Sunday, 1 September 2013

A piece of paper that makes all the difference

There is nothing wrong with you. You were just born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, in the wrong family and to the wrong parents. Otherwise, you are alright – provided you know your place and do not conjure up ideas which are beyond your allotted station in life... except that there are some people in India who have a very different outlook regarding the Adivasis (indigenous tribal peoples) and the Dalits (lowest caste and therefore ‘untouchable’): they see individuals cherished by God and deserving of dignity and respect.

The journalist, mother and long-time human rights activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara spoke of the Adivasi people of Gujarat: "Narmada uprooted many thousands of Adivasis from verdant, productive lands. The dammed Narmada water goes to rich farmers and far-away cities while the evicted Adivasis languish on barren, parched land in miserable makeshift huts. Entire communities have been destroyed. Who gives the State or corrupt politicians the right to annihilate these people in order to make life more comfortable for a select elite?  Who decides it is the common good when farmers are thrown off their land for wealthy people to get a second luxury home...? Where Adivasis struggle for drinking water, while rich city kids splash in swimming pools all through a scorching summer on land that was once adivasi, how is this right or just?"

Her concern is also for the Dalits: "Dalits continue to die every day, drowning in liquid faeces in manholes all over India. They are burnt, beaten, stripped, raped and humiliated for daring to claim the minimal freedom the Constitution promised them sixty odd years ago. They don’t just die. They are being murdered, either deliberately by dominant castes, for daring to defy village diktats, or by the State which requires men and boys to jump to their deaths into sewage pits, because their lives count for nothing in our country. Dalit women are raped every day. It’s a fact of life for them. And the dominant society refuses to be moved by the daily humiliation and degradation meted out to Dalits."

Fr Xavier Manjooran SJ has worked among the Dalits for 25 years and among Adivasis for the last 13 years. He commented: "The problems affecting indigenous and other marginalized communities are too large and the causes very complicated. The solution cannot be found locally or just by ourselves." Fr Xavier added, “Every human has the right to live with dignity as a child of God. It is the duty of every human being to help others to live with dignity.”

Together with a group of like-minded people, Fr Xavier has recently helped a group of young Adivasis walk towards a future of hope. “It all began last year on 1 July 2013. A young enthusiastic batch (average age 19 years) of over 60 Adivasi youth (including 15 women) began their Career Development Training (CDT) Course at Rajpipla Social Service Society (RSSS) in Narmada in Gujarat State. Their objectives were clear. They were eager to learn English and Computer skills, Karate, Leadership and Personality development, Socio-cultural analysis etc. This was the beginning of a long eleven-month journey that culminated on 31 May 2013. There were 285 days of hard work out of 320 total days… a herculean task achieved!

Education is the doorway to dignity and self-respect. Karate seems a strange subject to include with English and computer skills, but it enables young people to keep fit, develop self-confidence and also to defend themselves in an environment where they are constantly exposed to brutality and oppression.

Career Development Training is a completely new collaborative initiative to prepare Adivasi youth for a career beyond peasant farming, giving them dignity and the possibility of standing up to the multi-national companies which regularly take over Adivasi lands. A new hope was born, a new fire of faith enkindled to empower the participants to grow and to seek new frontiers and goals as  trainees found themselves able to say ‘I can and ‘We can. The trainers said, ‘We are not teaching you: it is you who are learning.’

Offer an education to a group of youngsters who have never had the opportunity to go to school and the chances are that they have a hunger and eagerness to learn which excel those of their counterparts in Britain, compelled by law to attend school and for whom much, if not all, of their education is taxpayer-funded.

Education, if it is to be worthy of respect, must benefit others. Not only were the Adivasi youth given the opportunity of a new future: they were expected to offer similar chances to others. As they studied English, the youngsters were also assigned to a residential primary school deep in the Adivasi tribal lands, to teach English (and karate!) to 393 children. Some even spent a week teaching English to High School children.

Why is it important for us to support the people in distant lands whom we are never likely to meet? Fr Xavier comments: “It is these groups who are in touch with real life. By coming to know and hear them, the inhuman world will become a bit more human. So in order to be more human and to have a humane world, we need the poor to tell us what life is and how one can live with zest and happiness with minimum use of material things and minimum exploitation of nature.”

Of course, from the very start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of the poor and marginalised. He saw the ‘no hopers’ of Buenos Aires and knows full well that, in the midst of their hardship, there are human hearts longing to make a difference to their own lives and those of others. He commented, "Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is filled with scandal. That is news, but the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way."

Perhaps, to the world at large, a certificate which has local holds little value. However, to someone who never expected to study, who never expected to hold a certificate of any kind, that paper is a treasure.

The Adivasi youngsters whom Fr Xavier helps are not an abstract concept. Pope Francis declared: "Look, you can't speak of poverty without having experience with the poor. You can't speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn't exist. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures. Go forward; look there upon the flesh of Jesus. But don't let wellbeing rob you of hope, that spirit of wellbeing that, in the end, leads you to becoming a nothing in life. Young people should bet on their high ideals."

As youngsters across the world wait expectantly for exam results, in some of the poorest parts of India, Fr Xavier’s students have already received their certificate, a piece of paper that makes all the difference in the world.