Photo Courtesy: Masako Shimato (Japan, Class of ’17)
The girl in front of me stumbles on a rock and I take this chance, the momentary halt in our 20 people chain, to look up. The palms are coal black, every split leaf cutting into the dark blue-grey sky lit only by the half moon. The reality of being in the heart of the Western Ghats suddenly hits me and I smile into the blackness as I hike with my tiny torch and big backpack.
This year I chose to go on a faculty-led project week. For many this might have been a tough call; college apps, extended essay, and many more commitments have complicated our existence as we stepped into the second year shoes. For me, however, it was as easy as eating a piece of pie on a hot afternoon: I was going to Vanastree.
Vanastree, meaning ‘Women of the Forest’ in the local language of Kannada, is the women’s seed saving collective in the Ghats of Northern Karnataka. Founded by Sunita Rao fourteen years ago, it has grown from a small group of women to an organization of 150 members, who take part in workshops, value-add to products, and support groups.
To learn about Vanastree, we didn’t sit in and listen to a presentation. We were kicked right into experiencing it.
Documentary on Vanastree
After a 12-hour bus ride to Hubli and a two-hour bus ride after that to the middle of the forest outside of Sirsi, we arrived at Sunita’s beautiful farmhouse. Made from locally sourced materials and with a careful sense of detail and love for nature evident in every stone of the wall, it was a pleasure to spend the next three days there discussing the politics of forest dwellers, what forest home gardens are, and why we should save our seeds. We didn’t linger there all day, though; the very night of our arrival we were all paired and sent off to our homestays.
The start of three of the most tranquil days this semester started as I crossed that rice field leading to the small village. The granddaughter of the family, Tania, knew every turn and waterhole in the route, and while we clumsily struggled to get to the other side without falling into the wet paddies, she jumped along with great agility. Equipped with only the basics of Kannada – snana for shower, outta for food, and saku for enough – we navigated through the customs of the family and their daily routine without much difficulty. Every night we would draw and play games with the daughter who spoke little English, and at every meal, when we were eating our sambar and dosa off the palm tree leaves, we would all laugh over our childish gestures as we tried to communicate with the mother of the family.
The most amazing part of my homestays, though, were my showers. The showers “snana” were taken in a little room next to the kitchen or in a small, outdoor building. With two buckets of water, one filled with warm water heated by a fire and another smaller one to pour the water, we showered all the bugs and leeches off at nightfall. Due to the frequent power outages, this was often done in the light of a hand held oil lamp, casting long shadows in the yellow flickering as the cicadas played their shower symphony. The act of showering sometimes only behind a make-shift sari on a stick was the ultimate, most beautiful symbol of trust.
Some more dramatic events, especially during my time with the Siddi community, will probably also stay with me for many years. The Siddis in Uttara Kannada, are descendants of Africans brought as slaves by the Portuguese. They are also the most energetic, welcoming people I have ever met. On our hike to their village, which consists of 11 houses spread widely over the hills of the Ghats, we were walking in complete darkness. We arrived at a 20 meter long bridge made out of bamboo, and while my knees were shaking and the water running over the moss-covered rocks in the river was beginning to sound like my graveyard, a small 11-year old child grabs me by my hand while his mother pushes my back. After he informs me that it is dangerous and smiles from ear to ear, he happily jumps along the bridge, waiting for me to slowly crawl to the other side. My amazement at these people’s understanding an interaction with the rain forest never ceased. I was handed freshly harvested coconuts, fruits I had never seen, taken to waterfalls in backyards right after breakfast, and swam countless times in the many rivers of the Ghats.
We also had lectures and discussion groups throughout the week, when we were not jumping from stone to stone in the jungle. Sunita’s never-ending knowledge of and friendship with incredible researchers and activists taught us much about the region, the added value of products if they are conserved, and the importance of making the woman visible in farming, not just the man. And even though these were very informative and appreciated talks, I must admit that I have never been as convinced of the effectiveness of experiential learning, and its effect in making me truly understand knowledge, as I was during my interactions with the women of the forest.
-Laerke (Class of ’16)