Daughter of the jungle
Look at the picture. Where do you think these children are off to, with little bundles on their sticks? When you find out you too would want to go with them!
The children are going to the forest. There they jump, run, climb trees and sing songs in their language called Kuduk. They pick the fallen flowers and leaves, to weave them into necklaces.
They enjoy the wild fruits. They look for birds, whose calls they imitate. Joining them in all this fun is their favourite didi – Suryamani. Every Sunday Suryamani takes the children to the forest.
As they move around, she shows them how to recognize the trees, the plants, and animals. Children enjoy this special class in a forest! Suryamani always says, “To learn to read the forest is as important as reading books.”
She says,”We are forest people (adivasis). Our lives are linked to the forests. If the forests are not there, we too will not remain.”
Suryamani’s story is a true story. Suryamani is a ‘Girl Star’. ‘Girl Stars’ is a project which tells extraordinary tales of ordinary girls, who have changed their lives by going to school.
Suryamani loves the forest since she was a child. She would not take the direct road to school, but would choose the path through the forest. Suryamani’s father had a small field.
Her family used to collect leaves and herbs from the forest and sell these in the bazaar. Her mother would weave baskets from bamboo or make leaf plates out of the fallen leaves.
But now no one can pick up a single leaf from the forest. That is since Shambhu the contractor came there. The people of Suryamani’s village were afraid of the contractor.
Everyone except Budhiyamai. She would say, “We the people of this forest have a right over it. We look after our forests, we don't cut trees like these contractors do. The forest is like our ‘collective bank’ – not yours or mine alone. We take from it only as much as we need. We don’t use up all our wealth.”
Suryanani’s father could no longer support the family on the small land. He moved to the town in search of work. But things did not improve. Sometimes there would be no food in the house.
At times Maniya Chacha (uncle) would send some grain from his small shop to Suryamani’s house. Chacha tried hard and got admission for Suryamani in the school in Bishanpur.
Here they would not have to pay for the fees, uniforms and books. Suryamani would have to stay there and study. Suryamani didn't want to leave her village and forest. But Maniya Chacha was firm.
“If you do not study, what will you do? Go hungry?” Suryamani would argue, “Why should I go hungry? The jungle is there to help!” Chacha tried
to explain, “But we are being moved away from our forests.
Even the forests are disappearing – in their place mines are being dug, dams are being built. Believe me, it is important for you to study, to understand about the laws. Maybe then you can help to save our forests”. Young Suryamani listened, and tried to understand some of what he said
Suryamani was filled with joy on seeing the school at Bishanpur. The school was near a thick forest. Suryamani studied hard and passed her B.A. after getting a scholarship.
She was the first girl in the village to do this. While she was in college she met Vasavi didi, a journalist. Suryamani soon joined her to work for the Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan (Movement to Save the Forests of Jharkhand).
This work took Suryamani to far off towns and cities. Her father did not like this. But Suryamani continued her work. Not only that, she also started to fight for the rights of the village people. Her childhood friend Bijoy helped her in this work.
Suryamani had another friend ‘Mirchi’, who stayed with her day and night. Suryamani would share all her thoughts and dreams with Mirchi. Mirchi would listen and say “Keee Keee.” Suryamani had a dream. for her Kuduk community. She wanted all her people to feel proud of being adivasis.
Suryamani was 21 when she opened a centre, with the help of Vasavi didi and others. She called it ‘Torang’, which means jungle in the Kuduk language.
Suryamani wanted that on festivals people should sing their own songs. They should not forget their music and should enjoy wearing their traditional clothes.
Children should also learn about herbs, medicines, and the art of making things from bamboo. Children should learn the language of school but must link it with their own language.
All this happens in the ‘Torang’ centre. Many special books about the Kuduk community and other adivasis have been collected. Flutes and different types of drums are also kept there.
Whenever something is unfair, or if someone is afraid that his land and livelihood would be taken away, they turn to Suryamani. Suryamani fights for everyone’s rights.
Suryamani and Bijoy have got married and work together. Today their work is praised by many people. She is invited, even to other countries, to share her experiences. People of her area are also raising their voice for a new forest law.
Right to Forest Act 2007
People who have been living in the forests for at least 25 years, have a right over the forest land and what is grown on it. They should not be removed from the forest.
The work of protecting the forest should be done by their Gram Sabha. A forest is everything for us adivasis. We can’t live away from the forests even for a day. Government has started many projects in the name of development – dams and factories are being built.
Forests, which are ours are being taken away from us. Because of these projects, we need to think where the forest people will go and what will happen to their livelihood?
Where will the lakhs of animals living in the forests go? If there are no forests, and we dig out our lands for minerals like aluminium, what will be left? Only polluted air, water, and miles and miles of barren land...
Lottery for farming in Mizoram:
You read about the forests of Jharkhand in Suryamani’s story. Now read about forests on the hills of Mizoram. See how people live there, and
how farming is done.
Ding, Ding, Ding.... As soon as the school bell rang Lawmte-aa, Dingi, Dingima picked their bags and hurried home. On the way they stopped to drink water from a stream in a cup made of bamboo which was kept there.
Today not only the children, even ‘Saima Sir’ was in a hurry to get back. Today there would be a special meeting of the Village Council (Panchayat). At the meeting there would be a lottery to decide which family will get how much land for farming.
The land belongs to the whole village, not to separate people. So they take turns to do farming on different parts of the land. A beautiful pot made of bamboo was shaken well. One chit was taken out. Saima Sir’s family got the first chance.
He said, “I am happy that my family gets to choose first. But, this year we cannot take more land. Last year I had taken more and was not able to farm it well. After my sister Jhiri got married and went away it is difficult to manage farming alone.”
Saima Sir asked for ‘three tin’ of land. Little Mathini asked, “ What is three tin of land? Chamui explained, “The land on which we grow one tin of seeds is called one tin of land.” One by one, the village families got their piece of land for farming.
Jhoom farming is very interesting. After cutting one crop, the land is left as it is for some years. Nothing is grown there. The bamboo or weeds which grow on that land are not pulled out. They are cut and burnt.
The ash makes the land fertile. While burning, care is taken so that the fire does not spread to the other parts of the forest. When the land is ready for farming it is lightly dug up, not ploughed.
Seeds are dropped on it. In one farm different types of crops like maize, vegetables, chillies, rice can be grown. Weeds and other unwanted plants are also not pulled out, they are just cut. So that they get mixed with the soil.
This also helps in making the soil fertile. If some family is not able to do farming on time, others help them and are given food.
The main crop here is rice. After it is cut, it is difficult to take it home. There are no roads, only hilly paths. People have to carry the crop on their
backs. This takes many weeks. When the work is over the entire village celebrates.
People get together to cook and eat, sing and dance. They do their special ‘cheraw’ dance. In this dance people sit in pairs in front of each other, holding bamboo sticks on the ground.
As the drum beats, the bamboos are beaten to the ground. Dancers step in and out of the bamboo sticks, and dance to the beat.
Find out more about the ‘cheraw’ dance. Do it in your class. But be careful and don’t hurt yourself. About three-fourth people in Mizoram are linked to the forests.
Life is difficult but almost all children go to school. You can see some of them here, playfully blowing their leaf whistles! You too have made many such whistles, haven’t you!