Arriving in Istanbul

Arriving at Istanbul Airport is an assault on the senses. Throngs of people push and pull in different directions loaded down with bags and shouting at each other. Istanbul is where the Occident and the Orient meet. It is also the end of the great Silk Road. For centuries, people have been coming to Istanbul to trade.

It was here – at the Istanbul Airport – that I connected with a delegation from Pittsburgh to undertake an important fact-finding mission to Turkey. Headed by Congressman Mike Doyle and Councilman Bill Peduto, eight Pittsburghers set out to spend a week together developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of modern Turkey – and its rich history. The catalyst for the trip was an invitation from the City of Gaziantep to become sister cities. Gaziantep is Pittsburgh’s 17th sister city – and the first sister city in a majority Muslim country.

On the drive from the airport to the historic center of Istanbul, the group had a chance to see a mass of cargo ships waiting to enter the Bosphorus as well as their first glimpse of the city’s skyline. Istanbul can be described as one of the most visually stimulating cities in the world. And, the first impressions were just scratching at the surface.

Geography – and history – have shaped Istanbul. This is where Europe and Asia meet. Istanbul is the only city to span two continents. It has a very strong and diverse historical, cultural, and religious heritage, which is still palpable today as one walks through the streets and alleyways.

The population of Turkey is over 74 million – and half of the country’s population is under the age of 29. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. It home to some 20 percent of population. By official counts, 14 million people live in Istanbul, but it is estimated that there are another four to six million people who are registered elsewhere but actually live in Istanbul. By comparison, five million people live in Ankara – which was declared the nation’s capital in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Until then, Istanbul had served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years. Today, Ankara is the center of government, bureaucracy, and diplomacy, while Istanbul continues to thrive as a vibrant commercial center.

Shielded from the global economic slowdown, the Turkish economy is still moving strong. Turkey enjoyed a 9 percent growth rate in 2011. It is expected to be a little slower this year, but still good. 65 percent of industrial exports from MENA countries are produced in Turkey

In addition to Congressman Doyle and Councilman Peduto, Pittsburgh was represented by Simin Curtis, Founder and President of the American Middle East Institute; Reverend Glenn Grayson, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network; Aradhna Oliphant, President and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc.; James Nathan Williams III, Director of Government Affairs for the University of Pittsburgh; and me, in my capacity as President and CEO of the World Affairs Council.

We were joined by Jean Roehrenbeck, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Doyle. Our Pittsburgh-based Turkish hosts – Serdar Ayman and Hasan Eygoren, who both represented the Turkish Cultural Foundation – accompanied us as well.

Over the course of a week, this group had the opportunity to meet with opinion leaders and decision makers from business, politics, and academia to learn more about modern Turkey. This was rounded out by tours of historic sites to understand the region’s place in history and the role of religion. In addition, we met with local business leaders and their families.  The delegation visited Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, and Izmir.

by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!

 


20 Global Travel Scholars for 2012

This summer, the lives of twenty local students will be forever transformed. In late June, they will travel all over the world to experience firsthand the daily lives of Koreans, Italians, South Africans, Peruvians, and fourteen other cultures. These high school juniors – selected as Global Travel Scholars by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh – will leave behind friends, family, and the familiar comforts of Western Pennsylvania to immerse themselves in the joys and challenges of living in a foreign country.

This marks the ninth year that the Council, in partnership with The Experiment in International Living, has provided this unique opportunity to local students. Through the generous financial support of regional foundations, corporations, and individuals, the Council is sending its largest group of Scholars, representing sixteen different high schools, to seventeen different countries.

This group of Scholars is also among the most diverse in program history. Charles Hickerson, one of seven African American males who will be traveling abroad this summer, is excited to experience life in another country. “This program opens a door for students like me who have only been able to ‘travel’ through books, magazines, and the internet,” says Hickerson, a junior at Propel Andrew Street High School, who will explore Italy for five weeks. “Chances like this do not come often and I do not take this for granted.”

Jacalyn Sharp, a junior at Pittsburgh Sci Tech 6-12, will spend four weeks in Scotland fulfilling her lifelong dream of traveling there and putting her Gaelic language skills to the test. “It is amazing that my dream is actually going to come true,” enthuses Sharp. “This is an opportunity unlike any other. For a lack of better words, it’s like floating on a cloud,” she says.

While abroad, students learn and grow -- and have fun!

