The title of this blog post might as well be three thoroughly unconnected issues – however, I can assure you they are not. This week has been a crazy one, even by recent standards; some pretty weird lows, but some absolutely incredible highs.
I’m pretty sure if you take a look at my last post, it says something along the lines of ‘I’m back guys, and ready to do more blogging than ever!’. But fast forward two months and it’s pretty clear that’s not exactly what happened. I’m not sure quite what I expected to happen once I finished uni, but things got a little hectic. Since I last blogged I’ve moved home permanently, spent a good few weeks in the ‘omg-I’ve-finished-uni-but-I-don’t-have-a-job-why-will-no-one-employ-me’ stage, subsequently gone and secured a pretty nifty internship which I am loving, graduated, and spent one mega chill weekend soaking up everything that’s good about life at Barn on the Farm festival in Gloucester. It’s been a busy few weeks, but its been good.
Ah, the humble banana. Perhaps not the most inspiring picture you’ve seen all day – or is it? It’s Fairtrade Fortnight right up until the 13th of March, a period of two weeks where Fairtrade, and all the people their work protects and treats with respect, ask you to make your breakfast count by making sure it’s fair trade. As a student, my breakfast is often little more than a piece of fruit and a cuppa – but hey, at least I can make sure that both of these bear that instantly recogniseable fair trade label.
Sometime during the late Australian summer just before I turned 21, I found myself up at Belgrave Heights for the Surrender Conference 2015 – an incredible gathering of people committed to making long lasting, effective change in their local communities and abroad. I was working in the TEAR tent for the duration of the weekend, and through this experience was fortunate enough to be exposed to some incredible organisation- Love Makes a Way, Common Grace and Urban Seed to name just a few.
It was at this conference during a brief break that I first got to hear the eye opening words of Melinda Tankard Reist. A core member of Collective Shout, in just one hour I felt my world get shaken up just a little bit. Collective Shout campaigns against the pornification of modern culture – as relevant here in the UK as it was in Australia. She pointed toward the number of things in mainstream media (from cosmetics adverts to baby clothes) that we deem acceptable, but are in fact contributing to distorted perception of sexuality that we are growing ever more comfortable with. She argued that the general idea that ‘sex sells’ is leading to the eroticisation of female subjugation – contributing to widespread low self esteem and body image issues, as well as a growing trend among the next generation of young girls that lack of consent, or sexual acts that they do not enjoy or wish to participate in are normal, to be expected.
Although I can’t explain it half as well as Melissa could, this has stuck with me. The stories she told scared me, partly because there was a small part of me so used to our highly sexualised culture that I did not initially see the problem with some of the images she showed us. Collective Shout are, however, making some pretty enormous progress – how super cool is it that they managed to get Zoo (a lads mag which sells almost entirely by objectifying and subjugating women, feeding soft porn to young boys) banned from Coles (a huge Australian Supermarket chain)?! Moreover, the problems of our pornified culture run much deeper than affecting just westerners – at a later conference I saw Melinda speak at, she drew the direct link between the sex trade in South East Asia and the normalisation of rape culture in Australia. Shocking stuff.
If this has interested you, or you want someone to explain it to you better than I can, please please please check out Collective Shout. If you’re not an Aussie, don’t worry! The issues are almost unanimously universal. If you want a super quick insight into what Melinda is all about, take a look at the video below.
It is no secret that I am a pretty big twitter user. I love it. It is far and away my favourite social media platform – I love its instant nature, accessibility and the fact that it forces you to be pretty limited with what you say. Twitter is ace, and so are heaps of the accounts on there. Below are a couple of my favourite social justice /ethical fashion accounts, which give me that extra bit of daily inspiration.
@TearfundRhythms : Pretty sure I’ve mentioned about a thousand times how much I love everything Tearfund does, and Rhythms is no different. It’s an amazing online resource which helps you incorporate ‘rhythms’ of kindness, justice and social responsibility into your every day life. It manages to tap in to just about every aspect of modern life without spreading itself too thin – a fab account.
@MelTankardReist: Hearing Melinda Tankard Reist speak at the Surrender Conference in Australia this past March was something of a revelation to me. Never had I been lucky enough to hear from such a power house of a women – a remarkable lady, who launched Collective Shout, a grassroots organisation which campaigns against the hyper sexualisation of women and girls in our society. Her work spans everything from clothing to music to books and the porn industry. If you want your eyes opened to quite how dangerous the sexualisation of women in modern culture is, this is an account to follow. I will be doing a longer post on Collective Shout soon, so stay tuned!
