I left Azamgarh on a cold and foggy morning cycling along backroads and through small villages of basic brick and mud homes clustered together. The manager at the hotel where I was staying explained to me that the main road between Azamgarh and Pulpur had fallen apart for long stretches and would not be comfortable to cycle along. I shared the backroads with local cyclists; men wrapped in shawls heading to work in the fields, jacket wearing rosy cheeked school kids with woolly hats pulled down over their ears, and mobile stores - men selling an assorted range of products piled high and tied all around their bicycles. The bicycle is the primary mode of transport in this part of Uttar Pradesh and I am always amazed at how sturdy these local cycles are. Sure they squeak, rattle and wobble but that is not surprising after years of trundling along bumpy, dusty roads. I often feel a tinge of guilt as I overtake on my well-maintained, silent, custom built touring bike that cost more than many of these villagers, some of the poorest in India, may earn in a decade!
After a couple of hours cycling I reach the small yet bustling town of Pulpur, I had been informed that Mijwan village is only a few kilometres away, and that I should look for Shabana Azmi Road. After asking around and taking a few wrong turns I find myself cycling along Shabana Azmi Road leaving Pulpur behind me. It’s not long before I come to a junction and turn left onto Kaifi Azmi road, a surfaced lane that leads directly, after a few kilometres, to Mijwan village.
I roll up to the small Mijwan Welfare Society (MWS) office and I am enthusiastically greeted by Riyasatji [Secretary cum Treasurer] and Sakhawat Hussain [Kaifi Azmi Computer Centre Incharge], before I have even got off my bicycle they have placed 4 marigold garlands around my neck, a traditional welcoming and a very pleasant surprise. They invite me into the office where I am served with Aloo Mattar (a potato and pea ‘curry’, very traditional in these parts) and a hot cup of tea, just what I needed after 45km of cycling in the cold.
As I eat Riyasatji and Sakhawat give me an introduction to the MWS and explain the great work that they are involved with. I am eager to see all this for myself so Riyasatji and Sakhawat lead me to the nearby Embroidery & Sewing Centre, a small single story whitewashed concrete structure. Here I am greeted by a group of women and bestowed with more marigold garlands, more than 10 in total, all very overwhelming! The basic exterior of the embroidery centre belies the beauty that is being created inside. First I am shown how the ladies mark out the motif designs on the fabric using a stencil and a water soluble blue ink, and then onto the embroidery room itself. A group of around 15 women wearing colourful saris are sat around chatting and chuckling as they stare intently at the embroidery hoops in their hands which they are working on; creating the beautiful embroidery that has been designed by Manish Malhotra one of India’s top designers, and which he incorporates into his finished dresses. From talking with the ladies I learn that before the Embroidery & Sewing Centre was set up 20 years ago they had no prospects to earn an income and were fully dependent on the meagre earnings of their husbands and perhaps sons. The Embroidery & Sewing Centre has empowered these women giving them a sense of self-esteem and their own source of income which helps ease the household budget burden. The MWS has expanded the embroidery and sewing program to another 12 surrounding villages, which is fantastic as it means even more women are becoming empowered and earning an income.
Leaving the happy atmosphere of the Embroidery & Sewing Centre Riyasatji and Sakhawat guide me through the village which is surrounded by fields of tall sugar cane, the prominent cash crop in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As we wander they point out small plots where vegetables, mustard plant and chillies amongst other things are being grown for sale in the local market. I can’t help but notice cow dung moulded into shapes resembling shark fins which are neatly lined up on the floor in many parts of the village. Riyasatji explains this is known as Komaya in Hindi and is a very important source of fuel for the villagers; it is an efficient fuel source, essentially free to produce yet can be sold, it alleviates pressure on local woodlands and it safely disposes of the cow dung.
We reach the other side of the village in no more than a few minutes and enter the education compound where a group of children are playing in the yard, cricket of course. Riyasatji informed me that none of the girls are at the school today. As a result of the continuing worse than normal cold spell the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister had ordered all educational establishments to be closed and the children to stay at home. However, we had a look around the 10 classrooms of the Girl’s School and the Inter College before moving onto the Computer Training Centre. Here there are 20 internet connected computers (yes thanks to the MWS Mijwan village has a high speed internet connection!) to teach modern basics such as word processing and spread sheets as well as more advanced computer skills. Yet what really amazed me was when I walked into one room and saw a large flat screen monitor on the wall. Seeing my surprised look Riyasatji chuckles and goes on to explain that with the assistance of the Ann Foundation, based in the USA, and using Skype technology with a webcam this room is used for live English language lessons with the native English speaking teachers being half a world away in America – how amazing is that! Riyasatji informed me that before the schools in Mijwan were established most girls from the village would not receive an education and would grow-up illiterate with very low expectations and few options. Once again the MWS is casting its net further than just Mijwan village and currently over 200 girls from surrounding villages attend the educational establishments, ensuring the MWS benefits are far reaching.
In the late afternoon with the sun making a feeble but welcomed attempt to break through the fog I returned to the school compound. Despite the girls not being at school they still wanted to meet me and had set up an impromptu surprise, a ‘fashion show’ featuring clothes they had made themselves. I entered the darkened classroom where there was a subdued pre-show low buzz of excitement and took my seat next to the ‘cat-walk’. Within a few minutes the music began the lights were turned up and I was treated to a dazzling display as the girls strutted and struck poses mimicking their Bollywood heroines. The costumes being modelled ranged from vibrant traditional silk saris and kalmar shameez to contemporary Indian fashion and even Western styles – it was easy to forget I was in a small village in one of India’s poorest and conservative states. After the show I congratulated the girls on their performance as well as their dressmaking skills. As I chatted with them I was struck by their levels of English and self-confidence and kept thinking back to what Riyasatji had told me, that before MWS many of these girls would already be married, be illiterate and stuck at home with few prospects – what a difference an education makes!
As I bid my fond farewells to the wonderful people I have met whilst in Mijwan village,’what a difference an education makes’, is the thought that stays with me. Whether it is a school education or being ‘educated’ in new skills ‘education’ has, and is, making significant changes to the empowerment of women and girls in Mijwan and the surrounding villages. This has only been possible due to the foresight and vision of the late Kaifi Azmi and the continued work of the Mijwan Welfare Society under the guidance of Shabana Azmi. The MWS is an organisation that relies on the kind support and donations of individuals to carry out its life-changing work. I am extremely pleased to be involved with the MWS and to be raising funds for it via my challenging 15,000km cycle ride around India.
If you would like to help with the MWS’s inspiring work in empowering women and girls please make a donation, any contribution big or small really can change a life!!
Follow the below link and click on the blue ‘Donate & Help’ button which will guide you through the process…