Jugaad in Demonetization

- Andrew Tinsley


The morning of November 9th was chaotic. Not only was Donald Trump on the verge of a historic victory, but, as I found out when I tried to pay for my morning coffee, the government of India had announced the discontinuation of all 500 and 1000 rupee notes in circulation. Long lines of frustrated people stretched out of banks and along the street.

At first, the multitude of knock on effects from demonetization did not occur to me. What was going to happen in the villages and communities so reliant on cash? What were the microfinance institutions going to do? I myself had 5000 rupees in unusable notes. The only way that demonetization was going to work was if no one knew about it and the Modi government had seemingly managed to keep it tight lipped. Even the heads of banks didn’t see it coming until they saw the news. The goal was to purge the system of black money and counterfeit notes and to ultimately reduce corruption and terrorism. So I was curious, how would the villagers overcome this problem? How would people try to launder their money? And how would the government try to stop them? It seemed the perfect situation to see the art of Jugaad at work.

I found this comprehensive breakdown of instances of Jugaad reported in the news courtesy of the blog “randomwalks”:

1.  8th night (Day of announcement)

  • At Crawford market & Zaveri Bazar in Mumbai, people were selling 500 & 1000 Rupee notes at 20% or more discounts. There were cases reported of 1000 Re note going for 300 in legal tender
  • People buying large cartons of cigarettes from pan vendors accepting 500/1000 denominations. Not sure whether their spouses were so happy about it!
  • People throng Jeweler shops to convert cash into gold. The ask rate for gold in the meantime went up 20% to 30% in grey market. Spouses may have got into some happy surprises if some of it makes it way to ornaments!
  • Petrol pumps sees huge queue with people uploading petrol and offloading cash! 

2.  9th (Day 1 : Bank closed)

  • People with black cash make a rush for hawala traders to park their money in foreign currency. No intelligent guesses here, that the exchange rates were 20%-30% more than the usual hawala rates
  • Empty malls, but long queues at chemist shop & government hospitals to make last best use of cash in the informal market
  • 20% rise in air ticket sales as people start buying tickets in cash with the hope of cancelling them later. Some even bought weeks/ months in advance. Think of what jugaad can do when we all know well, that organizations keep asking its employees to book tickets in advance to minimize cost but have always found it difficult to implement!
  • Some smarter people start buying wait listed first AC train tickets in cash at railway counters. Again the hope is that post 1% or the small cancellation charge; the entire amount will get converted to legal tender post cancellation. The Rail & Air authorities took a day’s time to understand the trend and put in some rules for cancellation!

3.  10th (Day 2, Banks opens, ATM closed)

  • People deposits 500/ 1000 notes with their known next door kirana shops to open a credit line for their daily groceries. Good for kirana shop as well as they get assured business (no exchange/ return allowed)
  • Some people really lost it!!! Sweeper finds 52000 dumped in 500/1000 denominations
  • People queue up at municipal corporation offices to pay their property tax dues. In some cases, they were paying off dues for years which till that date the municipal authorities have failed to recover!
  • Surely the government messed up the implementation of the rules. People made up 2/3 rounds of different bank branches showing a big thumb to the 4000 limit the GOI had placed for one time exchange in cash

4.  11th (Day 3)

  • Dead Jan Dhan accounts flushed with money as middlemen/ agents/ black cash holders starts depositing in less than 50,000 cash of 500/1000 Rupee notes at rural bank branches in various accounts. The actual account holders got a good commission though!
  • Payments of civic bills, utilities bills in cash shores up. 217 crore deposited to various Mumbai civic authorities in 1 day 

5.  12th (Day 4)

  • Candidates in various upcoming elections start bribing the ruling councilors in gold bars of 100/200g to woo them

6.  13th (Day 5)

  • People starts shifting to card payments only to find that first time usage is always a challenge. Expired PIN and other usage issues, leads to crash of payment servers
  • Householders pays their maids etc in cash advancing for the next year even
  • Instance of a NPA defaulter for 4 years, turning up at the bank branch to clear off dues…all in 500/1000 Rupee notes. The same person had expressed ‘inability to pay’ earlier when notices were sent!
  • Instances of daily wagers etc given 50/100 notes to stand in line & exchange on behalf of black money hoarders. The identity card of these daily wagers perhaps gave the best ever return on that day! 

7.  14th (Day 6)

  • Barter system peaks up at villages. 3 kg cauliflower for 1 kg of fish. But I eat my fish with cauliflower, so not sure what would have been my going rate!

