Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Too Small to Fail

In the months just after September 11, 2001, Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos travelled to India where she began collecting stories on the microcredit phenomenon. On several visits, she spent months trekking from village to village, sleeping on reed mats, and learning about the Dalit (formerly known as 'untouchable') women who are the driving force behind the microcredit movement which is spearheading social and economic change throughout the country.

In Saris on Scooters, we find a vivid and fascinating account of the struggles and achievements of remarkable women who, though often illiterate, have overcome great obstacles in building businesses and cooperatives using small loans. The book is also entertaining, thanks to Arnopoulos' quest to understand a vast and baffling country she obviously loves. As she moves around doing interviews and gathering data, a whole, crowded world opens up which would be inaccessible to most travellers in India: the world of village women whose daily lives revolve around subsistence gardening, livestock, cottage industry, and of course family. The more she explores this world, the more fascinating and inspiring her story becomes.

Westerners are used to reports of collapsing banks, failing investment funds, and endemic corporate fraud -- but these stories are driven by the heroism of the poorest of the poor, living in a country which is only marginally affected by the high-tech revolution happening in its cities. The world of the village women is still agrarian and communal, and the women behind the self-help movement seem like human incarnations of Mother Earth. As they emerge from the shadows of a pre-industrial society, they offer inspiring solutions to some post-industrial nightmares: pollution, GMOs, social and environmental degradation.

Arnopoulos points out the inherent wisdom of these women who live at the bottom of the human totem pole. Their solidarity, spiritual strength, and apparently selfless commitment to creating a better future for their children, stand in stark contrast to the spectacle of western societies now literally drowning in oil, where war for resources is becoming a way of life.

Each chapter of Saris on Scooters stands as a lesson in how, as one Dalit 'seedkeeper' tells Arnopoulos, the most essential kinds of knowledge come directly from Mother Nature, not from books and universities. It comes down to a revolution based on rediscovering an ancient source of renewable resources and human energy which are there for all, to be shared with the whole world.