Knitting with tribal women in Tamil Nadu, India

The knitting experience  


I wanted to find out how the intercultural collaboration and interaction “across the borders”  works and feels: being in middle of tribal women, who are organized in some selfhelp groups, live in very limited infrastructural surroundings and who are busy with caring goats and providing the basics for their families. How would they react on my proposal to join for a knitting lesson?

I wanted to leave the pure observing perspective and to become an active part.  Not just experiencing the ‘come, see and go visits’ that are always interesting, but never sufficient to understand and reflect real group dynamics, leader roles or implementation challenges. I wanted to work with them face to face, on the ground. 

Of course, three knitting lessons in three weeks are neither a huge thing to teach nor a real changemaking task and for sure not comparable with profound development projects. But a good lesson in understanding development challenges. Without doubt. 

The first lesson has taken place a few days ago. 40 women came and brought also their children. They wanted them to stay and learn. Why not? We formed some groups, handed needles and wool to each of them and started to explain on how to put the thread around the fingers. How to form the first stitch. They were very keen to understand. The biggest challenge without doubt was my little –  or better – not existing language skills. But we exercised together, with mimics and gestics, again and again. One to one. Some of them were for sure a little bit embarrassed by my knitting exercises when I turned the wool around their fingers and we knit together …. but we had a lot of fun, too. One of the women who had understood how to do started to explain the others. And after an hour subgroups had developed. Most of the women stayed more than two hours until we stopped for that day. Two, three of them had already worked a nice piece… I left some needles and wool with them. And asked if we should do a next session the following week. They agreed. I look forward to meeting them again. 

What I learnt

Smiles, willingness, encouragement and empathy for each other are the most important factors to make things happen. I was very astonished on the immediate acceptance of being among them. Tribal women are very interested to understand what other women in the world do. I really wished I could have talked to them. Im sure they’d asked a lot what they do not ask to male local developers, just because of the gender issue. To be clear: the local project managers are really fantastic here and do a good job. But Indian people often are very gender oriented when the spend time together with others. And some topics, thoughts, fears and dreams might be shared just among them. That’s why probably we need more female local “developers”, too. 

A very personal insight

If someone had told me in 2014 that I would stay some months later in India in a tribal village teaching some tribal women on how to do knitting I’d never believed. But life is strange. We just need to take the chance and commit ourselves. The rest might be destiny or coming by chance – who knows. But it works, if we only want. 

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