In a small, dusty village where the merciless sun cooks the land to a scorching 110 degrees by noon, I hear "Sister! Sister!" and see two grinning girls running up to me, their eyes shining and happy. Stretching their skinny arms out, they reach up for my hands and lead me away, carrying my cement-encrusted two-liter water bottle in their spare arm.
I almost always walk to work with at least two (if not 3 or 10) children following me, tugging on my arms and wrapped around my legs. Drenched with sweat and covered in grime though we volunteers are, these darling, energetic children kiss our cement-caked cheeks, tuck magenta bougainvillea and sweet-smelling jasmine in our hair, and prance around the village construction zones. Always running under foot, they often try to help with our work until their embarrassed mothers swat them away.
We are helping to build homes for a small Dalit community in Andra Pradhesh, India. We plod back and forth in the blazing sun with heavy iron bowls full of sand and rocks balanced upon our bellies, hips, and heads. The masons and villagers here are unbelievably strong, tossing these iron bowls up onto the half-completed roof with seemingly little exertion. We form assembly lines with the villagers to pass concrete brick to the masons, who drop them into place. Brick by brick, we are building a stable shelter from future floods that threaten livelihoods and fragile thatched homes.
Thirteen days in India started with a message from Longitude
, a Rhode Island based non-profit organization that recruits volunteers and raises funds for a secretarial school in Ghana and the Association of Relief Volunteers (ARV) in India. ARV works towards empowering the lowest members of the supposedly abolished Indian caste system, the Dalit (formerly known as the Untouchables), and improving their quality of life and future. Since 2001, ARV and its supporters have built homes for 129 Dalit families and provided food and medical care for Dalit in two villages, Kothasatram-Indiranagar and Gummallapadu. A new ARV program called A Child's Chance has hired Dalit tutors to teach basic education and English to over 700 children in these same two villages and three others.
A total of 600 Dalits (including roughly 150 children and 37 widows) live in Gummallapadu village beside the vast and heavily polluted Kolleru Lake. Due to a lack of opportunity and a desperate need for money, many young women and mothers travel to Kuwait to work as maids. However, they are exploited there and the money they are able to send home is a pittance. Although the people in Gummallapadu own the land they live on, they are unable to engage in traditional fishing or farming due to both caste discrimination and environmental degradation. In short, they struggle to earn enough wages to support their families.
The annual flooding of Kolleru Lake also forces them to take time out from work to repair their fragile thatched homes. Acquiring permanent housing is not only the first step to allowing these Dalit villagers to work more days of the year, but will also raise their social status, giving them the confidence they need to stand up for their rights.
Longitude organizes several work camps every year for volunteers to help build homes and improve the quality of life for the Dalit. The work camps taking place this coming March and May will break ground in a new village called Chevuru. If you are interested in joining a future work camp or want to learn more, please visit Longitude's website