8.  15th (Day 7)

  • In Kolkata, a septuagenarian shows up at his estranged wife place to pay his long standing alimony due in 500/1000 notes. Unfortunately for him, the wife was not impressed. The man was send to jail the next day!
  • Cash mules in action: Elderly woman, truckload of people arriving at branch with huge cash and high number of ID cards for exchange and deposit to different accounts.
  • At a small Mizoram village, paper being used temporary as promissory notes to get over cash crunch, papers bears amount & signature of the issuer

9.  16th (Day 8)

  • Politicians with black money queue up to remote cooperative banks (which are still run on physical ledgers) for backdated FD/DDs to make use of their 500/1000 notes
  • A few in UP, ring up real estate agents to offer cash component at 40% discount. Converting black cash to real estate/ lands etc.

Demonetization has brought out the best and worst aspects of Jugaad. My favorite anecdote was the story of the septuagenarian who tried to take the opportunity to make good with his estranged wife. Clearly she did not appreciate the intent. This was a very comprehensive list but I thought I’d add two more:

  1. To counter the large lines, people would leave their shoes in a row and go for a tea, allowing the shoes to save their space. This was an innovation that I would like to see working elsewhere.

  2. The government used finger paint on the fingers of people so they could not keep coming back to make deposits

Ironically, demonetization itself is aimed at curbing the jugaad economy by curbing the prevalence of bribes, black money dealing, and the informal economy. There are some concerns now that demonetization has stalled economic growth without cutting down on corruption and black money. This is because the most sophisticated criminals have their money in overseas accounts and those in the middle have found ways to get around the system. At the same time who were saving up their money in cash for a wedding will suffer and the poor who do not have bank accounts and who only operate in the informal economy have also suffered.

I suppose it was inevitable counter reaction and the effectiveness of the policy will ultimately rely on the government’s ability to suppress the tricks of those trying to beat the system whilst helping those who haven’t been operating in bad faith. This will ensure that the shock to short-term demand is no greater than what is inevitable.

The Mystery of Capital and MFIs on the Ground

- Andrew Tinsley


Before I left for Bangalore, my Peruvian roommate gave me a book. The book was The Mystery of Capital by Hernando De Soto. De Soto is an economist from Peru who writes about property rights, poverty alleviation and public policy. I did not know at the time, but some of the ideas expressed in the book, I would later see and appreciate first hand during the fellowship.

During my second week in Bangalore, I was invited to go to a meeting in Bhopal where I was given the opportunity to see the inner workings and operations of an MFI (Micro Finance Institution). MFIs are for profit institutions that offer financial services to low income populations. They are based off of the model pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Low income populations have historically been excluded from the financial system because they operate in the informal economy, they have no hard assets, they have no credit history and there is no profitable way for traditional banks to manage a large number of small loans. MFIs solves some of these problems in order to provide more people with access to credit.

Here is how they work: microfinance customers are often not financially literate so it starts with educating them on the basics of savings, budgets, debt, cash flows and investment. First, potential clients have to take a basic personal finance class. After the MFI educates them on the lending process, the groups are given access to small loans for approximately $50-100. This amount is enough to buy things such as an animal or sewing materials in order to start a basic small business. The borrowers do not have hard assets such as deeds to property and so the land that they live on is not documented legally. This means that they have no collateral to put up for the loan. So the loan officers work with and lend to groups of around 8-10 people, all from the same communities. Debts are repaid together and so social peer pressure helps ensure payment in the absence of collateral. Individuals build up a credit history with the MFI and are allowed to take out larger and larger loans. For the MFI that I visited, default rates were just 3% per year and interest rates hovered around 17%-20% per year.

The picture below is from a meeting with a lending group. The woman closest to the camera is the loan officer. She is taking roll call, collecting interest payments and disbursing loans. We also got to hear from these women about what it was like before the MFI came to their village and what they were using the loans for. They were all using them for different purposes. One was using it to buy a goat, one was buying raw materials to make and sell jewelry and another was buying a laptop in order to educate children in the village. Before the MFI entered their village, in order to get a loan, they would have to go to a wealthier landowner in the area. While most were not able to obtain any loan, those who were, were charged upwards of 30% interest per month. It was loan sharking/ predatory lending and the repayments were sometimes enforced by blackmail and coercion.

The women in these groups were proud of what they had been able to achieve with these loans. One of the lessons that I have learned in my time in the IDEX classes is that we often project our own world view on the struggles of people. We attempt to approach their problems from our perspective. This causes all number of well-intentioned misfires when it comes to policies to alleviate policy. The women that I met with were smart, driven and creative but they all faced their own specific problems. Only they can know what is best for themselves. The system put in place by this MFI empowered them to prescribed solutions for themselves and their community. The emphasis was not on helping them but it was a mutually beneficial partnership that helped them help themselves. They were not helplessness and they did not need saving. What they needed was the ability to unleash their potential. Access to credit not only helps them in a sustainable way but it gives them dignity.

