Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Magic Bag

We saw Sathya and Bhoomi off last night, and this morning at 4 a.m. we arose and got into the jeep and made our way to LAFTI’s headquarters at Kuthur in just over four hours. The journey was thankfully uneventful, due to the excellent driving of Muthukumar. Navigating India’s “highways” (which remain something of a euphemism) is no small feat, so it is good to be able to place our lives in such capable hands.

Some of the rooms at LAFTI’s “pink palace” have been turned into guest rooms, one even with airconditioning (not mine, and in that one, the fluorescent light seems not to work), but all with something resembling western-style bathrooms, with showers!!! Good thing, too, because here the climate is quite steamy. I rode on the back of Veerachami’s motor scooter about three kilometers to his home for lunch, keeping a promise that I made back in the days of the tsunami. In the sweltering heat, everything almost appears to be melting, though the locals, none-too-energetic in the midday sun, seem to have everything under control. I must remember to keep drinking at any and every opportunity.

We had a short meeting this morning with LAFTI staff, especially with women who we hadn’t met at the Gandhigram Workers Home. Lila, the courageous companion of Krishnammal whose life has been threatened by the prawn farm owners on more than one occasion, was there. I introduced Peggy Burns as the new Executive Director of Friends of LAFTI to a round of applause. Titles are important in India (a reality I have urged on Peggy), and the fact that a woman is the Executive Director, paralleling Krishnammal’s role as Secretary of LAFTI is well appreciated.

On the trip over, we brainstormed a bunch of fundraising ideas. One which greatly appeals to us all is to offer scholarships to several women for the carpentry training program. In this area, especially since the tsunami, skilled carpenters are paid more than engineers, but there are no women among them. And it would only cost around $100 for six months of training in the mobile training centers that LAFTI operates which move from village to village. I initially tried an indirect approach, noting that my wife, whom many of them know, once made her living repairing homes, plastering, etc., and is the “handyman” at home (I being the cook.) That failing to register adequately, we broached the subject directly. Certainly there are no women carpenters, but then a decade ago, there were no Dalit carpenters (or masons or plumbers or electricians) either, of either gender, the touch of a Dalit on a house being polluting for the upper castes. So the step from Dalit carpenter to Dalit woman carpenter would not really be that great. If my wife Ellen were here, she could serve as a role model. Krishnammal seemed initially reluctant, but after telling us the story of finding a 3-year-old girl with a 104-degree fever lying in a field because her mother was working from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. as a housekeeper in a Muslim household for 50 rupees ($1.10) a month (yes, you read that correctly – the housekeeper also eats in the house, though doesn’t bring food home for her two children), she agreed to look out for women who would welcome the opportunity. We met this girl – Saraswati - at the Girls Hostel in Valivalam, and Krishnammal says she was “one of her many tests, one of the occasions presented to me by God to see if I would know how to respond to a need placed before me.”

Peggy and Randa Blanding, also from San Diego and who plans to keep a database of all LAFTI supporters worldwide, will inaugurate a new “goat scheme” next week, with the purchase of 7 goats. Two hundred women have been identified in 11 villages and have started passbook accounts at the local bank (quite a remarkable development for a Dalit woman). When they have saved up 200 rupees (roughly $4.50 U.S.), we will provide the other 800 rupees to purchase a goat ($25 total), in a 20/80 match. Only the 80% will actually be a loan to be paid off against the goat’s future offspring. That way, the women will get into the habit of saving, as well as their children benefiting from the milk animal scheme by way of an advance. It was discussed whether it would be better for the obligation be to provide the first female offspring to another family. But the reality is the women already understand the barter obligations only too well, and having them understand the cash economy and learn to operate within it is useful. Our initial goal is 1,000 goats and 200 cows (each cow costs $220), so you know what to buy your friends for Christmas this year (or what you will be receiving.)

The story of my “magic green bag” appears to be gaining folklore status, especially as I told a rather amusing version to LAFTI’s staff. Since I (and it) have returned to India, and the bag now in Krishnammal’s possession, the following has happened:

• The loan applications for the purchase of land for 1,059 families have been accepted;
• The state development corporation provided a grant for half of the land development necessitites ($22,000);
• The District Collector and others agreed to provide for the other half needed (though Krishnammal still has doubts as to whether this will be provided in a timely fashion);
• The Minister of Revenue provided a stamp registration exemption;
• Friends of LAFTI was formed, and several thousand dollars are already raised;
• Overseas in Italy (and with great thanks to them) has provided a hefty grant for overall development of a single village (Papakovil! More on that in a future blog), including houses, cows, land improvements, a tailoring workshop and buildings;
• The Color of Freedom will appear in serialized form in the leading Tamil weekly beginning next week.

I have told Krishnammal that she should hang onto that bag for at least another 25 years, or at least until I return (which I hope will be much sooner than that). Since I feel uncomfortable taking credit for any of this (except perhaps Friends of LAFTI), and have since learned that the world works in mysterious ways, it feels more comfortable assigning the magic to my former green bag, than taking credit for any of it myself. Let others make their own determinations.

I have one last piece of work to do before I (sigh) leave.


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