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|October 2, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Greg Younger-Lewis and Seema B Nair
Uwe Gustafsson can't help being conspicuous in Araku Valley, even if he has lived there for over 30 years.
When the stocky Canadian drives his agency's shiny silver jeep past bullock carts and construction workers along the thin, serpentine roads of eastern India's rugged interior, people pay attention.
Whether carrying pails of water on their heads or shuffling barefoot with a cane, locals stop to salute Gustafsson with their hands pressed solemnly together, saying a soft namaste in a gesture that is as reverent as prayer.
The 64-year-old linguist has earned their respect the hard way --- by changing the history of about 250,000 indigenous people, one word at a time.
More than three decades ago, Gustafsson moved from Toronto with his wife Elke and son Andrew to a village in the poverty-ridden Araku Valley, which lies in Andhra Pradesh, close to the Orissa border. His intention was to script the oral language of the Adivasis, called the Adivasi Oriya, and then teach them how to read and write what, for thousands of years, had only been spoken. Today, more than 12,000 of these tribals are considered literate in their own language as a result of his and his wife's work.
Apart from its literacy mission, the couple has also been translating the Bible into Adivasi Oriya. This translation, funded mainly by Canada-based churches, was one of Gustafsson's principal reasons for coming to India --- to bring the "word of God" to those who previously would not have been able to read it in their mother tongues.
When the Gustafssons first arrived, their communication with the tribals was limited to hand gestures. The tribals in turn communicated with them by pointing at various objects.
Seeing an opportunity to get to work, the Gustafssons grabbed pad and pen and started taking notes. These notes were the first steps in the making of the Adivasi Oriya-Telugu-English dictionary, a 1,047-page opus that Gustafsson describes as the highlight of his work in India. It not only marked the culmination of 20 years of labour; it also symbolised the written preservation of a language and, in turn, a culture the Gustafssons admire.
"The tribal people are always being given the message that they are primitive, they are ignorant, they don't know the right way to live," Gustafsson said in an interview some weeks ago. "What we try to tell them is what they have is very good and we have come to learn from them."
Scripting an oral tongue was no easy feat. While his wife devoted a lot of her time to raising their two children and running an ad-hoc 24-hour medical clinic out of their home, Gustafsson interviewed the tribals. Later, he studied the script and sounds of another local language to re-apply to Adivasi Oriya. In a conscious decision to help the tribals integrate with the wider population, he chose Telugu, the language spoken in Andhra Pradesh.
Eventually, he began rising between 3am and 4am --- a habit he continues till date --- to study his notes and begin translating words for the dictionary and parts of the Bible. To add to their workload, the Gustafssons had to assemble the dictionary without the use of a computer. They would scatter thousands of three-by-five-inch cards around the house to alphabetise the content, then use two typewriters --- one with the Roman script and phonemic type, and the other with the Telugu script --- to painstakingly punch out each page of the manuscript.
The Gustafssons had no intention of stopping there. "There are many scientists and linguists all over the world who want to preserve language mainly for the purpose of science, not so much for the interest of the people," Gustafsson said in a recent interview. "Most of that research ends up on a shelf and does not benefit the people."
Beyond their linguistic work, the Gustafssons set up a mobile schooling programme. Every year, they trained 100 Adivasi Oriya-speaking people to give night classes in 100 villages in and around the Araku Valley.
Aside from the challenge of teaching adults to read and write, instructors would have to traverse hills, mountains, forests, and ravines on foot to get to their students. Their home schooling covered 5,000 square kilometres. To teach and monitor their teachers' and students' progress, the Gustafssons would visit up to three villages a night in a newly acquired jeep, bought with Canadian government funding and Canadian church donations.
Gustafsson's labours do not end there. To keep the literacy and development programmes going after he finally leaves, he has helped establish a non-governmental organisation that is run for and by members of the valley's tribal population. Since its inception in the late 1980s, the group, which is called AASSAV, has launched a list of projects under the mandate of preserving the Adivasi Oriya-speaking culture as well as developing sustainable ways for the people to make a living.
AASSAV (an acronym for Adivasi Abhivruddi Samskruthika Sangam, Araku Valley, or Adivasi Development and Cultural Society) employs 200 Adivasis full-time and is housed in a six-acre compound where Gustafsson volunteers as the group's co-ordinator. It has tackled projects as diverse as co-operative banking, honey harvesting, and educational publishing. More recently, AASSAV has helped local farmers rejuvenate their small plots of eroded land and grow coffee, a crop Gustafsson describes as a potential saviour for the local economy.
AASSAV's coffee-growing ventures expanded in March when its staff enrolled 1,000 tribal farmers in 80 different villages to use their one-acre plots to grow organic coffee. Besides generating income for the farmers, the scheme is meant to help re-forest the black, stubbly hills that were once blanketed by lush green jungle before the tribals' own slash-and-burn agricultural techniques turned it to wasteland.
Gustaffson's optimism stems from AASSAV's success in turning 20 acres of wasteland into high-yielding coffee plantations. Although he's quick to credit AASSAV's accomplishments to others, any visitor can see his helping hand in every project.
Gustafsson doesn't know what is going to happen after he leaves; but he is preparing the tribals by reducing his role in their lives as much as possible. "I cannot see myself pulling out of this just like that," he says. "I think, in some sense, this is more like home. My roots are here."
Photographs by Greg Younger-Lewis and Seema B Nair
Design: Uday Kuckian
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