Project Koraput: I’m Workin’ on a Building

by Jen Saffron
March 21, 2012 

Thy seat, O brave one,

is empty today –

fill it with your valor.

– Rabindranath Tagore

The Koraput survivors traveled an hour by bus with pick axes, shovels and pans, cramming into a tuk tuk for the last segment, arriving on the reddish land that is now theirs.  They came to dig the first house foundation on their recently purchased parcel, seeking to settle on the outskirts of Nandaguda with a total of 60 homes.

Laxman, an elderly man in a pink tank top, blue lungi and sandals, instructed the younger men to stake out the trench dimensions, and green twine appeared.  The plumb line secured with a small bamboo stick, it was time.  Pick axes raised high, they began excavating the earth into 2-foot deep footers, the older women clearing stones.  Sumitra, a sari clad woman in her early 30s, almost single handedly dug an entire trench in 95 degree heat.  I observed the frustration melting from her face, the build up of 4 years of living off crumbs.  Popun, her slight, adolescent son, looked on.

Laxman, just over 5 feet tall with a high-pitched voice, proved indomitable.  A man of about 60 in a state where the average life expectancy is 62, wielding a pick axe straight and true.  Laxman, the mason in his community, sharing his knowledge for the benefit of all.

It would be easy to cast these religious refugees as victims, to feel sorry for them, to assume they can’t do anything for themselves, that they don’t have knowledge or skills.  Not so.  Despite walking 22 kilometers in the night with their babies, through the jungle with the threat of snakes, tigers and elephants, despite the hardship of living in abandoned buildings, they choose to stay together and to keep the faith.  They didn’t fight the Hindu extremists, they instead chose to be warriors for their own lives, and in that way are becoming an inspiration to others.

The Nandaguda people notice their strength and dignity, too. As the sound of axes and shovels pitched on, a Hindu villager quietly appeared with an offering for the sweaty group: two beautiful papayas.  Earlier that same day, I spotted an older woman in a sari, approaching with a deliberate gait.  She came bearing the news to Debendra Singh, her pastor: this morning, people came to the Hindu woman’s parcel and began measuring.  Were we buying this, too?

Nandaguda runs on the timeless engine of all villages: word of mouth, women’s work, and preserving the common good. Pastor Singh already talked with the Nandaguda people, among them his own parishioners, asking them about their feelings that landless refugees sought to resettle 100 yards from them.  How did they feel that a group 20 families larger than their own, with new ideas and customs, would join them in the fields outside of Jeypore?  For the most part, people had come around to the idea.

But, the Nandaguda Hindu woman had not wanted to sell.  Was it because of the Christians, or her mistrust of outsiders?  Her parcel of land in Nandaguda, blackened by field fire, abuts the Koraput survivors’ land.  Procuring her parcel means space for latrines, vegetable gardens, a paved road, perhaps another bore well.  The future health and safety of the community depends on it.

Meeting Time, by Jen Saffron 2012

Talk turned dark as Debendra started to worry – someone saw us, someone saw the white people walking on her land, and now she will jack up the price, because she has a prize.  Who will get it?  Did someone already make an offer?  If not, Debendra had better or someone else would, and the loss would be too great.  He had already deliberated over that parcel, because without it, the new village would be hemmed in on all sides, no room to grow. How can we start building houses AND get the land?

Debendra and the Koraput men met in a circle, talked it out, and decided they would approach the Hindu woman and buy the land.  For now the priority is clear, but how it would happen would be by the grace of God.  Debendra paid a frail old man 10 rupees to find the Hindu woman and carry the word, and he went off on his ancient bicycle, in search.

Deed to the Land, with the Koraput Survivors, by Lynn Johnson 2012


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.