of sweating and very little sleeping. And when I return home, my coworker’s Indian-American mother and her friends will scratch their heads and ask: “Why in God’s name would Suzanne want to travel to Uttar Pradesh? We grew up in India, yet we’d never venture there.”
Why wouldn’t I? Where’s the adventure in bicycling through Tuscany or beach-lolling in Tahiti? The truth is that I get a lot more out of storytelling than my subjects do. Storytelling, an aspect of social metrics and due diligence for me, gets me places far beyond the well-worn tourist path. On this trip, I got the chance to worship Lord Ganesh in a temple high atop the folded mountains of the Aravali range in Rajasthan; share fresh, hot vegetable-stuffed puchkas with a health care teacher in her third-floor apartment near Orissa; and stroll through Humayun’s tomb and gardens with my coworker Sachi, reliving the year she lived in Delhi with her husband. I gained five pounds gobbling buttered naan, saw wild boar gnashing trash in a village near Jaipur, and passed giggling girls singing their way to a wedding in Kolkata. Like many lucky tourists, I got the chance to drink in the Taj Mahal. However, I also got served chai in the back courtyard of Saraswati’s one-room brick house in Godha. And that, to me, rates five stars.
Suzanne Skees is founder/director of the Skees Family Foundation.