In Need of Light – Diwali in India

In need of light...

In need of light…

Last week’s lament about small farmers was saturated in angst. It wasn’t something I spun from thin air, it wasn’t from a gut emotion, spat out for the fun of the exercise.

My frustration is a product of the many conversations I’ve had over the past twelve months with small farmers, most of them the ‘smallest farmers of all’, women. Many of the challenges women farmers are facing, I’ve learned, are systemic: created by cultural patriarchy, world governments and financial institutions, and straight up, human greed. Difficult to write about, even more difficult to undo.

After posting up last week’s article, a part of me felt embarrassed for sounding off like an angst-y teenager. If my message had been oral, it would have been full of accusations and voice cracking shrieks. Visually, it would have been flushed cheeks and pit stains.

Did you take me seriously? Maybe, if I didn’t know what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken me seriously, either. I would have understood, but I would have felt sorry for that me for opening bleeding out like an angry wound all over a faceless, unnamable offender.

Obviously, I’m in need of something, some quality of light. Some flint of goodness and hope and positive energy, again. I want to feel buoyant, open hearted.

After the first round of first draft writing, I’m ready to get out from behind my computer, from many long days spent without conversation, without much human interaction, from entirely too much introspection and reflection on the women and their words and their meanings (of asking myself, did I hear what she really meant to say? I’m I the right person to be writing this book, these stories?) and back into the gardens of women farmers.

Well, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Diwali, a 4-day Hindu celebration of 'light over darkness'

Diwali, a 4-day Hindu celebration of ‘light over darkness’

Tomorrow, I am traveling for India, a country that you and I and so many others have always dreamed of visiting. A country that I considered traveling to, nearly two years ago, to date, before I set off for Uganda. Today, I thank a good idea, a very unlikely arts grant and a karmic connection for taking me tomorrow to India in the midst of one of her largest festivals of the year: Diwali, or Deepavali (deep, light, avali, row), “The Row of Lights”.

Diwali is a spiritual and physical festival of light, celebrated by followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It’s a four-day festival, saturated with stories, rituals and symbolisms. I’m arriving in New Delhi, Wednesday morning, on the first day of the celebration – Naraka Chaturdasi – which marks the day Lord Krishna and his wife, Satyabhama, conquered the demon, Naraka.

Lakshmi, lotus goddess is the cause of celebration on Diwali, October 23rd, 2014

Lakshmi, lotus goddess is the cause of celebration on Diwali, October 23rd, 2014

On the second day, October 23rd, 2014, I’ll learn from my friends about the celebration and honor of Lakshmi, a goddess of love, wealth and physical and spiritual prosperity, the ‘one whose face is as beautiful as a lotus’. The goddess, Lakshmi intrigues me, and I wonder what she means to women who cultivate the earth. Do they entrust their hope with her?

The main symbolism of Diwali is ‘lightness over darkness, and goodness over evil’ and it’s expressed, literally, in the way of lighting candles and lanterns in the homes, and firecrackers in the skies. It’s expressed in burning incense, laying fruits and sweets made of coconut and rice, rituals that worship the Gods and Goddesses associated with each day of celebration.

The meaning of Diwali is to find light, reason and hope.

“From darkness unto light — the light that empowers us to commit ourselves to good deeds, that which brings us closer to divinity.”

I’m in need, even admitted want, of that kind of light these days. I hope the light lifts me, and then grounds me, reminding me of the truth I am after.

India is a country full of truth and stories, 1.2 billion stories, in fact.

Farmers in Tamil Nadu state - 66% of India's population are farmers, or farm laborers.

Farmers in Tamil Nadu state – 66% of India’s population are farmers, or farm laborers.

It’s the second most populated country in the world, a country comprised of millions of small farmers and laborers who make up nearly 66% of the population. Agriculture is the primary sector of the economy, with people growing oilseeds, pulses, vegetables and grains, including rice and millet.

Women in India, collectively, make an impressive contribution to household and export production. In the rural contexts, 86% of all female workers are involved in agriculture production, processing and distribution.

After the Diwali celebration wraps up, I’ll travel from New Delhi to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and specifically, the Madurai District – which is labeled as “the most backward state” by the state government (‘backward’ being a word I hope to unpack).

(Photo from Mitchell Kanashkevich's Travel and Photography Blog)

Madurai market. (Photo from Mitchell Kanashkevich’s Travel and Photography Blog)

Madurai is an area prone to extreme climactic events, including monsoons and drought, which has brought hardship to district’s population, mostly sustenance farmers and/or peasants who are employed as laborers on farms in the neighbouring district.

Similar to the Ugandan story of the woman farmer, women in southern India often lack access to (and control over) land and resource capital, and also, as the Arul Anandar College (AAC) calls it, “human capital.” Human capital can be described as the skills, knowledge, experiences, education and aptitudes embodied in individual humans; human capital is vital for human development, for being able to recognize the potentialities within, and how to negotiate new opportunities (and challenges/barriers) around them.

86% of rural female workers are involved in agriculture.

86% of rural female workers are involved in agriculture.

In Madurai, the AAC is trying to increase access to human capital for the rural population, many of them farmers and many of them women. It’s part of a ‘Lifelong Learning for Farmers’ program that was piloted in southern India in 2004.

“Lifelong Learning for Farmers is a process that empowers vulnerable rural men and women by enabling them to (1) gain knowledge; (2) create their own self-directed learning process; (3) organize themselves to solve problems of marketing their products and food security; (4) improve their living conditions and (5) increase their freedoms and independence through government support” (Arul Anandar College, Madurai District).

I’m excited for the opportunity to meet and interview women farmers who are participating in the LLF at the rural college, no matter their former level of education or literacy capacity.

Interestingly, the ACC uses an educational methodology called ‘The Light on a Wall’, which is a wall-mounted touch screen that enables a woman farmer to use technology (video and audio) to seek information and best practices on crop cultivation and livestock care. Apparently, they call the learning technology ‘The Light on a Wall’ because it helped shed light to the lives of farmers in Madurai.

I’m eager for my departure to India tomorrow. I’m excited to learn more about women farmers in southern India and the challenges and opportunities they’re facing. I can’t wait to see and try and understand some of India’s light and some of her darkness, too.

After all, how can we define the light without triumphing against the dark?


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