Inspiration comes from many sources and often needs to bubble away a while before solidifying into action.
The story I heard about Detroit Soup strummed my idea neurons – probably because it joined up with another story that I heard four years ago. A story that had an impact on me and one I have shared many times since; the WORTH programme in Southern Nepal – a micro-finance scheme giving community power to women.
In October 2009, I had the good fortune to visit Kathmandu, Nepal, for the Appreciative Inquiry World Conference. Appreciative Inquiry is lots of things, but in essence it’s about bringing together diverse people to share stories to make the world a happier place for everyone. And so, in 2009, people from around the world came together to take part in conversations and workshops about the many ways people were doing this type of thing.
I met some incredible people during the four days of the event. For example, Chris from Australia who combines his appreciative practice with his love of Tai Chi – doing innovative work to improve the wellbeing of school children, and of older people in residential care. (Chris led Tai Chi sessions each morning – in the warm, swallow laden, garden of the conference hotel; the magnificent Himalayas manifest on the horizon.) And there was Jan, from Belgium, whose primary job involves sitting with people as they die – something he described as a great privilege. Jan also spends time incarcerated in prisons around the world so that he can report on how prisoners are treated. There was Rituu from India, who told me there is no road to happiness. Happiness is the road. And Justice Albie Sachs, a peace campaigner from South Africa: he met, shared stories with, and forgave the man responsible for the bomb that blew off his arm and rendered him partially blind. I also had time to talk with Nepalese participants. From them I heard stories about kidnapped daughters and broken lives. During the (recent) civil war, it was common for young girls to be taken by Maoist rebels because young girls can be impressionable – if we give you a gun, you will have power. I also heard stories about people coming together to build peace. And of idyllic homes on mountain slopes.
In short – not the type of conference one ever forgets.
The stand out memory for me was hearing from the women from the Southern Terai. They lived in the Chitwan District, which includes the Chitwan National Park – a world heritage site and a place of astonishing beauty. (I took a local bus there in my spare two days before my flight home. During an hour-long canoe trip I saw kingfishers, numerous crocodiles lounging in the sun, troops of monkeys watching from the trees and best of all – a herd of rhino.) Beautiful it may be, but life in that region isn’t easy. The WORTH programme (started in Nepal by Director Marcia Odell, and now to be found across the globe) is a low level intervention combining “literacy, business and banking” (1) to equip women to help one another to flourish. Four women travelled to Kathmandu to tell us their story. They told us that they had never been far from their village before, certainly not to anywhere as splendid as this hotel, and certainly not to talk to an audience of more than 500 people from every part of the world! They showed us the small box that acts as the Village Bank, and explained how each of them has a role in looking after the bank, in helping other women with literacy and savings, and in providing loans. All the women in the village contribute something. If they have no rupees, then they contribute handfuls of rice. This means there is funding in the bank for women who want to start a business – for example making and selling handicrafts, or teaching. Or perhaps they want funding to send a child to school. Not only had this small band of women helped their sisters in the village, they had travelled to other villages to help set up new banks. (In fact, so successful was this scheme, that it continued to flourish even during the civil war. During the six years when the supporting NGO was, by necessity, absent, the women set up 425 new banks. (2)) Each of the speakers – the youngest about 17 – shared their story with confidence and pride. At the end, the youngest exclaimed “And I achieved all of this, despite only being a woman!” (I spoke with her about this afterwards; suggesting that she had achieved it because she was a woman.) I still remember their faces, and I will always remember their story.
And so, when I heard about another – simple and effective – micro-finance scheme, the stories collided and I knew the time was right to act. In the UK, people and communities are experiencing hard times economically. The public sector has far less money to support community programmes. We need to be imaginative and we need to help one another if we are to thrive. Perhaps a scheme such as “Southend Soup” can help us with this.
After all, 37,000 Nepalese women have demonstrated that businesses and strong communities can be built on the foundations of nothing more than handfuls of rice.