Mr. de Soto describes a two-tiered system in developing countries where certain people have access to capital and protection under the law, and a second tier, where low income people are stuck in the poverty trap because they are not given the same legal protections, property rights and access to capital. He argues that the poor have more assets than people assume and giving them proper title to these assets, access to capital and legal protections allows them to express their entrepreneurial ideas and energy. MFIs include people from the 2nd tier of the economy, the informal sector, and give them access to capital, previously only available to people in the top tier, or the formal economy. When I was reading the book, I was impressed with the ideas and they made sense to me. However, on the ground I was even more inspired by the entrepreneurial energy that these people had when they were given the ability to express it.

The Art of Jugaad

- Andrew Tinsley

When I first arrived in Bangalore, my immediate impression was that it was very chaotic. However, it was amazing that everything more or less came together at the end of the day. People got on with their lives and jobs and things worked out for the most part. I found this even harder to believe the more I began to learn about the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles involved in living and doing business in India. Just obtaining a SIM card was overly regulated and complicated. But there was a reason that everything came together. The hurdles and chaos gave way to a beautiful style of creative problem solving. Through convenience and necessity, people had an innate ability to find improvised solutions to their problems. An obvious example of this is the prevalence of improvised vehicles such the motorbike-trailer pictured here.

A word I had learned heard in a college class came to mind: Jugaad.

Definition of Jugaad from the Financial Times:

Jugaad (a word taken from Hindi which captures the meaning of finding a low-cost solution to any problem in an intelligent way) is a new way to think constructively and differently about innovation and strategy. Jugaad innovation has a long-lasting tradition in India but is also widespread in the rest of the so-called Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and numerous other emerging economies. Jugaad is about extending our developed world understanding of entrepreneurial spirit in the traditional Schumpeterian style (Joseph Schumpeter was the Austrian economist known as the prophet of innovation).
Jugaad means thinking in a frugal way and being flexible, which, in turn, requires the innovator or entrepreneur to adapt quickly to often unforeseen situations and uncertain circumstances in an intelligent way. Intelligence in this context "isn’t about seeking sophistication or perfection by over-engineering products, but rather about developing a ‘good-enough’ solution that gets the job done". (Radjou et al., 2012, p. 109 ff.).

Jugaad plays a large part in how things are able to come together in a less organized system and it is seen throughout the culture, from the street seller who creates an improvised food stall, to the government, which puts long lasting ink on the fingertips of voters after they have voted. This clever trick allows them to avoid the laborious and expensive process of registering and documenting all the votes. So jugaad keeps India running not only on a micro but on a macro level.

It is a skill that can be useful elsewhere also. One of the posters on the wall of the Facebook headquarters recently released to the public for sale read, “Better done than perfect”. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Indians are represented well in Silicon Valley and large companies across America. In an industry which focuses on fast growth, the ability to take effective short cuts and improvise - the spirit of jugaad is a useful skill.


When I moved into my apartment in Indiranagar, a square hole in my bathroom for ventilation allowed mosquitos to fly freely through it. I was constantly getting bitten and I was forced to act when a neglected bucket of water had become home to some mosquito larvae! A moment of inspiration struck me when I was eating a small pizza with my flat mate and realized that the box matched up perfectly with the gap in the bathroom wall. It was a perfect fix and it was my own small moment of jugaad. Besides just that moment, I have been confronted by other unconventional problems here that require unconventional solutions. Having the flexibility to deal with whatever comes up on any given day is an important skill that living in India forces you to sharpen.

The Big Fat Millennial Lie

- SAHEBA ARORA
 

'I was led to think and believe that I am good at everything and that no one could compare.'- Mercy, my dearest flatmate from Kenya, wrote in her blog- 'When you are not the smartest in the room'.

After reading her blog, I realized it's exactly the same thing that my parents told me as I was growing up. Clearly, irrespective of the geographies, there is something that connects certain generational ideas across the world. We are part of Generation Y, the generation born between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s.  Our parents were born in the 50s—they’re Baby Boomers.  They were raised by our grandparents, members of the G.I. Generation, or “the Greatest Generation,” who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War I. Our grandparents were obsessed with economic security and raised our parents to build practical, secure careers.  They wanted our parents’ careers to have greener grass than their own, and our parents were brought up to envision a prosperous and stable career for themselves. Landing a lesser paying yet stable salary government job was like winning the lottery. They were taught that there was nothing stopping them from getting to that lush, green lawn of a career, but that they’d need to put in years of hard work to make it happen. As the 70s, 80s, and 90s rolled along, the world entered a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. Our parents did even better than they expected to. This left them feeling gratified and optimistic.

