Projects Abroad managers play a vital role in facilitating memorable experiences for international volunteers and the local community in which they work. Ariane Lecuyer sits down with Raisa Dawood, the manager of the conservation project to discover a passionate woman as eager to bring about a local organic revolution as she is to support and educate the farmers and volunteers she works with
When the Journalism team recently visited the Projects Abroad model farm in Chinnupatti, a small village 65 kilometres from Madurai, I got the chance to meet the project’s manager, Raisa Dawood. At just 31, she has a wealth of knowledge about organic farming and a passion to spread its benefits to local farmers with the help of foreign volunteers. A strikingly caring woman, she was most concerned about my comfort and happiness during our interview. It was noticing this trait that led me to realise that she has an admirable inner strength – a strength that helps her deal with farmers and volunteers every day. The whole project rests on her strong shoulders, and she leads it with sturdy conviction. Excerpts from the interview.
How long have you been working for Projects Abroad and what is exactly your job?
I have been working for Projects Abroad for the last two years. My job is to manage all aspects of the conservation project, which means managing our model farm and overseeing organic projects at local farms. I work with local farmers and I manage volunteers, as well as general administration.
What were you doing before you started with Projects Abroad?
I was taking care of my father’s business. He had a lime stone farm used for toothpaste and medicine. I started to work with him right after I completed college before I joined Projects Abroad. I saw this job advertised online. I just wanted to have a change, to do something for myself.
What interests you about organic farming?
Health. When I entered college, I heard a lot about cancers and medical problems in farmers caused by chemical farming. When some of my paternal family members were affected by cancer, I decided that I had to do something! I started to learn more by myself, mostly by reading, but I soon realised that it was not enough and decided to take courses. The more I learned, the more interested I became, and I haven’t stopped since.
In 2002, I began to practice organic farming on my own land, and after graduation in 2005, I worked solely on the farm. It was a busy time but I like to keep myself engaged in something.
How do you get farmers interested in organic farming?
Actually the first thing I do is study the farmer. I try to learn how many hectares of land he has, which crops are growing there, and how can I help him. I will then decide to focus on one idea. I can’t simply come to his house and say, “Chemicals are bad.” He will not listen to me. My method is to focus on one crop or one organic fertilizer, make it grow naturally on the model farm and then show him the results. Then I invite him to come to the model farm to see how it works. Here he will see all the other crops and organic things that he could do as well and he will start to ask, “What is that?” “How does it work?”
The thing is that I was a farmer, so I know how they are thinking. I had the same problem when I wanted to turn my farm from chemical to organic. My own farmers disagreed with me and even threatened to quit their jobs. The only solution I had was to concretely show them how organic fertilizers work. I tried it on a portion of a field, and they saw the progression with their own eyes.
Volunteers are an essential part of the project. How do farmers react to the volunteers? Are they comfortable working with volunteers?
They are a bit scared. In the beginning, they are not confident with foreigners working on their field. However, after one month, sometimes less, they are able to see some results. This is the most important stage of the process, because it will be the moment where the farmer will start to sincerely trust us.
After seeing that volunteers are waking up at the same time as them and going to the market with them, they realise that they can work with him as hard as him. I even remember one Japanese volunteer, called Shimoka, who was really fast, even faster than the farmers. Our farmer was so impressed that he asked him if he had experience working on a farm in Japan, but it was actually just because he was genuinely interested and wanted to work hard.
What challenges do you face with volunteers?
Everybody has different abilities. The most important thing is to get to know the volunteer and be sure that I give each one the right tasks. Most of the time, after one week I will know. The aim is to then to find something which interests him or her but will also help the project. If just one volunteer decides to stop working all the previous work done by previous volunteers will be ruined. They have to understand that it’s a community project.
The problem is that organic farming is a long term project but volunteers are not here for a long time. Therefore, when they arrive, I have to explain to them at which stage of the project we are in but also explain that they may not be able to see the final result with their own eyes. For that, I befriend them on facebook and try to give regular updates about the project. When they see the results, they are happy.
