Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where did the three months go?

It's November 29th. This is remarkable because I suddenly realize I will be going home in two weeks.
The rice has grown from green shoots reaching to my knees to drooping golden heads that brush my shoulders. Everywhere both men and women are stooped in the fields, harvesting. In a way, this is my best way of marking time's passage in a land where I'm unfamiliar with the seasons. There are other clues: the rains have stopped, mercifully taking the leeches with them. The river has dropped, revealing more carvings of gods in the black rock. Areca nuts are being laid out to dry. How much I would give for a whole year here—to see the seasons go around, to have a hand in the very cyclic agriculture of the Malnad. “I wish you are here in January, Sarah,” Manoramakka says to me. “That is when we plant vegetables in the paddy-field, and all my friends come, and we...we just laugh all the time.”

I'm searching for the answers to two questions. The first is, should I leap into international agroecology, into an attempt to insure that those agricultural cultures that are still holding on keep the threads of knowledge, community, and land woven together? Or should I go home and work to preserve the integrity of the place that raised me to love the land as I do, to re-weave some of those frayed threads?

The second is, if I am taking the international agroecology road, do people want to be farmers? Or do people want it all done by machine? Will there always be children who grow up like me, who find that land-work is laid in the foundations of their souls, who are happiest when up to their elbows in compost or racing the dusk to get seeds planted? I have found people like this here. But not young people. India is intent on getting its youth into six-day school weeks and then into high-paying IT jobs. And I can't say I blame those who do go that route—you can do so much more with money than you can without it. So this, too, will have to change, the fact that farmers are poor by profession.

Does anyone else find it strange that we pay the people whose jobs are most necessary—the people who grow our food, make the bricks and planks that build our houses, cook our food, care for our children, etc.--the least, while we pay those people who do the least necessary work the most? If CEOs and executives and pro sports players quit working, would there be any real impact? Whereas if farmers went on strike...
Anyway, enough musing.

I went to Ankola to see Rama Nayak's work in two schools and help her with various tasks. Rama is an amazing person with an amazing story. I could write so much about her, but that is her story to tell. Basically she teaches in an English medium school and does school garden work in a village school. She is one of those rare teachers whom the students seem to respect for her conviction, knowledge and integrity alone; she is not flashy or young and even encourages unpopular things, such as the giving up of fireworks. Yet still the students, even boys, flock to her natural history club, even coming to school early for birdwatching.  Gesturing wildly, one girl told Rama a story in rapid Kannada. Apparently a poisonous snake had got in her bed, and because of what Rama has taught them about not killing animals, she and her father removed the snake in a pair of trousers. The father said he would kill the snake if it was still there in some more time, and this girl and her sister prayed for the snake to leave. It did. (I later learned that she and her friends were Girl Guides! This was actually not all that surprising, but so great! that they have that!)

This girl promptly approached me as soon as we headed for the bus. “Akka, I am very happy to see you,” she said. I told her I was impressed with her snake skills. “That is because of Akka,” she said. “Because of her, I have guts. I did not have guts before. And also now because of you I have a little more guts.”

Seeing as I just met her, I think she said that to be nice. But I certainly have more guts because of this girl, not only for her snake skills but for, as a thirteen-year-old, just coming up to a stranger from another country and striking up a conversation.

And I'm sorry to keep bring up this gender thing, but here it matters SO MUCH. From the boys in this class, though they study in English and can speak it, the only attempt at conversation I got was “Which game you like?”

Nicholas D. Kristof, in this book Half the Sky, said something to the effect that if one sex is taught from birth that they are better merely because of what's between their legs, they will not try as hard, they will become lazy in their assumed superiority. This imbalance of power is not good for them—where is the incentive to strive for anything at all, if what determines your status is just there when you're born? Needless to say, it is also not good for those who are put down, hassled, whistled and leered at, legally disempowered, beat up by drunk husbands, forbidden to be what they want when they grow up by fathers, and abandoned as babies because of what's between their legs. Yet despite all of that, these girls try so hard and are so smart. Though creativity is not emphasized at all in the Indian-modeled-after-British education system, because these girls have to struggle against such odds, they must exercise creativity. It literally shines out of them.

