Monday, December 21, 2009

Driving, dancing and discussion

Last weekend, I went with over 30 women from the communities we support to a tribal women’s empowerment workshop. At 7pm on Friday we all loaded into 3 jeeps - 13 people in each (excluding babes-in-arms) - for the 5 hour drive to Sonapur, a smallish town in Western Orissa. I always forget just how bumpy the roads are but on this occasion every bump landed me in the lap of my next-door neighbour so I spent the journey hanging onto the dashboard and gear-stick as we motored through the night. On arrival, supper was provided for the VIP guests – a delicious concoction of meat and veg as well as the ubiquitous rice and dhal -after which I was walked across the road to check into my hotel.It was a clean but simple affair although I was slightly disappointed to be separated from the rest of my group who were not deemed to be VIPs and were staying at a local school. Next morning, after tea and tiffin at a street stall, I arrived at the venue at 9am as requested to find the only people there were my travelling companions from the night before. Slowly, however, people began to arrive and plonk themselves cross-legged on the green matting under the stripy red and yellow awning and by about 11 there seemed to be enough people there for proceedings to begin. Whilst various, and I’m sure very rousing, speeches were given in Oriya, I spent my time looking at the audience. Tribal women from all over the state had come, accompanied by their small children, each wearing their traditional costumes and jewelery. Some were dressed in identical saris – they make their own using long-established patterns - and some wore saris that were tied more like a UK halter-neck dress and finished just above the knee but the highlight for me (and it appeared the organisers) was two girls from the remote and primitive Dongria Khond tribe who sport intricate hairstyles including numerous grips and a range of elaborate necklaces. Just as I was beginning to get bored, the entertainment arrived which included a five-piece band and a couple of entertainers. It took a double take to realise that both were men as one was dressed in a sari and a fetching plastic hair band. After a few quick twirls they were joined by everyone in the audience for a mass tribal dance accompanied by the drums and pipes of the band and then we retired for lunch. This was served in traditional Indian fashion – we all sat cross-legged on the floor and rice, dhal and subji (vegetable curry) was served from metal buckets which you ate with your hand off plates made from leaves. It’s an immensely efficient way to feed what must have been more than 500 people although I was less efficient at getting the rice into my mouth as opposed to all over my clothes. After more speeches in the afternoon, a cultural extravaganza was laid on in the evening with both traditional and tribal dancing and song and I retired to bed exhausted in preparation for that jolting journey back home the next day. Click here to see more photos. Click here to see where Sonapur is.

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