ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sons and Daughters of the Land

The Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh, India, maintains its own distinct culture in a land driven by caste.

THULSIPAR, Madhya Pradesh, India – I was gently taken by the hands, led to a rope-strung cot covered with a woven rug and invited to take a seat. While the women of the household chatted, messengers were dispatched to a neighboring village to gather its women for a meeting. They soon arrived, veiled in saris of dark blues, greens and browns. Walking by they giggled, covering their faces with their saris. A fair skinned, blue-eyed brunette who landed up in a jeep is not a customary sight in these parts. Thulsipar is a remote village in Silwani, a tahsil, or subdistrict, in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Even in the extreme heat – that day the temperature reached 113 degrees – this group of women huddled together, shoulder to shoulder. There was a strong sense of community among them.

Sisters Ancy and Kusum, members of the Sisters of Jesus, were in the village that afternoon to discuss the idea of holding a women’s education camp. I was pleased when the village women agreed to such an idea; I was there to get a feel for the place and develop a rapport with the people.

As I sipped hot sweetened tea, my hostesses, to the repetitious beating of drums, sang in high-pitched harmony hymns praising Ram and Siva, Hindu gods of whom stories of great love and valor are told. A woman approached me with a small bowl full of red tika powder, which she smeared, in the shape of a teardrop, on my forehead – a gesture of welcome. As the women lost themselves in the chants, I took notice of the glowing faces of my hostesses as they, in turn, accepted the swath of red powder. Their warmth and openness surprised me; they were happy to have me there. I organized my gear and began to take my photographs. They did not miss a beat.

Once the music and dance faded, a ceremonial lamp lit and a short speech delivered, Father John Vazhappilly, C.M.I., a stocky priest from the southern Indian state of Kerala, addressed the assembly:

“Tell me something only women can do,” he suggested with a twinkle in his eye.

Puzzled faces stared at him for a moment until one woman suggested, “wash dishes!”

“I have seen men wash dishes,” the priest responded.

“Make roti” someone shouted from the crowd.

“I can make roti and I am a man,” he replied, drawing laughter from a group of women who must have imagined this man of God squatting over an open coal fire, flipping roti, a flat, round unleavened bread made from wheat.

Except for some hushed voices, the crowd grew quiet. The sisters remained in the background.

“What about having babies? Only women may give birth to children,” said the priest. “Women,” he continued, “have a special shakti (power).”

Sisters Ancy and Kusum then taught the women a song with a message stressing the unique strength of womanhood.

Rural Development Service Society – Father John Vazhappilly directs the activities of the Searmau Center of the Rural Development Service Society, or RDSS, which was established in Silwani in 1980 to improve the living conditions of the rural poor, most of whom belong to the Gond tribe.

To implement and monitor the society’s impressive list of programs, RDSS is organized into four regional centers. Each center is administered from a village: Silwani, Pratapgarh, Bamhori and Searmau. Each center is guided by a director who works with a team of professionals and volunteers.

A list of the programs offered – development projects for women and children, educational and health programs, vocational training, agricultural development, infrastructure rehabilitation and self-help programs – fails to define the depth and impact of these services.

Aspects of these diverse programs are implemented throughout, although individual centers emphasize certain projects. Silwani, which serves as the administrative hub of RDSS, stresses rural industry support and vocational training, including courses and shops in batik, printing and sewing. Pratapgarh focuses on community health and the education of girls. Women’s development issues and the education of girls are stressed in Bamhori. And, in Searmau, a boardinghouse shelters boys; agricultural pilot projects are introduced and women’s education camps are held.

The vision of RDSS is based on “respect and understanding of the Gond culture and traditions and an appreciation of the social, psychological and economic problems that they are facing,” writes Father Jacob Peenikaparambil, C.M.I., Vice President of RDSS.

“Inevitably [these programs] will involve a measure of disturbance in relation to traditional beliefs and practices,” he continues. “So in the implementation, the confidence of the people – in particular the understanding and goodwill of the elders – is of the highest importance…. Tribals should feel a sense of belonging, that these programs are for them.”

Origins of RDSS – Although RDSS was registered as a development agency in 1980, its origins date to 1975, when the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Syro-Malabar Catholic community of priests entrusted with the Diocese of Sagar, established a branch of the diocesan social service society in Silwani. In cooperation with the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, a Syro-Malabar community of women religious, Father Diego Kodankandath developed a fine rapport with the villagers in the subdistrict, establishing a lasting relationship built on trust.

With the support of Bishop Clemens Thottungal, C.M.I., a comprehensive plan for improving the lives of the tribals was developed. By 1980, an independent agency, with the Bishop of Sagar as patron, was accredited by the state. Today, RDSS collaborates with agencies as diverse as the Ministry of Welfare (Government of India), the Social Welfare Advisory Board of Madhya Pradesh State, CNEWA and Catholic Relief Services. The Kubel Foundation, a private German group, has been active in planning and executing RDSS projects from the beginning.

