Project Koraput: I am this, I am that. I am not this, I am not that.

by Jen Saffron
March 19, 2012

“It is impossible to think of a democracy which recognizes ‘untouchability’
as a part of one’s individual Dharma or as a permissible
form of religion or social prejudice.”

– wall text from the Freedom Struggles Museum at the Red Fort, Delhi

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Church in Nandaguda, a village of mud houses along a dirt road off of a dirt road, proved not unlike any Pentecostal service in the U.S.  Except for the woman rattling off a prayer in Oriya language and the offering, which included a juvenile chicken, several coconuts, repurposed plastic containers filled with rice and $8.  This will be redistributed to the Koraput survivors – the poor giving to the poorer.

While Lynn documented the service, I slipped from the altar’s plastic chair to the back, sitting on the floor among the women and small children, staying out of Lynn’s compositions and making eye contact with parishioners, making note of the strong spirits despite tough poverty.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

After service, I looked up from my backpack and found myself surrounded by the villagers, asking for blessings on their heads! Looking each person in the face and hearing their prayer requests, across languages, I came to a new place of humility, especially when I arrived at the four shining young women in bright yellow, aqua, and green saris, the women who led the church singing. Debendra Singh says, “When you sing, the pouring of the spirit is like wind that moves, touching everybody.  The wind has no barriers.”  These young women are like that – no barriers, the wind.

Following lunch of heaping mounds of white rice with gourd curry, we took off into the hill country to meet the Koraput survivors.  Along the hair-raising mountain route where our driver played “chicken” with oncoming trucks, we passed graceful women in saris, walking with wide pans of dirt perched on their heads, hacking at the red clay and mixing concrete.  Coolie work.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

All around us, people teeter on bamboo scaffolding, haul large rocks, dig latrines, and clear out clogged trash from open sewers.  This is the coolie work of the “untouchables”, the lowest caste, people everyone else relies on to do their dirty jobs.  Standing in gorgeous flowing fabrics, they are picked up at the coolie stop in the morning and hauled off to filthy worksites to make things right for the rich.

Before the violent attacks on their village, the Koraput Survivors owned small shops, sold kerosene out of their homes, peddled fabric door to door, tilled the land.  They had their own.  Now, they are coolie labor, performing backbreaking work under the Indian sun.

Approaching the Koraput camp, families calmly came out to greet us, shaking our hands with a traditional greeting. We entered the camp yard with a cooking fire – upon sat two cauldrons, each a yard in diameter and filled with dal and rice. Church service was in the same yard, under a stretched burlap tarp, plastic lawn chairs up front for the honored guests and parishioners seated on the ground.  Same deal – we retreated to the back to observe, listen, and document.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Following benediction, instead of asking for blessings on their heads, a town hall meeting sprang forth. The pertinent topic while passing around photographs Lynn brought: how to use the $2500USD that we collected.  Micro-loans?  Food?  Build one house and two foundations?  What about the other 57 houses?  It’s a big dream, and big dreams come with big frustrations.

We could feel the group darkening as the Pastor interpreted our questions and people responded.  A little pit formed in my throat as it became apparent they thought we would finance all 60 homes.  In fact, we’re no saviors, we’ve come with questions.  We’ve come to commence rebuilding with them, not for them.  I started thinking of Ivan Illich’s essay, “To Hell with Good Intentions.” After solid deliberation, it was determined to continue building consensus after people could talk it over.

The next day, Lynn crafted 75 individual portraits of people in the camp, of their dignified faces in the late afternoon light.  This is important camera work – to make a portrait of the one who is never regarded, establishing and celebrating the faces of the untouchables, society’s throwaways.  It was a celebration – gathering around laughing and watching friends sit for portraits.  We asked their name, age, and what they used to do for a living, before their tragedy. Cow seller.  Goat butcher.  Seamstress.  Completing their university degree.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Over lunch, I took respite in a cool, concrete room and talked with one of the few who speaks English.  I asked him what he would do if he had a micro loan.  “I’d sell men’s shirts,” Bhubendra Patra said, “just like my father.”  Hopefully, a dream realized, soon.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.