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The medicine man and rural villages

Ranpur Travel Blog

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Prasat (with sunglasses), the medicine man, and Pushpa

The NGO (non-governmental organization) I volunteer for is an environmental group that advocates on behalf of dalits (the “untouchables” in the caste system) and adivasis (tribal peoples) who live in Orissa’s rural villages and forests.  These groups have lived in the forests for centuries, relying on the forests for food, shelter, and their livelihoods.  In the past decade, the government has been giving this land to big corporations (mainly for the mining of minerals), claiming that the indigenous people don’t formally own it.  Some companies have displaced people from their homes, promising jobs and better lives, and it has turned out to be flat out lies.  My NGO is fighting to (among other things) get the government to recognize the forest dwellers’ rights to own the land.  (By the way, my volunteer organization has asked me not to reveal the NGO’s name for a variety of reasons, so I’ll just refer to them as “NGO”.

Talking with the medicine man
)

 

So far I’ve worked in the office and have only read about the work being done.  A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of accompanying two colleagues, Pushpa and Prasat, on a field visit.  We drove to Ranpur, about 75 kilometers outside Bhubaneswar.  Ranpur is a block, the equivalent of a US town, which then has smaller villages within it.  Our first stop was in Ranpur village itself, to visit a medicine man and record his knowledge.

The medicine man and Prasat
  He learned everything from his father and grandfather, but his son (now about 20 years old) has no interest in it.  My NGO is attempting to record the medicine man’s knowledge before it’s gone forever.  We drove into his village and sat with him on a stoop of sorts for about an hour.  Since everyone talked in Oriya and I had no idea what they were talking about, I just took everything in: The village itself was one unpaved road with one-storey buildings, most made of mud with thatched roofs.  The street was shorter than the one I grew up on.  Many of the people looked like they hadn’t bathed in a while, their clothes were filthy, and they had few teeth.  One little boy walked around naked, save for a red string around his waist.  The kids stared at me -- which is nothing new -- but something was different; it was like they had no “sparkle” and didn’t seem especially curious.  But I never even spoke to a single one of them, so what the heck do I know.
The medicine man
  Not much. 

 

After we left, Pushpa explained that the medicine man told them which diseases and ailments he knows how to cure, and then they talked about specific remedies.  We got in the car -- the medicine man climbed in with us and sat on Prasat’s lap -- and drove a short distance to the forest.  We walked around with him for about 90 minutes, and he pointed out leaves, flowers, and twigs with medicinal properties.  He and I couldn’t communicate at all, and I purposely stayed out of the way.  But every once in a while he handed me a root or a leaf and said something in Oriya; clearly he wanted me to have whatever these things were.  I had an opportunity to really take him in: “Wiry” is the word that comes to mind.

Walking through the forest
  He had long gray hair, big brown eyes, leathery skin, not an ounce of fat on him, and only a few teeth which were stained brownish red, probably from chewing paan (betel leaves stuffed with tobacco or other mixtures).  He wore only a lungi, a sarong-like single piece of cloth wrapped in a way I can’t figure out.  It seems like men wearing lungis are constantly adjusting and rewrapping them, but I’ve never gotten an accidental peek at a man’s unmentionables.  As we walked around in the forest we plucked cashew fruit off trees and ate it on the spot; the medicine man made a pouch with his lungi and threw in the cashews.

 

The forest wasn’t a dense one, so we didn’t get the benefit of shade under forest cover.  We started at 1pm, so we were out during the hottest part of the day.

The under-construction phadi (leaf collection center)
  After some time Pushpa said my face looked red; I hadn’t realized how hot I felt until that moment.  Ugh.  I had no idea how long we were going to be out there.  Thankfully at about 2 o’clock, the medicine man said he was hungry, so we started the 30-minute trek back out of the forest.  What a relief. 

 

We said goodbye to the medicine man, got back in the car, and made the half-hour drive (sans a/c, unfortunately) to another village in Ranpur block.

