Wednesday, June 16, 2010

End of the Road

This is my last blog post for Catching the Moon. I will be leaving India in two weeks so this is a quick recap of project successes and things I would have done differently.

Here's what I think we did well:
  • Sending a strong message to tribal children that their culture is valued and its preservation is important
  • Strengthening relationships with like-minded organizations that helped us succeed in this project and will continue to bear fruit as time goes on: Tribal Museum of Arts and Artifacts and Radio Namaskar!
  • Giving the children some special experiences, such as making recordings in a studio, meeting the Governor, going to the sea beach and providing photos with the caption "I Am Responsible for my Culture" on the frame in native language.

Here is what I wish I had done differently:

  • Figured out a way to get tribal elders' songs and stories
  • Prepared more context for the children for their exposure trip (a map of where we traveled, a job description for the Governor)
  • Designing the project to be smaller in scope so that I could have completed all objectives successfully.

India still catches me unaware, even after almost a year living and working here. I underestimated how much support I would need from our field staff to complete my project activities and they have other commitments. Travel time and lack of cell phone coverage in the area make it very difficult for anyone to get things done, especially a foreigner who doesn't speak much Oriya and who is vulnerable without escort from a known NGO like SPREAD (there is some concern about trouble from radicals).

All in all, it was an excellent learning experience for me and I hope my efforts have made a small difference. "Mu asibi" as I might say in Oriya - I will see you later.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Exposure Trip

Friday, the mercury touched 41.5 in Bhubaneswar (which is nearly 107 F) with high humidity. My kurta and pants were soaked to the knees by the time I walked the 5 minutes from the railway station to my hotel, and that was at 9 in the morning.

We started out the day at Nandankanan, the Bhubaneswar Zoo, which is famous for its white tigers. Usually big cats are sleeping in the middle of the day but several were up and pacing and we saw several of the rare mutations which this zoo has been successful in breeding. Maybe it was just too hot to sleep. I can relate!

In the evening, the children dressed in traditional garb, hand-woven Gadaba saris for the girls and dhotis for the boys and we attended the cultural program at the Tribal Arts and Artefacts Museum arranged for Governor Bhandare which was excellent. Plus, we got samosas! We were able to briefly catch the Governor on his way into the auditorium to hand-deliver the children's letter requesting education in their native tongue and he was most gracious in accepting it. Several beautifully costumed dance troupes performed and our kids seemed completely engaged watching. After the performance the Governor had photos taken with the dancers and I inveigled a photo with our kids as well. He was curious about where the children went to school and promised to visit Koraput. I hope he does. Maybe their teachers will show up for school that day.

This morning dawned cooler and we left for Konark early, first visiting the Sun Temple and then on to Radio Namaskar! Mr. Ansari was so gifted at interacting with the children and encouraging them to use the recording studio. I thought they would be nervous and maybe not want to sing or tell stories but after a few minutes of shyness they jumped at the opportunity, singing beautifully in a mixture of Oriya and Desei, and telling some short tales. Another project coordinator has two girls who he says have beautiful voices and sing while they work in their village and I have offered to send them to Radio Namaskar! to be recorded as well if Ansari will have them.

To close the day, we stopped at the beach outside Konark for a dip into the Bay of Bengal. I was disappointed that the sea was so rough as it was really dangerous to wade. But the kids seemed to love the drama of the big waves and promptly emptied their bottles of drinking water and dashed as far as they dared into the turmoil to fill them up with the sea. What a great idea. I stood between the kids and the waves to ensure no one got washed away so naturally I got soaked every time the water caught me unaware, making the childen laugh hysterically.

We have not been able to get out into the villages to record tribal elders and I will be leaving India soon, but this is at least a start and I hope this project has paved the way to continued cultural preservation. Certainly, the children who were able to participate in this exposure trip got a great cultural experience and the message that people care about their traditions.

I found myself feeling quite emotional as I climbed out of the car. I will not likely see these children again and I would love to watch them grow up. Usually, there is the option to stay in touch through email, but without English, to say nothing of electricity in their villages, they won't have the opportunity. I love these kids and although I know they only slightly, I will miss them.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

We're Going to Meet the Governor!

