Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Caryl introduces: The Third World Club

Anyone who knows me knows that I love India. I have traveled to the subcontinent five times in the last seven years: twice for weddings (one Hindu, one Jain), once to pick up my daughter from her semester abroad in Tamil Nadu, and the others for no particular reason other than my inexplicable addiction to India. I have been to the Golden Triangle, the hill stations and the backwaters, and the temples and the palaces, but no place has been as memorable or moving as my trip last spring to Orissa with its tribal people. 

India has more than 400 tribes, and 62 of them live in the coastal state of Orissa. Their lives and work (hunting, gathering, fishing) are controlled by the supernatural forces that reside in the hills, forests, rivers and village huts. To see the tribal people, one must drive hundreds of kilometers on primitive roads (if roads at all) and arrive on market day when the women come down from the mountains to trade. They walk barefoot for two to three hours each way with babies on their hips, chickens under their shawls, vegetables in baskets on their heads. They come to sell what they grow or raise and buy what they need.

The women, who in some tribes wear little to no clothing in their villages, dress for the often arduous trek from the mountains. They come with their swaddled babies and with their older children in tow but nary a man unless you count the fellow with the bow and arrow who protects them from the occasional jaguar. They wear swags of clothe they have woven themselves, ornaments and jewelry they've made from aluminum and brass and beads. Those over five years of age sport tattoos. The older women wear multiple neck rings to protect them from animal attacks. A woman could survive if she lost a limb but not if the beast went for her neck.

The women of this Third World Club are desperately poor and often sick. Almost all of them are anemic, many have parasites and other intestinal problems, malaria is widespread. (Such common Western diseases as hypertension and diabetes,however, are absent). In some tribes, the life expectancy is mid-30s, the longest last into their late 40s. Girls marry around 16 and give birth on average to five babies. The incidence of maternal and infant mortality runs high. In the Kutra Konda tribe, a woman gives birth alone, half-squatting, holding a rope attached to a house, enabling her to bear down and push out the baby. In the Bonda tribe--my favorite for their elaborate market dress although they are naked in the villages-- the women marry younger men so that their husbands will take care of them in their older years.

These women will not have second lives. In the United States and most of the Western world, we can expect to live 30 years longer than in the 20th century—a second adulthood until nearly 90. Members of the Second Life Club tend to be educated, affluent and accomplished. We are the lucky and the privileged, if only for the accidental circumstances of our birthplace. Recently, Maryl and I put up a new banner celebrating some of the women from our posts. (Can you identify them? Helpful hint: One you won’t find mentioned on our blog: She’s my best friend from high school). We put these pictures up so that you could see yourselves. (Have you noticed that our culture seldom depicts women our age.) The banner is a way to celebrate our collective lives and inspire our future years. Still, I can't help thinking we should use our talents and our extra three decades to figure out a way to help our sisters in the Third World, don’t you? I’m working on it. To encourage you to figure out ways we can do this together, I offer you just for now another banner –a tribute to the members of the Third World Club, the often invisible and ignored tribal women of Orissa.

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