The weather is a big character in the lives of the saltpan communities. The monsoons before our first visit had been particularly poor : not as much water meant not as much salt. The price of salt was low and with less to sell, the communities felt the impact. The following monsoon was exceptional and the opposite happened : lots of salt, and more cash. We were surprised to see healthier children and small improvements in the family’s homes and lifestyles – such as solar power, and the pump system generating power for more use with less costly fuel. The price of salt had risen sightly and although we learned it was still very low, this small price rise had impacted well on the community.
On this most recent visit, we were delighted to meet the local high school teacher, Tariq Khan, as soon as we arrived. He teaches English and computer science teacher at the Zainabad village secondary college and is committed to what he describes as “our project”. It’s heartening to know he feels so much part of Artists in Community International! Tariq has been an essential part of both our previous projects – he is a fluent English speaker and translates for us. But more than that, he encourages the children in their learning with passion and compassion; as well as spruces their hair and clothes ready for photos!
On each of our projects, we collaborate with people such as Tariq and Dhanraj, community leaders who understand what we offer and acts as a conduit between us and the wider community. Without these people, it is impossible to create meaningful projects that have a life beyond our time in the community.
We spent a few hours with Tariq when we first arrived – learning about what had been happening in the village since our last visit, a little more about the saltpan people, and how he had incorporated what he learned from our last project into his teaching at the secondary college. That was an especially wonderful thing to hear.
In the days before, we were in Hyderabad presenting at an International Conference on Strengths Based Practice about the Salt Pan project. There was much discussion following the presentation about how we could breathe life into this project between, and ultimately beyond, our visits. Although the link with the high school and Tariq had been made on our first visit – it was not until this visit that we felt assured of just how strong that link is. In light of those conference discussions, it gave us a lot of hope for the salt pan project to know that our art and drama lessons were finding their way into community life and that Tariq was so committed to the salt communities.
We set off early in the morning to the desert, us in the back of the ancient jeep with art materials, chairs, a table, snacks and water, Tariq and a driver in front. The morning is fresh and bright. We are glad of our scarves but our hats won’t stay on our heads in the wind and the cold wind blasts away all pretence of a hairstyle. We learned that this year a survey of the wild animals was underway in the Rann and there was a possibility that the project could not go ahead. We set off hoping that the surveyors will let us through to the saltpan area and Tariq’s excellent negotiating skills get us a wave through and the project is on it’s way!
Whilst Tariq and the driver head off to collect children from the surrounding huts, we greet the family around whose home we run the project. They are warm and open hearted to us. It is an extended family with mother and father, one son, Vikram and two daughers, Pauna and Ettel. The father tells us another son had died of a kidney infection. Vikram is married; he and his wife have two children – a little girl Sunita, whose age is hard to guess, maybe she is three, and a baby, Ashima. Covered in blankets in a handmade cradle, I thought she was a newborn before learning we met her last time we were in the saltpans. She is tiny, teething and sick. Her grandmother explains she is vomiting and has diarrhoea; the baby is listless and cries a lot. Grandmother shows me some medication but I don’t know what it is, nor what it is for, but knowing how high child mortality is in these communities, we are concerned.
Sunita is bright. We have memories of her crying and sobbing before she got to be the clown with the red nose; she loves painting. It is easy to imagine her flourishing in different circumstances – where her curiousity and vitality could be nurtured through a more dynamic education. As it is, she is a much-loved child. The parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and other children all care for and love her, they encourage her and include her in the art and drama.
The children arrived at the hut on the back of the jeep. They are small and excited to be doing art again. Their capacity to concentrate is quite astonishing – even for the smallest children. Over the course of the few days were are in the saltpans, more and more adults join with the children. The women are especially interested and seem to thrive on learning and creating. I enjoy sitting with them and learn a little about them – one woman, Puni is 42. She is totally captivated by drawing and tells us that this is the first time she has held a pencil and paper in her hand : “This is an historical event”, she tells us via Tariq.
Puni is married and has two sons and three daughters. All are illiterate. She votes with a thumb print.
An older woman Ramuben is a grandmother. She explains her family tree then describes the grandson who became disabled after a doctor made a mistake in administering an injection. It is not the first time I have heard such stories here. She tells us she joined in last year as the clown, and claims she is the oldest participant in our project; her leathery skin suggests she is – but we dare not guess her age as the sun is very harsh on the skin. Nonetheless, hers is a great face – full of character and warmth.
Regardless of our perceptions, the women assure us they are happy working in the saltpans. They enjoy the closeness of working together as a family. The other options they see for themselves are labouring in the fields, working in factories or as servants in other people’s houses, none are appealing. Here they have some autonomy.
Men and women eat at separate times and in separate places in this community and we have sat outside these traditions eating with the children instead. But on the last day, we were invited into their home to share in a very spicy and tasty potato curry with chapatti. It felt like some of the social inhibitions were breaking down.
We also thank our many supporters, including MGIS and Desert Coursers, for providing funds to make this project possible. Artists in Community International donate our time and some costs to the project.