The Trials of Building in Odisha India

Upon arriving at the site where we were to begin building a chicken coop that Orphans to Ambassadors donated to Rural Life Development Society in Biswanathpur, Odisha India we were greeted by the local men and women. The local village women were dressed on traditional sarees that were brightly colored with floral patterns and traditional Indian designs. The men were dressed in jeans and nice collared shirts. The men handed us flowers they had picked from the surrounding plants and the women placed flower lays they had made. They then began yelling a high pitched holar that was broken up with their tongue moving back and forth making a sort of tribal call. Samuel, the head of RLDS and the one hosting us, said that they are “receiving” myself and the 3 women I am traveling with (Katherine, Kara and Barb).

We were then led to a shelter the locals had built out of large sticks as supports and smaller sticks interwoven with palm and tree branches covered with a blue tarp. They had plastic chairs lined up down one side for us four women plus our escort, Samuel and Sabita (our main contact and head of the RLDS organization and his sister) to sit.

The men laid out a tarp on the ground in front of us for the women and children to sit on. With flowers around my neck and in my hands I held up my camera and began taking more pictures of the women and children. Kara pointed to the pile of sand and large stones and asked me if I could think of how they were going to get them to the coop site. Without machinery to carry it or even so much as a wheel barrow I ran through every scenario I could think of. Maybe oxen and cart?  I  didn’t see any sort of cart around the village homes and land. I walked over to the piles and took some pictures with the children in the background. Samuel began talking to one of the men that were sitting on the ground next to him in the shelter. They spoke in a language I did not understand, but seemed to me to be a nice flowing language with a roll of the tongue on the r’s somewhat similar to Spanish, but not quite. They continued back and forth pausing with bobbled heads as they seemed to be agreeing with one another. Samuel then turned to Katherine and began to talk about the project. She mentioned the dimensions and that we needed to get started on measuring out the foundation. Samuel went back to the man again as they discussed some more with heads bobbling and other men chiming in with heads bobbling as they seemed to agree with one another. Samuel turned to Katherine again and said “Shall we go to the site?”. “Yes” she replied.

We gathered our things as the remaining three of us women questioned one another “Are we moving?”
“It looks like it, yes.”

We walked roughly 20 or so feet down to the far corner of the property that Samuel had purchased for the chicken coop we were building along with the school and care center for the local children and orphans. As we walked down I asked Samuel how they were going to get the large stones and sand to the site. He paused and said “You will see tomorrow.”

Katherine and Samuel began discussing where the chicken coop would go, the door to the yard and the shelter itself as well as where the foundation holes should go. They began measuring with a tape and marking where the holes were to be dug with rocks. When they saw those wouldn’t define the marks well enough they tried sticks held up by rocks. They eventually carved points to the sticks and pounded them into the ground as they realized they needed a marker that wouldn’t get messed up by the various animals and people that walk through on their way to the river below.

The men discussed in their language beginning with just two talking and eventually all 10 or so of them chiming in with pauses and heads bobbling. Simon would pause occasionally with a question for Katherine. After receiving an answer they would discuss some more with others chiming in again. One young man spoke louder to the men and eventually began digging. As an elder man talked to the younger man the younger man kept working and talking with the occasional “hm” mumbled and a head bobble as he agreed to what them man was saying, but just seemed to want to get the work done.

Several hours after we arrived the first hole for the foundation was dug. Samuel turned to Katherine and said “The men will continue to dig the holes where we have marked and will have them done for tomorrow.” She thanked him and they followed up with discussion on paying some of the men and the mason who was hired to build the foundation columns. We then walked back up to the shelter and into our ambulance.

The next day we arrived was less of a celebration but the men working and some of the women and children from the day before were there waiting for us. We started out of the ambulance into the shelter to gather and wait while the men discussed in their language for a bit. We headed down to the site of the chicken coop while the men and women brought our chairs behind us. They placed them along the bushes that separated the chicken coop site and the river below. The bushes were tall enough to allow for some shade which was nice with the addition of the occasional light breeze cooling us in the 87° humid heat. The holes were dug for the foundation columns. There were three older women that walked up to us as we sat down in the chairs. We all four stood up and they took our hands each one at a time and said “Thank you.” The oldest of the three, a short and very thin woman with a round head and large smile walked up to Barb to hold her hand and then pulled her close for a hug. We all laughed with the addition of an “awwwww” rolling out of our mouths. She smiled and walked to me doing the same. The look on her face was close to tears as she bowed her head into mine and held me tight. She followed with “Thank you.” as she looked straight into my eyes. All I could do was bow my head as she moved onto Kara and then Katherine hugging each one. When she got to Sabita, one of Samuel’s four sisters that joined us that day, she began speaking in Odia (the language of the Odisha State in India) to her.

