South India: Blue horned cows and a lot of humility

A humbling experience in Tamil Nadu where I meet ‘Mr Daniel’, a man who gave up everything to introduce empowerment initiatives in rural communities.

I watch the sunrise over the mountains before the long day’s drive ahead. Today we are heading into the bordering state of Tamil Nadu. We snake through the hills climbing higher and higher before dropping into a reserve where we spot wild elephants in the distance.

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snaking Keralan road

Finally the roads are straight and we can pick up speed and cross the border. Almost instantly the scene from the window changes. Now the houses are thatched huts or simple concrete or stone dwellings. The cars of Kerala are replaced by Ox carts, motorbikes, push bikes and herds of wandering cows. We stop for lunch at a restaurant which is jammed with lunching workers who eat rapidly with their hands, large banana leaves are used as plates. By now I am used to the constant stares that follow me, but in this restaurant I am the only woman and I feel the men’s eyes burning into my back as I walk to the “toilet”, the usual squat hole with a terrible stench. Vishal orders for me and I eat another spicy south Indian dish which he describes as “mild”.

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Typical shop in Tamil Nadu

As we leave the small towns behind, we enter a new world in which animals are the key to survival. Goat herders and herds of cows own the road here. We pass a small village and turn onto a bumpy track road which will lead us to the farm house we are heading for. A man on a bicycle coming the other way stops and makes a sign with his arm above his head. “Elephants” the driver says, he has seen an elephant on the road and he is warning us, he slows down and shifts uneasily in his seat, craning his neck to see into the distance. The threat of wild elephants here is more real than anywhere I have ever been. Recently a man was killed in the forest because he was in a storming elephant’s path. It’s quite common to see their “bums” on this road we learn later, but apparently they usually mind their own business. Vishal and I have a long protracted conversation about elephants and risk assessments. A few miles on there are monkeys all over the road, but no elephants. We make it to the farm elephant free and the mood lightens.

A mild mannered man with a kind, gentle face greets us and escorts us into the farm house. Mr Daniel, our project contact, moved here from Bombay 25 years ago. Over the course of the next few hours we gradually learn how he has devoted this time to try and transform this poverty stricken district. This region is in no man’s land between the borders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states, it is described by Daniel as a “lawless, wild”, the nearest police station is 2 hours away and the village people speak a mixture of Tamil (the language of Tamil Nadu) and  Karnnada (the language of Karnatika state). He has tried to empower the surrounding communities by teaching sustainable agriculture, improving educational opportunities and medical facilities. In fact we discover that his presence has had a massive effect on the economy and educational opportunities of the region.  In a place where each family has up to 10 children, education has never been high on the agenda; parents need their children to help support them in farming the land. Each village has a small primary school but a lack of teachers willing to live in such a remote area means that staffing, as well as student uptake, has always been a problem. Through a series of initiatives Mr Daniel has succeeded in changing local attitudes particularly to educating women, improving the literacy rates and generally exciting the population about the values of education.

We jump into Mr Daniel’s jeep and head over the dirt tracks to the nearest village a few miles away in the hills. We are on the edge of a huge forest, thousands of hectares of untouched reserve and the scenery is beautiful. We stop at the village of Kadatty and walk towards the school. Our presence attracts a few hangers on who tag behind us, curious as to what we are up to. Although its school holidays due to a local festival there are a few children playing in the school playground. Rather than the usually mobbing and question firing as in Kerala, these children just stand and stare, the smaller ones hide behind their siblings. I see both fear and curiosity in their eyes; they have never seen a white skinned person before.

The school itself makes even the tribal school in Kerala look like a palace. It’s a small simple building with orangey coloured dirt for a playground. It’s not painting they need, or a basketball court, its plain and simple running water and food. There is a tap at the school fed by the village bore well, but 2 water tanks and some pipes could make the world of difference, giving them running water into the school “kitchen”, a blackened room with a hole for a fire pit and the toilet.

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School in Kadatty

As I am taking down notes and details of the school, I look up and see that the children and a few adults have arrived and are gradually crowding around me, my every move fascinating them. I smile at them all and say Hello, and gradually, losing their initial fear the children grin at me. When I do the obligatory taking a picture of them and showing them on the digital camera screen their hands cover their faces and their eyes shine with astonishment. They ask for another picture, and another and another and everywhere I move to take pictures of the school they run after me, I feel like the pied piper. “Over here” I say and they scuttle after me, repeating my words with incredible accuracy! By now so many people have joined in and the “photo brigade”, that I have to split them into groups. Mothers and grandmothers, and a teenage girl with a baby as well as children all clamour for more photos.

