Sunday, July 18, 2010


My first field visit.

What an experience.

Tuesday 13th July:

We travelled on the 4.30am bus from Bhubaneswar on the morning of Rath Yatra, the most important festival for honouring Lord Jagganath, the God of Hindu Gods.

On arrival we went to visit the Santali tribe in the village of Digposi approx 8km from Karanjia. The village is divided into 4 hamlets and I have the good luck to spend time in 2 of them over the few days.

I travelled with C who was known to the community so when we met an elderly lady holding a baby she welcomed us into her home. It turned out she is the wife of the Ward Member, the elected representative of that particular hamlet, who was inside in the courtyard weighing up a tiny amount of home grown vegetables so he could sell them. In total he had no more than Rs50 worth of produce.

Naturally being two white women we drew attention and within minutes we had approx 12 on-lookers from the immediate family. I was given the baby to hold. This is done if you want your baby to turn out like the person being asked to hold your baby. I’m sure this was a compliment to me, but it made me think about how they were comparing themselves to us. Are they happy, sad, envious of this difference? At this point I asked C to take a photo of me and this immediately triggered a request for more photos. The little girl is 5 months old and still has no name. It is traditional to name a child within 20 days, so I wonder if she was a boy would she have a name by now. 

They live in extremely basic houses. The pictures give you the impression that they have more than that. They are built from cow dung, and then painted. Some outside walls have local tribal art painted on them. Inside there is little but a few mattresses and I saw one bed.

The ladies lay out rice on the road front of their houses to dry in the sun, ensuring the chickens don’t take too much. After approximately 2 days the rice is then tread on to de-husk it so it can be eaten. Looking at the amount of rice on the roads I wonder how long it will last, particularly if it is to be used to make alcohol. Driving through the countryside we saw plenty of rice alcohol stills – made and sold by the women, drunk by the men.

During our few days around the village we questioned what people are paid for working in the paddy fields. We were told by the Ward Member it is Rs50 for both male and female which is the government recommended daily rate, but different women gave us different answers up to a difference of Rs for women and Rs100 for men.

Paddy is the main crop grown here, but this provides employment for only 3-4 months of the year. The local tribal families may have up to 2 acres of land, which sounds wonderful, but it is uncultivable if the rains don’t fall. As I write this the fields around me all look beautifully green and the women are working in the paddy fields, but only 25% of the expected rains have fallen, so it needs to be asked where this leaves the local families work-wise and food-wise for the coming year.

Wednesday 14th July:

Due to a sudden heavy downpour of rain on Wednesday afternoon we sheltered under the roof of an outside barn in the home of the local Santali Priest and spent time speaking with his wife and family. It was very interesting, if somewhat sad, learning about their way of life.  They have 3 children – a boy 8, a girl 6 and a baby boy just over a year old. Despite a father educated up to grade 3 (6 years old) and an illiterate mother the 2 older children attend school. However that seems to be where anything in common for a boy and a girl end. The girl, at 6 years old, is expected to fetch water daily from the local pump. Her container is small, but she still has to go. C and I both had a go at carrying the child’s water container on our heads. The six year old made it look easy, but we didn’t think so. At least it gave them some entertainment for a while. The container carried by her mother can hold up to 10litres of water. Her brother can cycle the family bike but she will never be taught how to. Her father collects timber for the fire using his bike, but if her mother collects the wood she will carry it on her head. She does not know how to cycle and seems to accept this.

When the rain finally stopped we walked back over to the other hamlet to attend a Santali wedding, just in time to see the marriage parade. The bride was being carried in a basket on the shoulders of approx six men and the groom sat on the shoulders on one other man.

Both threw rice at each other as they were carried around in circles. At one point the groom also ‘threw’ rice at his bride-to-be with his mouth. Then using some form of a grass brush they threw water at each other. Finally the circling stopped and the groom painted red vermillion on the bride’s forehead and in the parting of her hair (the sign of a married lady) and that was that. They were married.

A lot of the female wedding guests wore saris with Santali design, dyed in turmeric, which is meant to bring the couple good luck.

I was introduced to the Sarpanch, a lady, the elected head of the Gram Panchayat (representing approx 5000 villagers) who has responsibility for the villages modernisation, and the Tribal Chief, who is responsible for all matters cultural, was pointed out to me. I wonder if they ever clash.

Thursday 15th July:

In the morning we went to Golkund village to see an Early Childhood Care and Development centre (ECCD). It is open 6am – 10am Monday – Saturday. We met the coordinator and some of the children who attend. The centre is for children 3- 6 years and currently is attended by 6 girls and 12 boys. The village has a total of 32 school age children and all go to school.

In the ECCD the children are given a very basic breakfast of jura and mixed wheat powder. The walls were brightly painted with important message pictures eg a bed with a mosquito net, how to wash hands etc. Initially the children were very shy and when I tried to say hello to the first group who came to see us as we arrived they all ran away. But bit by bit they got curious about my camera and their pictures on it. They had never seen a camera before. They told us their names, with a lot of encouragement and over time we played some games with them which were a great experience.

We later returned to the the Ward Member to learn about the construction of the local water tank. Only half of the houses currently have access to running water. Latrines had been previously built but were no longer of any use and people were returning to their old habits. The Ward Member told us that all of the community had agreed to contribute labour (5 days) but during the water tower’s construction some pulled out. The funding for the materials was provided jointly by CYSD and another NGO, Gram Vikas, who are experts in sanitation projects. The shortage in funds means that currently over 65 families out of 105 cannot get pipe connections to their homes. This needs to be completed soon otherwise the villagers will lose faith in modernisation.

