How do you do organize a conference in a village in India against the opposition of village elders, and with no working projector? Meet Masarat Daud.
She’s a 26-year-old from a Muslim family in Rajasthan, India, who started a widely praised literacy program for villagers called 8-day Academy. Though based in Dubai, she dreamed of organizing a TEDx event in her home village Fatehpur, Shekhavati. Here’s what happened, in her own words. I am in awe. Look at the pics at the bottom.
I have lived in Dubai all my life and ‘hated’ going back to India because I would fall sick very often and I thought India was insane—there were too many contradictions and I could not accept how all of them co-existed.
Somehow, 2009 became home-coming of sorts. To escape a high-flying job that was materialistically fulfilling but was lethal to my spirit and self-esteem, I went to India to teach the first 8-Day Academy. And I felt I belong to rural India. I loved the colours, I loved the people. The same insanity that had made me reject the idea of India, now brought me to it.
When I spoke at TEDxDubai, I was surrounded by so many people crying because of how my work touched them. I had a week of sleepless nights. I scribbled ideas all night to make 8DA a global education movement. And once, I was talking to Mehmood Khan whose work inspires me so much and I made a list of people I had to meet during my next trip to India. Then, a random crazy idea came: how about organising a TEDx conference in Fatehpur? Instead of me going to meet people individually, let’s get them all on one stage. Instead of just me benefitting from these people, why not let the whole village be inspired?
I discussed this with James and he loved the idea but reminded me that it’s not an easy task and I must be dedicated. I applied for a license…and in the last week of October 2009, I got the license to organise TEDxShekhavati.
I didn’t know many people in India because I had stayed away from it for so long. I had more non-Indian friends! I began searching the net, connecting with people from India and especially Rajasthan. I made a list of people who had a story to tell. I looked for people who came from villages and small towns and had a great success story. They were not working to earn money for themselves, but gave back to the society too.
It is easier to get people to Delhi, Bombay and other cities but a challenge to get them to Fatehpur. Apart from one speaker (who has researched Shekhavati region since 1977), no one else knew where Fatehpur was! I also looked for speakers who would be ‘genuine’ speakers—not there for the prestige of being on a TED stage.
I had confirmed ten speakers. Then, one night, I came home from an event to find my father on phone till after 11pm which is very unusual for him. My mother comes to me crying, telling me to stop all my 8DA and TEDx event because it is a hassle and there’s no benefit to b derived from it.
And then, I found out.
Schools in our ‘mohalla’ (area) are all community schools, funded by prominent families of the village. So, one person cannot be the decision-maker. The only place where TEDxShekhavati could be held was the community school. Some of the men in this cabinet decided that TEDxShekhavati was a threat to the village culture and should not be allowed. They also found it un-Islamic for a girl to be single-handedly organising this, for her to be on stage in front of many people and to be talking.
They organised a small committee to specifically look into TEDxShekhavati. Of course, none of them knew TED and didn’t care to research or at least visit the TED website. They scheduled a meeting; I was asked many questions. I gave them names and talk details of all speakers, talked to them about Babar Ali, William Kamkwamba and others. They were so fearful of this conference, saying that the Mullahs would oppose it and find faults with it. I was bringing headache to them.
Until that day, when I would read about other TEDx events in India and abroad, I identified with their passion and the way the crowd responded to them. In a moment, I suddenly felt so alienated from those emotions. I had no idea what TEDxShekhavati would look like. I had no idea where it would happen and how many speakers and attendees would show up. But I knew one thing: it would happen. If not anywhere else, then it will take place in my house—with 20 people, 50 people..whoever.
I contacted the speakers and explained the situation to them. Told them that if they can’t make it or accept such an uncertain scenario, then they can opt out. None of them did. Instead, they all stood behind me and said they were now more than certain they wanted to be part of this because they wanted it to happen.
Everyone else thought I was crazy. I was talking a language nobody would understand. People wouldn’t care. But I wouldn’t accept what they said—I wanted to see it to believe it. People want change, I wanted them to tell me that they didn’t and maybe, I’d believe.
