by Gina Kovalik
As of today, we are a whopping 2 weeks in and already 1/3 through our shortened program. Through the ups and downs of attaining our visas, I feel as if I have just now accepted the reality that we are in Ahmedabad, India.
With this realization of our location, I have also begun to reflect upon our work so far with our partner organization. Although I had poured through their website when I was deciding on the program and after I was accepted, I had no idea the truly thoughtful nature in which SAATH works to develop slum communities. I have come to the conclusion that much of the organization’s function is in its name: SAATH Charitable Trust.
The “SAATH charitable” part of the name is fairly self-explanatory. As an NGO, they seek to give to the community without any monetary incentive. The “trust” part of their title is more intriguing. Although the term “trust” is used in more of a legal sense to describe the type of NGO we are working at, I am convinced that it also perfectly describes their attitude toward their work. The organization is centered around a mutual trust between the organization and the community, and that has clearly lead to the great success since their founding in 1989.
From the very beginning, the organization was founded out of the needs of the community. During one of our speaker events with SAATH founder Rajendra Joshi, he claimed that for the first few months, all he did for his organization was play volleyball. Through playing this game and building relationships with local slum residents, the first visionaries of SAATH began to diagnose the concerns and thoughts of the youth, around which they designed their organization. Hand in hand with this original youth group, SAATH facilitated a way for those living in the slums to connect with both government and corporate donors to improve sanitation, which was a major concern at that time.
This system of mutual trust has continued until today. SAATH listens to the community, regularly going from door to door to hear thoughts and concerns of those living in the slums. By doing so, SAATH shows a respect for the humanity of such marginalized members of society. And in return, community members become willing to accept SAATH’s help in job skills, financial training, or community networking.
One of the biggest questions I had coming into my specific DukeEngage project was on how I would be empowering women in a society that maintains what we consider traditional, patriarchal values. Working against what was common culture did not seem like a sustainable way to help a community. Instead, I can see now how SAATH’s network of trust enables community members to understand the importance of independence for all women. Instead of undermining values, SAATH field officers converse with families, sharing stories of women who were able to better provide for their families thanks to job and life skills training.
As such, I found during my one lesson so far that much of the hard work of my teaching here has been done for me. The women and girls that come into the livelihood centers are self-motivated and ready to improve their own situations as they have the support of their families. They are the ones improving their own economic and social situation. My role is simply to help facilitate that process.
SAATH’s method has given me a new outlook on service. To make a real difference, NGOs cannot come into a community offering services that at a glance seem helpful. To create a sustainable difference takes months of community cooperation. But through honest conversations and perhaps a cup of masala chai, a trust is built that can potentially lead to a better quality of life for those served.