Providing international travel experiences for students who would not otherwise have the opportunity is the guiding principle behind the Council’s Global Travel Scholarship Program. “Today’s students will enter a globally diverse workforce in which it will be essential to communicate cross-culturally,” notes Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO of the Council.  “Providing young people with an opportunity to develop intercultural skills at such a critical age is a key benefit of our Program,” says Sokol. “Our Scholars return to Pittsburgh as true ‘global citizens,’ with a much greater capacity to understand and think critically about their world.”

Some of the Scholars have already grasped the significance of their upcoming adventures. “Becoming a Global Travel Scholar will be a life-altering experience,” explains Kara Jones, a junior at South Side Area High School who will be participating in a travel intensive program in China for four weeks. “This trip will expand my comfort zone and help me establish relationships with my host family and other people I will meet.”

In addition to the lifelong connections the Scholars will make this summer, they will also learn quite a bit about themselves. David A. Murdoch, former Chair of the Council’s Board of Directors and Chair Emeritus of World Learning (the parent organization of The Experiment in International Living), was a driving force behind the implementation of the Global Travel Scholarship Program in Pittsburgh. “The Experiment provides a true understanding of the world in which we live, and provides the necessary tools to cope with adversity,” notes Mr. Murdoch. “Experimenters come back with a confidence and maturity that only an opportunity like this could provide.”

Sadik Roberts, a junior at Pittsburgh Obama who will experience the vibrancy of West African culture for five weeks in Ghana, is eager to step out of his comfort zone and grow as a person.  “This is a chance to fly across the world, visit a distant land, learn about ancient cultures, and find the truth within myself.”

Timothy Joy, a junior at Ambridge Area High School, can barely contain his excitement about all the new experiences that await him in Thailand. “This journey will be an adventure but I see it as more than a vacation,” he says. “I see it as an outstanding learning and growing experience,” notes Joy. “Along this journey, I hope to find myself, experience things I never have, and most importantly, immerse myself in a new culture.”

Perhaps no aspect of their time abroad will challenge the Scholars more – and have a greater impact on their  personal and intercultural growth – than the time they will spend living with local host families, many of whom speak little or no English.  “The homestay portion of the program is of greatest concern to the Scholars each year,” explains Murdoch. “They are worried about the language barrier and about adjusting to the family’s daily routine. Yet, when they return, the Scholars single out the homestay as the highlight of the entire summer,” he says with a smile.

Scholars bond with host families while abroad.

Reflecting on her upcoming trip to France, Heaven Brown, a junior at Cornell High School, displays wisdom beyond her years when she says, “This experience changes people’s lives in the blink of an eye. I can’t control the gut-dwelling feeling that builds up inside me knowing it will be mine.”

Upon return, each Scholar will be responsible for writing a reflective essay; sharing their experiences with friends, family, teachers, staff, and funders at the Welcome Home Session; conducting at least two school or community presentations; and designing a globally-themed project to engage their peers in international affairs issues.

More details about the program, including names, schools and destinations of the 2012 Scholars; a list of program supporters; and information about the organizations can be found after the jump. 

Read the rest of this entry »


Project Koraput: Land Bank

by Jen Saffron
March 22, 2012

Laxman, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

The clock ticked 21 minutes to download today’s international exchange rates.  49.1 rupees to the U.S. dollar.  Impressive.  We decided: cash in the $2500 before day’s end.  Debendra placed the brand new $100 bills into a yellow bag in his briefcase, then clutched the briefcase under his arm while eating curries and rice with his hands. The electricity flickered overhead, we finished our milky Indian coffees, and Hebel drove us to the bank.

There are laws about exchanging that much money in these parts.  Only foreigners can do it.  The bills are carefully inspected, Visa copied, signatures scripted.  Given the amount, which is enough to build a small home, the bank manager escorted us to the teller, a shy woman with a black plastic headband.  First, she counted 12,275 rupees.  When we pointed out the missing zero on the end of her tabulation, her face changed to disbelief.  A guard with a gun watched the door.  After the transaction, we made a beeline for the car and told Hebel to step on it.

This money, comprised of hundreds of donations funneled through Community House, will secure the second parcel of land – the Hindu woman agreed to sell, instructing Debendra to come by after morning chores.  Debendra showed up the next day at 6:00 a.m. to show his honor, returning at 8:00 with his lawyer and the briefcase.

There are no simple plans enacted in the third world – and what, building a village with two women, a pastor, and a PayPal button?  Time and money are their own machines, and they tell us who’s the real boss.   Getting things done often turns into trying to get things done.