With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their parents, our parents raised us with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility.  And they weren’t alone.  Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches. This left us feeling tremendously hopeful about our careers, to the point where our parents’ goals of a green lawn of secure prosperity didn’t really do it for them. We want economic prosperity just like our parents did—we just also want to be fulfilled by our career in a way our parents didn’t think about as much. But, not just that, we were taught a special lesson during our childhood -'You're special'. We have been taught, 'everyone will go and get themselves some fulfilling career, but I am unusually wonderful and as such, my career and life path will stand out amongst the crowd.' We are currently living in a world of delusion created by our upbringing, not just by our parents but by a generation of Baby Boomers.

'You’re special' syndrome brings on two things: one, being wildly ambitious and two, being depressed, because yes, though each one of us is special, to be successful it takes a lot of hard work and persuasion. It finally boils down to staying ambitious and channelling your thoughts in a way that is practical. It's not as much about stopping thinking you're special but rather dispelling the utopian idea that you will never fail. And finally, when you find yourself envying the lives of others, remember this -  Yes, perhaps the grass is greener on their perfectly mowed lawn, but on the flipside, yours might very well be the whole glorious meadow in everyone else's eyes.

Embracing Ambiguity - A Strategy For Problem Solving

-Nadine Kotval
 

Often times we find ourselves struggling to solve problems that have no clear or defined answers. Embracing ambiguity in these circumstances is not always comfortable but it frees you to pursue a spectrum of possibilities, which would allow you to reach potential solutions that work for people. It is essentially about giving yourself the permission to explore multiple options and enable various diverse ideas to co-exist simultaneously. As you analyse a complex problem, it is not uncommon to stumble across a range of ideas that do not seem relevant all at once but that we find ourselves reluctant to let go of. It is important to hold onto these amorphous concepts until we are able to fit them into the solution puzzle or ready to discard them in favour of more suitable alternatives.

As human beings, we enjoy having a sense of predictability and control. Uncertainty and insecurity tend to induce anxiety. Our brain processes information by connecting and categorizing data. As soon as we encounter new information, our natural inclination is to immediately make sense of it by recognizing patterns, compartmentalizing, contextualizing and deciding if it is relevant enough to focus on further. Through this repetitive process, we slowly accumulate habits and routines that are built on predictability; this reduces the possibility of thinking in different ways and enhancing our problem solving skills. The way children respond to new information is very different; they demonstrate a heightened sense of curiosity and innovation in their thinking. As they grow and learn to recognize patterns and rely upon predictability these senses are subdued.

Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, embracing ambiguity lends itself to creativity that can result in unexpected solutions. It is not easy not knowing the answer and even less so, not knowing the right questions to ask. But if we knew the answer when we started, what could we possibly learn? Would we be able to devise the same creative solutions? Accepting uncertainty enables us to pursue answers that we cannot initially conceive but which put us on the path to innovation and impact. Simply allowing our thoughts and ideas to percolate around within our minds and take shape in the process can lead to insightful solutions.

When things are vague and indefinite, there are possibilities to forge new paths, shape opportunities and configure different possible outcomes. Successful leaders and companies harness their ability to manage, operate and lead in an ambiguous environment and take advantage of it to create new services, processes, products and solutions to complex problems. We must all strive to exploit the uncertainty we encounter and use it to develop our critical thinking and unleash our creative potential so the right answer can reveal itself.

Got Purpose?

- Nadine Kotval
 

The rapid growth of both the business sector and its social analogue can largely be attributed to the power of Entrepreneurship, a driving force that has propelled large-scale expansion in both sectors.

Social entrepreneurship, as it is commonly understood, is the use of techniques to effect positive social, cultural or environmental change. Though it is distinctly different from its business counterpart, they do share some fundamental similarities. Both social and commercial/traditional entrepreneurship seek to create solutions to tap unserved markets and for both, success means revenues must exceed expenses- profitability is critical. 

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On the other hand, social entrepreneurship is intrinsically linked to improved social, cultural or environmental outcomes, objectives that are not deeply entrenched within the traditional business framework. Often times, traditional entrepreneurs are seen as ‘ruthlessly chasing rapid growth and profitability’, while social entrepreneurs make difficult decisions to strike a balance between the dual motives of sustainable profits and social impact.

While innovative, many initiatives have faced challenges attaining sustainability and reaching a large cross-section of society. Entrepreneurial instincts, talents and skills are not widely possessed by the general population; in addition, social entrepreneurs must also possess a socially motivated outlook. The ability to scale is imperative for social enterprises to be able to solve problems at the magnitude at which they exist- a core measure for the success of any social enterprise. Unfortunately, not enough approaches have been successful- scalable, sustainable and ‘system changing’.

