Published in the Deccan Herald, on Aug 20, 2017
With the cabbage village of Zavame and the delightful Kapamadzu Peak behind us, en route to which we have had an unexpected and rather pleasant encounter with NSCN K, we are back on the road to explore Chizami situated in the forested countryside of Phek district. It is approximately 85 km from Kohima. Our guide has nudged us in the direction and has made us have great expectations from the trip.
The NEN, the North-Eastern Network which has centres in three North-Eastern states of the country, started a women empowerment initiative in the village of Chizami (in Nagaland’s Phek district), to address primarily the issues of sustainable livelihood, sanitation, governance, social injustice, domestic violence and gender inequality. They have also taken into their embrace natural resource management and the revival of traditional methods of agriculture. Millet production, which was the earlier staple and considered the poor man’s food, is being given renewed attention.
Started in 2008, NEN has now more than 350 women of the Chakesang Naga community, belonging to the agricultural sector, working with them in Chizami and the neighbouring villages. It has seen gratifying success by way of improved sanitary conditions and reproductive health and greater financial security for them. This is being done by ensuring a workable, sustainable livelihood for the economically disadvantaged women by enrolling them in both agricultural farming (women working in the fields now get paid at par with men) as well as in the rich textile tradition using the ancient loin looms of Nagaland. Their work is not merely restricted to achieving financial security through these initiatives but also bringing in gender justice and empowering them to occupy and use positions of power to bring in lasting change.
Success on the loom
The portable loom gets its name from the strap pulled around the weaver’s back that holds the whole structure of the loom with the required tension and enables a sturdy weave pattern. Weaving in Nagaland is exclusively dominated by women of all age groups and tribes. Due to the nature of the loom, the width of a fabric is normally woven at one time and does not exceed more than 18-20 inches. Larger pieces of fabrics are made by stitching a number of strips together.
We drive down to Chizami Weaves that has helped enhance the traditional weaving skills of Chakesang Naga women who are adept at using the loin loom or the backstrap loom (the speciality of these looms is that they produce long narrow panel weaves which are then stitched together to form larger pieces) and used to weave in the confines of their homes. Now, they work in the Chizami weaving centre producing alluring pieces of shawls, mekhelas, wraparounds, purses, shoulder bags, belts, cushion covers, etc. The designs are traditional but have been wedded to more contemporary patterns and colours, moving away from the red, black and white of the Nagas.
Chizami now stands as a role model for the rest of the Naga villages to follow as well as a refreshing oasis of heartening progress where the women workers at the collective exude the self-assurance that comes from economic independence and a certain physical and mental well-being.
The NEN was started in 1995 by Dr Monisha Behal. Monisha, a founder, member and executive director of NEN is a PhD in Folklore from JNU and a McArthur fellow. She has done extensive work with the NEN, covering among others, research and documentation in women-related issues in Nagaland, and is actively involved in Phek district, constantly engaging with women in skill building, getting them involved in decision making in the village and preparing and training women to hold executive positions at the village council as village council members. Some progress has already been achieved.
An exceptional role model
They are also associated with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), and one of the joint initiatives is to create a specific area for women vendors to sell their products to the community in Kohima.
Stephen, a bright, enthusiastic and well-informed young man of NEN, belongs to Rongmei tribe, Peren district, and has done his MSW from St.Aloysius of the Nkwareu village (which has several tribes in it, is more like a town, with lesser ancient cultural moorings, he says). He gives us comprehensive information about the founding of NEN, their areas of work, their concerns and how they address them, their evolution, role in women empowerment, and the success they have been able to achieve in its 14 years of working with the village women.
He has briefed us on all relevant points within a space of 20 minutes along with furnishing us with brochures and DVDs documenting their work, their projects with farming, women SHGs and the progress made.
NEN’s work does the magic of uplifting our spirits that had dropped to abysmal levels upon seeing the conditions in the forlorn Phusachodu and other similar places. Chizami is an oasis of hope and promise. A template for the future of the villages of Nagaland. Steeped in outdated customs and practices as most of Nagaland is, wherever education has touched minds with its magic wand, the effect is palpable! Jona and Sukho, and now Stephen, are its outstanding examples.
The biggest challenge in the community is the mindset…moving out of the traditional family structure, the diktat of the village council, lack of employment, lack of secondary education.
Traditional farming methods have taken a hit, pesticides are being introduced…NEN is trying to reverse the trend. The traditional millet festival is reintroduced into the villages in and around Chizami, Phek district. The organic method of farming is taught and encouraged.
After a pleasantly uplifting chat with Stephen, Hasemo (NEN) and the team at Chizami Weaves discussing the weave designs, chatting with the all-women work force, learning about the intricacies of Chakesang weaves, we indulge ourselves with shopping of Naga shawls (Angami and Chakesang). We have a thoroughly satisfying vegetarian lunch. After a leisurely evening and a pleasant and enlightening conversation that covers various aspects of Naga culture and politics for a couple of hours, we call it a day…