Then, there was a Swine Flu scare. Four death in a week in Fatehpur. My parents said they’re cancelling their tickets (which were booked for January 5, 2010). I told them I am still going. If I have to die of Swine Flu, I’ll die of it in Dubai and if it’s not written for me to doe of Swine Flu, I can be seated in a room full of SF patients and I’ll come out alive. I can risk my life but I didn’t want anyone else to get into problems because of me, so I told my family that I would travel alone. My cousins called me from Fatehpur and told me not to come, ‘it is very bad here’, they said.
I stocked up on hand sanitizers and face masks for all [planned] 300 attendees and speakers. My parents decided to stay in the city (Jaipur) while I travelled to the village. On Jan 7 morning, I arrived. The smell of the village, the pollution, the dirty streets, open drains, children running off to school, dogs and goats on the streets…just made me smile. I felt at home. I knew I was doing the right thing.
I started visiting schools and talking to people in the market about TED. First two days, they gave me a very blank expression, not understanding anything I said. Simply smiling and listening. One of them said ‘I don’t know what this TED is but your accent in Marwadi is nice!’.
On the second day, I was drained from all the talking, breaking down the TED concept and explaining TEDxShekhavati to people. One young man came to me and said: ‘Are you Masarat? I have heard a lot about you from village people.’ He was heading one of the local schools. I spoke to him about TED and TEDxShekhavati and he smiled and said: ‘I am so inspired after listening to you! I will surely come!’
I was so happy that SOMEBODY used the word ‘inspire’. That’s what I was looking for. It was also the energy I needed to continue this.
Exactly one week before the event, the community school heads withdrew the venue. They said that until I don’t wear a ‘niqaab’ (covering for my face), I will not be allowed to talk on stage. My father was furious. He immediately came to the village with my mother to help me organise TEDxShekhavati. I was surprised to see them. He told me the village school will not host this anymore.
I told him not to worry. I got in touch with a school I had visited a day before. It was a ‘Hindu school in a Hindu area’. They are the biggest school in Fatehpur and very expensive but had better facilities. They welcome TEDxShekhavati and I confirmed them as the venue. Six days remained and all planning had changed.
We invited two main newspapers that people read locally. The reporters came with camera people. With the help of two local school teachers, I translated some basic information on TED and TEDxShekhavati in Hindi and Urdu. I gave them those sheets and also explained it in very, very basic terms. Until the next three days, nobody printed anything.
They didn’t understand what to write.
Then, they started asking for money. Starting from 10,000 Indian rupees! Since nobody was willing to publish a story, we placed an ad in the local newspaper informing people of the event and to contact us if they wanted to come. We got a call from a nearby village where they said they will bring 50 students!
My mother starting talking to our relatives and women in the neighbourhood informing them of TEDxShekhavati and told them they must come. Most women worked till late night so they can be free the next morning. One of my aunts told her husband to handle the goats and their feed while she’s at the conference.
Then, my father gets a call from the Head of the community who says they are willing to give us back the venue! I refused. My father refused.
All preparations were on. Posters were printed and distributed in bazaars. People were talking about it in the barber’s shop, in the auto-rickshaws. Banners were put up in the neighbourhood and in the bazaar welcoming people on January 19, 2010. Buses were booked in different locations so that people could have transport access. The educated men in the community supported the event and praised it as a big positive change led by ‘the daughter of the village’. Hotel rooms were booked for the guests. Transport was arranged.
Since the event was outdoors, we needed a better projector. One guy says the cost will be 80,000 Indian Rupees! And he said such a facility was not available anywhere. So we agreed. I needed more funds! So far, the cost of the entire event was covered by the money fundraised by the UAE Twitter community. I tweeted about needing more funds; a friend from Twitter in India contacted me immediately and offered 50,000 Indian rupees! Here I have to mention, people were not willing to advertise for the event because no one wanted Fatehpur. Cities are more attractive!
A day before the event, projector guy calls and says the solution he offered us will not work. We must rent a LED screen for 210,000 Indian Rupees. I cancelled it. We stuck to a normal projector. We told the guys who were making the tent to make it dark so we can have a better viewing.
