The medicine man and rural villages
Ranpur Travel Blog› entry 14 of 29 › view all entries
The NGO (non-governmental organization) I volunteer for is an environmental group that advocates on behalf of dalits (the â€śuntouchablesâ€ť in the caste system) and adivasis (tribal peoples) who live in Orissaâ€™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 donâ€™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 dwellersâ€™ rights to own the land. (By the way, my volunteer organization has asked me not to reveal the NGOâ€™s name for a variety of reasons, so Iâ€™ll just refer to them as â€śNGOâ€ť.
So far Iâ€™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
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 Prasatâ€™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 couldnâ€™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: â€śWiryâ€ť is the word that comes to mind.
The forest wasnâ€™t a dense one, so we didnâ€™t get the benefit of shade under forest cover. We started at , so we were out during the hottest part of the day.
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.
But wow, seeing that village was really something. Like the first village Iâ€™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; Prasatâ€™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.
I asked Pushpa about the kidsâ€™ 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 isnâ€™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 theyâ€™re in are slim to none. Pushpa said theyâ€™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.
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 wouldnâ€™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 individualâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m just beginning to answer them for myself.
Clearly this day in the field had a big impact on me. It was inspiring, difficult, overwhelming, and fascinating. There are tourism companies in