Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Village Dispute

One highlight of our week in Kalleda happened while picking Ram's (Vandita's husband) brain about what the biggest problems in the village are, how they are settled, and who might be important people for us to meet. Ram was telling us about one of the village elders, Malesh, who used to be president and whose mediation skills are still sought although he no longer holds a title. In the middle of conversation, Ram pulled out his phone and called Malesh, then asked if we wanted to see a dispute. Two minutes later we were in the car and five minutes later we were sitting in Malesh's backyard along with everyone involved in the latest village scandal! I felt like I had stepped into a V.S. Naipaul book, beginning to comprehend what living in a village means and that I will be a part of this life (as much as a foreign, white girl can be) for the next several months. If you're wondering, the scandal initiated when a man's wife had an affair but the most recent development occurred when he abused her caste, an act which is against the law. The woman took her estranged husband to court but in order to avoid the high legal fees, jail time, and the price of bail, the two parties sought Malesh's assistance in a local settlement. When we arrived both parties and witnesses had just signed a document stating that they agreed to allow Malesh to oversee the dispute settlement.

The following day we met Malesh at Kalleda Rural School (KRS) where he had just finished final meetings regarding this particular dispute. The husband (I don't think they are divorced yet) had agreed to pay a certain amount of money in damages to the wife. In turn, the wife signed a document to be given to the court stating that she retracted her suit and wished to close the case. No mention is made of the local settlement because it has no legal standing beyond the village perimeters. Then she must go to the police station where they will receive her statement in person and ensure that the decision was made on her own without pressure from the other party. Now the settlement is entirely in Malesh's hands and he will actually front the money for payment to the wife while the husband raises funds from his family.

We thanked Malesh for taking the time to explain the process of dispute settlement to us and he agreed to call our mobiles as soon as there is another dispute so we can actually sit in and observe from the beginning!

Ready To Work

Our first week and a half in India was spent at Kalleda Rural School and it was very intense. Not only adjusting to new language, culture, food, and living arrangements; meeting tens of people a day, all with names that I could neither pronounce nor remember; but also attempting to take in all aspects of school life and determine where we would fit in. We met teachers; primary, high school, junior college, and alumni students; and village leaders. We sat in on classes and even led a few, participated in countless meetings, and sat in on even more. Coming from jobs in Seattle that required me to stand and move around all day, it was a big switch to be sitting all day long, cross-legged on the floor no less, and trying to stay awake and absorb useful information and make observations at meetings that were happening primarily in Telugu.

After a few days, Liza and I had our first chance to lead a meeting attended by teachers, high school students, and alumni. In typical fashion, we were informed only thirty minutes prior to the meeting that we would be running it. We quickly brainstormed a loose outline and started by introducing ourselves and giving a brief explanation of the program we hope to develop while at Kalleda. The rest of the meeting was initiated with the general question, "What do you think are the biggest problems in your community?" Silence. "No? No problems? Okay, we should go home?!" "Dowry," a young boy calls out, tentatively. "Child marriage," says another student. The floodgates had opened, students and teachers both called out problems faster than we could write, and the giant chalkboard quickly filled up. We asked two more questions based on our new list of problems which ran the gamut from dowry, to political corruption, to superstition, to pollution. First, which problems are new and which are old. Second, which problems did the students feel specifically affected them, as youth.

Aside from the list of community issues, the most important information I feel was gained from this meeting was recognising the difference between the views of the teachers and the students. The teachers were quick to impose their own opinions when they disagreed with the students. This came up a few times when the students called out problems that the teachers said didn't exist, and again when the students named problems as being new when the teachers said they were actually old. An example of this being the creation of a Telangana state which has been an issue since Andhra Pradesh was created in the early 1950s and was last a major political debate in the late 1960s. The teachers are right that Telangana is not a new issue, but it's important to understand the students' impression of the situation. After all, none of them were around in the 60s. What I learned from this meeting and will keep in mind during our future work is to pay close attention to where our information is coming from and whose opinion we are really getting, especially when we are subject to working through translation.

After this meeting I was feeling energized and inspired to start working with the students to develop skills they can use to tackle some of these community issues. But by the end of our week and a half I was also ready take a break, turn off for a bit, and re-energize. Unfortunately, due to a combination of bandhs and holidays, the well-timed break is becoming interminable and I find myself itching to return to Kalleda, settle into a routine, and begin our work in earnest. As it is I will have to wait until 24 January to initiate our program, by which time I will be well ready to get to work!