Thanksgiving is an American holiday that celebrates the survival of the Pilgrims (early European settlers of the North American continent). They had landed clueless in a strange land, halfway across the world from their origins and it was only through the generosity of their Native American neighbours that they could learn the skills, and be given the sustenance to thrive in this new environment. The Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to a joint feast and that is commemorated by the current holiday of Thanksgiving, when a festive meal of traditional dishes is shared with family and friends and all give thanks for their blessings.
This year I was in Attappadi for Thanksgiving, a mostly tribal area in Kerala on the Tamil Nadu border in the famed Nilgiri mountains. It is a land of spectacular natural beauty and poverty and misery as well. A place that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons: infant mortality, malnutrition, addiction and acute poverty. This is also the place that Amma began her early outreach to uplift the disadvantaged. Many of the children who live in Amrita Niketan, Amma’s orphanage and boarding school for disadvantaged children, came from here and still do.
I was travelling with a diverse group from Amritapuri. There were students from Amrita Sanjeevani, the service group from Amrita University, staff from Amrita Niketan, a videographer for the Villages project, a fellow worker from Create, the research lab where I work, and a couple others who are involved in co-ordinating various charitable projects. On Thanksgiving and for 3 days thereafter, the team was involved in handing out clothing, some nutritional supplements and other things to anyone who looked in need along the roadside and in remote villages. Amrita Sanjeevani had held a drive to collect needed things for the Attappadi residents and they were being helped to distribute them by the team, who know this area well. The Niktan staff would be staying on until Sunday where a reunion of those who had attended the Niketan would be held to mark the Silver Jubilee of Amma’s work here and Sanjeevani would launch AYUDH, Amma’s youth group in Attappaddy.
As we were engaged in doing what we could to help these people, Amma was on her way to Rome to sign the Declaration against modern slavery. The declaration underlined that modern slavery, in terms of human trafficking, forced labour and prostitution, organ trafficking, and any relationship that fails to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity, is a crime against humanity. Before my eyes, I saw victims of exactly the social evils that Amma and Pope Francis were out to rescue. I could see how very difficult it is, particularly for tribal people and especially for women, to live dignified lives in the current environment. I could also see that Amma and her people are determined to change that.
The comparison between the Adivasi population of Attappadi and the Native Americans of my own country was not lost on me. Both were the early inhabitants of their domains. Both were good stewards of the land, did not have the concept of land ownership and had no role in global warming! Both were historically exploited mercilessly by dominant groups and bear the scars of that exploitation to this day by being at the bottom of their nation’s population in terms of wealth, health and education. So this Thanksgiving day, it was a sort of cross continental give back for me to play some small part in helping these sweet and simple people.
Among the memorable experiences of the first two days were meeting Kali-amma, a former student of the Niketan. She had sung and danced with Amma back in the days when Amma joined the tribal children who always did their traditional dance when visiting the ashram. I had seen her singing and dancing when she was a young girl many times. Now, she is the mother of two and her house served as a clothing distribution point for her village.
We drove to far off villages and distributed clothes wherever we saw people gathered. The bus even screeched to a halt if we saw someone walking on the roadside poorly dressed. When groups of children were spotted near their schools, the bus halted and out we jumped with clothes and pens and pencils. Some of the roads we travelled hardly could be called a road, but somehow we did not slide over into a ravine or get stuck. The skillful drivers of our bus and jeep were also former students of Amrita Niketan, now grown up and competent men, who normally have other jobs, but had volunteered to drive as their contribution to this effort.
We saw a number of electric fences to deter elephants, which are a major danger here and mett an old man with a broken leg from an encounter with an elephant near his home, so we could see the need for some kind of a deterrent. The people in this area face many dangers from wildlife and have difficulty cultivating crops in some areas due to elephant incursions.
At the end of the first two days, we had emptied half the bus after long and exhausting days driving deep into the towering, mist shrouded mountains. But everyone was energized and buzzing with ideas about more that Amma’s people could do to help the people we had met. Knowing that Amma was in Rome speaking about the very people we were trying to help was very moving. I was immensely thankful to have had the chance to be with this group and unutterably thankful to Amma for giving me the most joyful Thanksgiving of my life. I even saw a couple of large turkeys, still alive, of course.
– Rta S.