Iqbal | Off the beaten path: A summer in humility
September 17, 2013, 5:26 pm · Updated September 17, 2013, 10:53 pm·
It seems like eons ago that sophomore year ended and I boarded a plane on a journey to the unknown, to a place I had only seen in pictures and heard about through family stories: India.
I spent 10 weeks of my summer interning with an NGO in a northern state of India called Uttarakhand, known for its sublime views of the Himalayas, vast agricultural population, and horrible monsoon weather.
The original draw to India had been through familial connections. My grandfather, Moin Iqbal, grew up in India and moved to Lahore, Pakistan after Partition. Unfortunately, he died when I was only a couple of months old so I never got to hear him recount his endless supply of pre-Partition tales.
The story, which my grandmother still recounts is of his march with Gandhi; apparently he was marching in protest of the British rule in a village in India with Gandhi and the British soldiers were surrounding the civilians. He said he heard a commotion, then a gunshot and the man to his left fell dead.
The stories I have heard of my family in Pakistan and India has enthralled me, but I had never been able to visit. The Penn Center For Advanced Study of India internship seemed like a great opportunity to become closer with my cultural roots, and also to gain experience in areas of business I am truly interested in. Not only did I get to immerse myself in the culture and tradition of the region, but I got to work for an amazing NGO called the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group.
At CHIRAG, there were two main focuses to my internship. The first part involved working with a for-profit business started by CHIRAG called Kumaon Grameen Udyog, which sells goods made by local women villagers, and reinvests all profits back into CHIRAG-led projects to better the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand.
The second part was a more personal project, which involved my own research on the development of sustainability and women’s empowerment of microfinance groups in the Kumaon region.
If there is one thing I could say was life changing, it was attending microfinance groups. I had read about women villagers pooling their money together to allow for one another to buy goods they would not have otherwise been able to afford, but I never thought I would witness this event in the flesh.
In addition, the stories they told tell me about their daily lives were unfathomable to me. The women of the Kumaon region are true heroines. They wake up at 4:30 a.m., collect fodder, animals and milk, get the children ready for school and go down to the road to pump water for the family all before they make breakfast often for a family composed of 10 or more inhabitants.
The adventures and memories I have of my time in India are incomparable to any experience I have had in the United States, while many athletes might find it hard to go abroad because they feel they will not be able to train or find time to play. However, I think if there is a will there is always a way.
I was located in the foothills of the Himalayas in which the local culture has no conception of running for “fun” or running to “stay in shape.” The idea of expelling more energy than necessary is mind-boggling because most people are farmers who from the hours of 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. are working in the fields to harvest crops and feed their families.
In addition, there were no tracks or open fields to run on due to the mountainous terrain of the area, but I was still able to train by running up mountain trails.
Safety was also a big concern. I received a lot of stares for running, but I always made sure to run with one of the other interns, or with a local dog I had befriended. As you might have guessed from the terrain and underdeveloped area I was in, there were no field hockey teams, but I had brought two sticks and a couple of balls and was able to practice my skills as well as teach some of the interns how to play.
Obviously field hockey conditions were not ideal, but the experience I had abroad more than makes up for not playing field hockey for a summer. I have come away from this summer humbled and cultured.