Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Did Pesada hand me a key?

Pesada, a women's group dedicated to alleviating poverty and
marginalization of women
My good friend and Batak sister-in-law, Erlina Pardede, kindly agreed to introduce me to Pesada, a women's group that she helped to establish in the 1990s to deal with the poverty and marginalization suffered by women in many villages. We rented a car  and yesterday visited the Head Office. I was struck dumb by the size of the operation.

The building that we visited had numerous offices, seminar and meeting rooms, a restaurant and even lodgings for visitors, all cheerfully decorated and well maintained.
The building is large, cheerful and well maintained

One of the meeting rooms at the Pesada head office
I was given the opportunity to meet with the current director and program heads who told me about the history of Pesada and its various programs all dealing with women's health, well being and empowerment. They gave me three books relating to their 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries in which I am able to read about their advocacy and politics as well as testimonies by their members.

One thing that particularly stuck in my mind was their insight into poverty. They had learned that whatever the program -- however well designed and well intentioned -- where there was desperate poverty, it would get in the way of smooth workings and create failures -- no matter the good intentions and excellence of all parties. This single, weighty discovery was the origin of the CU, their Credit Union. Erlina took me to the balcony adjoining the office where we were sitting, and showed me another building, its name evident above the corn. It was the CU arm of Pesada: set up by Pesada and therefore linked philosophically, but separately run and in that sense independent.
The roof of the CU head office seen from the Pesada balcony

The Pesada Credit Union was established for those experiencing the greatest need. It functions in such a way that even the poorest can participate and eventually enjoy increased well being for themselves and their families. When we were finished in the Pesada building, Erlina and I crossed over to the CU building and were given time with the board of directors, all women who had once been leaders of village credit groups and who therefore had a deep understanding of how things work on the ground. The CU now has 20 staff and even an insurance program to assist those who fall on bad times and cannot repay their loans.

Pesada separates its garbage

Everywhere there are inspirational signs

My thoughts went immediately to Ma Kamra. Her renovation needs, so urgent, had interfered with our weaving plans, even while I know her to be an enthusiastic and diligent weaver (see my earlier blog).

Erlina and her colleagues encouraged me to set up a credit union under the auspices of the Weaving Centre. As in the case of Pesada, it would be linked but independently run -- although of course much smaller. They all claimed that once the principles were understood, the implementation would be straightforward.  The success of the initiative would reside in the rigorousness of the application of the rules; sloppiness, arbitrariness and exceptions would lead to weakness and even the downfall of the organization.

Finding the establishment of a credit union an organizational challenge, I asked if it would not be better to simply (if permissible) join their established CU. All of the Board Members sitting across the table from me immediately, spontaneously and unanimously agreed that it would be better to establish a new CU within the sphere of the Weaving Centre. "Why?" I asked.
1. A Weaving Centre CU would link people more tightly to the Weaving Centre because their money would be tied up in it. Membership would not be arbitrary, but become more essential to their lives.
2. The monthly meetings for the CU would be opportunities to discuss not just matters relating to the CU but also needs and experiences specific to the Weaving Centre. This would also connect the members more strongly to the Weaving Centre.
I found these two arguments of fundamental significance. Moreover, the more I reflect on the matter, the more important I find them.

The reason for this relates to another discussion that I had with Pesada before crossing over to the CU offices. Pesada also has programs specifically related to the needs of weavers.  The primary need experienced by weavers is, quite simply, money. Just as with many (almost all?) other weaver assistance programs, the Pesada programs focus on weaver earnings. The second focus is weaver health, hence the encouragement of natural dyes to replace chemical dyes. I pointed out that their programs did not take culture into account, only economy. Weaver earnings in the Pesada programs are not related to their own cultural traditions (they make market-viable textiles for other cultures) and the colours they learn are not the 'Batak colours'. Weavers become technicians only, labourers for available markets. This is not our intent at the Weaving Centre. We hope to combine the need for income with the opportunity for the women to work within their own culture in a meaningful way.  

I continually search for avenues to increase weaver well being by way of developing and reviving their culture -- making culture the stepping stone rather than something that must be dispensed with to find the road to Modernity. Perhaps I stumbled across the solution at Pesada. The CU (besides the sale of textiles) would be an additional way to link the Weaving Centre programs, focused on encouraging cultural pride and reviving indigenous knowledge. with increased financial well being.  

When I got back, I shared my thoughts with Lasma and Ober. Both listened intently and discussed the matter thoughtfully. Lasma is right. A good seed has been planted. It is inspiring -- but we have to understand the mechanics of the CU system thoroughly first, and compare it to other systems. 

Time to cogitate and learn some more.

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