Written by Anna Buchmann

When I heard that one of our clients is working with the local gypsy community, pictures of tents, girls with big hoop earrings and people dancing around fires popped up in my head – Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmeralda has definitely influenced my view of the gypsies. Having preconceptions about people and their lifestyle is normal, and often we are proved wrong. Kate and Rachael, who are working with the gypsy community as part of the _SocialStarters programme which I am programme manager for were also surprised at what they found.

Instead of nomadic people living in tents, the gypsies reside in identical houses along one straight street. The houses have been provided by the government. In the past men used to be hunters, until the government forbid the shooting of animals. However, eating rats and various local birds is still common. During their first visit, the girls were led along the street, and met various members of the community. Especially the children were excited – it doesn’t happen every day that white women from the UK come to see their homes. At the end of the street, the girls would find the leader of the community, a one-armed, elderly man, sitting on a mattress, playing with his pet monkey. Yes, a pet monkey chained to a pole. It must have been an surreal picture for Kate and Rachael.

Through a workshop the girls wanted to find out more about “A day in the Life of a gypsy” – what are their daily routines? What do they spend their money on? How do they earn money? What are their needs and wants? Kate and Rachael had come up with a couple of interactive exercises, mainly based on pictures and drawings, as not many members of the community are literate. The workshop was going to be held at the local temple, as this was a suitable gathering place.P1020007



Whilst waiting for the workshop participants to come, we already made some interesting encounters. A couple of older women decided to sit with us, non of them speaking English, but each of them eager to communicate. We gathered that they were looking after the cattle and walked around with a small heard all day. Then a young man on a motorbike and with a big shot gun hanging around his shoulder came by, curiously looking at the papers and posters we prepared for the workshop. He did not want to take part, but instead disappeared into the bushes, from which we would hear gun shots and the nervous chirping of birds for the rest of the afternoon. Then, after an hour of waiting, the workshop participants slowly trickled in and we were ready to start.




In the first exercise, Kate and Ryan explained what their days looked like, then asking the adults to replicate their daily routines through drawings. Each of us would sit in a group, guiding them through the exercise. At first we were worried that it would be hard to obtain information, due to the cultural barriers and possible judgement from both sides. However, the opposite occurred. It seemed that the men and women appreciated that there was someone interested in their lives, and were more than happy to share their stories with us.


We found that most people spend their day with domestic work, cleaning the house, cooking and looking after the children. The gypsies would collect waste and sell the plastic to make a small income. Some of the women also make jewelry with materials that they would get from Chennai. Children would go to school until they are about 14, as girls then get married and boys were looking to make an income.


In the next couple of exercises we asked the participants to draw out their income, expenditure and wants. It tuned out that they spend most of their money on food and household items, as we expected. Many of them wanted more money for clothes, shoes and sanitary products. A monthly income of Rs5000 (about £50) was their ideal, and would be about double of what they are making right now. To us it is shocking how a whole family is able to survive off £25 a month!




We concluded the workshop and exhausted dropped into the car. Kate and Rachael are now applying Human Centered Design techniques to find solutions to some of the community’s challenges. Listening to people’s stories and immersing in their culture and daily life is an important exercise of a change maker. Understanding the people you are designing for is crucial for developing desirable and sustainable ideas and projects. It also shows that often our assumptions and expectations are mislead by prior judgement. Going to the gypsy community, instead of meeting beautiful Esmeralda dancing around the fire, I found families in need of serious change.


Adopted and edited from: https://developmement.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/visiting-a-gypsy-community-in-tamil-nadu-india/

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