We hatched a plan for today, anyway, to photograph landless people purchasing yet a second plot of land, with Hindus and Christians working together in peace.  The legal paperwork would be written up with the public invited to witness.  Not us, though because the presence of the white women would jack the price and the deal would sour.  With the money and signatures secured, Debendra would signal Bikram, his oldest son, and we’d arrive to record the final thumbprint seals by the Koraput survivors.

But, it was noon and still no word from Debendra.  An hour later, he rolled up on his motorcycle, clearly flustered.  “The political people are now involved.  They came, unannounced, and said they would buy the land for a higher price!  It’s now a competition.”

We were stunned.  What about the Hindu woman honoring the deal?  Debendra said nothing was sure.  But he was sure of one thing: someone had talked and now the political cronies were speculating.  He asked the villagers to keep their mouths shut, knowing it doesn’t take just two white women with cameras to cause problems, as greed lurks.  It can just take one person making a comment to an outsider – one matchstick lights the whole jungle on fire, Debendra says.

Nandaguda has a Christian street and a Hindu street, both lined with mud houses.  Poverty aside, the village is tranquil and surrounded by rice fields, a canal, and pastured animals. Hindu or Christian, they have much in common, living together on the outskirts of Jeypore.

At their recent town meeting, they agreed that welcoming the survivors would prove beneficial, as the increase in residents would establish a Panchayat, or a small municipality.  Electricity, better water, paved roads, schools – these come with the Panchayat blessing.

There were exactly two Nandagudans, however, that did not concur.  One of them, a young woman, confronted the survivors to make her position very clear. Taking a break from digging, 70 survivors lunched in the Nandaguda church on Christian Street, sitting on the floor eating dal and rice.  The young woman approached and unleashed a string of trash talk.

The survivors continued eating from plates made out of leaves, just looking at her.  These people had already seen their houses torched and had fled for their lives.  Taking on a catfight wasn’t part of the rebuilding plan.  Chanchalla and her son, Prabhat, tried in vain to calm the dissent.  Eventually, the young woman ran off and although the survivors maintained dignity, talk followed the incident.  Was this rebuilding plan really going to work?

Sumitra, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

That night, a meeting ensued outside Debendra’s family flat.  Away from heated talk among the men, we stayed in the shadows with the women and their sleeping babies.  Building consensus is messy, often slow work.  The patience and perseverance required for this iterative community work, in the face of immediate need, places grassroots projects like this at risk.

And, who are we to have involved ourselves?  We’ve been skating a thin line between camera work and social work.  But, we’re clear why we are here.  We decided to simply act, working with the full awareness and respect of the privilege we’ve been granted – the trust of the survivors, allowing us access to their intimate community and engaging in planning talks even though we can’t make big promises.

We will cull thousands of photographs, audio recordings and writing to help propel the Koraput Surivors Project forward.  And, as profound and adventuresome as this trip has been, this is just the beginning, with much more to learn and more decisions to be made as the new community unfolds.  Back in Delhi, now, we’re already scheming our return.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.


Project Koraput: I’m Workin’ on a Building

by Jen Saffron
March 21, 2012 

Thy seat, O brave one,

is empty today -

fill it with your valor.

- Rabindranath Tagore

The Koraput survivors traveled an hour by bus with pick axes, shovels and pans, cramming into a tuk tuk for the last segment, arriving on the reddish land that is now theirs.  They came to dig the first house foundation on their recently purchased parcel, seeking to settle on the outskirts of Nandaguda with a total of 60 homes.

Laxman, an elderly man in a pink tank top, blue lungi and sandals, instructed the younger men to stake out the trench dimensions, and green twine appeared.  The plumb line secured with a small bamboo stick, it was time.  Pick axes raised high, they began excavating the earth into 2-foot deep footers, the older women clearing stones.  Sumitra, a sari clad woman in her early 30s, almost single handedly dug an entire trench in 95 degree heat.  I observed the frustration melting from her face, the build up of 4 years of living off crumbs.  Popun, her slight, adolescent son, looked on.

Laxman, just over 5 feet tall with a high-pitched voice, proved indomitable.  A man of about 60 in a state where the average life expectancy is 62, wielding a pick axe straight and true.  Laxman, the mason in his community, sharing his knowledge for the benefit of all.

