Day 7 in Auroville. The group headed to the Village Action Trust yesterday morning. In a nutshell, VAT promotes and facilitates the empowerment of women in villages in the “greater Auroville area,” if you will; they run seminars and other group activities to increase the self-sufficiency of local Tamil women, which may include basic education, financial planning and/or social support services, all undergirded by the belief (and as far as I can tell, a fairly accurate one) that women in India are far more effective when they act as units rather than individually. Ambu, VAT’s co-director, made it abundantly clear that her organization is not a charity—charities foster dependency, they’re “easy” and “good for the ego,” but VAT’s participatory framework (that is, all those who benefit also contribute) reduces community segregation and hostility.
The group has been phenomenally successful: Women’s groups—and their men’s-groups spawn—are operating successfully throughout 60 surrounding villages, and the success stories (mostly of women harnessing the power of their respective groups and standing up to abusive husbands) that Ambu relayed were nothing short of all-out inspiring. And let’s not even get started on Ambu herself: chemistry major in college and the president of her university’s anti-dowry association, Master’s in social work, 22 years with VAT, and absolutely no ego or designs on power. She’s smart, engaging, passionate, dedicated, but, above all, humble, which is all too rare in leaders of anything these days. She cast the most positive light on Auroville I’ve witnessed so far. As she was speaking, I flashed to my little brother, a year into his post-grad internship in Kampala, Uganda (he’s home now), ranting about those “Western NGO workers” who “waltz in to a third world [insert dripping sarcasm here] country and think they’re gonna ‘save the children,’ when they know nothing about the language, the culture, anything.” I should probably mention here that he worked for the Refugee Law Project out of Makarere University with a professor he’d studied abroad with; decidedly not an NGO. He must have believed his non-affiliation with “neo colonialist institutions” gave him the kind of street cred that his white skin and NYC origins wouldn’t make immediately apparent :-). But I digress: My point is, I felt oddly satisfied that my brother and his equivalents, however right or wrong their particular views on Western development workers happen to be, would be unable to tar Ambu with the neo-colonialist brush. She’s Tamil, she knows the language, she knows the people and she’s paid her dues to the organization; after 22 years, how could she not know the good and the bad inside and out? But she’s still here, still speaking to student groups about why what she’s doing is important. She’s a rare breed, and we were all duly impressed.
Later that afternoon, we met with Njal at Integrated Animal Care. IAC is devoted to rescuing, caring for, spaying, neutering and treating stray dogs in Auroville and the surrounding villages. The “dog problem” is a big one in India—dogs are kept as pets, of course, but females can give birth to litters of up to twelve every six months, and families have no way of (nor really any interest in) caring for the quite literally thousands of puppies a healthy female might produce during her lifetime. Sterilization is expensive, of course, so the preferred solution is to just dump the poor things off by the side of the road and let them starve. Luckily, as IAC’s presence in the community has expanded, many people just skip the roadside and drop the unwanted puppies off at Njal’s front gate; this is both a blessing and a curse, as Njal admits he’s overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals in need of his services. Njal is from Auroville by way of Germany and has been running IAC for the past four years. I have to say, of all the people I’ve met in Auroville thus far, I actually admire him the most. It’s not just because I’m a card-carrying member of PETA, have been a strict vegetarian for the past twenty-one years (basically my whole life…I’m not that old), and swoon—sometimes literally—at the mere sight of a yelping, wriggling puppy. Rather, I know for a fact that people who devote themselves to bettering the lives of animals get little to no respect and recognition; they may even be derided, and accused of “liking animals more than humans.” I’m not going to go into some long diatribe about animal rights (we don’t have all year), but I will say that creatures who are unable to speak up for themselves need advocates, and these advocates are not only, as Peter Singer might say, attacking “speciesism” head-on, they’re fulfilling Gandhi’s axiom that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I truly believe animal welfare is going to be the next great civil-rights struggle, and people like Njal are really ahead of the curve.