Welcome, my friends!

I am currently in India for my third visit to the Karaikudi projects. On past trips, Martin, my partner here, organized visits to many villages where formal presentations were given and I was expected to give a short speech – village after village after… The visits were lovely, but the formality of them made me feel separated from the villagers, and I didn’t feel I really grew to understand their lives or issues better. This year I asked Martin if we could skip the formalities and just meet informally to discuss what was on their hearts. I was still welcomed into each village with traditional practices, like adorning my hair with flowers, sprinkling turmeric water on my feet, children performing lively dances…, but the speeches were eliminated and instead we just talked. I had three separate meetings with the teachers, nurses, and tailoring students, and each evening I visited just one village (though 4 or 5 villages were represented in each meeting). This has proved a much more effective way to get to know them, and they me. There has been more laughter and heartfelt conversations.

The most SURPRISING thing I learned through these meetings is how many women still have to use bushes for bathrooms. Even in our poorest project areas around the world, the people at least have pit toilets, but not here. Of the 29 teachers & nurses I met with, 11 still are using a bush! As densely populated as India is, even in rural areas, I can’t imagine there is much privacy.

The most COMMON issue raised is the lack of water. Starting about 15 years ago, the monsoons became lighter and more intermittent, and starting 5 to 7 years ago they failed completely – a product of climate change. At first, these agricultural villagers purchased seeds and planted at the first signs of rain, but the seedlings soon shriveled and died. After two or three years in a row of failure, the men of the village had no choice but to migrate to other areas in search of unskilled labor jobs. Many work in the stone carving industry, in hotels, or as day laborers. Typically, half the men in each village are gone, and they come home just three times a year during major festivals and give a little money to their wives and children.

With their severe drop in income, the women can no longer afford to buy vegetables and meat to eat with their rice, so their nutritional health is declining. The wives, now essentially single mothers, seek jobs as construction laborers and pit diggers and other day laborer jobs. With no parents at home, children are much less focused on their studies, so their educational progress is declining. What water supplies they have are now polluted, so they must buy their drinking and cooking water from water trucks – a severe financial hardship. At least 19 of the men have returned home to die from AIDs – but not before infecting their wives.

It is no surprise, therefore, that an agricultural bore well is at the top of the list for these villagers! Each village has a tract of communally owned land that is divided among all the households for farming – perhaps 2-5 acres per family. An agricultural bore well next to the communal land would serve the entire village – typically 50 to 100 households – and would permit agriculture even with failing monsoons. The villagers form committees to manage the wells – charging each family a small fee for its use – and this money is used for maintenance and repairs to keep the wells functioning over time. Almost every village in our project area wants an agricultural bore well.

The most FUN issue raised came from the children. After all the adults had a chance to discuss their concerns and desires, a large group of children approached us and told us they, too, had a need. Such boldness among low-caste Indian children is very rare, so Martin was quite surprised and impressed with their assertiveness. These children have never been out of their remote rural village, but, I suppose seeing pictures of town life depicted in their school books, they want to see what life is like outside their village. When Martin told the children that could be arranged, they exploded with giddy excitement! Bore wells might be the most important need, but there is something absolutely delightful and satisfying about bringing unbridled joy into a community that is normally more known for its suffering. I can’t wait to see photos of their field trip! Coming in May…