The first two women were already walking up to the pile of sand and large stones when we sat back down. Katherine was up with Samuel looking at the holes the men had dug and talking with him following up with the men. The women at the pile rolled up the scarfs that were around their neck into tight doughnut shapes then placed them on their heads. They bent down and placed metal pans in the shape of a Chinese wok full of sand on their heads right on top of the scarfs. They stood upright as straight as a runway model and walked with a slow and steady pace towards us. Kara looked at me and said “So that’s how they get the sand over here.” I jumped up with my camera and began taking pictures.

As the men discussed with Samuel and then Samuel with Katherine the women continued to bring pan fulls of sand one after the other onto a bare patch of ground next to where the chicken coop was to be built and dump them. As the pile next to the coop grew two men walked across the plain with cement bags tucked into the frame of bicycles. By now there were two young girls walking up from the river with large tribal like containers made in modern steel filled with water. They dumped the water into a large blue plastic drum next to the new pile of sand. The two women then made a sort of plateau with the sand pile and then poured the bags in cement next to the sand. I grabbed my tripod and set it up just across from the pile and mounted my camera. I turned the dial to video and began recording. Using a hoe the women dug at the sand pile and cement pile bringing them together in an even mixture. They then shaped the now mix of cement and sand pile into a very large bowl shape pouring water directly in the middle. They then built up the sides of the large bowl and rolled them into the water and center soaking the water in evenly. As they worked their way to the center and the water soaked in they used their hands and carved out the last bit of sand/cement mixture that was still dry adding it to the complete mixture that made up the mortar for the columns.

Just as I was putting my tripod away Kara shouted at me from the row of chairs by the bushes and said “Jenn look, they’re bringing the stones over now.” I looked over and saw the women now carrying the large stones that laid next to the sand pile 20 feet away. I walked over and grabbed some pictures of the women with the enormous stones on their heads. I then walked over to my bag and chairs and sat down for a while. The men began setting the large stones in the holes and filling them with the mortar the women had mixed up. Katherine was now working in her notebook recalculating the dimensions of the chicken coop as Samuel had told her we couldn’t buy six and a half boards, only six feet. She spent most of the morning and day drawing out the plans with new dimensions as we sat and watched the workers build columns and the women carry sand and stones. Kara, Barb and I all said we wish we could do something. I wanted to get in and help with the mortar and started talking to Katherine about it when Barb was over with the women at the farther sand pile picking up a large stone. Barb walked over with the stone on her shoulder and then walked back to the pile again. Kara then said “I’m going to go help.” I grabbed my camera again and took pictures as the two brought stone after stone with the women. One of the men handed Kara his scarf in a doughnut shape and put it on her head. Then two men lifted a stone and placed it on top. Kara walked the 20 feet over with the stone on her head as I took pictures. The men and women were laughing and talking as they seemed to be in awe of us working with them. Kara soon walked back over to take a break as well and Samuel came over to talk with us all. “You like to do the work?” he asked. We all replied with a big “Yes” and explained that it was the reason why we were there.

Later that day more of the children in the village joined us and Barb tried getting them to engage by building balanced rock piles. She sat by herself for what seemed like an hour or so as I took pictures before she gave up and sat down. Towards the end of the day the children sat down and began to balance rocks on their own and eventually broke into a game of what appeared to be freeze tag. We laughed and watched the children as the day came to a close and the men had gotten two of the columns finished.

That evening we went to the lumber man and Katherine ordered the wood that we would need for the coop house. The man was in a small shop off of his home where he built furniture for the locals. The wood was very heavy and solid as it was still green and did not seem to be cured.

The morning of our third day was brisk and quiet as there were less children as the previous days. We walked straight to the coop site and the men brought our chairs over for us to sit under the limited shade of the large bushes. This time we brought Samuel’s sister Nirmala with us and we all sat together as Katherine talked to Samuel.

