Team Goonj: Adventures in Bihar

EWMBA IBD “Team Goonj” is Nick Haluck, Murat Ilgen, Amy Andrews and Anne Sromek. The group was paired with non-profit GOONJ.org, a cloth-focused organization with collection centers based in large cities within India. Rather than using donated clothing as a charitable hand-out, GOONJ uses cloth as a currency that enables villagers to improve the quality of rural life by digging wells, cleaning up river banks and constructing bridges. GOONJ is also the largest non-government organization to respond to natural disaster relief, like the current Rahat floods.

So much has happened since our last blog post. Early on Thursday, July 11, Team Goonj boarded a flight to Patna, a city in the state of Bihar. As the plane was landing, we saw sunlight glistening on the water that had accumulated in people’s yards and farm plots. The Bihar region is very flood-prone and it had been steadily raining for several days prior, so we started seeing the destruction before even setting foot on the ground.

We were greeted by a Goonj volunteer and driven to the Patna office. The heat and humidity was incredible, and this is when we recognized the value of the DEET spray that we brought along for our trip (mosquitos love us). We also started stocking up on bottled water at every occasion. During our field days, we’d drink upwards of 5 liters per person, per day, plus chai.

chai

Our days were filled with trips to nearby villages and “tolas”, which are subsets of villages. The Keshopur area within Bihar is a tribal region more than a village – so each tola is very close-knit. The lives of every individual is interwoven with everyone in the tola. Tolas can be organized by caste, or by faith. Every tola we visited greeted us with chai and, at first, stares. Those turned quickly into smiles when we started asking our field research questions about their success with Goonj initiatives.

Villagers tell us their stories of  GOONJ..

We quickly came to learn that the most important thing for the villagers are their places of worship. Temples have been built with the help of Goonj’s Cloth for Work initiatives, and they are closely guarded and maintained by the villagers. We also saw bamboo bridges, irrigation systems, new roads, bandstands built around holy trees, shops and schools, all constructed by villagers with the help of Goonj. One villager put it best…”Goonj says, ‘if you give us your hand, we will give you ours. We’ll stand by you. You must work for your own development’.”

Temple in Bihar that was built with GOONJ.. assistance

Indeed, we saw the Goonj model in action. The day we visited Singhar village, a Goonj project was actually underway. Hundreds of men, women and children had gathered to build a road. The landlord had allowed for it, and Goonj had partnered with the villagers by offering them clothing in exchange for their labor. The road was built within a few hours. Now, what was once a field that could only be traversed by foot is a packed dirt road that can accommodate bicycles and motorcycles. The nearest doctors are 10 km away, so the road is literally a life-saver.

Road work in Bihar

Most of the villages we visited did not have running water, nor electricity, in stark comparison to our lives back in California. The villagers, however, are grateful for what they have and not angry for what they do not have. When the sun sets, they bring out solar LED flashlights and continue to visit with us. They are pleased to have guests and open their homes to us. We are both overwhelmed and humbled by what we experience here.

Fresh Mangoes!

In one village, the residents literally sat us down in chairs and fed us fresh mangoes for an hour. They were the best mangoes we’ve ever tasted – and the villagers seemed to really enjoy our enjoyment of them, too.

The ride back to Patna is bittersweet, as we’ve grown to love the villages and our gracious hosts.

Famous Bihar bananas

On the way to the airport, we stopped at a roadside stand to buy some Hajipur bananas for our plane trip home.

Plane from Panta to Delhi

We give our final presentation to GOONJ.. on Friday. Wish us luck!

नमस्ते, Bihar, and धन्यवाद for the memories.

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