The Grihini women now call me thatha which means grandpa. I am honoured to be part of the Grihini family and accept that title today. 22 years ago, the Kodaikanal International School in, South India, of which I was principal, was about to construct a new Middle School to meet the needs of ambitious international students. The time came for us to lay the foundations. I expected a cement truck to arrive and pour the concrete into the holes dug for the foundations. Instead, trucks of rocks arrived followed by groups of women.
Many of these women were teenagers, the same age as the students studying at my school. The task of these women was to sit beside the road and use a small hammer to smash the large rocks into screenings small enough to be used in the concrete. All day they smashed rocks into small pieces for about a dollar.
When I asked who these young women were, I was told they were Dalits. I was informed that they were nobody important, just coolie labourers and not to worry. I realised that many of these women should be in school rather than smashing rocks to construct school for their affluent peers. How could I espouse education if I ignored the injustice that was part of the very construction of my own school.
I discussed these issues with friends in St Louis and their response was to give us $4,000.00 to initiate a program. Upon returning to India, I discussed with my wife Jan Orrell how these funds might best be used. She had been reading the work of Manushi in the North and that of Jessie Tellis Nayak and proposed that we form a local social action group to explore the possibilities.
Janice Orrell’s Story
In 1984-5 I was teaching literacy to women animators in remote villages near Dindigul, South India.. These women would work all day as coolie labourers, feed their families and then try to find time to attend a literacy class 5 nights a week. They wanted to be able to read public notices, bus signs and more. But access to an education was difficult for these women because they had so many responsibilities with so few resources and such little support.
Back in Kodaikanal, I took a deep interest in the women who carried huge loads of wood gathered from the forest and paused for a rest near our house. With the help of Maria Selvi, our cook, I tried understand their lot in life.
These women with head loads had little or no education. They were often abused by forestry workers, would get little money for their loads and saw no chance of change. Few people saw their worth or the value of their work.
As a privileged educator, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to do something. I was arrogant enough to assume that my Australian education and feminism would provided some explanation, but did not seem practical in these conditions. I often felt that I was part of the problem.
I heard many in India espouse the approach of Paulo Freire, but few were able to translate his principles into programs and appropriate strategies for the poor uneducated village women. A hierarchical approach to education still prevailed in India at every level despite the genuine commitment and Freire’s principles were taught in didactic fashion. It was a strange contradiction. I was fortunate to find a group of like-minded people willing to develop a program that was learning oriented not teacher oriented.
Grihini is more than teaching literacy; Grihini is developing an awareness and understanding about the realities of village life and learning how to begin the process of change. In that process, women begin to restore a sense of self-worth. It has been a privilege to have been part of Grihini and I am honoured now to be part of the Grihini family and be called Jan-amma, mother Jan.
Fr Arokiam’s Story
As one of the people associated with Grihini from the very beginning, I tend to be called appa, ‘father,’ both because I am a priest and because I have been accepted as a senior member of the Grihini family.
Initially I was hesitant about getting involved in the women’s program that Jan Orrell was initiating. After all I was a man, a Jesuit priest and heavily involved in rehabilitating both men and women who had been part of the bonded labour case. Since when did Jesuit priests promote the cause of women? Fr Amalraj and I were more interested in leading a revolution for the freed labourers than worrying about women!
Then our paths crossed and have been crossing ever since. I needed a place where I could show a film called An Indian Dream to the bonded labour repatriates as part our rehabilitation program. A local Jesuit refused us his space and TV. I then approached Dr Habel, already involved in the bonded labour case, who happily gave us the use of the auditorium at Kodai School. Several days each week, freed labourers crowded into the facilities of an international school, something that did not go unnoticed by the local officials or the local community.
Jan Orrell then took the opportunity of visiting the freed labourers housed at La Providence, a Jesuit retreat centre with considerable property. She suggested that some of the property be used to establish a special program for the forgotten women of the Kodai Hills.
I say forgotten quite deliberately. For 100 years the Jesuits had been active in the Kodai Hills, but for 100 years the Jesuits had done nothing to help the women and nothing to lift the Dalits and Tribals of the area. For 100 years Dalits and Tribals had been labourers in the coffee plantations owned by the Jesuit. For 100 years Dalits and Tribals had been ‘baptised but never educated.’ As one old Jesuit said, when the first women came to Grihini, ‘They should be out catching crabs not trying to read.’
It was the unbelievable vision, drive and insights of Jan Orrell that was the catalyst for bringing together key people who made the Grihini dream a reality. Of course, I was sceptical. Jesuits are not feminists! Yet, the principles, approaches and compassion of those who supported Jan convinced us that a Grihini experiment was worth trying.
In spite of all the doubt and opposition, the transformation in the women of that first class and the reaction in the home villages convinced us that it was time Jesuit social justice theology ought to be put into practice for women!
Now we operate with an orientation that is diametrically opposite to what was espoused in the early days of Jesuit thinking. It was assumed that we should start from the top and educate those who were ‘intelligent’ with the hope that this would eventually lead to the redemption of those at the bottom, the Dalits and Tribals who were thought to be unintelligent.
After Grihini we think quite differently. Our task is to educate those at the bottom of the social ladder with the belief that they will eventually help those on the so-called top to understand their biases and also be liberated.
So, we start from the bottom. Criteria for selection into this program are related to the people at the bottom, the poorest of the poor. Selection to other programs is often related to merit and efficiency. One of Grihini’s criteria is illiteracy. If a girl has an education, it would be no more than 5th standard. Second criterion is coolie worker, third Kodaikanal rural women. The program has a clear ideology and ideals that are related to the poorest people at the bottom. This occurred because the organisers and originators had a sense of the oppressed. The program was designed to address the specific problem of the dehumanised and downtrodden women of the Kodai Hills. Now twenty years later, those at the bottom are more educated, but the need for social awareness and life-based education remains.
Dency Michael’s Story
Grihini is a family and in that family I am akka, the elder sister. All the women call me akka. It is important that we model the ideal that we are all equal members of a family.
Most educational institutions look for students with high IQs, high grades and high academic potential. As a teacher at Kodai International School I understand that perspective. I am involved in Grihini, however, because it is committed to helping the last of the least, the poor in the villages who are thought to be unintelligent.
My interest was sparked initially when I was acting as a translator for Jan Orrell as she developed the Grihini program. When I saw her genuine commitment to educating the last of the least, the poorest of the poor in the villages, I too was inspired to join their struggle for liberation.
I did not have the resources or connections to help fund the program, but I was a local who knew the scene, free to give of my time and ready to provide personal support as an akka.
I also saw the Spirit of God at work in the amazing way that new hope was being engendered in the poorest women of the hills. My family has been Christian for five generations. This was the first time, however, that I really saw Christians in Kodai working to liberate the Dalit poor. I too was ready to take a stand. I am local but liberated.