Kristof's point is that equality is good for everyone. Of course I agree on principle, but now even more so. When I go in a classroom, the thing that makes me saddest (and mad, too) is seeing all the boys slouched in a clump, looking out from under their eyebrows, trying to look cool or something. Because they have nothing else to try for. The guys on TV are just slouching around looking cool and being jerks, and the men in town are just chewing betel leaves and smoking little cigarettes (or they are hardworking farmers and kind, but poor) while the girls have these role models, teachers like Rama, doing real, snake-chasing, bad-ass work.

OK OK, and maybe girls just are intrinsically more inclined to communication and sitting still in school and all of that. I also think when education changes to be more hands-on and participatory, boys will be much better off in school. But still, no matter how good your education, if you're taught from birth that someone else will wash your clothes and do your dishes and make your food in addition to their fair share of agricultural or other paid work—in other words, if someone else is expected to do half your work in addition to their own—where's your incentive to try at all? Where is your incentive to be a better person if you are already better than half your community in that community's eyes, no matter how much of a jerk you are?

So you men and boys whom I love—give these boys something else to look up to, will you please? I can praise them to the skies for kindness, for knowledge of nature, for a good eye for birds--I can't show them how to be men in a way that is kind, strong and wise. But you can.

 Building a Cob oven at Sunita's with students from the Mahindra United World College of India. Here we're making a form of sand to put the mud around.
 It's a Turtle! I'll post a finished picture when I get around to it. The students had a lot of fun doing this, I think. I did too!
 A selection of Malnad homegrown vegetables
 Open windows, empty doors...soon I won't be here anymore
 Trying to capture the lovely evening light
 At Gundbala Village School, making beds ready plant: chilis, amaranth, radish. That's Rama on the left.
 Gobra, or compost--someone's dad brought a huge load in a bucket on his head. The school garden has been incredibly well received by the community, but then Rama has great cred here: she has been working with this school for about 20 years. Her husband started a very democratically-run cashew resin factory in Gundbala after having gone to this very village school, risen academically and gotten a PhD in the US. Then he came back home. So there are also this kind of men in India. And the policeman who told Sunita he would be truthful, and my friend Poppy's dad, and Manjunath. But they are not the loud ones.
 Rama has written "street plays," an old tradition, with an environmental message. This one, about the dangers of plastics and the alternatives, was highly entertaing. Here, this Plastic Rakshasa (demon) kills wildlife, cattle and tourists alike...and then laughs manaically. The students performed very well.
 Areca orchard. Look at the canopy structure! From the top, areca trees, coconut palms, banana trees, and then vanilla climbing the areca trees as well as cardamom, ginger and other spices growing low to the ground.
 The rice paddy which I cross to get to the bus. To the right, sugarcane. I like pictures of paths and roads.
 Harvest time is soon...
 Can you spot the snake?
 A message from presumably teenage boys...but in this context, true, culturally enforced, and grim. Sirsi new bus stand.
 Rice, stacked to dry, along the estuary where the Gangavalli River meets the Arabian Sea. These "huts" of rice prevent some water from entering...but the rains have been so long and irregular in Ankola this year that much of the crop has been lost. This is who bears the cost of climate change.
Village school kids performing a traditional dance. It looked like so much fun! I wanted to learn!
 English medium school students going to do Beach Monitoring: seeing what species live on rocks, with quadrants and everything. Science practice!
 The Western Ghats over the Arabian Sea
 School as it ought to be!
And some buffaloes.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seed Saving Workshop

We had a seed saving training at Sunita's house. As far as work goes, mostly I've been working in the vegetable garden, pulling weeds, helping write reports, putting together gardening and seed saving advice, and working on education/camp projects. So it's nice to be brought back to the original reason I am here.

