Gili Navon (second from left) launched a nonprofit to help women in india. Gili Navon (second from left) launched a nonprofit to help women in india. Gili Navon (second from left) launched a nonprofit to help women in india. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Backpacker returns to help tribal women turn cultural traditions into cash

When Gili Navon first met the Mising tribe, she had no idea it would change their lives forever.

In 2007, an Israeli named Gili Navon spent a year backpacking in India, studying Sanscrit and practicing yoga. Her travels took her to Majuli, a remote island in northeast India where she planned to explore the rural culture. Though she didn’t speak the local language, she formed a bond with many members of the Mising tribe, in particular with the women.

The Mising typically live in elevated bamboo shacks. The region attracts little tourism and the people occupy the lowest ranks in the caste system, struggling along on subsistence farming. But heavy erosion in the past 50 years has caused the island to lose more than half of its land.

After returning home to Israel, Navon continued to be enthralled with the culture of the Mising and stayed close with those she met. She enrolled in a master’s degree program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying community development. As part of the program, she returned to Majuli to do a four-month internship, during which she organized a weaving cooperative made up of 24 tribal women. The goal of the cooperative was to help them use their cultural traditions in order to generate income.

The weaving cooperative was a success. Now known as the Rengam Women Weavers Cooperative, it is made up of around 100 women from 20 villages and is a part the Amar Majuli nonprofit group.

The nonprofit organization Amar Majuli grew out of a local weaving cooperative founded by Israeli Gili Navon.The nonprofit organization Amar Majuli grew out of a local weaving cooperative founded by Israeli Gili Navon. (Photo: /Amar Majuli)

In 2013, Navon teamed up with her Hebrew University advisor Shaked Avizedek to launch Amar Majuli, which means “our” Majuli, in partnership with local women and youth. The group aims to enhance the independence and mobility of its members through programs like the bike bank – a “lease to own” plan by which women can gradually buy their own bicycle paying a few cents each time they use it.

“We are mostly working for the empowerment of Mising women. We have built two kitchen gardens in the houses of two widows at Sumoimari in Majuli. In another house, we built a bamboo shaft and constructed a portion of the wall, where a plastic sheet was covering one side,” she told a local paper.

The Rengam Women Weavers Cooperative is made up of about 100 women who draw on the local culture of weaving to generate an income.The Rengam Women Weavers Cooperative is made up of about 100 women who draw on the local culture of weaving to generate an income. (Photo: Amar Majuli)

Amar Majuli projects also include a sustainable agriculture program, provide tools for men and women that will help them to increase production using environmentally friendly farming techniques, hold a series of pop-up medical clinics during monsoon season when roads are blocked and drinking water is in short supply, and offer professional assistance in fundraising, marketing and planning.

Navon spends much of her time looking for volunteers and raising money, primarily through crowdfunding, their Facebook page and from several donations from “generous people in Israel.” With additional support, she hopes to establish a community agricultural settlement, in which the profits of collective farming are used toward the development of the community. “We would like to try something like this on the island and our next step is to put up a community farm on a much larger area of land,” she said.

Gili Navon in Majuli with members of the Weavers Cooperative.Gili Navon in Majuli with members of the Weavers Cooperative. (Photo: Amar Majuli)

While Navon will continue to be involved, more and more of the leadership of Amar Majuli will be transferred to the local board. They are currently seeking new staff members to help with accounting, women’s leadership and organic agriculture. The group has also been incorporated into another Israeli nonprofit, which aims to help people in developing countries through long-term volunteer projects.

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