The Women’s Centre at Nadukuppam is officially open!

Lucy, our new volunteer, from Bristol, England

Our volunteer Lucy Garrett reports on the long-awaited official opening of the Common Facilities Centre, the new hub for rural women’s enterprise in Nadukuppam.

Monday 24th April was a special day: the inauguration of the Common Facilities Centre (CFC), owned by a federation of village women in Nadukuppam. The Federation is a group of enterprises creating a range of products – herbal medicines and foods, nursery plants, spirulina products, herbal veterinary care – and with the help of the Tamil Nadu Government, Pitchandikulam and the QSA, they now own a piece of land and a building from which to run their productions, and manage all their work. The CFC is adjacent to the new forest – a 35 acre forest garden planted ten years ago, a thriving forest pharmacy that provides important raw materials for all the enterprises. What makes the space special is that the women now feel a real sense of ownership; it is up to them how they will use the building and surrounding land.

A group of us travelled out on Sunday afternoon to help with preparations for the event. When we arrived in the afternoon there was a sense of excitement in the air. We found the women’s groups sat together around a huge pile of flowers their fingers moving deftly in meditation as they thread the flowers onto strings ready for tomorrows Pooja. I spent a good 20 minutes sat with them trying to learn how they knotted the flowers but to no avail; my fingers refused to perfect the weave. Joss Brooks explained the change that he has witnessed in the past 6 months to year; previously the different groups didn’t talk much among themselves, now they do, a movement towards sharing resources, and illustrated by the collective action we witnessed in the preparations for the inauguration.

Stringing flowers for the pooja
Stringing flowers for the pooja

We filled the bus with chairs, furniture and information boards and took them over to the CFC building for unloading. The enterprise groups arrived and swept over the entire building, scrubbing away every last bit of dirt and washing the floors and shelves. Collectively we moved over the surrounding land, painstakingly removing all the large stones and raking all the leaves into neat piles.

Some local men arrived on a bullock cart carrying two banana plants bearing heavy loads of fruit. These were strung up on either side of the house porch as a symbol of prosperity and strong community. As it was explained to me, banana trees grow more banana trees so if you have many it is a good sign of healthy long lived community that will foster and grow more over time.

A beautiful shade awning arrived alongside fairy lights which were strung along the roof of the building. Preparations were nearly complete! I climbed to the roof to take in the sun setting behind the palms and rice fields. Below me I watched two ladies stuffing an oversized pair of trousers and shirt with hay. It is customary for this ‘scarecrow’ to be ignited at midnight and then carried around the full perimeter of the building whilst on fire. This ritual is to keep out bad spirits, and most importantly must be completely by a very drunk individual – the drunkenness prevents the bad spirits from entering them!

The CFC is a place where new initiatives can be incubated and the central operations hub where existing enterprises are managed. For example, for medicinal products and herbal foods, plants are collected in fields and hedgerows in the adjacent forest, and brought to the site. Once at the site they are processed; pummelled, steamed, bleached, ground, powdered and bottled until they are ready to sell at local markets by the group.

Belongings and furniture should not be moved into a house until after the opening Pooja had taken place so the building echoed as you moved around it and the enterprise products were not yet in the building. Final Pooja decorations also had to be completed after the midnight ceremony, so we were all in for a sleepless night, especially the women’s enterprise groups that spent the whole night preparing a delicious South Indian feast for breakfast.

We assembled bleary eyed for the Pooja at 6am. A beautiful mandala had been created in front of the house and flowers hung from the door. The air was thick with the smell of jasmine attached to neatly plaited hair. With no particular sense of urgency things began to happen; the priest arrived alongside more and more villagers, the women in immaculate saris and the men in white dhoti.

A complex array of fruit, incense, flowers and ritual objects were arranged in front of the priest as people piled into the house to watch the Pooja. A female cow and her calf arrived outside the house, their faces painted and strings of yellow feathers hanging from their necks. Cows are considered a symbol of prosperity. After the front and rear of each cow was blessed with a handful of flower petals the cows were both tugged up the front step and into the house. The mother was clearly more accustomed to this than the calf.

The Pooja continued until a fire was lit inside the house and smoke began to fill every crevasse of the building. I have no idea how so many people could stand to stay in the smoke for so long, but the priest assured us that it was good for our lungs.

The Pooja was finished with the final traditional act; the boiling of a pan of milk inside the house. If the milk boils over then it is a good omen that will bring prosperity. We crowded around to watch the milk boil over the wood fire together. As soon as it had boiled it was time to tuck into a delicious South Indian breakfast.

Now the Pooja has been completed, the CFC is fully ready for the groups, who will begin by moving all their stock and equipment into the building. The next chapter will be the planting of the garden; thousands of medicinal plants will be grown in this area, mostly sourced from the plant nursery enterprise, and ready to grow when the rains come.

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