The school and college are buzzing again as term started yesterday. It will take a few days for all the children to return, time keeping and calendars do not exert a big influence in village life. The Jesuits have been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of new students and there are talking about opening a fourth class for the youngest children – we will have to find a temporary classroom somewhere. All of this is a great sign that the value and importance of education is beginning to take root in families that have been illiterate for generations. What has been particularly striking for me, as the parents accompany their children into school for the first days, is the amount of Lambadi women. As you can see by the photograph their dress, with the mirrors, long hair and jewellery is very striking, easy to notice amongst the throng of parents. When I asked the headmaster, Fr Rohan, he told with a proud smile that over a hundred of the students are from Lambadi families. The Lambadis are one of 645 ‘Scheduled’ tribes in India. These are indigenous people who now account for nearly 8% of India’s population, and along with Dalits are the poorest people in India. A nomadic people, the Lambadis where originally forest dwellers, when India had extensive forests, deforestation has forced them out and now many are nomadic cattle grazers.
I have to confess when I first stumbled upon some local Lambadi villages on my evening cycle ride I was a little scared. Their appearance makes quite an impression, particularly with the mirrors glinting in the sun. I asked one of our social workers about the mirrors and she said it was to do with warding of evil spirits. However this now seems untrue, the mirrors are actually to protect the women when they stumbled upon wild animals in the forests. With the men folk often away hunting – the women could not call them for help, however the many mirrors would reflect multiple images of wild animals thus scaring them away. During the British Rule both the Dalits and the Tribals were known as the ‘Depressed Classes’ however things are changing. Much of what we know about these tribal cultures is due to the pioneering work of a Jesuit, Fr Lawrence Desouza, living and working with them, often under the auspices of UNESCO, he published many books about the different tribes, his obituary is here – click. Now in India there is a big movement to protect their cultures, in school we have a Culture Day once a year where students are encouraged to dress in their costumes and they take pride in their beautiful and distinctive music and dancing.
When I asked how they were doing in school, their performance is average. Having been told that their parents have a reputation for being very loving of their children ( as they are not tainted by any sense of inferiority from the caste system) I was also surprised to be told that they are often getting into fights, and many complaints have been made about their filthy language. Surely this doesn’t add up with coming from these loving families – I though to myself. Ah – I was told – with a grin, they are not Hindus, in fact their religious beliefs are animist. There is no taboo about drinking alcohol, so they brew it themselves and the men and women often get drunk and end up fighting. The children are just copying that behaviour. I suppose that the light and the shadows of tribal life! A good note to end on is what Fr Eric told me about a Lambadi women who came into his office this week. She wanted to enrol her daughter into school, and was prepared to pay what it took, passionately she said, I want to give her a chance, I don’t want her to be like me!