It would be easy to cast these religious refugees as victims, to feel sorry for them, to assume they can’t do anything for themselves, that they don’t have knowledge or skills.  Not so.  Despite walking 22 kilometers in the night with their babies, through the jungle with the threat of snakes, tigers and elephants, despite the hardship of living in abandoned buildings, they choose to stay together and to keep the faith.  They didn’t fight the Hindu extremists, they instead chose to be warriors for their own lives, and in that way are becoming an inspiration to others.

The Nandaguda people notice their strength and dignity, too. As the sound of axes and shovels pitched on, a Hindu villager quietly appeared with an offering for the sweaty group: two beautiful papayas.  Earlier that same day, I spotted an older woman in a sari, approaching with a deliberate gait.  She came bearing the news to Debendra Singh, her pastor: this morning, people came to the Hindu woman’s parcel and began measuring.  Were we buying this, too?

Nandaguda runs on the timeless engine of all villages: word of mouth, women’s work, and preserving the common good. Pastor Singh already talked with the Nandaguda people, among them his own parishioners, asking them about their feelings that landless refugees sought to resettle 100 yards from them.  How did they feel that a group 20 families larger than their own, with new ideas and customs, would join them in the fields outside of Jeypore?  For the most part, people had come around to the idea.

But, the Nandaguda Hindu woman had not wanted to sell.  Was it because of the Christians, or her mistrust of outsiders?  Her parcel of land in Nandaguda, blackened by field fire, abuts the Koraput survivors’ land.  Procuring her parcel means space for latrines, vegetable gardens, a paved road, perhaps another bore well.  The future health and safety of the community depends on it.

Meeting Time, by Jen Saffron 2012

Talk turned dark as Debendra started to worry – someone saw us, someone saw the white people walking on her land, and now she will jack up the price, because she has a prize.  Who will get it?  Did someone already make an offer?  If not, Debendra had better or someone else would, and the loss would be too great.  He had already deliberated over that parcel, because without it, the new village would be hemmed in on all sides, no room to grow. How can we start building houses AND get the land?

Debendra and the Koraput men met in a circle, talked it out, and decided they would approach the Hindu woman and buy the land.  For now the priority is clear, but how it would happen would be by the grace of God.  Debendra paid a frail old man 10 rupees to find the Hindu woman and carry the word, and he went off on his ancient bicycle, in search.

Deed to the Land, with the Koraput Survivors, by Lynn Johnson 2012

 

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.


Project Koraput: Conversation with Debendra Singh

by Jen Saffron March 20, 2012

Debendra Singh is an Indian Christian minister in Jeypore, Orissa State, India. He works as a grassroots leader, empowering the poor in one of the poorest states in India and pastoring three congregations, including a faith community comprised entirely of refugees – the Koraput Survivors – who survived sectarian violence in their village in 2008.  This interview took place in Jeypore on March 19, 2012.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

JS:  The last Indian census claims that approximately 3% – 5% of Indians are Christian.  Although the caste system was outlawed, it is still required to list one’s caste with your state government and since the Orissa anti-conversion laws, it’s also illegal to convert to Christianity.  You, yourself, are Dalit caste – an “untouchable”- and an Indian Christian since birth.  Although a Dalit, K. R. Narayanan, was elected India’s 10th President in 1997 and in reality there are 160 million Indians, like the Koraput Survivors, living as “untouchables” under harsh, legal discrimination and social marginalization. Indian Christians also suffer discrimination laws and sectarian violence.  This is an ingrained, corrupt system, based on inequality.  What is your hope for social change and how can you operate within this kind of reality, given your post?

DS:  We need freedom of religion, and to get that we need Christian lawyers to stand against unjust laws.  Not all of the states have anti-conversion laws. In Orissa, where RSS (Hindu fundamentalist sect) is growing, some want to finish the Christian religion by threatening people to convert back to Hinduism. This is totally related to the caste system and social control, not really even religion.  Laws exist that bar Christian children from educational rights, state benefits, and so on.  The hope is that we have the will to legally fight for the discrimination laws to change by getting our own lawyers.  For example, because of a Christian lawyer, we were able to purchase this piece of land from a Hindu man to relocate the Koraput Survivors.  The lawyer knows the law, and people in the community will keep their mouths shut because this transaction has been done in legal fashion, with the lawyer by my side, and the lawyer has something at stake, too in not being corrupt because I would blow the whistle.God has given us the wisdom to think, and to fight for justice –I cannot keep quiet.

