Unconventional means.

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*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)

The plans were set. We were crashing convocation. So I exaggerate – but not really. We had spent all of Friday registering women and farmers through our Sevalanka workshop. Midday I broke away for a meeting with MAS, an employer in the north, and ended up talking to a young woman working there. She suggested we try talking to young people about our system. “They could really use it,” she told me. “And you know what – tomorrow is my convocation at Jaffna University — there will be like 1000 people there that you could tell about GrowLanka.” And the lightbulb went on. She called her dean at the school and arranged for us to have a table set up outside of the University. We made a big GrowLanka banner and printed up instructions for subscribing people to the system. I made a gazillion more subscription cards and got to cutting them out. We sent out a facebook alert. Everything happened so quickly, it was bizarre. But there we were on Saturday morning at 6:30 am leaving Vavuniya to make the 3 hour drive along the A9 highway to Jaffna.

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We set up shop right near one of the gate entrances. The grounds were filled with people. Garlands, lights, colors. Ladies in pretty saris and gents dressed up in suits. It was clearly a day for celebration. I felt like one of the wedding crashers. But it was a venue that made so much sense for GrowLanka. Here these young people were graduating from college or from their degree program and inevitably, they would be looking for a job. Helloooo, perfect. (To give you some insight into what an aha moment this was for us – the weeks prior we were sitting around asking us ourselves, where can we find a lot of unemployed people in one place who are looking for a job? We’d come up with employment centers and community centers and the villages but a university had never once made our list. Go figure.)

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As soon as we got there, people rushed to help us set up. Guys helped us hang up our banners and our driver/translator for the day started telling people about GrowLanka. We got about 10 people signed up in one go. But then what was really astonishing to me was how they stuck around. The student body president of the junior class was with us. These kids– actually, I should refrain from using that word, most of them were older than me!– stuck around and called their friends over, explained the system to them, and helped us get people subscribed.

On the left, two of the young women who stuck around till the very end to help us get people subscribed
On the left, two of the young women who stuck around till the very end to help us get people subscribed

As more and more people gathered around our table, more kept coming. At times I felt like I was at the floor of some massive arena with a bunch of people peering down at me itching to get signed up. It was so critical for us to have those first people advocate for us, to have them translate for us, to get their friends to come over and to get people they knew interested in the system. They peppered us with many questions — about the nature of our project, about our service, about why we were doing it, the jobs they might see come across the system. It was busy work. There were ebbs and flows of people for sure and more often than not our hands and eyes and mouths were occupied with completely different tasks.

Amidst the chaos, there were a few things that really made me pause. For one, the men were always eager to sign up. They questioned us less. The women hung back in groups. Once the crowd died down, I’d see groups of women flung out a couple feet from our table. They’d send over an emissary to our table, I suspect the woman who among them spoke the best English. She’d ask us many thoughtful questions. She’d take her measure of us. And then she’d take a whole handful of subscription cards and get the women in her group to sign up from an area removed from our table. Eventually, she’d come back, gifting us with a whole load of papers. Many women (and I didn’t even realize this until I started data entering all these new subscribers) entered several numbers– not just for themselves but too for their kids, husbands, family members. Women, I found, were far more timid to approach us – just as they were far more discerning of our services. They proved to be some of the best advocates for our system.

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We also had to get innovative on the ground. There’s a glaring problem we face whenever we talk to people in the north: we don’t speak Tamil. So it takes routinely 2-3 times more longer to get administrative tasks done. More than that, it’s not always clear to us that we’re being understood and let’s be real, not speaking the language that everyone else does can make you feel rather quickly like a complete foreigner who is probably being left out of the conversation. Not to mention, not speaking the language didn’t exactly win us trust points. But we had to get people to come to our table. At first, it was easy because our “advocates” — a group of guys and girls who hung around for most of the morning into the early afternoon– really got the word out. They were quick to translate for us and to bring over their schoolmates to our stand. But mid-afternoon, they had to leave: it was “cab collection time” (a funny little tradition in the north – the graduating seniors give a bit of spare change to their younger counterparts who are staying behind.) When we lost our advocates, we got to making signs. We had one of our friends translate a GrowLanka promo into Tamil and then my teammate Casi went out holding the sign and directing people to our subscription table while I manned everything at base. It was tiring with the Jaffna heat pouring down on us but remarkably successful – even if we felt rather silly standing there waiting/watching people read our make-shift Tamil signs. For all we knew, our friends could have written something incredibly embarrassing on there – but by the turnout we saw it seems thankfully that that wasn’t the case :)

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But beyond anything else, the thing that sticks out to me most was the exchanges I had with the people on the ground there. A second year law student, Tamil speaking, came to the table with his Sinhalese friend. They were talking in Sinhalese so I interjected even as my language skills in that department aren’t the strongest. He said you know, I’m so glad you’re doing this – you don’t even know how much this is needed. The people here really suffered during the war. He explained to me the trials of finding a job, features not all that uncommon in post-conflict environments. He explained to me that a lot of people had taken 2-3 times longer to complete their degree because of the fighting going on. Some students couldn’t go home because during term time their home villages turned into battlefields. The library on campus was burned one night. Students couldn’t do internships over summers because businesses had left the region – meaning that when they graduated, they didn’t have any experience to market to potential employers. All these things and more he ticked through methodically and then he turned over his subscriber card and wrote a note about the specific kind of job he was looking for — beyond just the routine category (medicine, law, government work, etc.) that our system required users to input. I could see then how he really believed in our system. That got to me. How ten minutes later he came back with his friends and explained our set-up to them. How he shook my hand. The promise in his eyes, his belief in our system pushed me even harder, is the thing at the back of my mind when I think about how we scale and grow GrowLanka and better service the people who use our system.

I’ll be honest, not all our exchanges were good — one man came up to our table and threatened us. His distrust evident and understandable. “You better make this system work – I know the people here. They suffered a lot. And then all the NGOs left,” he berated, his voice rising. Some guys laughed at us and a few of our advocates had to chase them away. But these were the anomalies, not the norm. And still, the day I spent in Jaffna folded into a part of the action, the celebration as people ended their year and looked forward at Jaffna University… well that was pretty special.

Up next: rethinking technical solutions

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