@PeppermintMag Peppermint Magazine, as I mentioned in this post, is pretty much the reason why this blog exists. It was the first time I saw a print publication which touched on everything that I was passionate about – social justice, green living, ethical fashion, and that inimitable Australian culture. A potted version of the magazine, their twitter is an absolute gem.
@TRAID: This organisation is slightly more focused on the fashion side of things than the other charities I have mentioned. Describing itself as working to ‘end exploitation in the global textile supply chain’, TRAID do lots of work collecting unwanted clothes, supporting ethical brands and teaching about upcycling. Well worth a look. Their facebook is pretty ace too!
At some point during my second semester in Australia, I made the pretty big decision to go vegan. I informed my family, and set about planning my next week of meals. And that is precisely where it ended.
For a good two hours, I felt all smug and self righteous about my great new lifestyle choice, amidst a barrage of criticism from pretty much everyone who heard about my decision. Now, before I go further, let me just explain my reasoning behind this. Much as I love animals, they really just didn’t feature in my thought process. Yes, the way they are slaughtered to make our food is vile, but it’s just a part of life. Unfortunately, I’m not all that concerned about that aspect of things. My desire to go vegan was in fact prompted by a tweet that appeared on my timeline, retweeting this article. Its an idea which I first came across whilst doing work experience for Tearfund UK, and was further reinforced by my time at TEAR Australia. The idea that biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels was a shock to me, and one that I just couldn’t reconcile with my day to day life. It seemed to me that the call to eat lower down on the food chain was an urgent one, and a relatively easy one to do. I felt compelled by the idea that there were simple changes I could be making to my life that would effect the planet in a positive way – and how could I even dare speak about my concern for climate change if I knew this information, and consciously chose to reject it by continuing to eat meat?
But, as you’ve probably garnered, it’s not quite that simple. I couldn’t commit to a fully vegan diet even for just one day, because it’s bloody hard work. As a big fan of chocolate, yoghurt, gorgonzola and uhh, basically any dairy product you can lay your hands on, I am not exactly compatible with a vegan diet. It is fair to say we would not have been close friends. So I’m working towards it! Whilst I highly, highly doubt I’ll ever manage a fully vegan diet (I’m not really sure I even want to, to be honest – what is life without the occasional obscenely large bowl of ice cream?!) I’m currently challenging myself to have three meat free days a week, and hoping to up that to four or five days a week once I get back to university. That’s easier than you would think on a student budget!
This particular story relates to the first part of our second field trip, in Patna, the state capital of Bihar. There, we spent three days with the EFICOR team who were devoted to giving practical help, community and awareness for those affected and impacted by HIV/AIDS. Before coming to India I had incredibly limited knowledge of this disease, and was actually struck by how naïve I was about one of the most well-known diseases on planet earth.
During our time with the HIV/AIDS project in Patna, we spent an afternoon talking to various men and women who had contracted the disease, hearing their stories and what EFICOR has been able to do for them over the past few years. One story in particular struck me, and manages to convey some of what it means to have one of the most stigmatised diseases in the world in a situation of absolute poverty.
The woman who this story revolves around originally hadn’t caught my attention. She had a tired face, showing the lines of a long life, but so did many other people in the room; I’d just assumed she was old. When she stood up to share her story with us, it quickly became apparent that this woman was one of the more sick people in the room. Her skin hung off her skeleton, her face gaunt and although animated by conversation still seemed haunted by years of illness and rejection. She told a familiar story – she had caught HIV from her husband (who had contracted the illness whilst working in a different state). This lady had been completely ostracised by her own community – friends, family and leaders alike had made her life a living hell of social exclusion, her only crime being to unwittingly contract HIV.
Nearly every woman in the room had told a similar story. What complicated her particular case was the small child clinging to her ankles and winding himself up in her skirts as she stood to talk. Of course, this in itself wasn’t particularly unusual – plenty of the parents had children who also had HIV. I thought nothing of it until she told us how old her son was. He had been battling HIV since he was a baby and was now the ripe old age of 14 but looked about seven or eight. I absolutely could not believe that he was the age that everyone around me was saying. The disease had stunted him in every possible way – mentally, emotionally and physically, meaning that a 14 year old boy who should be running around the streets of Patna with his friends was unable to attend school or function as any normal teenage boy should. It was completely heart breaking. I personally had no idea that HIV could do this to a person, especially one so young, but I learnt today that this is not a particularly uncommon occurrence. He was such a gorgeous child and it was heart breaking to know that sooner or later his mother was going to die a horrible death and this tiny boy, who was unwell in so many ways, was going to be completely alone, with just the disease that keeps his family outcast for company.