After lunch we went to visit what is becoming a model private school for girls in 8th, 9th and 10th grade. This school only has 3 classrooms and is attended by 150 girls, 100 of whom are full-time residents. They are mainly tribal girls who would normally be expected to drop out of school around this age. The advantage of this school is that the six teachers are all from the local community so they can go speak to parents about the benefit of education. Some of the residential girls have come from miles away. They do pay fees  - Rs 50 per month for grade 10, Rs 40 per month for grade 9 and Rs 30 per month for grade 8. This covers their meals, books and accommodation.
Meals- they share the cooking themselves
Books – they share them as they don’t have enough
Accommodation  - approx 45 share the floor space in each of 3 small rooms that also contain their personal belongings. They don’t yet have mosquito nets, but that money has been issued by CYSD and the nets will be bought soon.

The school also has a kitchen garden that the girls attend. They all looked very happy when we were there. It is clearly run by a great set of teachers. The teachers themselves funded an external wall and will fund a door to keep the girls safe at night.

The good news is that Plan International has agreed to fund another 15 of these schools, thanks to the dedication of the teachers and the support received. The six teachers have even funded a security wall from their own meagre wages.

On our journey back to the office we stopped in the village of Osanomani and called into a local house to see their recently built external toilet. It felt a bit odd just walking into someone’s property without an invitation, but M from CYSD was known to the family and he explained to them that he wanted to show us their new toilet. Out of the 75 families in the village 41 currently have new toilets and the rest are being built.

I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to visit Karanjia and meet the dedicated NGO workers and some of the local tribal people. However this week has left me with more questions than answers about –
  • the tribal people themselves
  • their way of life
  • the women in particular and their acceptance of their ‘place’ in society
  • a system that allows this poverty to continue
  • a system that replies so heavily on the generosity of NGOs to do what they should be doing themselves.

On our way back to Bhubaneswar on Saturday evening as we drove through the Simpali forest I saw a sign that was new to me. In Ireland we have signs saying ‘Danger. Cows crossing’. This one said ‘Beware. Wild Elephants cross here’. Unfortunately I didn’t see any. They were all sheltering in the in the dense forest waiting patiently for the paddy to be fully grown before they come out for a hefty meal.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Birthday Blog

I’ve been so interested recently in when the monsoon will start, how heavy the rains will be, by how much will the temperature drop, I forgot to blog about my birthday.

As I was on a train to Balangir on June 21st, my birthday was celebrated on Saturday 19th June along with the other Jen here in Bhubaneswar.

Jen G’s birthday falls on the 22nd so since we first met last December we agreed that we would hold a joint celebration.

I had been out sick from work the previous week as I had pulled a muscle in my back trying to move a gas cylinder (the joys of being a volunteer) so my name-sake kindly offered to take responsibility for the party preparations. This was definitely a good thing. Jen G is a far more talented chef than I am (not that I can actually call myself a chef). She was ably assisted by her Sous Chef A. All I had to do was turn up at the right time.

It was a great evening. All the Bhubaneswar volunteers got together. We had party hats and balloons. We had veg and non-veg dishes. We even had a few beers. And P played the guitar.
And as with all good parties we even had a birthday cake – mind you ‘Jen’ became ‘Jain’ on the cake. And of course we ate the cake in traditional Indian style – ensuring a bit was rubbed into everyone’s face.

It was a great evening. I’m not very much a party person, particularly when it comes to my own birthday, but I really enjoyed the evening. Thank you everyone.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Raining Cats and Dogs?

So, finally I got caught for the first time since arriving in India 8 months ago in a substantial rain shower on Thursday evening. I didn’t mind as I thought it was the start of monsoon and that would mean the temperatures would start to drop so in fact I was delighted. It has been a bit cooler in recent days but the humidity seems to be rising in the evenings  - this was not part of the plan. However the rain only lasted about an hour and that was it. So if I’m honest I was a bit disappointed.

But I have realised that my ‘raining cats and dogs’ umbrella will not keep me dry when the heavy rains start to fall. I predict a season of evening sessions of washing clothes, particularly trousers, coming up. The era of a weekly wash load is about to end.

I had been out after work, meeting friends for coffee and we had noticed lighting in the distance. As it was quite faint I thought the rain would end up someplace else, but half way home the heavens opened and that was that. Not a good idea to have been wearing white trousers. Due to the volume of construction currently taking place here in Bhubaneswar the roads are laden with sand, often making it feel like I should be on a beach. Of course sand and rain mix into mud. And then the lack of foot paths leads to lots of puddles and dirty trouser legs.

The temperature here for the last few days has certainly been dropping. is predicting a mere comfort level of 38 degrees Celsius for today (Friday 2nd July). That’s at least 10 degrees cooler than it has been. Bhubaneswar is blessed with a cooling breeze that starts most days by lunchtime. The disappointing thing about this is that in the evening the humidity rises, often up to 80%, and then it’s back to feeling like the heat of the summer with the sweat dripping down my back even though I’m sitting under a fan (no air con unfortunately).

It did rain for three days solid last week (23rd/ 24th/ 25th June) but as I was in Balangir I was not here to experience it. So for me Thursday night’s rain was my start of the monsoon (I think  - it’s difficult to know really as it’s not at all what I had imagined). We have just had the hottest summer on record, so maybe we’re about to experience the driest monsoon season on record. My colleagues were certain the rains would start gushing down on 15th June. It amazed me how precise they could be. But alas, they were wrong.

However, looking out the window now I do suspect that I’ll be doing my ‘Singing in the Rain’ song and dance routine, just like Bing Crosby, in the not too distant future.

Just as I finish writing this the skies have opened and it is pouring down outside supported by a symphony of thunder and lightning. I hope it stops by 5.30pm…….