For many years, I have maintained that any development intervention needs to be contextually relevant and culturally appropriate. For a person who till recently had no formal ‘development’ or ‘public policy’ background, many have asked me the basis for this view. This view emerged from a unique experience I had nearly 22 years ago.
Muddiah, who belonged to the Yerava tribe, was one of the first persons to befriend us when we reached Brahmagiri in 1987. He was not only very helpful with the modest agriculture that we were attempting, but also offered counsel, many a times without we asking for it. We had just been given 5 acres of land by the Government at Hosahalli and were contemplating building a school there for the tribal children. The modest cowshed school at Brahmagiri had 28 children coming regularly and we needed to formalize the arrangement. The land at Hosahalli had to be used too. Word soon spread that we would be starting the school at Hosahalli with a regular brick and mortar structure. After a few days, a group of tribals belonging to the Jenukuruba tribe (honey gatherers) under the leadership of Masthi met me and dissuaded me from constructing any permanent structures at Hosahalli. They were very disturbed as the land given to us was a traditional burial ground of the Jenukurubas many decades ago. Though they were no longer using it to bury their dead, they felt that their ancient spirits would be disturbed and create trouble not only for me and the school children but also to the entire Jenukuruba clan who lived in that ‘Jamma’ (traditional area under the control of a Chieftain belonging to one particular tribe).
Soon, other ‘Yajamanas’ also met me and asked me to drop this idea of a school. When they felt that I could not be dissuaded, they told me that they would be informing the people of their respective clan not to send the children to the school if it was built there.
I was shattered as I realized that this was no empty threat. The tribals are emotional people who deeply believe that the spirits of the past should be respected and not be disturbed. I realized that the school would remain empty without the children, whom the chieftains could easily order to stay away from. The rational side of me was negating this view and wanted to go ahead and build the school. I felt that the resistance would gradually wear away and I could have my way. This was the voice of inexperience speaking. On the other hand, I felt that I could not ignore the sentiments of the people whom we had come to serve. How paradoxical it would be if they could not find a voice in issues that concerned them and their children!
Not knowing what to do, I poured out my problems to Muddiah as we walked our way to Hosahalli one evening. While he had admired my courage in deciding to come and live amongst them, he was always amused at my ‘urban ignorance’ and lack of native wisdom. He cautioned me to think pragmatically and reminded me that apart from the small dispensary, this was the largest project that we were conceiving for the tribals. If the people rejected this, then I would have to pack up and leave for good. I felt more desolate. I had hoped him to give me a pep talk and some usable advice, but here he was, adding fuel to fire.
As we continued speaking, he suggested that whatever we did had to find the acceptance of local people. While he agreed that it needed to be in line with the demands of the current day realities, he said that it had to have the approval of the tribal elders too. And then, he gave me a very simple solution. He suggested that I approach Masthi and ask him to call the spirits and find out what needed to be done to build a school at Hosahalli. He suggested that I mention that we were ready to make the traditional tribal offerings to the spirits if they showed us a way. He came along with me to Masthi and both of them had a very long conversation, quoting precedences and talking fondly about history. Though both belonged to different tribes, they had much in common. Finally Masthi agreed to talk to the spirits and keep me informed of their decision.
A few weeks later, Masthi met me and informed me that the spirits had agreed to have a school, as it would benefit the tribal children and impact their future positively. They had advised Masthi to make appropriate offerings and gently lead them on an amavasya (new moon) night from the large Banyan tree at Hosahalli to the Gundre Maramma temple inside the forest. Muddiah was with him and gently broke the news to me that the spirits loved raw tobacco and native liquor. Being the staunch anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol activist, I was at my wits end. It was Muddiah’s pragmatism that saved the day. He said that I need not take part in the rites and had to only give him the money to procure the tobacco and alcohol. He and Masthi would make sure that the offerings were made to the spirits. We did go ahead with the traditional tribal rites and there was a lot of dancing and singing as Masthi led the spirits into the forest. He kept imploring them to leave the place and not disturb the children. A few months later, we built our first class room and today we have a large bustling campus from which hundreds of children have graduated. If this is not contextually relevant and culturally appropriate, what else is? This was my first true lesson in this context and I was fortunate to have a pragmatist like Muddiah teaching me.