It was hot, dusty and humid in Pitchampatti. Probably around 38 degrees. The students tumbled out of the buses and stood around, fanning themselves and sweating, not quite knowing what to do. They were there to listen to and question the villagers. Their guides spoke to members of the local Women’s Federation Group in this Dalit village, not far from Aundipatti, itself a sizeable market town in Tamil Nadu.

The call went out and people started to appear on the dusty street. Children ran to the students, eager for their photos to be taken, chattering and laughing; posing seriously for the camera.

The group looked on with more bemusement as empty rice and millet sacks were dragged out of stables and store-rooms and laid down to make a long rectangle in the middle of the street. Cattle and goats were smacked out of the way. Women carrying bundles of grass walked carefully around the improvised carpet upon which people were starting to settle. That extraordinary ability to sit up straight on the ground for long periods of time, saris wrapped around the feet.

The guides introduced the six students from a school in Switzerland and explained that they were visiting Arogya Agam and wanted to hear about their daily lives, jobs, education, and, being Dalit, what everyday problems they face. People started chattering and giggling together; one of the WFG leaders called the meeting ‘to order’ and asked for the first question. Silence – and then, “What’s it like being a Dalit?” -  a bit broad but a reasonable start.

As it turned out, that was the key. Hands shot up, people stood and called; there was a lot of laughing, but some grim faces, too. They started to tell about hard lives, few prospects and discrimination and resignation, about how they were forced to take a separate path to the well; they must draw their water when all others have finished. About the path that they were forced to take to the temple. About the jobs that were only done by the Dalit: carrying the news of a death, carrying the corpse to be burned. About the ‘two-cup’ discrimination in tea-shacks; when the owner would keep Dalit cups separate from his others. And spitting and insults and discrimination in schools, from teachers and other students alike. About the ever present money-lenders, who could tie a family up in debt and poverty for generations for the price of a wedding.

It soon became clear, however, that it wasn’t all bad news; more children and teenagers were going to school than ever before. There were rumblings of unrest from the young adults in the crowd, but some had broken away from tradition and restriction and made a living by selling their own produce or worked in a garage, small but important steps up the social ladder.

Finally, after an hour of talk, back and forth, a man shook his stick; he wanted to speak. He was very old, with long, stringy hair and rags for clothes. The other villagers knew him well and he was helped to his feet from the box he was sitting on. In a wavering voice he announced that he had something to say. His enunciation was not helped by his three only remaining teeth. What he said, pausing for the translation, was that in spite of all their hardships and disadvantages, they had something to be very proud of. With that he turned and pointed with his stick to a young woman standing at the back of the group, pretty in a red and white sari. She was, he said, the first person from the village to go to college. And she was a woman. There was much cheering and laughter and applause; the young woman looked embarrassed but pleased at the same time. She was, as it turned out, indeed in her second year of computer studies. This was progress unimaginable a few years beforehand.

Returning to Arogya Agam the group of visitors split up and retired to their rooms. The girls were sharing two rooms but congregated in one, picking their way around luggage and flopping on the beds. Usually, the time between the end of a visit and dinner was a quiet one. It was dark and still hot and everyone rested after their day. Tonight, however, it was different in the girls’ accommodation. Heated discussion could be heard, with loud, high-pitched voices. When the girls came through the trees to the dining room they were unusually subdued and spoke in quiet voices to their immediate neighbours.

John, the Director of Arogya Agam, asked,  ”What’s the problem? Did you not enjoy your visit to the village?” No, quite the opposite, they had been hugely impressed, and depressed, by hearing the experiences of the villagers. How can people live like that? It’s so unfair! Why doesn’t the government do more to stop the discrimination!

But the point of their argument in their rooms had been about the enthusiastic suggestion of one of the girls. Charlotte thought that it was disgraceful that the villagers had to meet in the street, sitting on the ground. It was obvious that this type of village meeting was useful – it had also been well organised and the people were respectful to one another, with good manners, allowing everyone to speak. “Better than in our classrooms”, someone noted, “or my family!” which relaxed everyone more. Charlotte continued, “What they need is a dedicated meeting space; an open-sided building near the centre of the village where they can congregate and have talks. It should be protected from the monsoon rain and it should have lights so that they can hold dances and even weddings there! And we should collect money and get it for them, it wouldn’t cost too much and John will see that they get it.” Charlotte suggested that she, as a good singer, could hold a concert to raise funds.

Others jumped in now, with competing demands for fund-raising – this is what the earlier discussion had been about. What about the HIV+ orphans whom the clinic was looking after? What about the clinic itself with its tuberculosis patients? What about the Palliar hill tribes? They were really poor and needed a helping hand, if anybody did. The ideas came tumbling out; each arguing the case for  the different sections of the community that they had seen in a crowded six day visit.

John waited for a pause when attention was turned to the food, which was always good. He then started to explain how Arogya Agam worked. Co-operation was vital. Villagers identifying their own needs and goals was essential. And working with all the villages in the area was a key element of any success they had had in moving projects forward. All of the ideas for fund-raising were very good and the enthusiasm of the group was gratifying. Like all groups, however, the Dalit needed a sense of identity; especially to take them beyond the identity of their caste. This meant that they had to feel part of a larger group than just their own village; “They need to feel that they’re all in it together for a better future.”

Because of this, John continued, no one village could be seen to be a ‘favourite’; this would be quickly noticed by the others and would, as in all small communities, breed envy and resentment, which could destroy months of trust-building work and split the communities from one another. If you provide new infrastructure for one village it must be part of a plan for them all. “You’re right. A dedicated meeting space is a great idea; but let the villagers come to it by themselves, as one of their priorities. You may have to be patient; they have many issues to deal with: legal claims, cases of discrimination, health care issues, marital violence, loan sharks, alcoholism, plus all the stories you heard this afternoon.” He encouraged Charlotte to hold her concert, and everyone else to support her. “We will discuss with you the focus for your fund-raising so that your donors are not overwhelmed, and we will guarantee that the resulting funds are managed and spent carefully; you will receive progress reports. One thing is certain, though; when you talk about the Dalit and the Palliar you will be able to do so with authority: you have been here, you have seen and heard, you know what it is like. Your job is to go and tell their story.”

This post was written by Clive Greaves, an acclaimed teacher and school principal, now contributing to IgnitED. We were discussing the complexity of encouraging students to create change which would in Google's words, "do no harm"  - and maybe even do some good. Often not easy.

*Photo Credit: Two soles, One Status by JOhn H / Flickr CC