“We started our work in ensuring safe drinking water when a girl who had gone to a stream to fetch water was washed away in a flash flood,” recalled Akeina Gonmei. The tragic gave direction to the works of Rongmei Baptist Association, where Akeina is the development secretary.

Akeina is probably the first woman from the Rongmei Naga tribe to have completed the Master of Social Work course. After finishing the course from Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai, in 1993, she had many career options. But she chose to work among her community.

As the development secretary of Rongmei Baptist Association for the last 18 years, Akeina, along with her husband Reverend HM Gonmei, has initiated a wide range of developmental activities. They have succeeded in convincing the association’s leaders that its work should not be confined to religious duties in the church. Their work among some of the Naga tribes has resulted in overall development of the community.

Beyond religion

Rongmei Baptist Association is the apex administrative body for Rongmei churches in Nagaland. In 1992, when it stepped beyond religious activities, the broad objective was to empower rural people and reduce poverty in the region. After Akeina joined in 2000 as youth secretary and development coordinator, the association’s activities began expanding vastly.

To appreciate Akeina’s work, it is imperative to understand the history of Nagaland. Before independence, the British had declared it an Excluded Area. The Naga people had almost no contact with the outside world. Headhunting practices were common until as late as the 1960s. Agriculture is still the main occupation for most of the villagers. The most common practice of agriculture is jhum or shifting cultivation. Connectivity and lack of infrastructure are still major constraints for anyone working in Nagaland. One can imagine the situation nearly two decades back, when Akeina joined the association.

Facing challenges

As a young single woman, Akeina moved from Dimapur to Jalukie, a small town about 50 km away. The town in Peren district had poor connectivity and erratic power supply. There was only one private bus that ran daily between Dimapur and Jalukie.

Recalling her early days with the Rongmei Baptist Association, Akeina said, “When I joined, we had no building; a handful of staff working from two rooms made up our office, besides a manual typewriter, an old cyclostyling machine and a scooter.” They shifted the wooden benches in the office at night to make room for her to sleep.

Unmindful of the challenges, Akeina visited villages every day. She took comfort from the fact that she was working for the development of the community.

Naga tribes in Jalukie have shifted from jhum cultivation to wadi plantations of pineapple, mango. Photo courtesy Rongmei Baptist Association

Working for community

The Rongmei Baptist Association has helped promote women self-help groups and implemented programmes for livelihood promotion and skill-building, to name just a few, each growing out of the community’s needs.

When the association wanted to ensure access to safe drinking water after the girl lost her life, Akeina noticed another aspect. Traditionally, the dead were buried near their houses. But this had become unviable since population had increased and open spaces had shrunk.

Besides taking measures such as enclosing backyard wells with concrete rings, Akeina spoke to the village council and got a piece of land allocated as the burial ground.

With agriculture being the mainstay, the association encouraged farmers to move away from jhum cultivation that was becoming increasingly unsustainable to horticulture or wadi cultivation, starting with pineapple orchards on hill slopes.

In the 1980s, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development promoted wadi cultivation in several regions of the country, including in Peren district, facilitated by the association. They encouraged tribal families to plant mango and other fruit trees on degraded lands to ensure regular income.

Self-help groups

The self-help group programme did not take off in Nagaland until 2000 despite several attempts. That is because despite NABARD’s efforts, commercial banks were reluctant to extend loans to women self-help groups.

NABARD then decided to partner with a non-profit that understood the ground realities and connected with the people. The Rongmei Baptist Association was their obvious choice. The association borrowed from NABARD, lent the money to self-help groups and repaid all loans on time.

NABARD, and later other banks, found the association’s operations transparent. So much so that it was asked to train NGOs across Nagaland that wanted to join the self-help group-bank linkage programme.

Livelihood programmes

Besides wadi cultivation, the association has been promoting diversified livelihoods among the community’s members, especially women.

Traditionally, villagers did not cultivate mushrooms, but collected them from the forest. During a visit to Thailand, Akeina saw mushrooms being cultivated using sawdust. The association then introduced the same among women in some villages.

Mushroom cultivation not only brings in additional income for the family, they also offer nutritious food supplement to women and children.

The association has introduced better management practices in piggery as well, reducing animal mortality and increasing income. Women rear pigs while taking care of household chores. The pigs consume the kitchen waste, thus reducing the solid waste load on the ecology. It has also reduced Nagaland’s dependence on pork from Punjab.

In the face of constraints such as lack of adequate technical expertise for wadi cultivation, the association ensures their programmes have reasonable impact on the community. Remaining accessible when not in a position to offer solutions, they guide the community to other resources such as directing them to agriculture scientists in case of a pest attack on crops.

Akeina says there has been a perceptible change among the community’s members and the church leaders as a result of the association’s development programmes. It ensures that their programmes encompass all, without any clan affiliations. “For us socio-economic programme means a path to social harmony,” she said. “We do not initiate any activity that does not promote harmony in the community.” All employees of the association is drawn from the local community.

The association’s activities are spread across 40 villages among 2,000 families in one of the most underdeveloped regions of Nagaland. It has successfully brought forward the secular developmental agenda under the aegis of the church. Its experience in integrating faith and development offers an example for others travelling similar paths.

This article is excerpted from the book Gems of Purest Ray Serene: Glimpse into lives and work of India’s outstanding social workers, edited by Sanjiv Phansalkar and Ajit Kanitkar. The book is available for purchase here.

Ajit Kanitkar is a researcher at Vikasanvesh Foundation in Pune. Prior to this, he worked at Ford Foundation and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in New Delhi. He taught at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, from 1992 to 1995.

This article first appeared on Village Square.