A Few Momentary Glimpses into My Journey in India

This post was written by current student, Heather Norris.

photograph of home with colourful bush outside
Tribal village of Komalikudi.

It has been six months since I have returned from India. It was a trip that I never would have imagined taking on my own. As such, I am deeply grateful for the sponsorship, support and encouragement of the professors and various staff members within Ryerson’s University  Faculty of Community Services and Ryerson’s International department. As well as all the professors and support staff of Amrita University, who enabled us to have such a privileged and unique experience through their Live-IN-Labs program. I am also very grateful for the timely support provided from members of our group on various occasions throughout our stay.To them, I am greatly indebted. Most importantly, I would like to thank the community members of Komalikudi and all those who worked within the village for giving me the privilege to participate and gain much needed experience, knowledge and wisdom related to international learning. It was a spectacular experience, whose learning will remain with me always.To this end, the following reflections, musings and experiences arose out of the time I spent in the tribal settlement of Komalikudi in the Idukki District of Kerala, located in the south of India.

A group of people handing a gift to a little girl.
The MSW students presenting a gift to the daughter of the host in appreciation for the many delicious lunches her mother and grandmother cooked for us while in the village.

Although I could share many diverse and sometimes challenging experiences related to this trip,I will limit my attention to two areas that I found to be most compelling to me. Firstly, I will reflect on a few discoveries in relation to the notion of disability and health that arose out of casual conversations I had with the local people living and working within the village of Komalikudi, as well as from dialogue that occurred while attending a homeopathic clinic in the village. It must be made clear that the thoughts related to such discoveries are merely momentary glimpses into what are obviously very complex issues, and as such, deserve a lot more time and attention to unravel than I can provide in this reflection. I mention them here as a way to highlight the diversity of cultural beliefs and ways of being I encountered and their impacts on everyday life in the tribal village. Secondly, I will speak to the creation of the beginnings of a Sacred Grove in the tribal village of Komalikudi. The Sacred Grove initiative arose out of a brainstorming session that we had among all members of our group, including MSW students who were provided to us by Amrita University as interpreters for our group while we were living and working in the village. For me, these students were a vital link to being able to connect with the local peoples in a culturally appropriate manner and were key to establishing culturally appropriate initiatives, such as the establishment of Sacred Groves, a tradition, that has been said to be “as old as Kerala itself” (http://www.amritapuri.org/activity/nature/groves).

a photograph of several people standing together
Coming together on our final day before leaving the district of Idukki.

Momentary glimpses

One conviction that I have always believed in and one that has been further reinforced during this trip is that the Global South is not the Global North, nor should it necessarily be expected to embrace the ideologies of the Global North or otherwise be exploited by them. Similarly, the genesis, and notions of  impairment and disability and disabled peoples struggles in the Global South are in stark contrast to the genesis and notions of impairment and disability in the Global North put forth by the disability rights movement. In the Global North, within the disability rights movement, the notion of disability is often portrayed as something to be proud of, respected and sacred to our humanity and rightly so. Disabled individuals in the Global North focus their energies on advocacy for; obtaining appropriate and accessible education and  housing, the right to equal wages and the striving for recognition of disabled people’s valued citizenship within North American society, all of which are very valued concerns to disabled and non-disabled peoples lives all over the world. In the Global South,where impairment and disability can be a direct result of severe socio-economic impoverishment  and where disabled women have limited recognition and voice,such basic rights of citizenship are often hidden or merely neglected. Disabled peoples struggles in the Global South are related to more basic concerns of daily survival on many fronts.For example, I was told that among the tribal peoples of the village, disability is often seen as something that is shameful and thus, disabled individuals are often hidden from sight.Disabled women and young girls, once they reach young adulthood or their parents are no longer able to care for them, are often moved from their home and family within the village to institutions in the cities. The reasons for this are many and complex. Lack of appropriate support services is an issue of course, particularly in regard to the logistical issues around accessing the village.Mostly, though, I was told that if disabled women were to continue to live in the village, they would be openly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Disabled men are not so likely to be institutionalized in this manner.

Conformity to the “norm” is highly respected within the tribal village and thus shapes the kind of interventions sought after among disabled people and their significant others. For example,many parents resist putting their deaf children into sign language classes as this would draw more attention to their differences. At all cost, they want their children to appear “normal”. One of the reasons for this striving towards conformity, I was told was because differences outside the community are not very well tolerated. The tribal peoples themselves are seen by members outside their community as not worthy to know and often assumed not to be capable of learning. Such sentiments are not dissimilar to indigenous peoples in North America, albeit this may be slowly changing. It does beg the question however about whether colonialism, historically so deeply embedded in India as in North America, has not impacted indigenous understandings of impairment and disability over generations in India?