As Bill Clinton was quoted saying, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.” Replicating these solutions has, in many cases, has proved an insuperable challenge. The microfinance revolution stands out as one solution that has radically changed the landscape of financial services, and attained successful replication at scale, but not without its own obstacles including an approximately 30-year period to achieve inclusion.

Increasingly, it appears that the only way forward is through business; what exactly does this mean for social entrepreneurship?

‘System-changing’ transformation has been extremely challenging for traditional non-profits or hybrid organizations that function in relative insulation from mainstream commerce i.e., the balance between quality and impact while replicating the program model.

I imagine that social entrepreneurship will scale only by amalgamation with the conventional market system; where every enterprise strives towards both profit and purpose. This should stem from an increased focus on incorporating social costs and benefits into business decisions and the way we approach business education itself. An altered ‘business mindset’ must come from within the business community so that it is willing to accept or even advocate for this evolution. Social enterprise goes beyond organization construct- it is a shift in values, a philosophy that is not restricted to small business but can be applied to big business as well. Commercial business today relies upon the generation of maximum profits through the exploitation of our resources, this cannot be a sustainable model, since our resources are finite and hence growth in such a model must also to be finite.

As a society, it is not only prudent but also imperative that we do away with this segregation. We should progress towards a society that does not differentiate between economic value and social value.

The world as we know it, has benefited greatly from modern industry and corporations, but they have also brought with them certain social ills. Loss of traditional livelihoods, rampant consumerism, unsustainable practices, increased levels of air, water and land pollution etc. To achieve profits, we often pay an untold environmental or social price that we as a society have only recently begun to address. Social enterprise represents a section of business that looks to make sustainable, reasonable profits and maximize impact; the alternative looks to maximize profit without much attention to social and environmental impact, if at all.

In recent years, there has been an explosive growth of interest within public and private sectors, academia and the citizenry in social enterprise and its various actors. The future holds more promise than ever before, as we progress towards activities that are more conscious where social, cultural and environmental goals are central to their process while maintaining sustainable profits.

That Black Cloud

- Laura Alajma
 

Do you ever feel that there is a black cloud of bad luck hovering over you, and only YOU?

The good news is, you are not alone my friend! You might not get rid of this black cloud, but you can accommodate it. Here are a few personal advices that could be useful and serve as an umbrella for you.

See the unforeseen and prepare for it.

I always believed that I am not as lucky as the others. But I knew that I needed to work harder than the others to achieve what I want.

My story with the bad luck cloud started quite some time ago. Initially, I believed everything that happened around me was a coincidence. But eventually, I started to wonder what it was about me that attracted all the bad luck. “No way these are just isolated incidents”, I said to myself.

Bad events often occur at the perfect time of my day. I head to work excited about my presentation and Oops...! my laptop stops responding just when it shouldn’t. I rush to a meeting and get lost on the way only to make my situation worse with embarrassment. With these events happening so often with me, I eventually learnt how to be ready for such unpredictable events

Be prepared at all times. Always have a plan-B and a plan-C in place if necessary. Maybe we cannot control the happenings around us. But a chance of making it less disastrous, could be the rescuer of the situation at times.

Work hard and never give up.

One of the chapters of my bad luck began just a day before my travel to India. My laptop fell from a height and the charging port was damaged. Fixing this required 5 days and therefore, I had to look for an innovative solution before leaving.

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My flight to India was delayed. Thus, I also missed my other two connecting flights. My next nightmare was when I got into an argument with the management of my airlines while requesting for compensation for the third flight. Good news - I was successful here! Unfortunately, I didn’t know that I had to claim my luggage at the airport before connecting to the final local flight (I was about to lose my 6 months’ stay luggage on that day) Fortunately, I managed to claim it and had it delivered to the hotel where I was staying.

After two days of my arrival in India, I found out that the mobile that I bought just a month ago, had stopped detecting any SIM card and I had to struggle for two long months with various attempts towards fixing it and changing my SIM card. Finally, I gave up and bought a new mobile. I was so happy about solving this annoying problem. But to burst my bubble of joy, I found out that my Indian SIM card stopped working. What an irony that I was holding two mobile phones but both were completely useless. I took a deep breath and opted for a new SIM card.

I had strange emotions. It was a mix of anger, sadness and confusion. These incidents waste a lot of time and money, and seeing how things are going so smoothly with everyone else around you, does not help. I was going through a feeling of isolation from all my friends. No one could contact me and I was missing many events. I recall a night when I was lost in the big Indian city - Bangalore. I had a useless mobile, no money and walked 6 km back home finding my directions by asking people for landmarks on the streets…well, that was adventurous!