Did you choose to locate the project in Chinnupatti? And if so, why?
Yes, I did choose Chinnupatti. Projects Abroad gave me the total freedom to choose it. We actually started in Sivakasi and then moved to a village called Ullar in 2003, but we had too many problems with the weather there. It was too hot for the volunteers to work outside, and people with very fair skin were dangerously burning. In addition, they didn’t have proper water and only one bus every hour to go to a place with an ATM, shops, hospital etc. It was actually the Projects Abroad Care Project Manager who recommended this place to me. He works with an orphanage here and so he knew that it was the kind of village I was looking for. Chinnupatti is not so far from Madurai, with tolerant farmers and cool weather… The idea arrived after several months of searching.
Living in Chinnupatti, do you find it hard to always be surrounded by the people and farmers you work with?
My hometown of Tirunelveli is further south of Madurai so I needed to live closer. Because I start to work at 7.15am every day, it makes sense to live here. I have to wake up at 5.30am to have time to do my prayers, shower and do some yoga.
You know, when you pursue your passions, you don’t mind about anything. This work makes me happy. I go back every weekend to my parents’ house to see my family, but to be honest, I don’t have the time to miss them. Just this morning, my mum called me and said: “This is Friday, are you coming home? You have a mom, don’t forget it.”
It’s true that in the beginning it was a bit hard at times but once I started to get feedback from farmers and colleagues, things became better. Now people welcome me or even congratulate me for my efforts. All of this gives me more confidence and makes things easier.
Chinnupatti is a Christian village. Have you encountered any problems because you are a Muslim or because you are a woman?
I never focus on these aspects. My only focus is on organic farming. Of course, I expected to have some difficulties when I arrived here. But so far, I’ve had no problems being a Muslim in a Christian village. On the contrary, as a woman, I do have some difficulties because it’s a small Indian village. I have learned, however that only if you care does it become a problem. I focus on the work because the work speaks for itself. I know what I’m doing, and my host family knows it as well, so they support me.
Of course, some of the farmers I know talk about me behind my back, but I don’t mind. The only thing I have to be sure about is my team. I choose people who are like minded and are educated enough to realise that my religion and gender are not handicaps.
What are your relationships like with farmers?
We are friends. We have to be friendly if we want to convince them. Now, they start to ask us to buy them some farming machines, they even told me: “Can you please ask your company to take over my farm?” I regularly have to remind them that we are a private company and not the government or a charity trust.
How many farmers are you working with?
The number goes up and down but, today, I’m working with more than five farmers, one orphanage and a community center. The Community Centre Development is a trust that has many programmes to help the local community. We are working with them because they have a very good medicinal garden and some farming skills. Our aim is to connect farmers that they are helping with our own organic project.
The orphanage is located 20 km away from Chinnupatti. Here, we planted trees and vegetables, and we also started a vermi compost. Thanks to us, the children can eat healthy food and work with nature by picking vegetables and watering the garden.
What are your plans for the next five years?
I have so many things to do! The most important is a reforestation project. I want to plant trees in each of the surrounding communities to attract species of birds and small animals, as well as to reduce air pollution. We have already contacted the local Panchayat and told them that they don’t have to do anything, we will do the entire reforestation by ourselves and they accepted. The first step is done, but it will be a long process of course.
A woman of patience and conviction
Raisa Dawood seems to have found her personal way to happiness. Her achievements come from her impressive patience and a conviction to work towards a better future. Step by step, the farmers that she works with are starting to change to organic. Even if the fight is not yet won, the process is underway.
When I tried to ask her more personal questions, she immediately came back to her work, which led me to think that her work is her life. Raisa, a mix of sweetness and strength, is an inspiring woman who would do anything for nature. “It sounds crazy, but I love what I do!” she said laughing.