One week into my research trip to India, I followed Chanchal and Harish hiking up the muddy mountain path for about an hour. Occasionally, a man with a line of donkeys and pack horses ringing bells around their necks would pass us going down.
We sat down to rest near the top. Cows and goats grazed on the slope above us, tended by a band of children and a delicate wrinkled grandmother who crouched in the grass, looking off into the sky. Someone had a radio (I thought) because there was music trickling down the slope. The kids were laughing, twirling their umbrellas, and dancing in a carefree, energetic, Bollywood kind of way.
Wow. Welcome to Sukna.
(I later figured out the radio was a mobile phone. Wow, Nokia knows their users pretty well.)
|A glimpse of Sukna on the path up. You can barely see the white houses in the middle.|
Another 10 minutes down the path, and we arrived at the Sukna branch of Avani, a mini-building where women from the village weave and spin.
|An Avani mini-campus branch (just one building) only reachable by foot and donkey. Of course, this one is solar-powered, too.|
Other times the conversation was not so obvious. They would chatter and laugh and talk at me as if I understood. Sometimes I made up my own conversation in English to talk back at them, because it was just too strange not to reply.
|An Avani employee carrying dyed hand-spun silk yarn.|
|The woman on the right is taking a break from twisting the tassles on stoles. Mina, the little girl, just sat and watched or would run outside to play with the other kids.|
|It's really quite amazing that Avani opened a branch out here in this remote village so that these women can continue to live with their families while they earn an income.|
|Chanchal is basically the most amazing person ever. He's one of Avani's lead technicians, and he is really sharp, humble, and gentle. I really appreciated his Kumaoni translating skills. I originally met him at IDDS in Ghana in 2009.|
|The hardcore rock-carriers. The woman on the far left had such a strong personality, I was blown away by her presence.|
|Sukna women sure know how to do hard labor in style.|
I was a little shy, but finally I worked up the courage to ask for a head cloth from Chanchal and I tried carrying rocks with them. It was hard, but it was fun. The women were laughing, chatting, the sun was shining, we jumped from stone to stone on the path to avoid the mud.
They wouldn't let me carry stones that were too big. Once, when a man was loading the stones on my head, I convinced him to let me carry three, almost the same load as the other women. Then, of course, I ruined all chances of that ever happening again when I slipped in the mud and fell over. The rocks slid off my head and cut my hand. Laughing with embarrassment, I told them,"No problem. No problem," put the rocks back on my head and finished the route with them. On the way back I stopped back at the Avani branch to clean up the blood on my hand - it wasn't bad at all, just some larger than usual paper cuts on some of my fingers.
Then I tried to go back and carry more rocks, but the women refused to let me carry much at all. And teased me endlessly about falling down. It was really hilarious.
At night, Chanchal and Harish took me around to some of the houses to watch people cook. An important part of my Master's thesis concerns the indoor air pollution caused by traditional biomass fires used by literally billions of people to cook. The smoke from these fires is really dirty, and it gets into women and children's lungs, making them very vulnerable to respiratory diseases. The UN estimates that 1.6 million people die every year from chronically inhaling cooking smoke.
|A lightbulb hangs in the doorway of a smoky kitchen. This house has an electrical connection, but electricity is far too expensive and unreliable to use for cooking. Most of the houses in Sukna have some electricity, either through Avani's solar program, or the grid connection that the government installed later.|
As we walked around, the people were absolutely lovely, inviting us into their homes, showing their kitchens, chatting as they stirred, rolled, boiled and chopped. The kitchens were super smoky, my eyes teared up and I kept coughing. Although now I understand a little better why most cooking happens on the ground, and not on a counter or table - there's much more smoke the higher you stand, the lower to the ground you are, the less smoke there is.
|Chanchal asked if I could take pictures of the kitchen, and the father agreed, so I started snapping shots. Then the mother came. I showed them some of the pictures, and then the kids started jumping in the shots, too. I'm going to print out a lot of these photos and send them with the D-Lab India trip that's going back in January so that people that are in them can have them, too.|
|This woman brought a solar light into the kitchen when we came as guests. Here, she's in the middle of making some chapati.|
|Mmmmm...whole wheat chapati, my favorite.|
|I love this photo. There's a type of wood with more sap that people use for lighting. This woman posed with the light and asked me to take her picture.|
|And this guy *really* wanted me to take a picture of him smoking. I think there's enough smoke in this kitchen already, buddy...|
The next morning, we went out again to the houses.
Here's what one row of houses looks like. They are traditionally constructed with stone and slate, but Chanchal says that these days people usually pay for concrete to be carried up the mountain on the donkey trains.
We spent maybe an hour at this row of houses. It started pretty empty, with a person appearing every now and then out of a window or walking through the year. We sat at the side, chatted, and drank chai with a grandmother.
After some time, women came out of the houses and started bringing out livestock. Notice in the first picture, the very lowest doors closest to the ground? This is where the animals are kept. Little did I know that each practically harbors a whole zoo. This is what the yard looked like after some time, filled with goats, cows, and buffalo.
I *love* the buffalo the villagers keep for milk. Chanchal explained to me that people take very good care of these buffalo, treating them "like their own children." A woman must hike up and down the mountain to cut grass to feed the buffalo, which she carries back in giant bundles on her head. I also watched as women carefully washed their buffaloes, which were munching on the cut grass in the morning sun.
Rajnish later explained to me that Avani is also working on a biogas cooking program in these villages, but it's very slow going. With a good biogas system, families with livestock take the manure and put it into a biogas digester, as the manure anerobically decomposes, it produces methane (natural gas), which the digester collects and the family can use for clean, odorless, smoke free cooking. One of the problems is that during the winter, it becomes cold and the reaction slows down, so there may not be enough gas during those months to cook with.
|A grandfather pauses to relax with a hookah in the kitchen.|
Finally, meet my hero, Rubesi Devi, 80 years old.
I met her walking back, she was sitting outside, spinning yarn by hand for Avani's textiles. I fell in love. She is so bubbly, every other sentence is a laugh. Very sharp, she kept teasing me, and then she firmly insisted I come to her house for lunch, and grabbed my hand to take me there. Here's a short shaky clip of Rubesi laughing and spinning yarn:
I've spent a lot of time thinking where I want to end up. What is the end goal, where is it that I'm headed anyway? And now I can't think of anything better than a wrinkly smiling 80-year-young woman, sitting in the hills, spinning yarns, and laughing at visitors.