Find out your strongest asset.

During my stay in India, I applied for a visa to visit Tunisia for a training. I gave my passport to my friend who was traveling to the capital of India - Delhi, to deliver my documents to the Embassy there. When my friend told me about her complicated experience of doing me this favor, I had a good laugh and wondered - Is bad luck contagious?

I had no response from the embassy for almost a month. But the organization that was planning the training managed to get me a visa upon arrival. I had to pack my things and go!

I was so happy. But wait, my passport was in Delhi and I needed it in Bangalore to be able to travel. I could not even step outside Bangalore without it. I had only two days to bring it and my flight was already booked. I had to find someone to bring it for me from Delhi. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by 10 people, 5 out of them who I did not even know personally. WOW! That was a strongly reassuring moment.

Astonished, I stopped, and thought to myself - I have been in India only for 4 months and I had all these people of different nationalities on a mission to help me - “Bring Laura’s Passport to Bangalore On Time”.  I realized how strong the human capital can be. When I finally had my passport in my hands, I had tears in my eyes. I knew that without all these people who helped without asking for anything in return, I wouldn’t be able to make it.

I am leaving India with two lessons - Don’t ever underestimate your friends. Sometimes, all you need to do is - ask. You never know what impact a small helpful contribution from you can have on someone else's life.

Your bad luck cloud is not there to make you feel clumsy or helpless. I have started to believe that the bad luck cloud is there to give you another perspective of life which you would have never thought of. Unleash your skills, find your true friends. You could be blessed if you can establish a dialogue for self-feedback from time to time. This could help you see the black cloud in a different way and as a blessing in disguise.

With a little help from my friends

I have always valued the unvarnished advice, stimulating conversations, joyous company and unwavering support of the wonderful female companions in my life. I count myself lucky to have, at every step of the way, been surrounded by strong, talented and inspiring women who have been my advisors and role models. From early childhood secrets to naïve adolescent endeavours and coming into our own as adults, the abundance of companionship and support has been invaluable. I seem to have the uncanny knack of finding myself in settings with unusually high numbers of women and so I was not particularly surprised to learn that, save the lone male representative, our group for six months was an interesting mix of women from around the globe.

In preparation for writing this, I found myself flipping through a memory bank of experiences that have moulded my beliefs and shaped my mind; what emerged was a steady pattern of influence from female peers, confidants and mentors and I began to reflect upon the lack of positive colloquy about and representation of vibrant and healthy female friendships.

Cultural notions of women’s friendships are often gender-specific. Female friendships imply either rivalry or gossip, male friendships suggest potential love interests; however, there ought to be nothing about a person’s gender that automatically determines what kind of friendship you have with him or her. In reality, alliances of goodwill and respect between women are common and foundational. The profound networks of support and intellectual as well as emotional companionship between women are often neglected, playing into the hopelessly old-fashioned yet persistent notion that women are more often foes than friends.

Female friendships, in particular, are reliant upon empathy. Women are prone to ‘tend and befriend’. In fact, research suggests that we respond to stress by protecting and nurturing others (tending), and by seeking support from others (befriending) as opposed to the primary male ‘fight or flight’ response. Studies have shown that there are medical benefits to female friendships- the likelihood of women developing physical impairments as they age is inversely proportional to the number of wholesome friendships they have. So strong is the link between health and friendship, that a study involving the survival rate of women with breast cancer shows increases for women who have a strong, supportive circle of friends. If such studies are anything to go by, we should consciously build and nurture these connections to preserve our physical and emotional well-being.

A major contributor to the skewed perception of female friendships is its rampant stereotyping in mainstream media and popular culture. Women are less likely to be shown as supportive team players, rather undermining each other in a bid to gain competitive advantage. Supportive partnerships between women are harder to find than similar portrayals of men. Another cliché is the misguided portrayal of women’s relationships with each other as frequently revolving around men and not their own fellowship, experiences and ideas. Be it the satirized portrayals of competition, jealousy, mistrust or slander, popular culture is rife with examples of ‘women in conflict’. Women who collaborate and mentor each other have a greater chance at success and this is especially true in typically male dominated settings. Indeed, it is this camaraderie and unity that has enabled us to challenge convention, disrupt systems and ‘break glass ceilings’. The disregard of female power and partnerships in society contributes to the lack of focus on the inherent capabilities of such connections. Encouragingly however, not all women buy-into this misrepresentation. Surely not all female friendships are evocative of a Tina Fey-Amy Poehler kinship, however, that should not reflect poorly on such alliances overall; it but reflects the infinite variety of human nature.

