First Person: Sami Oram

A field worker for an MCC partner organization talks about the changes she’s seen in her community and her life

I am from the village of Dharhai in Odisha, a state in eastern India, and I live with my mother and three younger sisters.

My father died when I was 13 and in eighth grade. As the oldest child, it was my responsibility to take care of the family. I wanted to stop my studies and go to work, but my family told me to continue my education.

So I did both. My mother and I did construction work building a bridge. We struggled a lot to find enough money to buy clothes and food and pay for studies for me and my sisters.

Sometimes there was no money to buy rice or anything else, and we thought, “What’s the use of living? Maybe it would it be easier if our family wasn’t here anymore.”

In my village, I saw children who didn’t go to school because their parents put them out to work. Some of them ate only rice and ground leaves cooked in water and had scabs and sores on their bodies. I felt so badly for them.

MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

At that time in my village, there was no electricity, no irrigation for crops and no safe drinking water. People got diseases because of the difficult conditions.

Then when I was about 15 or 16, Disha (an MCC partner organization whose Hindi name means finding the right path or direction) came to my village and talked about doing some work with us.

They began with a program to help people with agriculture. Slowly Disha added education for children and self-help groups for women. This meant that women could take loans from the group and buy seeds or livestock that they could raise to help feed their families and earn income.

Back then, I was the only girl in my village to pass through class 10. I participated in all of the Disha education and training and when they saw that they said, “You can work with us and help us, and you can still go to college.”

So, I went back and forth — studying in one place and teaching children with Disha at home. I think I got paid about 500 rupees per month (about $7), but the amount doesn’t really matter. What mattered to me was the opportunity to teach small children.

I was already the head of my household, and people had always come to me for advice. Then Disha sent me for training where I learned how to be a leader in my village. They said I could also look after the women’s self-help groups. My salary increased, and I could help support my sisters’ education.

Here I was, a woman who was a leader in her village, and I started to think about what I could do to make things better in my community. We had so much hunger and poverty and people were being exploited in so many ways.

There was an old village leader who dominated everyone, and he wasn’t happy about me being recognized as a leader. He told a community meeting that he would beat me and other women, too. But my community supported me, and I was safe then. I am still safe.

Mangal Badiak and Sumi Oram, community organizers for MCC partner Disha, tend to the rice drying outside the home of Basanti Toppo in the village of Tangrani, India.MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

Over the years I was working more with Disha. I was responsible for my village and two more. Slowly, as people in the villages began to trust me, more villages were added.

Now I have my bachelor’s degree and I am a field worker and community organizer with Disha and responsible for four villages in my district. As I got more responsibility, my monthly rate increased. I have enough money to support my mother and sisters.

People have a lot of trust in me. I talk to them about how to take care of their money, how to plan what they want and save for that. People I met over the years have my cell number and still call me when they have problems.

Life is better now for people in my village. I still live there with my mother and three sisters and after all those years of struggle we have a new house. Two of my sisters are studying for bachelor’s degrees. One has an electrical diploma. When my sisters finish their education or get married, my job of caring for them will be done.

The entire village is family to me. My community and other communities have changed, and I helped with that.

Sami Oram, 34, is a field worker and community organizer for MCC partner Disha.