We have been invited to attend a program at the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts on the evening of June 4th where the children will meet the Governor of Odisha, the Honorable Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare, and present him with a memorandum on their desire to attend school and to be taught in their own language. The director of the Museum, Dr. A.B. Ota, has requested that they wear traditional garb and bring musical instruments. I can't wait to see this and I'm sure the children will present themselves marvellously. Some are shy but others are superbly poised.

Although this trip is meant to be fun and educational, the children's request to the Governor is an important one. First, the situation in India's primary schools, especially in the remote rural areas, is disturbing. Teachers are often absent or teach only an hour or two. The schools our Pila Panchayat members attend are not, as they say, "regular" so the children are deprived of even the most basic education. In the Odisha hills, most people speak tribal languages rather than, or in addition to, the state language of Odia. Although they usually understand Odia, their customs and experiences are very different from those of people who live on the coast and they are often treated as inferior. This does not contribute to a quality education and in fact school can be very uncomfortable for tribals, a situation that is more fully described in an Orissa Review article.
Take the example of the curriculum materials. Such topics as train travel are standard fare in children's textbooks, but most tribal children have never seen a train. Why would that kind of education feel relevant to them? In fact the retention rate of tribals in school is dismal. Very few finish 10th class and fewer go on to higher education. There is a movement to make curriculum in the tribal-dominated areas more relevant to its students and to encourage tribal teachers, but with the graduation rate among tribals so low, tribal teachers are hard to find.

SPREAD's child rights program has an objective to collect the customs of the Paroja and Gadaba tribes for inclusion in the curriculum and this will be a great step forward - I wish I were going to be here to help and see the results. But in my absence, let's see what the Governor can do.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pila Panchayat Trip to Bhubaneswar Confirmed

Just a quick post to note that after meeting with SPREAD director, Bidyut Mohanty and Project Coordinator, Pabitra Nayak, the proposed "exposure" trip to visit the beautiful Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts in Bhubaneswar, and the UNESCO World Heritage Sun Temple and Radio Namaskar in Konark is a go! I hope the Museum will bolster the children's confidence in the significance of their culture and the Sun Temple will show the importance of preservation. Radio Namaskar will give them a "behind the scenes" look at mass communications and I hope will whet their interest in journalism and broadcasting.

We will take 10 or so of the older children on the overnight train, the Hirakand Express, from Koraput to Bhubaneswar and rent a van to continue to the coast and a day in Konark. Along the way we'll interview the directors of the Tribal Museum and Radio Namaskar to explore occupations in anthropology, broadcasting and journalism. We may even make some recordings in Radio Namaskar's sound studio. We just need to make arrangements for accommodations, check dates with the Tribal Museum and Radio Namaskar and book train tickets.

I am coming full circle, as I started my career organizing and leading all-school trips. I confess that I'm excited to see the kids experience a completely different world from their tribal villages, dip their toes in the Indian Ocean and stretch their imaginations about their futures.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pila Parab a Success!

Our Pila Parab "children's convention" brought more than 100 Hill Tribes children together for two days and two nights of cultural activities and just plain fun staying up all night, watching videos and dancing. The parab is always built around culture, but this year we made an extra effort to emphasize the importance of cultural identity by setting up a "children's museum" for cultural artifacts and artwork and distributing educational materials about the Catching the Moon project that explain what oral traditions are and illustrate what metadata needs to be collected for each asset.

The focus of the activities are competitions in song, storytelling, drawing and sculpture. For the event this year we asked the children to bring traditional artifacts, and they brought beautiful things: drawings of Chaitra Parab - a village festival going on concurrently - clay sculptures of traditional and modern artifacts, and songs and stories. They were not shy at all about standing up to sing and tell folk tales and the evening when they performed skits was hilarious - although more about modern day trials and tribulations in school than traditional dramas.

The most telling moment of the event for me was when I saw that three out of the four girls who brought sculptures included mobile phones with their vegetables, boats, vessels and other traditional subjects. If there was any doubt that this is a moment of strong cross-currents in the culture, that doubt was expelled for me. I know this Capture the Moon project has a small scope but I hope it has at least a small lasting impact.

