Hejang Misao from the North-Eastern state of Manipur is one of the many social entrepreneurs across India who is being supported by the RYTHM Foundation, the CSR arm of Asia’s leading direct selling firm QNET. RYTHM Foundation has joined hands with Manava Seva Dharma Samvardhani (MSDS) to encourage and support social entrepreneurs like Misao working in the oft-neglected recesses of India through their Sadguru Gnanananda Fellowship Project.
In an interview, Misao speaks about his life in the riot-torn state of Manipur, his struggle with poverty, his stint in extremism during his early youth, and finally his life’s calling in social work and his dreams for a better and self-sustained society, which are being turned into reality with support from RYTHM FOUNDATION.
Misao says encouragement from his own people and RYTHM Foundation’s support in the form of a fellowship, and guidance has helped him to nurture and grow his project ‘InSIDE-NorthEast’ into one of the most recognisable and respected social ventures for youth and women in Manipur today.
Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your life as a child.
I was born in Shelmei village of Manipur in 1979. I have three siblings – two elder brothers and a younger sister. However, this village was decimated from the very map of Manipur in the 1992 riots. We lost our father when I was just five years old. Suddenly, we were staring at extreme poverty. My mom was the sole bread earner and she had four mouths to feed. She brought us up in great hardship by working in Jhum Cultivation (Shifting Cultivation). I had to work in a rice mill when I was in Standard 8th to support my education. I spent my formative days in Saikul village in Kangpokpi district and currently I am based here.
Manipur has been long plagued by ethnic clashes, insurgency attacks, militancy and geographical isolation. How much of this violent past has had a rub-off on you?
Like many teens and youth of Manipur, I was also pulled into the extremist movements. When I was young, there were widespread conflicts among communities. In 1993, I got sucked into the insurgency conflict. Many youngsters like me were force-recruited by the insurgents and sent to training camps. I too was trained in guerrilla warfare. After training, I had the choice to join the insurgent group or defend my village. I chose to stay put and defend my village.
Were you always interested in social work?
Yes, from my student days. When in college, I started working with other social workers first as a means of livelihood, but later it became my life’s calling when I saw the happiness, the joy and the smile that my service brought to the people of my community. I decided to commit my life to social service and that is when I also decided to do my Masters studies in social work.
How did you find support from RYTHM Foundation?
After completing my MSoW (Master of Social Work) course, I was involved with an Austrian project. While working there, I decided to start my own project – Integrated Social & Institutional Development for Empowerment (InSIDE-North East). The organisation was registered on 14th February, 2013. We were looking for funding and support for the project and came across the MSDS Fellowship, which is provided by RYTHM Foundation. I applied for it in October 2016 I was accepted and became a fellow of Sadguru Gnanananda Fellowship Project.
Which is the area you chose to start work on?
I wanted to begin by helping the young people who are the worst affected by the insurgency war. Along with a group of my friends, I started this project called ‘Guns to Pens’ to bring education at the grassroots level. We set up book banks and life-skill programs. We revived the practice of ‘Shom-in’ where village elders impart training to youngsters in areas like cultivation, hunting, village administration etc. We also started several projects for women empowerment. We provide training in beauty and wellness to young girls. As part of our women empowerment programmes, we are providing seed funds to mothers with the strong belief that empowering the mother is empowering the whole family. With the funding, these women have started opening their own businesses such as paan shops, or own units for weaving shawls or Mekhalas.
Are you happy that you chose social work as your career?
You see it was never about money. The smile that my work brings to people’s faces – that is invaluable to me. I am happy that people today recognise and respect me for the work I do. I wanted to help the young boys and girls of my state who like me had to face (and still face) a lot of hardship due to the insurgency problems and poverty. Many are forced to give up education and often turn into terrorists or drug addicts. The fact that I am now able to help such young people and bring them back to mainstream society and enrich their lives with knowledge and education, brings me huge joy and satisfaction. I am balancing my life and work well with people’s love and from the financial support I get from the fellowship.
How has the fellowship helped you in succeeding and growing as a social entrepreneur?
The best thing about the MSDS fellowship is that RYTHM Foundation supports me in developing my own ideas for social good as well as nurtures me to become a successful entrepreneur by giving me ideas on how to make my projects self-sustainable. They are always there to mentor and guide me whenever I stumble or fumble but, at the same time, give me enough space to work and grow as an individual and as an entrepreneur.