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By Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale, Nigeria Correspondent for Safe World for Women

If we could choose our mothers, if we could choose our place of birth, if we could choose our situations, if we could choose our destiny, if we could actually choose our leaders, if we could control the way things are, if we could say; this is what we need and what we have, if and only if……

The journey was long, from Bangalore to the Biligirirangan Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka, and the last lap of the traveling was fearsome. The vehicle windows were wound up; it was not because of rain – it was for fear of wild animals.

We were warned in all the sign posts, “Drive silently, your neighbors hate noise”; some even said, “Do not honk”. The driver followed all the instructions and signs. It was impossible for me to move the vehicle faster, since I was not the one behind the wheel. I was afraid and was pushing the seat in front of me, as if that would move the car faster. No matter how much I pushed the seat, it had no effect on the accelerator. The vehicle moved slowly.

After a few kilometers into the forest, I realized that I could change nothing.

Therefore, I spoke to my inner mind, decided to calm down, relaxed my brain and my racing heart, and finally, I reminded myself that I trust Mahila Samakhya Karnataka, the organization responsible for my journey into the forest. The organization understands the terrain, visits the women’s groups monthly, and most importantly, values our lives.

They will not send us into the open arms of a forest tiger.

This needed conviction, brought me to normalcy. I began to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, the forest, the green scenery, the animals, lakes, and the weary passersby who filled this unending green that spreads across 550 sq km. There was a point where I saw more than 15 monkeys playing on the tarred road! It was amazing.

After more than 20 kilometers drive that seemed like a whole day’s drive, we reached our destination: the sangha in Banglepodu in Yalandur Taluk were waiting for our arrival. The neatness of the community will remain in my memory. Every nook and cranny was swept clean. The neatness was in contrast to the poor building.

As a Nigerian, brought up in the rural area, who has and is still enjoying fresh farm products no matter the level of development and destruction in our cities, I discovered one strange thing: no vegetation, not even tomatoes in the garden. This is more than strange since I was eager to compare and contrast what they plant in their gardens to what we plant back home. No samples for comparison.

This was equally disheartening because, even in Bangalore city where I was coming from, I had enjoyed fresh vegetation from a fenced garden of my mentor, and even climbed her coconut tree to harvest and drink the sweet coconut milky water. Facing a huge forest with no family plantation became unacceptable to me, but the reality is undeniable.

Tiger-Forest-gardenThe women in the forest community concentrate on a nursery for herbal medicine since it could be sold as seedlings. They can not plant vegetables.

The main issue that brought us to the forest was the women’s paper bag-making venture. They brought out dozens of paper bags, neat, well made; no market.

The distressed-looking women explained how they toil to buy the papers, sit together to design and produce them, and wait for Godot: customers who will never patronize the forest. There was a deal actually, with the NGO that’s trained them; they are to produce on demand. This will be sold to the NGO and the NGO will in-turn sell to customers in the city.

Why can’t these women sell their products???

Who can travel to a far away forest to purchase paper bags?

Tiger-Forest-women-2Olutosin with the Tiger Forest womenDo we fail to look at the context before impacting skills on rural women? Are there disempowering and empowering business strategies employed by NGO’s in rural areas?

Why is it hard for a tribal woman to sell her goods in the cities in India??

I hate questioning, especially when there are no ready-made answers. Yet, Paulo Freire, Augusto Boaz, and the rest of my mentors recommended questioning. I will never get over questioning nor fully understand their methodologies.

I walked out of the Biligiri Ranganata Tiger Reserve forest nine days ago; yet my heart refuses to leave the community.

My heart remains with those women who designed, produced, displayed but no buyers. My heart remains with those women, who toil night and day, with little results to show for such hard work.

Is it a crime to be a tribe? Is it a crime to be innocent? Is it a crime to be an innocent tribal and poor woman? Is a crime to be a child of an innocent, tribal and poor woman in India? Hmn. Questions that beg for answers, where in actual fact, I know that I will never get answers to those burning questions.

Now I realize that my heart will forever remain with the women and children of Tiger forest and may never know the reason behind that affection.

After series of discussions with these women, after listening to their utmost concerns and seeing their fight for survival in a nation that fails to recognize them and their struggles, I decided to strategize on a way forward. Consequently, we decided to tap into the hearts of the humane world. We are not begging; how we can beg, when they are not beggars?

Visiting-Tiger-Forest-womenOlutosin Oladosu AdebowaleThe situation cannot remain the same, not as long as there are change makers.

Imagine this: after series of skill acquisition classes, when all the community members watch as these women cover several kilometers a day in order to attend the class, and months later, it is still the same old story. It is anemic to take it with a pinch of salt; if we actually propagate “women empowerment as the basis of development”.

These women are are experts, talented, dogged, and go-getters; the challenge is their location. They live in the forest – in the Tiger Reserve forest where wild animals reside and destroy every plantation. They cannot plant any vegetable. They depend on a market that is more than 30 kilometers away in order to buy their daily needs.

What they want is an opportunity to market their products. To design, produce, and stock their products with no expectation of a buyer can be demoralizing.

Environmentally, re-usable paper-bags are friendly; it is cost effective and its creativity is unlimited. The flashback from the meeting scenes made me approach the state director of Mahila Samakhya Karnataka to find a lasting solution to the predicament of these women. A good woman she is; she said, “From now on, Sindhu will purchase their paper-bags, it is preferable to the plastic bags thrown all over the place.”

I felt an everlasting relief just for a moment.

Yet, the cat in me could not stop at her relieving solution. I inquired from her the meaning of Sindhu; she answered; “It means a whole lots of things, firstly, it means ‘identity’; secondly it is Indus valley civilization, an ancient civilization of Indian Ocean.”

Her answer dug up another moment of retrospection: it is that we always forget our “source”?

The origin of any civilization is the tribal. Emergency development separates humanity. We become over-civilized when we forgot where we are coming from. I won’t bother to think about where we are going to; not now. The tribal community finds it hard to sell their goods amongst our developed human beings. Hmn.

The next burning question within me is: is this how Sindhu will continue to buy the paper-bags from the tribal women?

Mahila Samakhya Karnataka website: www.mahilasamakhyakarnataka.org


Follow Olutosin on Twitter: @Olutosin


Olutosin

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale is a woman's rights activist and citizen journalist, working specifically on prevention of child sexual assault and providiing skill acquisition trainings for women.

She studied English Language at the University of Lagos (1997) Masters in English Language (2001), after which she did a Diploma in Computer Studies.

She was among the selected participants of VOF and was trained on Citizen Journalism by Worldpulse, Diploma in Gender, Diversity and Transformation at Visthar in Bangalore-India.

Olutosin founded founded 'Stop the Abuse of Rights' during her training as one of the Voices of our Future Correspondents at World Pulse.

Earlier in 2013, Olutosin was selected for the Coady Institute Global Change Leaders Program in Canada.