First there was a thanksgiving puja. Puja is difficult to explain. Basically it is a prayer with flowers, foods, oils, and fire. Every day flowers are placed before the god of the house (usually the jolly Ganesha, remover of obstacles) and coconut water is also given. Lamps are lit. But on this day, a priest (who is also the village postman) dressed in saffron dhoti came and cooked special paysa to be blessed and eaten by people and gods alike. The women all came in their best saris, and for a while I was wrapped up in the priest's voice chanting Sanskrit prayers, working Vanastree's work into the prayer, and the women's singing in the pauses.

 Pre-puja, everything ready. Also important was remembering Savithriamma, a seed leader who died of cancer last March. She was brave and a seed leader till the end--addressing a new seed group from her hospital bed!--and she is loved and missed.
 Post-puja: flowers and coconuts.
 Some of the vegetables whose seeds were being exchanged: bottle gourd, gherkins (I think that's the English word) brinjal (eggplant) and a relative of the jackfruit
 Rangoli in turmeric (haldi)--turmeric is very integral to rituals and to food here
 Savitri carrying the GIANT pumpkin, which we made into sambar and ate! Its seeds were given out to everyone. It was quite a full-circle sort of experience...are you PICAns out there getting ideas? :)
 Seed saving training: hands-on
 Sunita trying to explain the Annadana seed saving techniques.
 Planting a coconut tree in Savithriamma's memory...the Siddi seed group brought the tree the 30-odd kilometers from their village to plant at Hutthina Betta at this meeting.

 Some seeds to be saved: pumpkin, okra, big bean, cucumber (on paper.) The beans and okra can just be dried in the pod and then taken out; pumpkin seeds must be washed; cucumber seeds must be soaked and washed; and everything must be stored in dark airtight containers. Fungus and moisture are huge challenges to seed savers in the Malnad.

 Now to Matthigatta, the Siddis' home. A very attractive rooster belonging to one of the ladies.

 Post-kokum balm training. These ladies were so excited to have a training in their own village, their own houses. A note about this: someone coming to your house means they respect you. These Brahmins will not eat in the Siddis' houses, so it means a lot that these ladies have come to them. The Siddis have been picked upon, looked down upon and heckled by the Havyik Brahmins, the high-caste farmers; their men are often troublesome; and tragedy seems to follow them. They are foreigners with no home, in a sense; their ancestors were slaves brought from Africa by the Portuguese. They do not know their original language or place of origin; I hear they have intense and wonderful dancing. But for all the obstacles they face, they are some of the most beautiful people I have met. I am sure there is much I do not know; but there was something about the very neat mud houses and the community living on such steep land, amid such natural beauty, that struck me. The following photo doesn't really show the steepness...and then the camera battery died.

Once again, thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Little Art...

All pictures are taken from various vantage points at a location called the Mother's Guesthouse, an establishment connected to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. As can be seen it is a rather sought-after location in which to lodge while staying in Pondicherry. I am not staying here but for some reason multiple people have told me to visit and get familiar with it, and now I understand why. All is well here, I hope all is well with you all. My fond thoughts are with you all.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Hi! I wrote a bunch of entries, forgot to write my name on them, and back-dated them so they're in an order that makes some sense. so scroll down for new out of order entries, if you like. Now going for a week of teaching teenagers to build a cob oven, then off to a school garden on the coast. Thanks for reading!


Deepawali, also known (in the North) as Diwali or the Festival of Lights, is celebrated on the first new moon in this changing-from-fall-to-winter season. This is one of many things I like about India--they follow the lunar calendar and pay attention to the moon. For Deepawali, people give each other gifts, though it's not as central as it is for Christmas. More important is the lighting of lamps and the prayers--to Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, to the gods of your house and family. People dress nice, cook and eat special meals and sweets. It is a family holiday. Sunita has bought me a sari for a Deepawali present and I wear it. Some friends from the Isha Yoga Center have come, Lakshman (an ex-Navy man who now practices agriculture, teaching and yoga with missionary zeal, particularly for a certain soil-building technique called Amrit Mitti, "Nectar Soil") his quiet wife Sujatha, and their fourteen-year-old son Anugraha (which means, "blessing.") Anugraha goes to Gurukula school, the ancient Indian form of education. With other young men and women, he is under the teaching of a certain guru. They learn Sanskrit, English, Tamil, yoga and meditation, Karnatic classical music (singing/chanting) martial arts, and dance. Also somewhere in there they learn math and standard language arts, and Anugraha knows a fair amount about biology as well. The guru is also entrusted with educating his students about the things you learn from your parents: ethics and in general how to live well.