I had talked about trying to set up a time lapse video. In order to do that the camera needs to be set on a tripod that includes the entire chicken coop site. Then set to snap a photo every so many minutes. On this day I set the camera up close to where we were sitting but still far enough away to grab a shot of the whole site including the workers. We watched the men work on the remaining columns they needed to get done for a bit, and I snapped shots every 20 minutes with the camera on the tripod. Katherine and Samuel had been needing to go to the bank in India to withdraw the funds that Orphans to Ambassadors had transferred for the project. Since the banks were closed due to the holidays around Dussehra up until that day they decided to leave the work site and withdraw the money needed to pay for the wood that was going to be delivered that day. I needed to stay behind while the workers continued on the columns and take pictures every 20 minutes for the time lapse so Barb decided to stay with me as Katherine went with Samuel, Kara and Nirmala to the bank.

We stayed in the now diminishing strip of shade just next to the bushes lining the property by the coop site and watched the workers top off one of the columns just in front of us. I got up a couple of times to take the time lapse photo when the men stopped working. Barb and I noticed a large group of people gathering up at the shelter that was built away from the site just after Katherine, Samuel and the rest of our group had left. One of the men had been chipping away at the bushes about 10 feet away from the site. After some time he had built a shelter into the bushes where we could sit in the shade. He asked Barb and myself to move over there, but I didn’t want to leave the camera so I said “No thank you” as best I could. He finally gave up and the women from the village sat around Barb and myself with some of the children as well. They seemed to be very quiet and weren’t talking and laughing as much as before.

More and more people (seemed to be mostly, or all, men) were pouring into the shelter that was away from the coop site. The men that were working stopped and walked up to the shelter while the women that were working and the children stayed with Barb and myself. One of the women walked up to the shelter where, what seemed to be, roughly 40 or so people were gathering at that point. When she walked back I asked what was going on as best I could. She bobbled her head and said something in her language. With neither of us understanding each other, it was difficult to communicate so I just left it. Barb and I began talking a bit about life. I asked her how she got involved with Orphans to Ambassadors and then got into boys, kids and life choices just to keep ourselves occupied.

We continued to chat with each other and try to communicate when we could with the village women and young girls to stay occupied for what seemed to be a few hours. I often regretted not going to the bank with the rest of the team due to the heat and there wasn’t much work getting done at the site to get pictures of. After some time had passed some of the men that were at the shelter began walking towards the work site with a few of our workers. The women gathered around Barb and myself closer when they arrived. They all were talking among each other in their language with loud, but not shouting, tones. One older man was staring at Barb with a scowl on his face. She laughed and said “look at THAT look. He’s not happy about something.” I looked over at him and laughed as well, and the village women laughed with us as he backed up into the crowd still scowling. They talked among themselves some more, and seemed to be looking over the build site, then the men walked back over to the shelter.

The man that had made the shade spot in the bushes came over again and insisted we move. This time the women picked up our chairs and moved us over making it clear we had no say in the matter. They tried to pick up my camera with the tripod and I stopped them telling them to just leave it. I figured we were still close enough to keep an eye on it even if we were moving away from the site a bit more.

We spent roughly another hour or so in the shade nook in the bushes. I pushed the camera button a few times to get shots of a site that was still not getting worked on to keep the timeline of the sun in the time lapse photos consistent. I asked the women again if we should be going up to the shelter and they said “No. Meeting.” which seemed to be her way of letting me know the men were all meeting. I said “No women?” they all laughed and bobbled their heads saying “No”. We saw the ambulance drive up with the rest of our group when Samuel walked over to the men in the shelter and Katherine, Kara and Nirmala walked over to our spot in the shade. “Well this is nice.” Kara said as she walked into the shade and sat down.

Kara told us how they had trouble at the bank with the police. As they were waiting to withdraw the money from the bank the a policeman walked over to them and asked them for their passports and visas. Since neither of them had the documents on them they didn’t know what to do. Samuel talked to the policeman for a bit and he left them alone. It turned out there was confusion as the bank resided at the same location as a mining facility and the policeman thought that Katherine and Kara were there for work. We all thought it odd that those two looked like they would want to work at a mine in India, but went with what Samuel had told them.

Katherine and Kara mentioned the men that were up at the shelter gathering as Samuel continued to stay there and talk with them.  They said that when they left for the bank earlier, they saw the men walking towards the site, but didn’t think anything of it. They were stopped by one of the men Samuel was familiar with when they were driving back from the bank who told Samuel that the men were looking for work. We didn’t have work for them since the project was on a tight budget as it was, so Samuel was telling them while we waited. We could hear the light faint voice of Samuel talking to the men as we talked among ourselves waiting patiently for the men to understand and we could get back to the chicken coop being built. Occasionally we could hear them all speaking just as they do at the chicken coop site during each building process, then back to one talking (perhaps Samuel). All of a sudden we heard raised voices and all the men were shouting. We quickly stopped our conversation and looked at one another with confusion. A friend of Samuel, that had gone with them to the bank, walked over to my camera and brought it to the shaded area we were in. He didn’t get the tripod set right and the camera fell to the ground. I blurted out “Oh son of a …” (you can image what the last word in the phrase was). Katherine snapped and said “Jenn!” I then followed with “Good thing I have a filter on the lens.” Katherine snapped again “They understand English.”