The under-construction phadi (leaf collection center)
  This was really rural.  The driver, Manoj, is my new hero.  I don’t know how he maneuvered that car through some of the crazy dirt lanes we encountered.  We went to see a phadi (sounds like “poddy”), or leaf collection center, under construction.  Many of the villages in the area earn their livelihoods by collecting leaves in the forest, and some make them into hand-stitched plates, which they then sell.  My NGO helps the villages to collectivize and demand better prices from traders, market their products, etc.  Pushpa told me each village family makes about 500-700 rupees per month, which is about $12.50-17.50 per month, $150-210 per year.  We then drove to an even more remote village; they were refusing to join the collective, and Pushpa wanted to convince them to, as there’s strength in numbers and they can demand more money for their products.  Turns out the issue is that belonging to the collective means not receiving payment immediately for leaves they’ve collected, and this village can’t handle the delay.
Children in the most rural village we visited
  As a solution, my NGO will loan them the money when they’ve delivered their leaves to the phadi, and they’ll pay it back within a month.  Mission successful.

 

But wow, seeing that village was really something.  Like the first village I’d seen earlier in the day, there was no electricity, no clean drinking water, buildings made of mud or brick with thatched roofs, but this village seemed worse off than the first.  No one had shoes, and several children walked around in nothing but filthy underwear.  They were very leery of me at first; Prasat’s take on it is that they see so few foreigners that they immediately suspected I was there as an authority to get them in trouble.

The village
  But eventually they figured out that I wasn’t a threat, and the kids got close enough for me to take photos.

 

I asked Pushpa about the kids’ prospects in life.  Pretty dim.  She said the parents go out into the forest to collect leaves, so the older children are left to care for the younger ones; education isn’t valued, so no one ends up going to school.  The literacy rate in Orissa is somewhere around 50%; take out Bhubaneswar and other urban areas, and the rate is undoubtedly lower.  The chances that any of them will ever get out of the cycle they’re in are slim to none.  Pushpa said they’re probably not even aware of the world outside.  How could they even make the 30-minute trip out to the main road?  And that was 30 minutes by car; it would take hours on foot.

Ranpur
 

 

I had a strong urge to help them by giving them money, not that any of them asked me for it.  6,000 rupees -- what many families earn in a year -- is very little to me.  Sure, if I gave money to the villagers it would help them temporarily, but that wouldn’t address the real issue: What are the causes of poverty, and how can it be reversed?  By coincidence (or not?), I just read a bunch of articles and did exercises on this very topic, evaluating educational materials for new volunteers put together by my volunteer organization.  Among the questions raised: What are an individual’s responsibilities and obligations as far as helping others?  Should one help her own community before others?  Which would make a bigger difference: Working directly with those in need, or instead focusing on broader policy change?  Is it enough, morally and ethically speaking, to give a certain amount of my income to an organization that does this work?  And what is that amount?  Next time I want to buy a new pair of shoes just because I’m tired of my old ones, will I stop myself and put the money toward a different use?  Where do I draw the line?  The answers to these questions are debatable and highly subjective, and I’m just beginning to answer them for myself.

Pushpa

 

Clearly this day in the field had a big impact on me.  It was inspiring, difficult, overwhelming, and fascinating.  There are tourism companies in Bhubaneswar that offer tribal and village “tours” in Orissa; I haven’t gone on one, but I doubt they go to places as remote and poor as I got to see.  I’m a very lucky girl.

debrasiegel says:
Ah, I think the way I explained it wasn't entirely clear. It's the American group that sent me to India that has asked me to reveal the NGO's name. Thanks for reading my blog!
Posted on: May 02, 2008
Aopaq says:
Sounds like an amazing experience! I am a little curious as to why your NGO did not want you to mention their name. I would think that any publicity they get would help their cause.
Posted on: May 02, 2008
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Prasat (with sunglasses), the medi…
Prasat (with sunglasses), the med…
Talking with the medicine man
Talking with the medicine man
The medicine man and Prasat
The medicine man and Prasat
The medicine man
The medicine man
Walking through the forest
Walking through the forest
The under-construction phadi (leaf…
The under-construction phadi (lea…
The under-construction phadi (leaf…
The under-construction phadi (lea…
Children in the most rural village…
Children in the most rural villag…
The village
The village
Ranpur
Ranpur
Pushpa
Pushpa
The medicine man with a member of …
The medicine man with a member of…
Pushpa and the medicine man
Pushpa and the medicine man
Resting in the shade for a few min…
Resting in the shade for a few mi…
Ranpur
Ranpur
Ranpur
Ranpur
Ranpur
Ranpur
The forest
The forest
The village children
The village children
They followed me to the car
They followed me to the car
Ranpur
photo by: debrasiegel