In my own experience, I have personally encountered far more supportive and nourishing female friendships than my fair share, as I have in these past months and can bear testament to the power of ‘girlfriendships’. To help foster a community of women who are personally and professionally vested in each other’s success, we must help other young women embrace the benefits of forging these strong ties and celebrate our wonderfully complex bonds

Finding Your Purpose

That's me!

That's me!

"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” ― Mark Twain

Did you ever ask yourself why you were born?

You were born for a purpose! God created each of us for a reason—and we are happiest when we are living in harmony with the purpose he has given us. But you need to know what that purpose is.

In order to find your purpose in life, you have to get out of your comfort zone and explore. Get to know new cultures, new people, new cities, new adventures, new food, new living, new insights and new experiences. 

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” – Danny Kaye

Something strange happens to you when you board a plane to a new country. It's almost as if your eyes open again for the first time. Your heart starts beating with renewed excitement and happiness. It's hard to capture with words the very moment you lay your sights on new interesting places;
or when you finally understand what someone is saying in another language;
or when you get to know an interesting thing about the country which you’ve never heard of before;
or when you live with locals and they cook their local food for you and tell you fascinating stories about themselves or even their culture.

These moments are life changing; they take us out of our element and remind us of why we are here.   

One of the keys to discovering your purpose is Self-Discovery. A big part of knowing yourself is understanding what makes you unique. Being different from everyone else is not always easy. But take it from me, to each their own. My story of discovering my uniqueness wasn’t just about travelling to another country but rather volunteering my time in another country.

This is what I’ve learnt about how volunteering changes your life:

1. It widens your mind-set

Nothing changes the way you view your own life like seeing the way other people live. Not only will you appreciate what you have, you will also have a sense of curiosity and empathy for other cultures and countries. Soak in the different lifestyles, the complex languages and people’s traditional values- and you will eventually realize just how different people are and it will make you evaluate your own values.

2. You learn to enjoy the moment

Whether you are having difficult times or good times, you will learn to enjoy the moment because you realize that each situation is a learning experience and you emerge out of each one of them a different person. You begin to accept that you are growing up and become more self-aware. These feeling makes you value experiences over things. So, for example, sitting on the beach in an island in Bali with your favourite book and drink outweighs by value any merchandise you could ever purchase.

3. You learn to be flexible and accepting of any situation

Almost everyone has experienced a hard time at some point in their lives. These experiences could range from the consequence of a delayed or cancelled flight, to traffic when you’re already late, to the culture shock of being in a new country, and sometimes direr situations. The beauty in these difficulties is that it teaches you how to keep moving forward despite the hard situation at hand.  It teaches you to be content with the things you have under these circumstances. You start to adopt a calmer approach and do not get easily frustrated.  Once you reach this stage of calmness and acceptance, you will be happy to move onto your next adventure and be open to experiencing new situations. And then, you start figuring out that you can handle most situations and that there really aren't a lot of things worth getting upset about.

4. You develop a sense of achievement

A sense of achievement is the air that makes us feel alive, the passion that makes us wake up every day feeling excited about life and ready to conquer the difficulties that we could possibly face through the day. We feel alive when we find this kind of sense of achievement which results in reducing stress, depression and remaining mentally stimulated.

These stages essentially lead to developing your sense of purpose which is like your first step to ascertaining your purpose in life.

You are now very excited, eager and curious to learn more about your actual purpose. In no particular order, you will:

  • Start setting new goals and priorities in your life as you don't want to waste precious time anymore.
  • Start getting involved in varied types of volunteer work because you want to discover your true calling and passion in life;
  • Begin to feel that you are more connected to your society and will cultivate the right kind of passion to make it a better place;
  • Be more self-confident because you know that you are doing something for the greater good of your society;
  • Gain faith in your sense of achievement when you see people actually living better lives because of the work you do.

Finding your purpose is a journey, my friend.  It may not be exactly these steps, but however you choose to follow your destiny, once you’ve discovered your purpose, your life will never be the same and that’s a good thing.  

You will begin to define your happiness on your own terms. You will wake up every day excited and ready to change people's lives. When you know your purpose, you start living and breathing fresh air.

Me and my Afro hair

Michelle Obama, photoshoped picture

Michelle Obama, photoshoped picture

In 2012 this picture of FLOTUS Michelle Obama, did rounds on Twitter and it trended for a while. Why? You ask. Well, it’s because she is seen to be wearing her natural hair. In my opinion she actually looked stylish and on trend! Don’t you agree? Okay, yes; the photo was photo shopped to my disappointment, but it sparked a hot and dicey conversation especially among the black folk living in the Diaspora.