JS:  This reminds me a lot of the kind of work of the US Civil Rights movement. Although racism still exists, it seemed impossible that the Jim Crow system would ever end. Since there are backlashes to every movement, what’s to say that the Koraput Survivors rebuild and then violence returns?

DS: Wherever, people will do violence if they want to, and we have to stand.  In 2008, 3,000 people came to Jeypore to attack Christians, but we stood strong, facing the RSS from about 25 yards off. We did not flee to the jungle, rather we stood strong together, about the same number of Christians as RSS – we lined the road, some with sticks.  If we would have run away, we would have been chased and killed.  We were saved by a big rain- people scattered, then gunfire between the RSS and the police.  Later we couldn’t leave our houses for nine days, but the police supported us.   In Talagumandi, they had no hope to stand together as they were ambushed, just a few hundred Christians in a remote village with no one to support them. Now they will live peacefully, moving to land outside Jeypore, and I am there to stand for them.

JS: So, the Koraput Survivors will move to land adjacent to Nandaguda village, and you will combine not only villages but churches.  Right now, communities worldwide are combining, especially in the developing world where refugees from movements and civil unrest integrate into established populations.  There are many populations in Orissa,with a complex collective history.  In addition to Hindu fundamentalist violence, armed Maoist revolutionaries are living deep in the forest, and Indian tribals exploited in favor of corporate land projects.  In fact, while we’ve been here, two Italian tourists were taken hostage by the Maoist revolutionaries, not far from Jeypore. So, combining a downtrodden group of Christian refugees with an established community creates a real test.  You’re one guy, taking a stand for this group of a few hundred landless people living on the complete margins of a corrupt society.  What are your fears and challenges?

DS:   I started by talking with the Nandaguda people – about 200 people came to the church to talk – I want all the questions to have answers, and they mostly wanted to know, “Are these good people?”  They are living peacefully in the village and shared their trust in me to take the position to mediate with the people in the Koraput camp, negotiating peace between these two communities. First of all, my fear is that if our Koraput survivors, while they chose to stay together as a strong group, may not cooperate with Nandaguda villagers. Then, our Nandaguda people might blame me – why have you brought these kind of people to this village, people with problems?  Nobody can say that everyone is perfect, but if someone has bad behavior, they will blame me.  So, I hope we can encourage good integration through grassroots work. For example, supporting economic growth by encouraging microloans for small businesses will help the survivors prosper.  Also, working out a government pension for the elderly – right now they get the equivalent of $4 a month. Socially I believe the survivors will see people they would like to emulate, like educated people, and they will want to get their own education.  From the infrastructure side, we will get a paved road when the numbers in Nandaguda rise, and two bore wells.   And, now it’s only primary school, but when more people come, they will build a high school.  They will have to raise the standards. We have been working in Nandaguda since 2001, so this will take time – it’s a big dream.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.


Project Koraput: I am this, I am that. I am not this, I am not that.

by Jen Saffron
March 19, 2012

“It is impossible to think of a democracy which recognizes ‘untouchability’
as a part of one’s individual Dharma or as a permissible
form of religion or social prejudice.”

- wall text from the Freedom Struggles Museum at the Red Fort, Delhi

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Church in Nandaguda, a village of mud houses along a dirt road off of a dirt road, proved not unlike any Pentecostal service in the U.S.  Except for the woman rattling off a prayer in Oriya language and the offering, which included a juvenile chicken, several coconuts, repurposed plastic containers filled with rice and $8.  This will be redistributed to the Koraput survivors – the poor giving to the poorer.

While Lynn documented the service, I slipped from the altar’s plastic chair to the back, sitting on the floor among the women and small children, staying out of Lynn’s compositions and making eye contact with parishioners, making note of the strong spirits despite tough poverty.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

After service, I looked up from my backpack and found myself surrounded by the villagers, asking for blessings on their heads! Looking each person in the face and hearing their prayer requests, across languages, I came to a new place of humility, especially when I arrived at the four shining young women in bright yellow, aqua, and green saris, the women who led the church singing. Debendra Singh says, “When you sing, the pouring of the spirit is like wind that moves, touching everybody.  The wind has no barriers.”  These young women are like that – no barriers, the wind.

Following lunch of heaping mounds of white rice with gourd curry, we took off into the hill country to meet the Koraput survivors.  Along the hair-raising mountain route where our driver played “chicken” with oncoming trucks, we passed graceful women in saris, walking with wide pans of dirt perched on their heads, hacking at the red clay and mixing concrete.  Coolie work.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

All around us, people teeter on bamboo scaffolding, haul large rocks, dig latrines, and clear out clogged trash from open sewers.  This is the coolie work of the “untouchables”, the lowest caste, people everyone else relies on to do their dirty jobs.  Standing in gorgeous flowing fabrics, they are picked up at the coolie stop in the morning and hauled off to filthy worksites to make things right for the rich.

