By Austin Bailey, World Ark editor
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee
NOSARIA, INDIA — Buddhi Devi considers her daughter-in- law, who’s hiding in the kitchen with her veil over her face while strangers visit in the yard. The young woman will come around eventually, Buddhi Devi assures us. Most parents in this rural section of India raise their daughters to be meek and servile, so the deprogramming takes a while.
When Buddhi Devi came here to the desert village of Nosaria as a young bride, she, too, felt powerless and easily intimidated. This is difficult to picture. Buddhi Devi has the self-assurance and charisma of a natural-born politician, so much so that it’s hard to imagine her as a timid homebody. But she was different then, she explained. “In that time if you had come here, I would be under my veil, unable to speak.”
In those early years of her marriage, she worked hard in the fields for the two rainy months of the year. She spent the other 10 months mostly alone in her small home, cooking and caring for her three children while her husband worked as a day laborer. The home was smaller than it is now because there was no money for improvements. The livestock shed they had back then was flimsy, dirty and occupied by only two goats at a time.
Looking from her yard across the sandy fields, she could make out a few nearby houses, but she didn’t know any of her neighbors. “There were no dreams,” she remembers. “Just eating and sleeping.”
Five years ago, though, Buddhi Devi changed course. She joined Baba Veertija, a Heifer-supported women’s group that aimed to help members improve their goat-raising operations. Buddhi Devi, whose name aptly means “clever” in Hindi, showed up for every training she could and soon became a community animal health worker. Leaving the house to make calls on farmers who needed vaccinations or other health services for their animals was tough at first. Being poor her whole life left Buddhi Devi shy and insecure, and she was nervous to talk to people she barely knew. But she had a new set of skills and a head full of know-how going for her. “I had things to share. That gave me confidence,” she said.
She earned money caring for animals, and she invested her earnings into her own goat operation. With the mortality rates of her goats way down thanks to better nutrition and hygiene, she was able to amp up her operation considerably and in one year sold 60 goats. Buddhi Devi also tapped into the group’s savings to take out a loan to grow fodder and vegetables and to install a water tank at her house that saves her the hours a day it took to fetch enough water for the animals and her family.
Of a lower caste and used to being shunned, discounted or simply ignored by higher-caste women, Buddhi Devi was nervous once again when she took on a leadership role in the self-help group. She was used to everyday humiliations, like not being able to drink water or tea with members of higher castes and being made to wait outside their houses when she came to care for the animals because they didn’t want to let her in.
Husbands, you should let your wife out of the house. She can do anything. Chatararam Ji
Buddhi Devi found, however, that her success suddenly made her quite popular. All group members began sitting together at meetings, rather than dividing themselves into their usual hierarchical groupings. And all the members deferred to Buddhi Devi’s expertise.
“What I say, they follow,” she said of the group members from upper castes. “Before, I was following what they say.”
As the group grows and the producers have more goats and vegetables to sell, the work becomes easier for everyone because buyers seek them out. Business is so strong lately that Buddhi Devi keeps a cellphone tucked into her bra strap so she doesn’t miss any orders. Customers are calling from as far as Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan state, 150 miles away. The need for more goat and vegetable producers is so high that when a potential member’s husband is reluctant to let his wife sign on, Buddhi Devi goes to the family’s home and makes her case. More often than not, she’s successful.
Buddhi Devi’s work supports her entire family, and she plans to use savings to help her son start his own shop. Her husband, Chatararam Ji, works alongside his wife to care for the animals and to keep the household running during the many hours Buddhi Devi spends arranging sales, administering vaccines, and taking care of the other jobs that come along with raising and selling goats.
The dramatic change in their lives was a surprise at first, Chatararam Ji said, but a welcome one. “I was not expecting that she could do this work. Now, I’m confident,” he said.
In fact, he said more women should ditch their traditional role of sticking close to home. The whole family will be better off, he said. “Husbands, you should let your wife go out of the house,” he said. “She can do anything.”