You should see this guy. He looks like an Indian prince out of the Mahabharata, with his long hair and kurta and dhoti, but most of all it's the way he carries himself. I sort of forget he is fourteen--he acts more mature than most college boys. He is very disciplined in his meditation and talks like an adult, articulate as anyone. But it's not like his childhood has been sacrificed either--he loves to play Uno, and crows more gleefully than my brother when he wins.

But here's where the secret brilliance of this Gurukula system comes in. Who listens to their parents at 14? I know I tried to be exactly the opposite (and then found myself behaving like other people that I wanted nothing to do with, and learned the important lesson that you can't be the opposite of everything, and you can't be anything but yourself.) I have long thought that adolescence could be such a powerful age if adolescent kids weren't so absorbed in petty power struggles with their parents and petty social struggles with their classmates. If they had somewhere to direct all that change happening in minds and hearts. This kid is what I wish I had been like at 14: gracefully, on his own terms, growing from a child into a man. Independence is taken care of--he lives with other students in a hostel--but responsibility is now to his Guru and his studies. I'd like to meet the girls in his class.

Anyway. Besides friends and family, also integral to Deepawali is the Go-puja, where cows are thanked for all they provide: the daily eaten yogurt, ghee, milk, and other milk products as well as essential dung and urine for fertilizers. All morning bells have rung for this puja; at about noon we go to the cow-shed.

 The cow-shed has been decorated the night before.
 Savitri has drawn a beautiful rangoli, with kumkum and turmeric colors, at the door.
 ...and a neighbor, Vinoudaka, has come over to do the paintings on the cowshed walls. First she made dots, then connected them into beautiful symmetry.

 The cows, before their hay, are given dosa (like a crepe) with turmeric added, and also some paysa, a sweet like rice pudding but made with vermicelli noodles and milk and sugar, that has been blessed. They have also been given these necklaces of mango leaves and areca nuts, and have had kumkum and turmeric rubbed on their foreheads (Manju and Sunita had to dodge their horns to do this! They did not like it.) Flowers are placed at their feet; touching the feet of something is a sign of utmost respect and reverence.
The calf is called Guru.
 This is Balarama, named for Krishna's incredibly strong, often drunk brother with his message of "Peace!" This bull is a Malnad Gidda--a local cow breed adapted to lots of rain and eating forest plants. Now these cows are fairly bad-ass. They can jump five-foot fences and yes, go down stairs. So much for that old high school prank...
 This is Gauri, also named for a goddess. Now I want you to look at something. Look at Balarama, and then look at Gauri. Do you notice a difference in their bodies? That Gauri's ribs show much more and her hip bones jut out? It's extremely evident when you see them side by side.
Gauri is giving milk, which is one possible reason. However, she is given three times as much cattle feed as the other cows, and still she is thin like this. Gauri is half Jersey, and thus needs more food because Jerseys have been bred to be high input, high yield cows. The work Vanastree is doing--promomoting locally adapted varieties--is applicable even to livestock. And it has serious implications for farmers--what are you going to do with a ranch of Jerseys if your grazing land is forest, and you cannot afford the volume of cattle feed that your cattle need?

 Then at night, we light lamps and put them at all the entrances to the house, and the round hut, and Manju and Savitri's house. When you place a lamp, you think of someone (or many people, as I had to with so many friends far away!) who is not here. This is my favorite kind of meditation, of little magic.
 Flowers and fire, two very important parts of puja.
by request...