Tribal Life

Posted November 6, 2009 from India
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I boarded a pretty uneventful bus ride, in comparison to my last one, on the way to Amravati. I have been corresponding with this Diocese about the farmer suicides for over a year just like Khammam. The Father who I had been speaking with had just as crazy of a schedule as I did and we could only arrange to be in the same place for just over twenty four hours.

Our first stop was in a tribal village just nine kilometers out of town but it felt like you were traveling back in history. Many tribal villages were formed by people being cast out into the forest by a society who did not want them. They have their own language and way of living completely apart from that of the villages and towns. Because they live in such a rural place the government has not put in electricity or running water lines. Until recently they have lived in thatched huts that provide no protection from the elements. The children were not wearing any clothes until a few years ago when the Diocese came to help out. The people and their children were directly exposed to mountain weather without any protection. With no running water these people do not bathe regularly which leads to suffering and even death from treatable diseases like diarrhea. The children were all sick with running noses and were very malnourished. There was one child who came up to see a picture I had taken of him on my camera and the director told me that he was ten…he resembled a five year old in the States. Then as we walked along through the village I saw their dilapidated school with walls falling down and missing roof pieces. The children can only receive an education to fourth standard (grade) in the village and then have to walk nine kilometers into town to go to a government funded school for tribals. Can you imagine telling children to walk nine kilometers on mountain roads twice a day to go to school, when they are barely surviving? The Diocese has managed to provide lots of building materials for new houses in the village. The houses built with these materials consist of two small rooms (one front room that leads into a bedroom) and a kitchen. They are made of cement and protect the inhabitants from the cold, heat, wind, sun exposure, etc. The children had never seen an American so we had about forty of them following us throughout the village as we walked through. There were big wood beams put together like swing sets in the middle of each alleyway of houses, the swings were simply hanging beams that the children would jump on. These swings seemed to swing them into another world of childhood away from the hardships they faced in daily life. When they were off the swings they were sneezing and coughing and had to work very hard around the village but when they were swinging they were smiling and free. As we continued to tour the village a woman was pointed out to me and the director told me she was pregnant. This could not be possible, this woman was smaller than me and would be giving birth soon! This really demonstrated the level of anemia and malnutrition that was occurring in this village. These children never had a fighting chance because their parents kept having children when they themselves were malnourished and anemic. We walked along further to find a man and his wife wrapping bundles of wood…the tribals cut the wood of the forest down and then sell it as firewood in town. They each had a bundle and told us that they would walk nine kilometers into town with these bundles on their head to sell them for forty rupees…that is equal to one dollar! These people live on less than a dollar a day and if anything happens to them physically they have no way to survive. I could not believe that someone would walk nine kilometers for one dollar nor could I believe they were capable in such a weakened physical state. We finished our tour of the village and headed back to the car where a mass of children gathered to catch one last glimpse of the foreigner.

After a short lunch break we were off to the next meeting which I was told was set up specifically for farmer widows. It took two hours to reach the village where the meeting would be held. The meeting convened in a small house unit that was part of a building of small homes (like apartments in the U.S. but they were all on the same level and much smaller than most apartments). To my surprise I walked in to both men and women sitting on the floor of the main room. At first the director and I thought that the men had accompanied the women who had come long distances to attend this meeting. Then later on in the meeting I found that they had lost family members to suicide and been called to the meeting by mistake. This was something that caught me completely off guard but I knew ethically I could not take information from all of these men when my focal point was to start with women. The city council members who had arranged the meeting quickly explained the mishap and told them that I had nothing to do with it. They were surprisingly ok with everything …and then it began to rain. I was so worried that these poor farmers would hate me for traveling so far to receive nothing and then have to walk home in the rain, but they were overjoyed! The men danced around the room and shook my hands with excitement. These villages had not had any rain yet this monsoon season and their crops were failing. They believed that their visitor had brought them rain…which appeared to be more help than any money I could ever provide to them. What was more concerning than this miscommunication at the meeting was the women. Most of the women I had met with so far were able to see beyond a life in agriculture to other professions like shops, hotels, buffaloes, etc. Every single woman I talked to that day said that if she could do any job she would work in agriculture. You could see how aged and weak these women were from this work where they made maybe a dollar a day. I could not believe that they did not have a dream job but the director soon told me that these people live day to day and do not think beyond that. It all made sense now…no wonder no one budgeted or had any idea of professions outside what they had seen in their village. These people lived to make it to pay time at the end of the day so they could eat that night. If they could eat by doing agriculture (whether it cut their life short by many years) they would do it until they couldn’t anymore. I left the meeting with a new perspective on the development of these women. Most of the women I had met to this point were involved in development programs prior to me meeting them but these women were fresh off the fields…they had no idea of the possibilities out there for them. This is a challenge that will take sometime to overcome as these women will not just accept jobs that are not a sure bet. We have to convince them that they can succeed at other things and that there are other jobs out there besides agriculture. Something else that was very shocking at this meeting was that a woman had brought her daughter with a heart problem to receive help. At first I thought there was another mishap with the invitations but I came to find out this woman was desperate for help. The woman herself was the size of a ten year old in the U.S. and her daughter was probably about ten years old but looked five or six. She was weak and could not stand for very long. Her eyes were not shiny and her skin was gray…you could see the effects of this health problem every minute she tried to stand in front of me. Unfortunately this is part of my work here because the government aid agencies that exist in the U.S. either are not present in India or do not always reach the villages. At this time because I was only researching there was nothing that I could do for this girl besides think good thoughts for her health and ask others to do the same. After pushing the car out of the mud in the pouring rain (imagine two nuns, a father, myself, and a bunch of people with mud up to our knees trying to push a Jeep out of a few feet of mud) we headed back to the Diocese building.

The next morning it was time to make the four hour drive to the airport…we made two stops along the way at businesses that the Diocese had helped women to start. The first business was a saree shop started by a widow. She had lost her husband to suicide and the Diocese had helped her to purchase materials for sarees and blouses to sell to her village. She now makes about forty to fifty rupees (approx. $1) a day and can feed her children. Her village was very unique and unlike any I had seen before. There were nice cement houses with furniture in them right next to thatch huts…usually a village was either full of nice houses or huts and if there were both I had never seen them right next to each other. The Director told me this was because the village was very old and that money had accumulated in the hands of some people and class divisions within the village were created. It seemed like a primitive town (instead of a village) with a high and low economic class but no middle class.

In the next village we found a woman who was running a fancy shop where she sold snacks, calling cards, bangle bracelets, etc. She was also making about a dollar a day to support herself after her husband committed suicide. They had been an upper middle class family prior to his suicide and now they were struggling to survive because most organizations only help the poorest of the poor. Now thanks to the Diocese they have this shop but still need to bring in more money to pay bills and eat adequately. The widow’s son who was in his mid twenties was there and expressed how much he wanted to work but could not find work in the village. Transportation outside the village to work would cost as much as he could make working, so it was pointless. Once again I was presented with the chain of problems found in village life…it seems that there is never one cause of a problem but many issues are intertwined to form each person’s story.

From this village we went to the sprawling city of Nagpur (to catch my flight back to Kerala) which was huge! I even learned some new vocabulary on my way to the airport: Bazaar= Mall and grocery store Coolie= Porter at the airport Over take= To pass someone in a car Advocate= Lawyer

India tip of the day: Don’t believe everything the airport staff tells you…especially if it involves fees!

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