We were happily bumping along in another jeep ride to another site visit in the hilly and beautiful Wayanad district of Kerala. The week had been full of breathtaking scenery and inspiring people. I had a smile on my face looking out the window at the passing landscape—transfixed, as so often happened, by the deep emerald forests. Somewhere, tucked in that mess of trees, our jeep was taking us to a school for Adivasi students.
According to Wayanad’s history, Adivasis have been sidelined in their native land by flows of migrant farmers and British colonizers. More recently, though, multinational farm plantations are exercising a new colonialism driven by the motor of globalization and the promise of development. Not only have diverse crops been reduced to cash crops but the social landscape has also been altered. Many of the institutions that have been introduced as modern accommodations like education and health care do not suit the needs of the tribal population in the area. Any resistance is a howl, in part, to preserve Adivasi culture.
For the increasing amount of Adivasi youth that chose to assimilate—assimilation being almost inevitable force—there is distaste generated by the rest of Wayanad’s society; bound to be drunk and unreliable seemed to be the general refrain attached to every young Adivasi. The story, more or less, seems to go like this: young Adivasis coming from their villages to work on plantations end up squandering their money on alcohol. They don’t get schooling and become menaces of society. Their identity is wedged between the modern outside and their traditional village upbringing. They become neither nor. This label gets stuck to the Adivasis with little chance to make it unstuck.
That’s where the school comes in. Still bumping along in the jeep, I thought about all the things this school probably offers and that maybe the best thing it had to offer was a chance to shed the unfair identity heaped on them by society, a chance to become much more than neither nor. They are confidently equipped, to remember their culture, to sing to dance, to celebrate, to learn about the world. They can grasp a new identity that negotiates inside and outside, transcending boundaries set forth by political affiliation, socio-economic status, and religion. I was imagining all that John Lennon would’ve hoped for.
As we forged ahead through a tunnel of trees closer to the school, our driver was in conversation. He was ranting in Malayalam and it sounded serious but I couldn’t tell what was being said. I tried to tune it out for a while but it didn’t work. His heated speech made me think about how divisive the Wayanad region had become, how everyone needs to have a team led by someone who speaks with fire. Farmers are pitted against tribals, Christians against farmers, giant multinational farms against small organic farms. Either you’re for or against. No room for acceptance. I looked at the people in my jeep: my classmates all of us on the same team. But like the Adivasi students I imagined at the school, we were all willing to negotiate sides, to change, to adapt, to learn while remembering our position as Americans. We knew not to take sides. It isn’t hard to do.
The driver was still speaking. One of my teachers was right next to me; he filled me in on the conversation, translating the Malayalam to English. The fiery discourse turned out to be politically fuelled. The driver was running for a position in the local government. Right in front of me he had been labeling Adivasis as idiots and drunkards. Same old chorus. He criticized the very school he was driving us to, saying that we shouldn’t be visiting this place. He used flattery to keep his political reputation shiny, admiring the work of the NGO we had been at all week. All of us in the jeep hadn’t heard a word of it. Right then it seemed like all the divisions around the globe between nations, between armies, between political ideologies had been dropped into that jeep. Globalization is something that’s hard to understand in full, and even though I still don’t get it, I feel like that jeep ride helped me make sense of its more adverse implications on a micro level. All the rifts that one could ever imagine in this world trickle down to the strangest places: to nations, to communities, to individuals, to jeeps.