Emmaus International

Grégoire is a volunteer for Emmaus International. He is visiting Emmaus organisations in Asia in order to find out how they are involved in the Emmaus movement’s priority areas. Grégoire met Saroja during his trip and wrote this profile of her.

150416 recits de volontaires Gregoire Saroja

Saroja’s eyes sparkle when she speaks. Her fighting spirit and strength shine through, despite the trials and tribulations that she has faced. Her body is tired and her lined face makes her look a little older than her stated age of 57, yet no trace of weariness can be heard in her voice. Perched on the woven rope bed in the house she shares with six people in the village of Kunnappakkam, she tells me her tale in vivid Tamil. Her struggles speak volumes about the daily lives of people in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu (pronounced by clicking the tongue on the T and D), the difficulties encountered by women and the situation of a large swathe of the Dalits.

All the village’s inhabitants are in fact Dalits, who used to be known as the ‘untouchables'. They mainly make a living by working in the fields (most often the farms belong to landowners from higher castes) or in the many stone quarries in the surrounding area. Apart from the fact that operating these quarries uses up the small amount of groundwater left in the area, worsening the drought caused by four years of poor monsoons, quarrying also creates a thick layer of dust, which is harmful to the crops and causes a significant number of health problems. At a time when subsisting is a daily struggle and Dalit campaigns rarely have a positive outcome, the achievements of Saroja and her community are a real success story. The community has obtained from their local councillors help to access decent housing, they have got a proper access road built to the village and have got a minibus connection to a public transport system. They have also managed to get a proper cremation ground built for the Dalits; this is very important to them as they are not allowed to cremate their dead in the same places as caste members.

150416 recits de volontaires Gregoire Saroja 2
Migrant workers in a marble quarry, mainly from Odisha (Orissa) and Rajasthan.

Saroja is very proud of these achievements and is also proud to have reached 8th standard at school in the 1970s (GCSE equivalent), even though the female literacy rate in India in 1990 only stood at 34%. Saroja could talk forever about the 17 years she has spent working with the Village Community Development Society (VCDS) and the long way they have come together since their first stormy encounter: she laid into the VCDS staff members who came to her village, wrongly believing that they were a gang of child thieves about which there were rumours circulating at that time. Saroja has a smile on her lips as she goes back over the tale, happily listing her struggles and brandishing her successes like standards. She talks about each and every success story in order to illustrate the improvements to daily life in her community, ranging from the opening of a primary school and health centre in the village as a result of petitions to the organization of a self-help group with local women. Their association is now able to secure bank loans to fund small projects. Saroja was also at the head of a movement calling for an investigation into corruption in the Primary Co-Operative Society, tasked with distributing rice, sugar, flour and kerosene to the population. The society’s managers were convicted, an extremely rare occurrence in this country blighted by corruption.

Her smile remains in place when she talks about the toughest times in her life, her arranged marriage at the age of 16 and, remaining evasive, the ensuing 'problems’. She told me about her husband refusing to let her accept the post of civil servant offered to her by Tamil Nadu Regional Government at a time when her husband was unemployed and they were going hungry. When Saroja approached VCDS about becoming the facilitator of Navajyothi Women’s Movement, it took weeks to convince the head of the household to allow his wife to work. Despite his extreme reluctance at the time, her husband now says that he is ‘honoured’ by the scale of the progress achieved by Saroja.

She also told us about the fire that hit her village, destroying seven houses including her own, three years ago. The fire was caused by one of the many DIY electrical wiring jobs found in the houses. The heat burned down the houses with woven coconut leaf roofs (the poorest families’ homes) and cracked the walls of the more solid dwellings. VCDS swiftly covered the cost of the reconstruction work but was only able to fund coconut leaf houses. Saroja would like at the very least to rebuild proper solid walls, but she is unable to raise the 50,000 rupees needed (roughly €730). She would especially like to have solid walls as it would stop two cobras from returning. The snakes entered her house a few days previously and scared her two-year-old grandson. When I asked her how she reacted to the intrusion by these poisonous snakes, she readjusted her sari, which was knotted Tamil style, and, having firstly stated that she venerates snakes, said, “I gently pushed them back outside."

150416 recits de volontaires Gregoire Saroja 3Saroja's family’s new house