Gond adivasi – Tribals are the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, holding a unique but precarious position in Indian society. Although India’s present constitution recognizes their unique identity, tribals, or adivasi (in Hindi, adi means original; vasi, inhabitants) have historically been pressured to accept assimilation by India’s dominant Hindu majority. Nevertheless, most live in remote areas of the forests, highlands and plains, placing themselves outside the Hindu caste system and its cultural milieu.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest percentage of tribals among India’s states. Perhaps more than 20 percent of the state’s population are “sons and daughters of the land,” the majority of these tribals belonging to the Gond tribe. Estimates vary, but the Gond constitute at least 30 percent of the population of Silwani.

Basic literacy in the Gond community hovers around 10 percent. For women, however, Sister Ancy cited a figure near two percent. And though most speak the Gondi dialect, an unwritten language, Gondi is slowly being replaced by Hindi. The Gond in these parts have also adopted portions of the Hindu faith and ethos.

For centuries the Gond claimed the land in this remote district as their own. In the mid-1880s, however, the colonial British government enacted “land reforms,” which upended the Gond’s traditional, but heretofore undocumented, claim to the land.

Agriculture remains the primary occupation of Gond male society; animal husbandry, wood cutting, fruit collecting and honey gathering are secondary occupations.

Women carry out the traditional female roles of nurturers, household laborers, wives and mothers. Their worlds are shaped around men: fathers first, then husbands and finally, sons.

Women and children – As with most human development programs throughout the world, the Syro-Malabar congregations that have directed and implemented the work of RDSS have discovered that when women are provided with opportunities to improve their lives, this gain is passed on to their families. Access to women in this traditional society, however, is difficult.

“When we first arrived in Thulsipar we told the people: ‘we have left everything at home to serve you,’” Sister Ancy related one evening. “We were welcomed there, but cautiously.”

“Sisters may go to any comer of a village. But if a priest goes, then the women immediately cover their heads and that is it,” this pioneer of a nun continued.

“We came for very informal visits and they asked us to tell our story. They were attracted by our lifestyle,” Sister Ancy said.

Eventually, these Sisters of Jesus, a Syro-Malabar congregation founded to work specifically with tribals in the Diocese of Sagar, won the trust of a few women in the community, who then began to mediate with the rest. These informal meetings continued for six months, until Sister Ancy asked the women if they desired a school for their children.

“Sometimes it might take a year or two to reach a point in this kind of relationship,” she stated. “But this village had had more contact with a nearby town.”

The sisters and village women agreed to meet with the sub-panj, or village leader, to propose the idea of creating an informal school, or balwadi. The village leaders responded favorably and a small day-care school was established.

Educating the children and youth of the interior villages is a top priority of RDSS. More than 30 of these informal schools, scattered throughout Silwani tahsil, provide the basics in reading and writing for more than 800 children.

The creation of these informal schools also permits the women to supplement the family income by working for a few hours outside the family home.

After the sisters establish trust with the women, workshops follow, the topics of which are requested by the women. Issues such as clean water supply, basic hygiene and health care, access to government services and assistance, education for children and civil rights and obligations are regularly discussed.

In order to participate fully in these programs, a woman must not only state her name, but the name of her husband as well. This may sound elementary but, as Sister Ancy explained, an unwritten rule in Gond society does not permit a woman to utter the name of her husband:

“They believe their husbands are everything in life. Husbands are living gods.”

A significant aspect of RDSS programs for women and children are the approximately 30 creche facilities, serving nearly 900 children under the age of five. Nutritious food is served daily and periodic medical checkups are provided.

Once children outgrow the balwadi, they are welcomed at RDSS-administered boardinghouses, where they continue their education in a formal environment.

CNEWA has provided significant grants for the expansion of the Pushpa Boarding-house in Silwani. Pushpa, which houses boys and girls, 76 of whom are enrolled in our Needy Child Sponsorship Program, provides the children with the opportunity to further their education.

Faith in the future – “The tribals used to call themselves ‘kings of the forests,’” writes Father Jacob.

“The forest was their home and land was considered their mother. They lived their lives with the seasons, the rhythms of nature, and adopted their pace of life accordingly.”

By the mid-19th century, these forests were cleared, destroyed by the illegal mining of the rich natural resources hidden therein. The forests had not only protected the tribals, but provided for them.

The government of India has special provisions in its constitution for India’s tribes, however they have reaped only nominal benefits.

“With creative ambition,” Father Jacob states, “they will aspire to improve their living conditions.” But, the Syro-Malabar priest concludes, echoing a perpetual theme of the Rural Development Service Society, “Outside agencies can help them, but the ultimate solution lies in their self-confidence and faith.”

Cheryl Sheridan, a photojournalist who specializes in Asian topics, spent two weeks in Silwani.

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