Hearing and talking about poor and marginalised people, and reading the stories of change in their lives fascinates us all. But when you visit the community yourself, you are confronted by the grim reality. On my recent visit to the Sunsari Cluster, I had a chance to meet with a community living in extreme poverty. The village was a kaleidoscope of simple huts with thatched roofs, lining both sides of the dusty road. Although the huts were of mud, the locality was clean. Cattle and goats were tethered in front of the houses. Ducks and hens pecked at the haystacks, and freshly made dung cakes baked in the sun. The smell of fresh harvest wafted through the air.
Nature has poured its beauty out in the village and its surroundings, but it seems that the people living here are made to pay for it. Most of the people in this community are living below the poverty line. Remani, Sita, Bechani Devi, Geeta, Leela and Prabha are members of a women's saving group. All of them have different stories to tell - different but similar - about their miserable lives. They work like automated machines from early in the morning till late night, just to ensure that their children have enough food for that day. Their day starts with cleaning and preparing food for their children. Some go to richer households to do domestic work, like washing clothes and cleaning the house. In return, they get a handful of rice, pulse or leftovers from the previous night's cooking. After feeding their own children, they work in others' fields - digging, sowing, planting, weeding and harvesting. Till five in the evening they labour, and in return get around 80 rupees (around US$1). When they return from the fields, their children are already waiting for their dinner. Their husbands also work for daily wages in the fields, and if they are lucky, they get some menial jobs in factories nearby. Both husband and wife put together their earnings and it's time to visit the local shop. The evening is spent in preparing the food. But regular work is not guaranteed, and those days are hard to survive. Their lives are a patchwork of drudgery - at home, in other's houses, and in the fields.
Among all this gloom, there's a ray of hope. A rare sense of fighting against poverty has emerged, thanks to the women's saving group. Prabha is leading the group of 25 members. She has been making mudhas (local stools) for a year since being trained by UMN's partner, Ramganj Yuva Club (RYC). She makes a reasonable profit of 38 rupees per mudha, and is the source of motivation for other five ladies. They too have started to make mudhas in their spare time. This tiny amount supplements what their husbands earn as daily wages.
Another source of inspiration is Sitaram, a model farmer in the village, who is growing mushrooms, a new cash crop for the people in that area. Watching Sitaram climb out of the grip of poverty, they are keen to start growing vegetables on their own, instead of working in others' fields. A group from RYC have assessed their needs, and are planning with UMN to provide them with the necessary training, seeds, fertilizers and irrigation facilities.
My visit ended, the ladies bid me farewell with gleams of hope in their eyes - hope to do something on their own, hope to send their children to school, hope to raise their standard of living. As I clambered into the jeep to return, I could feel a gust of wind blowing through the window, blowing straight into my face. I knew it was a different kind of wind - yes, it was wind of change!