A Conversation on Enterprise at the Traditional Knowledge Fair

It has been an exhilarating-tiring couple of days for us. The Bhooma Devi Women’s Self Help Group has just finished catering food for a two day Traditional Knowledge Fair. In keeping with the spirit of the Fair, the food served was traditional indigenous people’s fare – a millet spread of ragi, thenai, samai, keerai with mochai, pumpkin and wild tubers and greens on the side.

We had asked the group of women if they would be interested in taking up the responsibility of catering traditional food at the Fair. They had readily agreed. We at the Livelihoods Group were fairly confident that they could pull it off. This was a known skill – cooking with traditional millets. Even if they haven’t been growing, cooking or eating these very often now, they knew the textures and the flavours. From some intermittent past they seemed to be remembering these.  This group of women has been one that has applied leadership, internal regulation and discipline to quickly build up a group fund of about Rs 50,000/-. Surprising for us in the beginning, given that they are Alu Kurumba women, a community that still retains much of the cultural ethos of its recent hunting gathering past. But now the surprise has given way to a quiet confidence.

Working with them while they served up hot meals for 100 children and about 50 adults was instructional. Their men have been cooking for such large gatherings at community rituals but for the women the numbers were larger than they have tackled. But they quickly approportioned tasks among the seven of them and set to work. Getting them to serve almost perfect, less than perfect dishes in the interest of meeting meal timings was a challenge but they quickly acquired it. The shop-pumpkins were not nearly as firm as the ones from their own fields and the thenai had not been dehusked properly but they quickly tweaked their methods to meet the condition of the produce.

Later, at the stall giving out second portions to health conscious urban folk and nostalgic community members, they were pleased. They weren’t hooting or doing hi-fives but they had taken a moment to tuck in some betel leaves. After emptying out the lemon juice to thirsty children, we were sitting on the lawn waiting for the jeep to take us back. I had been both on the sidelines as well as in the stall and I was unable to shake off a nagging thought that had been voiced across the two days – both in congratulatory as well as in doubtful tones. Were we doing the ‘right’ thing encouraging the Alu Kurumbas to enterprise? We have been trying to encourage village level enterprise among this community with mixed success and have asked of ourselves this question – Was this our need for them to ‘learn’ to apply their knowledge and skills to enterprise? Was it somehow against the grain of these ‘not-so-long-ago forest dwellers’ to ‘sell’.

I asked the women with me these questions. Was it against their culture to ‘sell’? Their responses were calm and aspirational.  “When we share in the village, it is different, it is as though a guest is in our home’. When we come outside, why should we not sell?”  It was Ruckmani akka, clear headed as always. Janaki amma, healer, widowed mother of five, reporter and community elder took a while – “ it is not against our culture. Otherwise how will we survive?”

And indeed, the Alu Kurumba have been selling for a long time. Small forest produce but always with a measure of concern for their forests.  The trader is not unknown in their villages. What is different is that now they want to sell on their terms. Even as the Town Panchayat President congratulated us on ‘helping the adivasis become modern, on teaching them to sell their produce’, I thought that our greater intervention has been helping them find spaces in discerning markets.

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