25 March 2015

The Assam Haathi expedition seems like a long time ago now-but we still have plenty to share with you!

The Chester Zoo team were led by the zoo’s managing director-Jamie Christon. Jamie offered help and advice to the women’s self-help groups who have set up and run small businesses in Assam. These businesses produce and sell items such as woven garments and bamboo crafts-to increase the income to their village.

Along with Lorraine Shuker (health and safety advisor) and Mike Lowe (security officer) the three members of staff formed the ‘business group’-and the workshop they presented aimed to help villagers improve their business skills.

Chester Zoo ‘business team’: Jamie, Lorraine and Mike

Here Jamie tells us more:

“India was a brand new experience for me-as was having the opportunity to travel on a zoo expedition. This expedition was a bit unusual and the first time Chester Zoo had looked at trying to develop business skills as well as the other workshop topics in the field.

“Assamese life was a whole world away from life in the UK and Chester. Both in the noisy-dust filled streets of Guwahati out to the more tranquil lanes of the beautiful countryside-our eyes and ears were constantly looking at and hearing new experiences and sights. Each morning you were woken by a car horn-a call to prayer-a cockerel-or another bird in and around our camps and hotels.

“Each day we set off on another adventure in to the Assam countryside – travelling-on some days-great distances to meet villagers.

“We were welcomed by each and every villager and were well taken care of by the field assistants on hand from the Assam Haathi Project team.

“We held four workshop sessions over four days-two in Goalpara and two in Sontipur. Business skills was a new topic for the zoo to deliver and we were all concerned before we left as to whether we had pitched the topic just right for the audience.

“Technology was primitive and it was the first time I’ve had to hook my laptop up to a portable diesel generator! The village halls and community centres we worked in were also basic-but allowed over 50 villagers – a mix of both men and women – to attend and see our presentations.

“To be honest we learnt as much as the participants did. We were intrigued to see what they were making; from simple cotton scarves to intricate wraps-table linen-pickles and chutneys to ornamental raffia models.

“We were also keen to understand what the villagers saw as preventing them from selling more products and asked how we could help. The sessions dealt with basic marketing skills such as labelling-packaging-‘standing out’ and pricing.

“Lorraine and Mike are both qualified first aiders at Chester Zoo and we offered their experience to help give some basic first aid lessons to locals. Arms slings-to the recovery position and how to prevent someone choking were practised across all four of the sites we visited.

“We had tons of questions and great interaction with the villagers-some of which had travelled miles to come and see us. We were overwhelmed by the interest in what we were able to teach and wished we could have spent more time with them and met more people.

“We took the opportunity on two days to visit local weekly markets. Over one thousand locals massed at these sites with rows and rows of stalls of product.

Fantastic looking fruit and vegetables sat alongside textiles-cooking pots-wooden bed frames and carrier bags. We spent a few hours meeting and talking with locals-using our interpreters and exploring the colourful and busy streets of product.

The team meeting and talking to the locals at the markets

We also learnt that these markets acted as great networking opportunities and the Assamese enjoyed getting together to meet friends and relatives as well as doing business.

“During the workshops we were invited in to the heart of the villages-watching the handlooms in action in every household-enjoying rice wine with the whole village and always being offered refreshing cups of sweet tea as well as smiles and laughter from everyone we met.

“Sitting alongside the electric fences-whole communities go about their daily lives and it must have been so odd for them as we marched in with cameras and ipads-heavy rucksacks full of equipment and lots of noise!

“My favourite memories include sitting on the concrete floor outside a school room watching the sun set one evening and enjoying the music and dancing prepared by locals at a rice wine session! I will also remember the friends we made-the close bond our group formed over the two weeks we were together.

“Assam seems a million moons ago now and I often still think about what is going on in the villages today. I hope the work we did helped and I can’t wait to go back again and experience India all over again.”