why is the doll walking and talking? – life in rural tamil nadu

I’ve just returned from a wonderful 11 days in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is the southern most state in India on the Eastern coast. This is also the area that was hit by the Tsunami in December 2004. I started my journey in Chennai for a 3 day “Community Exchange Review”. One of the things that Dasra does is brings communities and NGOs together to learn from one another, rather than think that we are the experts. They know their areas and the work they do and are best able to share that knowledge with other groups similar to themselves. For one of our grants, we have conducted 6 community to community learning exchanges — so this was a “review” of those – bringing together all of the stakeholders to find out what has been done since the exchange, what ways we could make it better, etc. It was interesting – but difficult for me to follow as it was all in Tamil (the local language; which is completely different than Hindi).
After this, I went with our Tamil Nadu Coordinator Vana and a potential donor to see several projects that we work with. The first was called ROSE and was located in Puddhokotti. We visited women self help groups that are formed to help the women save money, fight for their rights and attempt to uplift their communities. We visited two different groups – one that has worked to buy some land so that they can cut the rock on it to sell (by cut I mean, with a sledge hammer – getting it into small peices to be used for construction works throughout the state), the other was a group who has been formed to work on issues affecting their village. After only one day/night there, we headed to Madurai. I had been there before with Tina almost 3 years ago. I still remembered most of it, which was shocking considering I had only been there for 2 days in the past.
I stayed in a new area that had the best coffee stall ever! I am not normally a coffee drinker, but for some reason I love the South Indian filter coffee. so good! I went there every morning before we set off to the villages.
Outside of Madurai is a town called Usilimpatti, which is known for high rates of female infanticide (killing born or unborn female children). I wasn’t terribly impressed with the organization, but was very moved by what goes on in this area and how the NGOs are trying to educate people to stop this practice. Its done all over India and has been going on for a long time. In 1993 a law was passed forbidding doctors to reveal the gender of unborn babies. This hasn’t stopped anyone though – the rate of female to male children has continued to drop in India since that law. In 2001, it was at 927 females to 1000 males. One of the reasons this is done is because of the dowry system (where the parents of females must pay the male’s family in order to have them married). Often the prices are ridiculously high and people cannot afford it so rather than put themselves at financial risk later on, they abort female babies. so sad.
Then I visited Vana’s organization, which works with Dalit children in rural areas, providing education and to some extent lessons on rights. (Dalits are considered “untouchable” in the Indian Caste System. This system was outlawed but continues to thrive in villages and even in most cities). Here i was able to interact with some truly lovely children who were all very excited to see a foreigner!
Instead of having a day off, we had to take the overnight bus to another small town in Nagapattinum district. Here I was able to meet with several organizations working with tsunami victims. The work here was very interesting. most of the projects we saw worked with Dalits in agriculture or with fisherman. It was interesting to see what has happened since most of hte larger NGOs have left. They have left people with new homes, new boats and a feeling of “expectancy” — they think that NGOs are there to hand out things to them. Of course the ones we work with are not like that and follow the motto “it is better to teach someone to fish so they can feed themselves for life, than to give them a fish for only one meal” They have faced quite a bit of difficulty in getting people’s support for their programs, but it is slowly coming around. And it was interesting to see that people are still living in temporary housing – which consists of tin shacks. New homes are being built, but they are being built 3 km from the shore, which most are opposed to since their livlihood is fishing. So many of the people we met have refused to move and are staying in their temporary housing.
And then on to my favorite of all — a programme working with Muslim girls who were affected by the tsunami. This programme is teaching the girls how to do tailoring and embroidery. Since in the Muslim custom, women are not usually allowed out of the home much, these skills can enable them to work from home but still make a livable income. The girls are from 14-22 years. They were really quite amazing girls. Very shy and reserved for a bit, but once I sat down on the floor with them and tried to talk they really started opening up. It was so hard to leave after spending the day with them. I really became attached to several of them. The girls even put me in a burkha! I actually really one — even though it was hot, it felt nice because it was tight around my head.
The trip was really informative and just a great experience all together. One of our Tamil Nadu team members, Parthiban was my guide, translator, body guard, server and of course friend. We had a really good time together which made the trip even better. He was amazed at how people stared at me constantly and reacted to me. One little girl even said “Why is the doll talking and walking?”. Haha.. This completely explains the varied reactions I get from children throughout India. Some are absolutely terrified of me, while others love me right away. On one of our visits to a home in the rural areas, the family had a poster of a white baby on the wall — I guess for decoration. But this also gave me the sense of why these children feel frightened when something they have only seen as inanimate objects are actually alive!
Throughout my trip the NGOs we met asked for more and more assistance, so hopefully I will be back there for another 2 weeks in May. I really enjoyed it, even though I was boiling hot the entire time. I checked the weather on the plane yesterday coming back to Mumbai and it said that Chennai (the big city in TN) was 38 degrees (100.4 degrees farenheight) with 64% humidity! Mumbai was only at 28 (84 F) with 44% humidity — which I thought was unbearable when I left! Now it feels nice in Mumbai — but I know it won’t last.. I will be complaining about it again in a few days as soon as the “cool” feeling wears off and I get more used to it.
So thats all from here.. I could write for days on this trip, but that gives you the jist of it….

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