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The photo brigade

After I  manage to escape the photo shoot extraordinaire, we walk down the road into the village which consists of a few shacks, small concrete rooms and wooden animal shelters. Everyone is standing at their doors looking inquisitively at us, a smile and a wave always results in a smile and a wave back. Cows wander around apparently without owner or purpose.

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Rural Tamil Nadu and the Pongal festival cows

We are taken to the village clinic where Mr Daniel would like a team to paint HIV awareness pictures on the walls. HIV and tobacco chewing and worms (!) are the major health problems here he says. Inside there is a small room with a bed. Daniel introduces me to the nurse and explains that for a long time there was no nurse since government criteria for one was not met, after witnessing many tragic deaths, he agreed to pay a nurses salary. The nearest Doctor would be a couple hours away and this one tiny clinic serves over 2000 people in 12 surrounding villages. He explains that before the nurse, the clinic was unfortunately home to regular deaths, particularly those of young teenage girls. Girls are married as young as 12 or 13 here and when they become pregnant their bodies struggle to cope. Very often girls would be brought to the clinic and would spend 2 whole days in labour with their families helplessly looking on. The parents didn’t realise that the girls needed to be sent to hospital and would wait. Typically after 3 days the girl would be carried to the nearest “check point” where transport can be found, about 14 km away, but would usually be dead on arrival. Now the nurse can insist that girls having a difficult labour are sent immediately to the checkpoint.

Finding it hard to take in what Mr Daniel has just said we get back in the jeep, trailed by more “fans” and continue to the next village. Our path is halted by decorated cattle parading around the road and then we reach a small lake where hundreds of people are gathered along with their cows and goats. Each of the cows has had their horns painted blue or yellow and a decorative pattern painted intricately on each horn. At the top of each horn there are silver bells and the cows wear garlands around their neck. Even the tiny horns of the goats have been painted and the herders parade them around like trophies.

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Pongal festival, Tamil Nadu

It’s a pretty unique sight, like some sort of psychedelic cow show. We have happened across a Pongal Festival, a Tamil festival which celebrates the end of the harvest season. Apparently today is the day of celebrating the animals and their part in the harvest and thus cattle are adorned and fed special dishes prepared by the women. Cows are pretty high up in the chain of things in the Hindu religion, highly revered and worshipped. Considering this though the poor things still have that anorexic look! As we drive further we are stopped several times by lines if dried palm leaves across the road. The leaves are set alight and then the poor, blue horned cows are forced to cross the hot coals, apparently to cleanse their souls. I have to say that unsurprisingly, the cows didn’t look to be having the time of their life.

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Cows tread the hot coals, Pongal Festival

There we are again the centre of attention as we look around another school and nursery which is desperate for running water. As we discuss the roof needs and the broken disused water tank supplied by UNICEF many years ago, I turn around to discover a 40 faces peering at me from the wall behind, it seems the entire village is here now. We are offered us a cup of Chai and as we wander away from the school to the house where the Chai is being made the 40 faces follow us. When we stop, they stop, we move, they follow. As we sip from tiny metal cups we chat to the men that Mr Daniel will pay to help our groups when they arrive, and to some of the village men.

As we climb back into the jeep the onlookers run after us, and wave as we leave, big smiles across their faces. On the way back we pass the only middle school in the area. Daniel has been campaigning for the last 5 years to get this school sanctioned as a high school, which will change the future of particularly the young girls in this area. Up until now girls cannot continue with their education after the age of 13 as the nearest secondary school is 60km away and is it is not seen as appropriate for them to stay in a hostel in there. There are at least 5 more schools in the area which could be potentially worthwhile projects and my notebook is almost full by the end of the day.

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A simple life, Kadatty, Tamil Nadu

That evening we learn about Mr Daniel’s surprising life story. As the son of one of India’s top government space scientists, he had an extremely privileged upbringing in Bombay. His family home was in a naval compound and has an amphitheatre, tennis courts, a football pitch and swimming pools. After obtaining his degree in Genetics and beginning work in the world of academia, he decided he wanted something different in life and that living in the city rat race was pointless. As he put it, “what’s the point in earning good money just to continue on the treadmill?” To the horror of his parents he upped and left, arriving in the middle of nowhere amongst peasant famers 25 years ago. He lived alone for years, making ends meet from farming but going bankrupt twice. The locals appreciated his help and input and gradually started to respect him. Now he has erected a permanent camp in the grounds of the farm and gets by from the occasional group coming to camp here. He lives hand to mouth and much of what he earns from camp goes directly to the salaries he sponsors in the village. The money he makes from our groups staying here and the projects they complete could ultimately contribute to local development in the long term.

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Mr Daniel, an inspiration

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