Before the violent attacks on their village, the Koraput Survivors owned small shops, sold kerosene out of their homes, peddled fabric door to door, tilled the land.  They had their own.  Now, they are coolie labor, performing backbreaking work under the Indian sun.

Approaching the Koraput camp, families calmly came out to greet us, shaking our hands with a traditional greeting. We entered the camp yard with a cooking fire – upon sat two cauldrons, each a yard in diameter and filled with dal and rice. Church service was in the same yard, under a stretched burlap tarp, plastic lawn chairs up front for the honored guests and parishioners seated on the ground.  Same deal – we retreated to the back to observe, listen, and document.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Following benediction, instead of asking for blessings on their heads, a town hall meeting sprang forth. The pertinent topic while passing around photographs Lynn brought: how to use the $2500USD that we collected.  Micro-loans?  Food?  Build one house and two foundations?  What about the other 57 houses?  It’s a big dream, and big dreams come with big frustrations.

We could feel the group darkening as the Pastor interpreted our questions and people responded.  A little pit formed in my throat as it became apparent they thought we would finance all 60 homes.  In fact, we’re no saviors, we’ve come with questions.  We’ve come to commence rebuilding with them, not for them.  I started thinking of Ivan Illich’s essay, “To Hell with Good Intentions.” After solid deliberation, it was determined to continue building consensus after people could talk it over.

The next day, Lynn crafted 75 individual portraits of people in the camp, of their dignified faces in the late afternoon light.  This is important camera work – to make a portrait of the one who is never regarded, establishing and celebrating the faces of the untouchables, society’s throwaways.  It was a celebration – gathering around laughing and watching friends sit for portraits.  We asked their name, age, and what they used to do for a living, before their tragedy. Cow seller.  Goat butcher.  Seamstress.  Completing their university degree.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Over lunch, I took respite in a cool, concrete room and talked with one of the few who speaks English.  I asked him what he would do if he had a micro loan.  “I’d sell men’s shirts,” Bhubendra Patra said, “just like my father.”  Hopefully, a dream realized, soon.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.


Project Koraput: Going South

by Jen Saffron

Arriving in Delhi’s airport last night, we encountered a string of uniformed porters, drivers, and relatives, hanging over a rail like parade spectators, some holding paper signs with an expected guest’s name.  Our driver, Sanjay, held a sign that read, “Mr. Lynn Johnson” and after his look of surprise when Lynn introduced herself, we whisked off to the car.

Later that evening, jet lagged and hungry at midnight, Lynn and I ordered room service.  The lamb, nan, and wicked spicy cauliflower arrived for Mr. Jen Saffron and I signed.

Throughout the world over, social codes, mores and even laws dictate who are the served and who are the servers, and in the developing world, women are not the served.  This strata, illustrated the second we landed in India, is layered with complex social traditions and gender stereotypes that will deepen as we travel out of India’s capital south to Orissa, one of the top five poorest states on the subcontinent.  As Pastor Singh, our contact in Jeypore shared, women in his region are completely dependent and ruled by men.  In Orissa, chronic malnourishment impacts 48% of all women and their life expectancy is 59.

It is a known fact that the uplift of women in the developing world holds the key to improving the quality of life for billions.  Improving the status of women positively impacts children, families, and community development.  A woman who earns her own income reinvests up to three times more of her earnings into her family as compared to a man. UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, strives to identify key indicators for success in health, economic opportunities and self determination.

We also know that women in the developing world like India, while the least involved in causing the devastations that impact their lives, are totally beholden to these same travesties – violence, hunger, and climate change among them.  In fact, Lynn will continue from our journey to Calcutta to photograph among other projects, education and micro-finance programs for Ripple Effect, an organization of women photographers documenting the impact of climate change on women, and promulgating those images to help women become agents in turning the tide.

Arriving in Orissa from the comforts of our privileged American lives, how can we be of service?  Now it’s our time to be the servers, but that’s a choice, not a burden.   We’ll never have to be a beast of burden to an upper caste, and navigating the unknowns and realities around that should prove interesting as we begin documenting the resettlement of the Koraput Christian refugees in a couple of days.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.


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