The Story of Timbaktu and its 19.000 Women

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1.

The whole morning made us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Not only have we never been to this country before but we landed straight into the rural areas that follow Indian traditions that are for the most part new to us, and it all began with an unfortunate experience. Never before that day did I feel such a simple and clear feeling of inequality. It was around 35C, hot and humid, and the sight of all the men splashing in the water was infuriating. Of course we as well were invited to play but only under the conditions we enter the water with cloths above our bathing suit. Without needing to exchange a word it seemed all five of us women silently agreed it kind of takes the fun out of things. When we arrived to our hut that afternoon a steamy discussion overtook our fatigue. We were torn between an old fashioned image that resembled medieval times more than anything we knew from our daily lives and an image allowed to us through a window of another culture. Disturbed, I wrote to my friend about the incident. She wrote back with one sentence: “That is what allows them to be equals”.

2.

She first came to meet us wearing a very colorful red kurta and a white headscarf decorated with blue feathers. Her face was beautiful. Tough but gracious. She soon introduced herself and the programme for our visit to the women’s cooperative the next day. Before wishing us a pleasant evening, she turned to the ladies in the group and asked we dress accordingly while moving around the village – meaning no short sleeves and nothing above the knees. She was brief with words and efficient. Then she walked away and disappeared into the dusty brown road.

Her name was Molly. Her father Ganguly started the collective and her mother Mary the cooperative – 25 years before. In their social doings they created a new dialogue between the land and its people, a community in which she would eventually grow up in. She represented an uncommon sight of the rural society; she was far from illiterate, sharp in her opinions and their expression, spoke perfect English and lived with the man her heart had chosen. Surrounded by barren soil and lost traditions she took upon herself the role of a different, younger generation – one that rather than running to the city, stayed hoping to preserve and improve a place she so obviously loved and believed in. Molly kept a polite distance before becoming friendly. It felt a bit as if she intentionally wasn’t going to give a white person the privileged behavior they naturally receive here. Not before we rightfully deserved it.

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3.

It started with nothing really. As women do, they began meeting for tea. Several friends of the same village, talking, and sharing life’s difficulties. Like many other rural communities in India the problems that came up were hardly foreign to any of them and normally resulted with one common issue – money. Sending your children away for an education, paying for an unexpected health problem, needing to invest for a future profit. Each in their own life and for different reasons thinking about that future rainy day. And when you have nothing to lean on, those rainy days come frequently.

As time went by the discussions started evolving into ideas, and like the best of them, into actions. Even if very small at first. They decided that for their next meeting each of them would do her best to bring a symbolic sum of money. And so the next time they met every friend put 10 rupees on the table – not an easy amount to come by but they managed. Over time 10 rupees weekly turned into an umbrella for those rainy days. Slowly more women from the village began to join and the capital began to grow. At first it was all done discreetly between them. When one of them had an unexpected payment to make they had somewhere to take it from. They discussed the requests from each other for a loan and when one was given approval, the loan would be gradually paid back with a small interest to their newly made, homemade bank. Suddenly, there was something.

4.

We walked into the green room and sat in front of the five women. Their colored saris of blue red and gold shined in the bright sun coming in through the many windows. Mary kindly welcomed us in English and began to introduce herself and her colleagues. We listened carefully as her calm and low voice translated the stories of the women who shaped their communities. For some of them, being here required past confrontation, mainly with their husbands. For others this place was a home after they lost theirs.

With very modest smiles on their faces, they answer our questions about the journey and the goals of their work. Today, the collective is made of 4 finance-aiding cooperatives with almost 19,000 women members and approximately 138 million rupees of capital. Their small piggy bank from 1992 is now the number one source for the surrounding communities to give their children an education, start small businesses, afford health treatments and welfare and receive emergency financial aid. A large sum of the money goes to improving livelihood independence and in a rural agrarian society this means mostly teaching methods of traditional and organic production, creating a tremendous environmental and health benefit as well. All the while they don’t neglect where it started from – the women can attend leadership workshops and seminars on women’s rights. As they grew stronger, so did their communities.

Women empowerment has many different shapes and forms. Today we honor them all.

IMG_1669Ramalakshmamma, CEO of the cooperative

You can find more information about the fascinating and diverse work by the womens collective at www.timbaktu.org

Text & Pictures: NATALIE SHAFRIR

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