I will admit: I was so nervous; my fingers were ice-cold the entire day. The temperature was between 1 to 3 degrees C. I was so nervous that I thought I should cancel my talk because I might make a fool out of myself.
On January 18, 2010 the speakers started arriving. Sitting for dinner with Samar Jodha, Aman Nath, Amrita Choudhary, Shrot Katewa and Anwar Ali, I felt so calm. As all of them got into great conversations with my father, brother and uncles, I just observed and got such a good feeling in my heart. These speakers were real people who were here for the purpose, not for any glory. They all connected so well and we heard each others’ talks and discussed ideas from them, gave feedback, laughed and had a great time.
I finished some last-minute work in the night. I slept for an hour. Then, I was awake all night. Tomorrow was The Day.
On the day, I reached school in the morning. Everything looked alright. We thought we can accommodate more people here because the venue was bigger, so we placed 600 chairs. One of my uncles told me the night before he had ordered 200 extra chairs. I hoped people would turn up!
The projector stopped working. It wasn’t reflecting the images. I didn’t panic because what doesn’t work…doesn’t work. Just accept it. I informed the speakers and they took it in stride. I opened the event and told all attendees that projector wasn’t working so I will narrate the TED talks instead of showing them. I had prepared TED talks with Hindi voice-overs. Oh and another thing: the sound guys did not have a connection from the laptop to the Sound System!
One of the speakers, Mehmood Khan, could not make it because of a last-minute trip. So, he had sent his 7-minute talk as an audio file. I was going to lose a speaker because of the sound system! But…I figured a solution J
We started the event with the Langa musicians who were amazing. I thought some fundamentalists will walk off but surprisingly, everyone were enjoying the music. I saw people laying thick carpets and I thought: ‘OMG! The chairs are all full!’. There were 250 people seated on the carpet and another 100 standing near the tent opening, so we did have more than 1,000 people. I couldn’t Livestream the event because the net connection is very poor. It took me 25 minutes to attach photos that I had e-mailed you (that’s 25mins per e-mail).
The talks went smoothly, the crowd listened, children were well-behaved. Instead of Chris’ video, I spoke to people about TED and TEDx concept. I spoke about Babar Ali and also narrated Michael Pritchard’s talk. (When I compared the 200nm TB bacteria to the size of their water filter, everyone went ‘OHHHHHH’. They all clapped throughout the event!)
When Mehmood Khan’s turn came (the audio file), I increased volume on the laptop and put a Mic against the speakers…viola! Many people came to me and said ‘Where was this guy talking from? How could we hear him? Was he talking from the Internet?’
I ended the talk with a beautiful clip from the Indian national anthem. Everything went well. Lunch was organised for speakers and guests.
Feedback so far has been great!
Most common: “We had always seen such people on TV. We cannot believe that we were invited to an event where we can hear them talk and see them in front of us.”
“This is the start to bigger community change in Fatehpur.”
“You have raised the bar for all the girls. Now, the women community is very inspired and parents will educate their girls.”
“A very proud thing for all of us that first TEDx in Rajasthan took place in our Shekhavati area.”
“It was such an educational event. Beyond any of our expectations. We never knew such people came out of our villages!”
It make me incredibly happy to see that it worked. There was someone who said: “This was not for people like us. This was for people who have the jazba (passion).”
I think that was a compliment, no?
Personally, I believe that the urban India has adopted a wannabe-culture. They think it’s cool to lose the identity/culture. But rural India is the heartbeat of India. My main aim is to empower them in their circumstances. I always tell them—no one will come from ‘Amreeka’ to solve your problems. You have to solve them yourself. TEDxShekhavati showed them that it could be done.
Attendees were given handkerchiefs with the TEDxShekhavati logo hand-woven by slum women in Jaipur.
There were five street children who came with one school teacher (who is their relative) and those boys were so happy, so inspired. They told me that at next TEDxShekhavati, they will be standing on stage.
I told them: I would be honoured.
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