Home > Story of SVYM > (57) Medhi and my lesson in self-reliance

(57) Medhi and my lesson in self-reliance

September 28, 2010

Medhi is a Bettakuruba tribal whose life revolved around collecting Bamboo from the forest. Bamboo was everything to her and her family. They would eat tender bamboo shoots, make different household articles out of bamboo and sell it to the local farmers, use bamboo for constructing their houses and for special occasions like calling their spirits or make loud noises to drive away marauding elephants. She had a small patch of 2 acres of agricultural land, and along with her husband and three children lived a very contented life. Her house was located between Brahmagiri, where I had first moved in, and our Hosahalli tribal School. For years, I had watched them repair the thatched roof over the bamboo structure called a house after every monsoon. I was so moved that my immediate thought was that they needed a more ‘pucca’ house. It was around 1994-95 and we had just started forming Self Help Groups for women. Mamatha was overseeing this program and Medhi was a member of one of the Self Help Groups. At the first available opportunity that we could initiate a housing program for these women, Mamatha and I felt that Medhi and her family should get the benefit of our assistance.

With no understanding of the local context or the capability of the tribals, we believed that houses had to be the way our engineers or construction team designed them to be. I still remember the day when we met with Medhi and asked her if she wanted a more stable house to live in. Medhi felt amused, as she had never imagined that the house she lived was either ‘unstable’ or ‘unlivable’. And she never felt that the house that we gave her was anywhere near what she would be comfortable in. In her own way, Medhi wanted to know what the total value of our assistance was. We explained that it would be in the range of Rs.20,000.

Medhi had a very simple question. She wanted to know if we were interested in her having a comfortable home or were we looking to give her what we believed to be just another house from our own stable of development schemes. Obviously her question was very discomforting, but we were at least wise if not humble enough to agree that it was a home to her liking that was our intent. She matter of factly told us to give her the Rs.20,000 and let her build her house the way she wanted it to be. Medhi must have noticed the disbelief on my face and explained in her own simple and polite way. She told me that she and her people had been living in more adverse conditions in the forest for centuries and knew how to take care of themselves. She felt they had the knowledge and the skill to build themselves a good house that she could augment with modern conveniences like roof tiles and cement plastered walls if she had a little money to buy them with. What she wanted to know was if we trusted her with the money to do exactly this.

Those were days of my relative inexperience and I operated with the mistaken impression that I had the solutions to the problems of the people. I was yet to learn the art of listening to the people, understand their problems from their perspective and build a solution based on their strengths and needs. All that this lesson of Medhi’s would cost me was Rs.20,000. Hesitatingly I agreed to advance the money to her. To my surprise, Medhi built a house (which still stands to this day), much larger than what we were building with the money that we gave her. But more importantly, she built her house that she and her family not only designed but also participated everyday in building it. This was the true message of self-reliance that Gandhi wrote so much about. Unfortunately, neither the Government nor many NGOs understand this intricate and sustainable strength inherent in the communities that many of us serve. How wonderful it would be if we make listening and responding to communities a part of the myriad schemes that we design for communities in the name of their development. From my own experience (or rather my inexperience), I now strongly believe that communities inherently understand, know, and are capable of their own development interventions. All that external change agents like us need to learn is to observe and learn from communities, form our own interpretations and if necessary design interventions that are contextually relevant and culturally appropriate. The lesson that Medhi taught me is still fresh in my mind as I grapple with the complexities of human development.


Categories: Story of SVYM
  1. chandra prakash.r
    October 10, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Could we have a photo of Medhi’s house in juxtaposition with the “modern” one built for others?

  2. Chetan Kumar
    September 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Concur that any intervention for development should be inclusive. The initiative would stand a good chance of being sustainable when the end user is involved. The family’s involvement in the process of construction is appreciated as this would have helped in achieving a design that the end user is comfortable with while also bringing down the construction cost considerably.

    However, was wondering if there were other perspectives to Medhi’s reaction/preference.

    Medhi may have exhibited the inherent resistance we all exhibit for CHANGE. Interventions through ideas/skills/new technologies overwhelm us and we all do fear alienation. The comfort ‘familiarity’ provides is hard to let go. But one needs to be wary of ‘our need to be in the comfort zone’ inadvertently resulting into denial of ideas/skills/technologies that have the potential of enhancing the quality of life. Cultures have evolved through exchange of ideas/skills. I reckon the challenge we face is, in identifying and retaining what’s best in us and in choosing changes that augurs well for us. With improved communication systems over the last decade, the bigger challenge we face today is the speed at which changes need to be imbibed/adapted to.

    Chetan Kumar, Bangalore

  3. Sharmila
    September 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

    One day, a friend – ‘Aileen’ and me were discussing whether our assumption ‘that children living in the slums were unhappy’ was right. We both were recollecting our experience in one of the most filty slums in Mumbai. We recounted the smiling faces, laughter and a sense of content among children and women as they went about doing their chores. I recalled my coversation with this young girl – who had a hen – as a pet. She giggled uncontrollably when she narrated how she protected the hen from becoming the night’s dinner.

    Thats when we realised that people have an intrinsic quality of adapting and being happy in whatever circumstances they are in. We from the development sector disturb this equilibrium by ‘deciding for them’ and by making them accept our readymade solutions…

    In the bargain – we actually marr their capacity to be independent and self – reliant, as we build our reputation of doing so much work for the ‘poor’.

  4. aam admi
    September 28, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Good work, nicely portrayed. Each one of us has to discover it everyday! It is enough, if we allow the human intelligence in the deprived to bloom or flower by itself. An occasional and friendly helping hand depicts only the natural human characteristic of sharing. Social work must only be limited to a gentle ‘push’ or support to prevent a disaster. It should not become an unconvinced and compelling commercial drag often seen here and there. In other words, we all should strive to increase the self reliant population rather than making them become dependant on alms or aids for life.

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