How a visit to an obscure Himalayan village proved that my street knowledge of villagers is all wrong

'Himalayan' Buffalo
‘Himalayan’ Buffalo

In fact, it’s all blah. I was invited to Dunda village (Uttarakhand, India) by a colleague who heads ‘Community Engagement’ through the school I work for. These service projects, a collaboration between a hospital, an NGO and my school is a mutually beneficial arrangement between villages and us; mostly, providing opportunities to our students; exposing and sensitizing them to village life, actively engaging them in bringing about change, and hopefully impacting them for life.

Most of these projects are student-driven. They are instrumental in replacing destroyed irrigation systems, roofs, in some cases, houses and providing employment. Besides providing training in revival of more eco-friendly farming, animal husbandry, poultry farming, construction techniques and use of poly houses, building a brand new primary school, creating sand-based water filters  and benefiting lives in other small ways. But this post isn’t what is being done and planned for the village but it’s about my undoing!

Green harvest of the Himalayas
Green harvest of the Himalayas

The familiarization trip in a  glossed-over-by-rain landscape was a great out of office experience. The sound of gushing waterfalls and paddy fields were a sight for sore eyes.  In spite of all the green cover we could see where last year’s landslides had covered up fields with rocks and rubble, devastated irrigation channels overnight destroyed the livelihood of several villagers.

I always thought it was impossible to get two neighbouring villages to agree on anything.

There were 2 villages gathered under one roof that day, representing around 75 families. Though voicing their concerns rather rambunctiously at first, they simmered down to discussing and making decisions on their own.

An alcove originally used for oil lamps in an himalayan village-home
An alcove originally used for oil lamps in a Himalayan village-home

I  believed  a woman has no voice in an  Indian village

The head of the village/gram pradan who is a  young woman chaired the meeting while lots of other women attended.  They are no less vocal than their menfolk. I found out just how hard their lives are;  even basic necessities like sanitary napkins are beyond their reach, making it almost impossible to venture too far from home when they’re menstruating. Plans are on to teach them to make low-cost yet hygienic and eco-friendly sanitary napkins. The younger girls, like all young girls, aspire for more. “English-coaching” and tailoring skills are part of their bucket list.

I was of the opinion that the  ‘caste system’ in villages is set in stone

What really made me sit up and take notice was the fact that these villagers whose lives are steeped and driven by caste equations were nonchalantly nodding their heads in agreement when it came to the ‘right’ to education. They promised us that the new primary school would be open to any child from Dunda and the neighbouring villages.

Was it the collaboration between the facilitators that in turn triggered the collaboration between the villagers? I will never know for sure but it was rather unexpected to see them take a common stand. Perhaps once in a while one  needs to visit a village to look at life afresh. 

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