In fact one Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the author of Americanah which by the way, I recommend everyone reads. You will thank me later!) was once quoted saying “If Michelle Obama wore her hair natural during the campaigns, Obama would never have been president of The United States of America”.

At that time, I remember thinking to myself, but that comment is so extreme and does not make any sense at all! Was it not Obama who was running for the presidency and not his wife? Well, especially not her hair! Why then would a rational person look at hair and not at something like policies or previous track record to decide who to vote for! Well, being that I am not a US citizen, I thought to myself that maybe I should care less and just mind my own business!

Four years later, I wonder whether I have been living a lie all my life. As children from the African descent (or rather children with Afro hair), we are brought up thinking that natural hair is not appropriate. That it is not “proper”. It either has to be straightened or relaxed for it to be “proper”. In fact one cannot walk in an interview with their natural hair because they give an impression of being unprofessional, wild and radical. Maybe that is the reason Obama would not have won if Michelle had worn her natural hair; because the voters would think his wife to be wild. But hey, I am not a political analyst nor do I boast to know of any political semantics, so I will say that this is a big If!

Straightened hair

Straightened hair

Well, for me, as up to two months ago, it felt so normal to wear extensions on my hair. It was normal to put on that weave as it gave convenience. It was normal to relax or straighten hair and dash somewhere when in a rush and it was all too normal not to wear my natural hair. This was the normalcy of life in my world.

But who comes up with the rationale of normal? Even mad men think of us normal people as abnormal! So who or what defines the standards of normal? Some will argue that normal is defined by the way one is brought up, their cultures and beliefs. But just to borrow a quote from Chimamanda she says “Culture does not make people. People make culture”. I therefore do not understand where the rationale behind this philosophy of “normal” comes from.

Recently there was a protest that garnered international attention by South African girls who were protesting against their school’s policy which forced them to relax their hair and it implied that natural hair is “messy”. Previously in Kenya too, a certain lady had sued a school because her child had not been allowed to wear dreadlocks in the school terming it as “inappropriate” yet they accepted braided hair.

So, is the “normal “definition of how hair should look like and be worn slowly creeping in even to those that have afro hair themselves? Now, I don’t mean to say that weaving, relaxing or straightening hair is wrong. After all, it is from this practice that some people earn their living. But don’t you think that it is an indicator of sorts that we (people with afro hair) are slowly losing part of ourselves in the process?

For the past few months, it has been quite a struggle for me to find the quick- fix type of service that I am used to back home in Africa. This is because; looking at Indians they have very silky, flowing hair. Some straight, some curly. Similarly for our Arabian brothers and so it is with the Caucasians. So they would have no need for braiding or weaving. They go to the salons for issues like styling, treating hair fall or maybe coloring. Not for plaits! So the struggle for me has been real here in India! I did finally get a hair dresser who could handle my hair, its texture and kinkiness though at slightly higher rates than I assumed to be.

Unfortunately hair in this case is not the only issue. The underlying notion that Afro hair seems to portray someone as “the angry black woman” or unprofessional or Radical or improper or extreme or at times downright ugly is what the major issue is. For the life of me I just cannot seem to understand the definitions of “proper” and “ugly” in this case!

Have you ever wondered why everyone causes a stir when the Hollywood stars walk the red carpet having worn their hair natural? Take Lupita Nyong’o for example or the lovely Emmy winning actor Viola Davis. The conversation is always about their hair and how courageous they are for wearing it natural. So much so, you would be forgiven to think that it’s a totally abnormal thing to walk the red carpet with natural afro hair.

So in the past few months, though through forced circumstances, I have had a serious conversation with myself over a cup of coffee, listening to “I am not my hair” by India.Arie.  I have therefore decided to try as best as I can to wear my hair natural as I embrace its Uniqueness and the difference it brings! It may not form a pony tail or a bun but it gives a beautiful afro. It may not be soft and silky but with a little coconut oil and conditioner it gets better. It may not be long either but this saves me time when combing or washing it. So, it is a matter of looking at the brighter side of things and embracing it.

Surprising however is, how other folks are complimenting me on my hair because they have never seen anything like it before and the concept is fascinating to them. They keep telling me to wear it natural more often. I have therefore come to the realization that if you wear your confidence on your sleeves, everybody seems to follow you along and think that, that is what is “normal” and they stick by your definition.

It is therefore time to embrace our (your) uniqueness whether it’s the big afro hair or the language you speak or the color of your skin or your culture or your height or even the structure of your smile. Wear that confidence on your sleeves people!

 Maya Angelo (one of those that wore her natural afro hair) once said, If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be! It is time that you reveal to the world your version of your true self! It is time you define your own sorts of normal!