Friday, February 12, 2010

The Challenge

Hi Friends. Please know that a very important person in my life had a birthday yesterday, Feb. 12th. His name is Don and he is my Dad. You’re always in my thoughts and prayers, Dad. I love you very much, and have a safe road trip home this week.

Last Sunday is still with me. It was the second full day with Dan and Rob, and Puthumai saw it as a great opportunity to expose us to rural West Bengal and the Santhal Tribe. They are one of many groups in India designated as a ‘scheduled tribe’. In the taxi on our way to one of the small hamlets, Shubhra and Puthumai explained that the Indian Constitution ends with something like an appendix, called a ‘schedule’. It identifies which groups receive preference or protection laid out in earlier sections of the constitution, thus ‘scheduled castes’ and ‘scheduled tribes’. I originally assumed it was somewhat derogatory, and am still unsure as to what connotations it carries with mainstream groups in India.

The previous post shows a few photos of our visit, so feel free to use them as a reference. The real photographer on our day trip was Rob, and I’ll post some of his photos as soon as they become available.

We visited two hamlets, which (I think) are just groupings of huts and houses too small to be called a village. Almost twenty-four hours earlier Puthumai showed up on the doorstep of CKS with some of my dearest friends from home, Rob and Dan. We all had a full day of exuberance, laughing, disbelief, joking, celebrating, sharing, excitement, exploring, and so on. Visiting the Santhals did something to all that. It was disconcerting to float between that spirit and one of a much sadder reality that surrounded us. The night before, we enjoyed a well portioned meal, plenty of laughs, and even a few beers to top it off. It wouldn’t be stretching it to guess that the cost of that meal was equivalent to what a Santhal family’s spends on food for six months or more. There were constant reminders of the disparity between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Dan alone is a great example. He is a 6’3’’, healthy, strong person with clean teeth and no tapeworms. Imagine the amount of resources of all kinds it has taken to get him from 7lb8oz baby Dan to his current adult state. This example applies to anyone in the US. Even struggling families can (although not easily) find ways to put nutritious meals on the table, to receive regular dental and medical care, and safe housing. We are so blessed in the US. So many people in the world have never seen such plenty. Dan kept mentioning that around 60% of Indians live in slums. I’m assuming this only includes metropolitan slums, not under-developed villages. That’s six-hundred million people living in very trying conditions every single day, in India. Not to mention the rest of the world.

Another thing that struck me was a traveling evangelical Indian preacher’s reactions to it all. We bumped into him when visiting one of the family homes, and at first he talked about how reading the Bible has changed his life and how important his studies have been. But when we started to walk away and say goodbye he began speaking openly about how the people there were living like animals. He said that exact phrase several times: like animals. I wasn’t sure if he was accusing them, angry at higher powers, or mad at us. Maybe it was the case that they did live like that, and that my hour long visit wasn’t enough to see how things truly were. Either way, it rocked me to hear. What I perceived throughout the visit was a group of dignified people living in difficult conditions. Was it pure ignorance and naiveté to be agitated by this man? If I saw the dignity, was I being insensitive to the squalor?

It would be easy to go on like this, and I’m sorry to do it. Of course, this isn’t news to anyone and I’m not trying to claim guilt. But there is value in articulating it, and I thank you for hearing me out. The last thing the IDIP program needs is for experiences like these to be lost on account of my shrinking short term memory.

Throughout the visits a wide range of thoughts and emotions came and went. It was easy to remain in a state of awe and wonder at how different these people lived. Sadly enough, the realities of their lives were kept at a safe and novel distance from my world. We did get to step inside some of the homes, see how the one water pump for the whole village worked, and watch men work in the fields. But I knew lunch would be on the table in a few hours and that my malaria pills were sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I knew I was safe, and that we didn’t have to make a twenty kilo bag of rice feed my family for six months. Our worlds remained apart.

Even in the midst of such bleak realities, there’s a beauty in it all. Of course, the physical beauty– their decorated homes, clothing, endless fields, little babies, energetic and curious kids, and happy cows. But there’s also beauty in what the future holds for the Santhals. We met a young man in one of the hamlets who spoke a bit of English and was full of smiles to have us there. Aside from that, he was learning biology, chemistry, and physics. What a world of difference he will be able to make in his community? If he is able to get a job someday and meet with moderate success, who is to say he won’t come back and teach or even start a school? Furthermore, these two hamlets are targets for one of Puthumai’s sponsorship programs, which supports the development of entire villages by helping individual families. It is still in the works, but will ensure that families have the capacity to feed, immunize, and educate their children. To me, this is beautiful. Making sure that kids can go to school near their own village so they don’t work in rice paddies their whole lives and remain indebted to the same landlord their parents were, and so they can feed their families more than two meals of rice and lentils a day, so they can enjoy sanitation systems, so they can flourish.

*I apologize for the inconsistent font sizes. I've been having troubles editing.

Puthumai showing us the village well.

The lines three lines running perpendicular to the rest were illegally placed there by villagers. It is very common. They risk being electrified, having their homes burn down, and retribution from the government.

A beautiful and dignified family outside a mud house. In front is a typical village stove, which is built into the mud flooring and fueled with wood.

Rice paddies leased and worked by villagers. We saw a few very young children working in the fields alongside adults.

The young man was telling Dan, Puthumai, and I that the pond in the background was were the village washed dishes and clothing, cleaned themselves, and defecated.

Puthumai was showing us around one of the houses. He was pointing out that these people had a few stainless steal vessels and utensils, making them one of the richest families in the hamlet.

This was the upstairs to the house. The floor was simply bamboo slats. Puthumai advised us not to walk on it because we would have fallen through. What does that say about our size/weight/diet compared to the residents of the house?

A nice photo. They are sitting on the side of a mud house, which need to be completely destroyed and remade every five years. Imagine having to do that where we live.

A larger mud home being built. The construction takes place in stages; adding a fresh layer as soon as the previous one dries. Only mud and a small amount of bamboo is used. No bricks.

This one makes me smile. Puthumai and his fans.

This is Dan standing next to a structure made of paddy, which is what the plant is called before the rice grains are stripped from it. These structures act as storage while it dries.

Thanks again for your patience, and for hearing me out. There’s a lot coming at us IDIP’ers. For me, sharing bits and pieces of the experience seems like one of best ways to process it all. Take care everyone, you’re always in my thoughts.




  1. Jeff! I'm so amused by your journeys! I love reading to hear what you are up to. I just spoke to Dan today and it sounds like you are truly living out an incredible experience. I look forward for you to come home so we can get some breakfast and catch up. Hope all is well. I'm thinking about ya bud!!

  2. Nice one Jeff... It made an interesting reading...