The high point of the event for me was the second and last evening when we distributed photos we had taken as the children arrived and registered. I thought there might have been an issue getting 100+ photos done in a short time, but the kids were so cooperative and eager that it was easy. We still didn't get them done until almost 4 PM because small groups of kids arrived all throughout the day. Each time I was ready to move the photos to my computer and then memory stick we'd see a group of them coming down the road or up from the river. The last contingent was 5 or 6 very little ones with women who must have been their grandmothers. Pila Panchayat is for children 6 - !4, who are old enough to benefit from the program, but they often bring their brothers and sisters in tow which is great. How wonderful to see the strong family bonds and also feel that the little ones are seeing that in addition to being fun, Pila Panchayat also helps people by standing up for rights.

We had made paper picture frames with the message: Culture is Identity and I am Responsible for Preserving my Culture. When the developed photos arrived by motorcycle on the second day, the children were frantic with anticipation, but it took us a couple of hours to apply the frames and glue them to cardboard backs. When the time came to distribute, the children were arranged in orderly rows, but as we called them up village by village to receive their pictures - bedlam erupted! They do not often get the chance to be photographed and especially to take a photo home, so this giveaway was particularly exciting for them. And for me. I hope they take the message seriously to heart and that the photos give them much happiness.

Although I am no artist, I was struck by how beautiful these portraits turned out. Partly it was the wonderful fabric backgrounds that I used - the "walls" of the bamboo tent house - and the vibrant colors of the children's garments in contrast to the rich browns of their skin. But mostly it was their handsome faces - the openness of their gaze and the strength and dignity with which they hold themselves, even the little ones. I came away just loving those kids. Just look at the handsome trio below, and click on the video to watch the group dance. See if you can resist them!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Welcome to Radio Namaskar!

If you could put your community radio station anywhere in India, where would you locate it? Easy... Konark.

Site of the UNESCO World Heritage Sun Temple, Konark lies 40 km north of Puri and just inland from Odisha's coastline. It's easy to find Radio Namaskar's tower and the hospitality of Mr. N.A. Shah Ansari, the director of the station and founder of Young India, which he started when he was only in Class X. Mr. Ansari founded the station to give voice to remote villages and it is the only station in Odisha performing that vital service today.

The sound studio is insulated with indigenous materials - local egg cartons in fact - but the station is powered with an impressive array of equipment for editing and broadcasting; young volunteers serve as journalists and technicians.

Mr. Ansari shares my enthusiasm for capturing oral traditions - in fact is way ahead of me - and played two recordings he has made of a traditional lullaby and an itinerant fiddle player, both hauntingly lovely. He feels a strong connection to the songs and stories that he grew up with and sees the way they affect the way he thinks and behaves today. He knows that they are disappearing and is enthusiastic about receiving our recordings and both broadcasting and narrowcasting them.
In India community radio stations are licensed to broadcast 20 kms although programs may be heard from somewhat farther away under some conditions. That's not far in a big state like Odisha, but narrowcasting can be used to reach more audiences. Just as I like to download American public radio programs to my iPod and listen to them on my walk to work, Mr. Ansari can make sound recordings available for villages to play over their loudspeaker systems. Whereas broadcasting is "one to many", narrowcasting is "one to one" or "one to few".
This visit was truly exciting. I left the station feeling part of a dynamic movement and look forward to collaborating with this dedicated group of change agents.

To contact Radio Namaskar email them at or, or visit them on the web at

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Local Language and Its Challenges

The members of Pila Panchayat speak tribal languages and Odia. We have an excellent handbook (really a pamphlet) on capturing and documenting culture, prepared by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and published by the Tribal Museum in Koraput, but it is in English and designed for an older age group.

The next task of our project, after organizing the stakeholders, is to develop training and communications for the kids. Easily done, except that I speak only English and my computer struggles with Indian English. Even though I have colleagues who can translate, it's not easy at all to reproduce materials in Odia script. There are input programs that allow you to type in Odia, but each character involves three or four keystrokes and that is not only time consuming but a skill that is is short supply. The best option may be to handwrite the pamphlet in Odia script but that will make it a lot larger, and even if I could write in Odia, you would not want to try to interpret my handwriting.