In December 2019, Global Encounters (GE) Expedition brought together young Ismailis from 13 countries to the rural areas of Southern Saurashtra in Gujarat to engage with the local Jamat and study the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The impact of Expedition on its participants is well known, but the impact that Expedition has on the Jamat in Southern Saurashtra is equally profound.

“It felt like home!” exclaimed Ayaan, an Indian-born Congolese participant of the recently concluded Global Encounters Expedition in Southern Saurashtra, India. Like many other Ismailis of South Asian heritage, Ayaan traces his ancestry back to the agrarian communities of rural Gujarat.

Located in the Junagadh district, the villages of Malia Hatina and Chitravad are more than just pinpoints on a map. Historically, AKDN agencies have had a long-standing presence in the area. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) water conservation, irrigation, and sanitation initiatives have been instrumental in community development. The Aga Khan Agency for Habitat has been working in these areas to improve the built environment and increase resilience to natural disasters. The Aga Khan School in Chitravad is the premier English-medium school in the district, and the Aga Khan Hostel in Malia Hatina has provided education and direction to children in the region for many years.

The Ismaili community has strong roots in this part of the world. Some of our parents and grandparents once called these remote but close-knit communities home, before eventually migrating to urban areas in India, Pakistan, and across the world. As such, for these young Ismailis, participation in GE Expedition was a unique opportunity to rediscover their family roots.

Established in 2012, the GE programme has drawn hundreds of Ismaili high school students from around the world to participate in an intensive four-week residential programme in India, Kenya, or Pakistan. In India, the GE summer programme focuses on a service-learning programme based at the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad and includes opportunities to see the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s flagship projects in Delhi and Hyderabad.

GE Expedition was conceptualised to provide youth with exposure to AKDN’s vast portfolio of work in rural India. Set in the winter, the Expedition programme brings participants to Saurashtra and encourages them to build relationships with the local Jamat, volunteer in local communities, and learn about AKDN’s work in rural development. It aims to provide participants with a strong grounding in service, leadership, and culture, and build within them a social consciousness that might reflect in their lives and future career aspirations. The participants interact with the Jamati Institutions and AKDN’s national leadership as well as stakeholders at the grassroots level and are given exposure to best practice in local and regional development.

As part of the camp, participants have the opportunity to visit Kotda in rural Amreli, which is home to a number of programmes run by AKRSP. Other than participating in an extremely popular Rotla-making workshop, they study AKRSP’s work in environmental sustainability, including the use of biogas, rainwater harvesting, and garbage segregation. They also have the chance to interact with women from the local community to understand prevalent stigmas around menstrual hygiene and their impact on the lives of rural women. 

But why Saurashtra, one might ask? Saurashtra certainly has a lot of heart. During their visit, students were welcomed with an outpouring of love and affection that was heart-warming.

“I have never felt so special!” said Muqqadas, a participant from Tajikistan, as she recalled their arrival into Chitravad. “The entire Jamat showed up to welcome us with a Mamera. They showered us with rice and rose petals, they were playing the dhol and everyone was dancing and taking pictures.” 

The warm welcome kicked off a well-planned itinerary that was designed to give participants a feel of rural life. During Expedition, participants engaged in agricultural activities with local farmers. From riding tractors, ploughing fields, and sowing seeds to working hand pumps and carrying pots of water, they did everything that a farmer would do on a typical day.

Karmali Kanji Padaniya, a local farmer, highlighted the importance of such activities.

“The children now understand where their food really comes from. They can see the efforts that farmers take and yet, the minimal role that they play in negotiating produce prices. They will now really be able to appreciate the food they eat,” he said.

Indeed, while Expedition can be transformative for the participants, it also has a profound impact on the Jamat. The rural Jamat’s interaction with the wider international community is limited and their interaction with Ismaili youth from other countries would be non-existent, if not for programmes like GE.

The simple realisation that the young Jamat, from across the world, sees value in learning from the lives of these rural communities, the challenges they face, and the aspirations they have for their future can be a very empowering experience.

Mihir, a young resident of the Aga Khan Hostel in Malia Hatina, believes that the participants learned a great deal from their interaction with the hostel students. Perched on colourfully decorated bullock-carts, the GE participants celebrated a Kathiyawadi-style New Year’s Eve at the hostel in Malia Hatina. Dressed in local traditional attire, they played Raas and enjoyed traditional Kathiyawadi food.  

“We spoke to them about our traditions, our lifestyles, and how close we are as a community,” said Mihir. “We taught them our language, our cooking techniques, kite-flying, clay-work and rangoli art!”

Local children like Mihir, who are fluent in English, act as translators when GE participants visit local families in their homes. These youth realise the importance of learning English and being able to communicate with other participants.

“Now, I know that I can interact with anyone in the world!” said Mihir.

In return, GE participants play a vital role in seeding aspirations for wider horizons for rural youth. Many GE participants are at the threshold of applying to universities and they provide local students with valuable perspectives on their future aspirations.

Simran, another resident of the hostel, said, “They told me about programmes I could apply to, including Global Encounters. I would like to attend such programmes too someday.”

While the popularity of the programme grows, the India team isn’t resting on its laurels.

“The international Global Encounters team has allowed us a lot of freedom to design Expedition with exposure to a lot of AKDN initiatives in Saurashtra,” said AKYSB Chairperson Zeenat Lakhani. “There is a large AKDN footprint in India that we would like to share with others in the future.”

Whatever shape Expedition takes in the future, the ties that bind it will remain unchanged.

“The way that the Jamat opened up their homes to us was incredible,” said Jahan, a Canadian participant. “They made us feel like we are a part of the community. We come from different countries, different backgrounds, different cultures, but the brotherhood in our hearts always keeps us connected.”

Similar sentiments echo in Malia Hatina and Chitravad. Chairperson Zeenat recalled a heart-felt experience she had during the farming activity. Instead of being apprehensive about the inexperienced participants wreaking havoc on their fields, farmers were lining up to volunteer their land. An old farmer, with tears in his eyes, approached her and said, “Thank you for bringing these kids here! My fields will now yield gold.”