As we left the company of these brave people, we noticed that this mother and son were carrying enormous sacks of food to help them over the next few weeks. We asked how they were getting home – how a woman this frail and a boy this ill could possibly take all this stuff back to their village when it must have been heavier than both of their combined weight. It was then that we were told they weren’t going home this evening. Their village was 70km away and too far to reach that night, so they were sleeping overnight at the train station. This mother and son were possibly the most immediately vulnerable pair that I have seen during my time in India, and the idea that they would be sleeping on the ground of a quite frankly disgusting train station was just appalling. But this is a day to day reality for so many people – a horrible story, but not an uncommon one.
This is an exposure trip, not project work, and often it felt like we were just seeing things, being distressed by them and feeling unable to practically contribute to the amazing work EFICOR was doing in these communities. This was one such instance – one that left us feeling helpless and powerless in the face of a disease that not only strips people of their bodies strength, but of entire livelihoods and whole communities.
The picture I chose for this post unfortunately wasn’t from this particular story – I took barely any pictures in Patna, as it felt slightly inappropriate given the situation. This boy was one we saw whilst travelling to a remote village in Motihari, a nearby region. Barely even 5 years old, this boy had his infant sister beside him whilst he worked the fields.
One of the stories which most impacted me during my few short days in the Chitrakoot region came from a farmer in the Manikpur region. As we drove up the barely-there dirt track towards his farm, I was struck by quite how barren the land was. The soil was thin and dry – there was barely even any grass growing in it, and jagged rocks jutted out of the land at every turn. It certainly wasn’t the most welcoming landscape ever.
It was a different story, however, when our jeeps pulled up at the greenest spot for miles. There, we met a farmer (pictured below) who owned the land. Two years ago, this man was forced to migrate to nearby cities to work for multiple months a year doing menial labour just to survive. His land in the Chitrakoot region wasn’t yielding enough crops for him to make a living- the soil just was not fertile enough be sustainable.
However, this brave farmer trusted EFICOR to improve his situation. He allowed the organisation to use parts of his land for demonstration purposes, and has become an example for the rest of the village. His land now bears more fruit and vegetables than any around it for miles. With a few simple techniques taught to him by EFICOR – for example, leveling soil to reduce water erosion, placing crops at a greater distance apart so they receive enough sunlight and aren’t crowded together, using different types of crops so that monoculture does not leech all the nutrients from the soil and other clever water storage and fertilisation techniques.
With a no-nonsense attitude towards India’s rapidly changing climate, and a little bit of perseverance, EFICOR is helping people like this farmer to increase their income and enables them to stay with their families all year round, rather than having to migrate to cities. It gives these people stability, a livelihood and hope. We heard stories like this so many times over, but this one particularly touched me. The pride and joy in this farmers face was so beautiful, and we had some of his vegetables for a super fresh lunch later on in the day. Such a wonderful story from a wonderful trip!
In the last couple of days, I have been super, super busy and also super, super sick. My body basically gave up on food and refused to take any or keep any inside of it, which resulted in me getting pretty darn poorly. My stomach swelled up to about 3 times its usual size and I spent a good few hours on a drip in a tiny Indian hospital. Not exactly my finest moment but certainly an experience.
Anyway, back to the good parts of my time here! Since Wednesday night, I have been out on our first field trip, which I returned from this morning. We took the overnight train from Delhi to Karwi which was an adventure in itself… I wasn’t massively keen on the journey there, largely due to several screaming children and a night time temperature which at points must have exceeded 30 degrees. Not ideal sleeping conditions and certainly not a great way to start a pretty intense field visit – sleep deprived and sweaty. Lovely. The journey home however, was an absolute dream, with super comfy beds and a small, quiet carriage. I think it’s probably just the luck of the draw whether or not you have a good journey, but I certainly would recommend doing India by rail just so you can say that you have. I feel like a more well-rounded traveller because of it!
Rather than simply tell you what I saw, great as that would be, I feel like it would be better to tell the stories of some of the people that we met during our time in Chitrakoot. We were staying with staff at the EFICOR base in Karwi, on the Integrated Community Adaptation Project. This project works in 70 villages across the Chitrakoot region – this is 5000 households, or 40,000 people. Basically, this small little office has a huge impact! In each village, EFICOR creates a women’s SHG, which enables them to effectively save money to improve their futures, a Village Development Committee, which makes decisions on important issues within the village and helps implements some of the many government initiatives which are available to benefit village people, and a farmer group, which leads the way with adapting their farming techniques to cope with the changing climate. I’ll put these stories over the next couple of posts, but in the meantime, I have posted a video from TEAR Australia (link: https://vimeo.com/100266774) which explains what happens in Chitrakoot far better than I even could! Also, if you have any more questions about what I’ve been seeing recently I would be so happy to talk to you at length, either when I’m back in Aus/the UK or via email.