The men at the shelter shouted at Samuel a few more times and Samuel began to speak with a raised voice. No longer was it a faint talking in the distance, but more shouting and a faster talking. A few more times of shouting back and forth and then they seemed to eventually quiet down after a while. Samuel and his friends walked over to us while some of the village men began to walk away, and some stayed. When Samuel got back to us he told us they aren’t happy with the chicken coop being built on this land. They are worried that because Samuel and his friends and family are Baptist that they were there to move in and try to convert the village that was prominently Hindu. They were concerned that the white women he brought in were working for him as they saw Barb and Kara hauling the rocks, and Katherine leading the project. This would raise Samuel’s class standing in a very distinct hierarchical culture. Samuel was not born in the position he was now appearing to try to place himself in, and the villagers didn’t like it. He said threats were made to destroy the work we had done already so Samuel strongly suggested that we leave for the house where we were staying that was a 20 minute drive away from the site and the people. Katherine agreed and we gathered our things and walked with Samuel’s friends and the village women that accompanied us walked us to the ambulance.

We drove to the house and all ate lunch and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. Katherine and Samuel discussed what was going on a few times, but no decision was made whether we would return the next day. We all discussed it together as we enjoyed the cool air after the sun set. Barb was concerned that when you get a mob mentality things could go south very quickly. Kara expressed her concerns for our safety, and that no chicken coop was worth it. I knew in my heart that the Hindu people wouldn’t harm us, but not knowing these villagers and as Barb mentioned the mob mentality, I was perfectly fine with staying home the next day if Katherine and Samuel made that decision.

The next day we did end up staying in the house as we enjoyed being pampered by our 4 sister hosts. Each day that passed for the following few days we enjoyed getting our nails done, our hair styled, fed amazing food through what Barb called “Aggressive Hospitality”. During those four days Samuel had began to threaten to go to the authorities if the men could not calm down. He eventually did have to go to the police and tell them what was going on. The police had gone out to the site and he showed them the mixed mortar that the women had done the second day that was now wasted and the work that was at a halt because of the trouble they were causing. The men of the village said they were concerned with the chickens being so close to the river that they bathe, wash their clothing, and the children swing in. The authorities insisted the work continue and the men stay out of the way.

Work began again 4 days after as the wood was being delivered slowly as a few pieces were delivered a few pieces at a time as the man we bought it from was going into the forest to chop down the trees and mill it by hand. It was hidden in the bushes so that none would be stolen or destroyed. Some of the working men stayed overnight at the site to ensure that the coop would not get destroyed while they worked on it as the men had threatened to do.

The last two days we were in India we sat for a few hours as the men worked on the coop. We showed them how to nail the frames together and then connect them with one long piece. We then left them to work on the frames coming back the next day to show them where they go and get them all in line on the foundation columns followed by nailing the roof on and flooring in place.

The last day there the men had painted the coop frame blue and all took pictures and said our goodbyes. I had the hardest time with expressing my gratitude towards the women that were with Barb and I as the men stayed in the shelter and came down tot he coop site with us there. At the time I did not understand what was going on and how things could have gone in a downward direction, and they were there to shelter us and keep us safe. I repeatedly said “dhanyabaad”, but I am not confident they understood what my “thank you” was for and how much they meant to me. They got a lot of hugs, the children got a lot of hugs and the men that worked on the site got hugs whether they wanted them or not.

I will forever take this experience with me in my heart. I completely understand why we were there and what the chicken coop represents as a sustainable resource to the village and the future of the entire site there with a school and home for the children. I also understand the culture of the people there and how they fear change and what people with fair skin bring with them. The area has a history of missionaries coming in with the intention to help, but converting the oldest religion that Hinduism is to a Christianity only to be driven out later and those that were converted persecuted for their beliefs.

I hope to return back there some day and continue to help the people of Biswanathpur with education and a means to find a way to balance their age old culture and the benefits that modern day advancements hold.