Indian summer

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After zipping along the streets of Bangalore, India, on the back of my supervisor’s motorcycle, dodging street vendor carts and cows standing in the road along the way, I entered a small Islamic school and walked up to the top floor. Inside, a branch of the Lifeline Foundation, the microfinance institution (MFI) where I interned last summer, was holding its weekly meeting to collect payments from its borrowers. As I walked into the room, the eyes of 70 women, all dressed in flowing black burqas and sitting on a makeshift burlap rug, all locked on me at once. Their whispers grew louder each second.

Yet after four weeks of my internship at Lifeline, a nonprofit that provides no-interest loans and other services to poor female entrepreneurs, I started to become a regular.

I got involved with Lifeline through a program called Leave UR Mark, which arranges internships at various companies and organizations in India. Since the concentration of my philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) major is political and economic development, I knew I could learn a lot in a developing country, especially by working with an organization that dealt with the very same issues that interest me most.

India, as many people know, faces a staggering array of problems, not least of which is the gripping poverty that afflicts more than 450 million people across the country, according to a 2010 United Nations Development Programme estimate. Roughly the same number are illiterate. Bangalore, despite being the hub of India’s booming tech industry, contains no less than 733 slums.

Much of Lifeline’s work aims at correcting these problems by taking a holistic approach to helping its entrepreneurial borrowers, most of them Muslim women in Bangalore’s slums. Believing that interest unnecessarily burdens microfinance borrowers, Lifeline charges no interest on its loans. Lifeline also goes over and above traditional microfinance: Among other charitable work, it gives out scholarships and educational loans to their members’ children, brings in doctors to administer free physicals and prescription drugs, and helps its members fill out applications for government benefits.

And thanks to a lending model that relies on social capital to motivate borrowers into repaying their loans, Lifeline’s loan recovery rate is close to 100 percent.

My responsibilities included researching local development issues and coming up with new ways to serve Lifeline’s borrowers. I felt truly daunted by the task; I’ve never had to live in a crumbling shack with eight other people, or walk two miles just to pump my family’s daily water supply out of a bore well.

I started by learning as much as I could about Lifeline’s borrowers, employees, and trustees, basically doing whatever I could to know more about where I was working and who I was working with. Whenever there was an opportunity, I would ask them all kinds of questions: about their backgrounds, their families, their livelihoods, their hobbies. I would do whatever I could to get to know them better and understand their lives.

At first, the going was rough. The cultural gap proved to be even more significant than I had initially anticipated. On my first day on the job, I was approached by a female Lifeline employee. She gave me seemingly good news: her friend’s brother had offered to marry her. But then she asked me to help pay for her 10,000 rupee dowry, more than two times her family’s monthly income. I wasn’t sure how to respond.

I started learning phrases in Urdu, the mother tongue of nearly all of Bangalore’s Muslims, allowing me to better communicate with members of Lifeline’s members and staff. I took on as many local customs as I could: eating with my right hand, conversing in Urdu, and drinking lots of tea. I even started following cricket.

After the first two weeks, the Lifeline employees began to open up to me, though they were still endlessly fascinated by what life was like in the United States. (Several of them asked to take pictures with me; one asked for my autograph.) My experience culminated in what I think of as my best achievement there: designing a 1-million rupee ($20,000) skill and business training program that would help Lifeline’s most successful borrowers diversify and add value to their business, with the hope of greatly lifting their families’ incomes.

My work in India turned out to be a vital part of my Denison education. I would encourage anyone on the Hill to go out and have a similar experience, whether it is studying abroad, working at an internship, or taking a gap year. No matter what you study, who you hang out with, or what your background is—go out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to fail the first few times. You’ll likely find that it will be a vital part of your education, too.

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