Sunday, 8 March 2015

Happy Holi!

A handful of rotating interns have been manning the Rait centre for a few months now and as far as engaging with the community, progress has been steady but slow. We’ve manage to develop trust and good relationships with a few key individuals, who we hope will eventually act as catalysts for the rest of the community. Our landlords, affectionately nic-named Uncle and Auntie by all the interns, have been gracious hosts and are always willing to offer directions in adjusting to the Indian way of life. They have introduced us to their widowed daughter-in-law, Sarita, who we’ve agreed to give personal informal English lessons to in exchange for her help in meeting and (hopefully) befriending some of the other women in the community. Sarita is warm and always greets us with a smile. Her children have also warmed to us and drop what they’re doing whenever we walk by to say hello, chat or play.

While we’ve made good in-roads with this family, and a few other women Sarita has introduced to us, engaging the rest of the community has been challenging. With our strange clothes, funny ways of talking, and general ignorance of how best to navigate the thin village pathways, we foreigners stand out as stranger in the truest sense of the word. In a community where everyone has known each other from birth and where private and public lives are so closely blended together, a group of strangers whose purpose is not quite clear and that suddenly show up claiming to be “working for an NGO”, naturally raises some suspicion. 

Our tactic so far has been regular walks through the village, offering smiles and polite Nameste-s, as a means to familiarise the community with our presence and put them at ease regarding the strange group of foreigners who have moved in down the road. Most of the time these efforts are met with suspicious stares and occasionally an accepting nod. Some of the women will return our Nameste, but only if we speak first.

This dynamic changed dramatically the day of Holi.

Holi, the ancient Hindu festival of colour and love, is an opportunity for a community to come together and celebrate in a free-for-all carnival of coloured powder and water. And we were invited! 

On a gloriously sunny March morning, men, women and children alike gather together and walk from house-to-house in a procession of singing, dancing and percussions instruments. At each house coloured dry powder – pink, yellow, green, blue, red, and purple- is exuberantly clapped onto the faces of the inhabitants and thrown into the air to shower down on the celebrants dancing and cheering below. Then the procession moves on to the next house, gradually gathering more villagers along the way. Some houses offer sweets, chai and soft drinks as refreshments. 

As this joyous clamour of colour, movement and song snaked its way throughout the village, some of the Rait interns were given the opportunity to party and play with community members who had so far only offered a slight nod or a reluctant Nameste as we passed by. Now we were singing and dancing together. As something of a novelty we made popular targets, particularly with the children; those expert in the sneak attack. By around lunch time we probably had more coloured powder on our faces, in our hair and all over our clothes, than anyone else in the community. My cheeks were sore from smiling and laughing so much.

After lunch and a well-deserved shower, we walked back through the now more subdued village to the market to buy vegetables for dinner. This time, instead of nervous stares and reluctant replies to our greetings, women called out “Nameste!” from their rooftops, or stopped us on the road to laugh, rub their cheeks and exclaimed “Happy Holi!” as if to remind us of how absolutely covered we had been a few hours earlier. Children, who had until now usually giggled nervously from a far, walked with us and attempted to make conversation with their mix of our limited Hindi, and their English. “Happy Holi!” was offered at every turn. We felt welcomed and part of this unique and tight-knit community.

Whether this familiarity lasts after the festive season is yet to be seen, but for now the Rait interns are hopeful that the relationships seeded this Holi last longer than the stains on our clothes.

Alanah Grant - USA and Katherine Woolnough - Australia
Women Empowerment Project Managers, Rait

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