Claire O Sullivan, journalist with The Irish Examiner, blogs about her recent experiences visiting Odisha, India, to see Trócaire’s work there.
As our driver painstakingly navigated around the cavernous potholes that made up most of the sandy road to the hillside village, a faint drumming sound rose in the distance.
As we edged closer, the thud intensified becoming more rhythmic and the team of journalists and Trócaire staff strained to see what lay ahead. A group of smiling tribal Indian women, dressed in saris of gold, yellow, turquoise and fuschia, were dancing towards us arms laden with garlands of marigolds and posies of wild flowers. Behind them were two drumming boys and a young man somewhat lost in music as he too danced and played a welcome song on the Indian trumpet, the duri. This was a traditional Indian tribal welcome.
Caption: Tribal women in Odisha. Photographer: Justin Kernoghan
These tribal people have seen their traditional way of life desecrated over one generation. Illegal logging, mining and the ‘slash and burn’ approach of rural Indian people desperate to find more land for cultivation have wiped out the vast majority of the forestry that once carpeted Southern Odisha. But these forests weren’t just home to these tribes; they were their source of food as generation after generation passed on knowledge about what berries to pick, where to get the best roots and what leaves would provide nutrition or heal them when they were sick. With the forests gone, a people who had rarely ventured outside the forest were left to all but starve.
But during our hours in the village, we heard story after story from these men and women about how the Trócaire team, working on the ground with the South Odisha Voluntary Action (SOVA), had brought huge ‘change to their lives’. People repeatedly spoke of being ‘blind’ before SOVA arrived, of not knowing anything about the outside world and of the financial, housing and legal supports that local government could provide for them – if only anyone bothered to tell them.
That’s the Trócaire way in India. Trócaire and SOVA staff don’t go out and advocate themselves for the rights of excluded people. Instead, they help establish community organisations in poor villages teaching these committees about all that can be achieved if they work together to improve their future; if they ‘mobilise’ like a small army to ensure the State can’t exclude them any more. For this village ‘mobilising’ meant farmers securing the title of the land they’d farmed for years, the accessing of state grants so the most vulnerable could have houses built and the establishment of a ‘self help’ group which not unlike an Irish credit union sees the tribal women saving a nominal sum each week.
These women all had to have the concept of saving explained to them on first day. Planning ahead was not a cultural norm. Now the savings are also used as an emergency fund if somebody vulnerable in the village encounters unexpected problems such as the sudden death of a family member.
And there’s the work done to create livelihoods for these people: teaching them how to grow vegetables for their own use and for resale and different methods to increase crop yield and quality so the number of ‘hungry months’ where there are no crops all but disappears.
It’s incredible to see how with empowerment, these communities can flourish. In Ireland, we would imagine that tribes would have a strong community ethos. It’s quite the opposite. As one of the women in the village told us: “Before we lived beside each other, now we live with one another”.