Accessible housing is extremely limited in the village if non-existent. I, along with the other members of our group were invited to attend a communal gathering lead by prominent officials, elected leaders of the community and a Hindu religious leader. They came together to  choose who in the village would be receiving new homes,  to negotiate a price and to hire the men to build them. As well, discussion revolved around where to establish the sacred grove, an initiative put forth by our group and accepted with much enthusiasm. Gender roles were strictly enforced in this community. For example, during this gathering,the men sat on one side of the room while the women on the other. The Elders(men) made the final decisions,even though women did share their thoughts/suggestions. Making their homes accessible for the elderly and disabled individuals was not part of their housing design.

a photograph of a house with a thatched roof
A typical home in the village.

I also was invited to attend a homoeopathic clinic that was held in the school house in the village. A physician was in attendance assisted by the village’s school teacher, who was also a member of the community. I came to realize over the course of my stay, that she was integral to providing support and assistance for the communities well-being that went far beyond her duties as a school teacher. I found the structure of the clinic very captivating in that it reflected a very communal way of life. Privacy, a cherished notion in North America did not seem to be a primary concern in the minds of the community members, perhaps because the communities infrastructure did not lend itself well to maintaining any element of privacy with respect to these clinics. It seemed everyone from the community was in attendance, including not only the client, but their families, relatives, husbands and wives. One of the most common ailments expressed, particularly among women, were sore knees, shoulders and backs, the majority of which resulted from the hard labour of working in the tea fields all day long. The ages of the women varied from young mothers with these complaints to older women and the elderly. Skin ailments was another complaint found among a number of villagers irrespective of age. As well the physician mentioned that community members diagnosed with hypertension were unable to be treated since there was no medication available in the village nor the appropriate equipment such as a sphygmomanometer. The physician expressed to me that his medical approach is to treat the whole person, his/her whole constitution, in this way the medicine works in synergy with each other to alleviate specific symptoms. For more serious health concern the villagers were taken to the hospital in the town.

A group of adults at the front of a room with children sitting in rows
The homeopathic clinic held in the village’s school house.

The Sacred Grove Initiative

The Sacred Grove Initiative and its underlying philosophy of developing respect for Mother Nature was our inspiration that informed and built the foundation upon which  we developed the  various activities and programs that were carried out within the village of Komalikudi. For example in the area of health awareness and teachings related to alcohol and substance abuse the nurturing care required for the four sacred tress to flourish with the aid of clean water, air, sun, and healthy fertile soil is not dissimilar to what we as human beings require in order to be healthy whole compassionate human beings.

a group of people stand in front of patch of turned earth
The planting ceremony for the beginnings of the Sacred Grove.

The establishment of Sacred Groves or Kavus as they are known in India, is an ancient tradition that has existed in various configurations the world over. They are sacred places that demand a deep respect for the protection of diverse ecosystems that help sustain all of our lives on this planet. The tradition of the sacred grove helps us  reconnect with Nature, protect our environment and nurture ourselves as human beings. Not only does the presence and teachings of a sacred grove bring an awareness of the interconnectedness of nature with humanity it also provides a safe place for those seeking to establish a sense of rejuvenation in their lives. The GreenFriends program for the protection and propagation of kavus in Kerala contends that ” …kavus not only are a means for people to worship Nature as a manifestation of the Divine, but also a means to protect biological resources, to provide sanctuaries for flora and fauna (especially ayurvedic herbs), to provide oxygen to surrounding area and to provide deep groundwater reserves” ( http://www.amritapuri.org/activity/nature/groves).

A group of people stand near a patch of turned earth
The planting ceremony for the beginnings of the Sacred Grove.

Chancellor Amma, a highly revered and respected humanitarian and spiritual teacher around the world has said that “we should all feel an obligation to Mother Earth. If we forget our obligation to Mother Earth, it is equal to forgetting our own selves.” By developing the beginnings of a “sacred grove” through the planting of four trees considered to be sacred among the village peoples of Komalikudi, we felt, as a group that we could contribute to Chancellor’s Amma’s own desires for the establishment of these sacred groves all over India. Further, and perhaps most importantly, through the powerful ancient teachings around the spiritual, medicinal and protective properties of the sacred trees we felt we could help foster a healthy and deep respect not only for the land and our interconnectedness with Mother Earth, but also towards ourselves and other human beings as well. We felt that by developing an awareness of these ancient teachings among school children and respect for this sacred place through ongoing care, this initiative could contribute to increasing self-esteem and a love for nature over their lifetimes.

A group of people bending over near a patch of turned earth.
The planting ceremony for the beginnings of the Sacred Grove.

To realize that we all share the need for the health and well-being of Mother Earth and likewise for ourselves, and that such requirements, are essential for sustaining ourselves, our children and their future generations to come, may help us to move towards a more collectively cohesive, healthy and yet diverse communities of peoples around the world. It is in this manner of collaboration and sharing through nature, that I feel the diversity of our human existence can not only be more easily acknowledged but accepted and valued in all of our lives.

Group photo in front of the school with some children and youth in attendance.
Group photo in front of the school with some children and youth in attendance.

 

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