Last week a few of us from Anthra trekked across the Deccan Plateau to meet the Dhangar shepherds – a semi-nomadic pastoralist community that migrate for 9 months of the year in search of fodder for their animals.
We trekked across a rocky barren landscape. The rains have been playing peek-a-boo all season so much that the state government is planning to create artificial rain by dispersing substances in to the air to stimulate precipitation.
It was a 15km trek (one-way) to meet the shepherds. After about 5 slow kms we stopped at the river you can see gouging a path through the landscape. This river used to be flowing till about 10 or 15 years ago.We met one of the shepherds we’ve been working with for over a decade, here at this ridge. It was much too steep for us to scramble down (the heavy green area in the right of the picture below). He of course, made his way over to us in deft acrobatic leaps.
Perched atop this ridge, we talked for about an hour. Looking around the stunning, quiet landscape the only sound an occasional bleet from a flock of sheep grazing nearby, I couldn’t help but recall the countless interviews and focus groups in crummy community centres with strip lighting, dried out sandwiches and the stench of stale beer emanating from a carpet that looked like it had never seen a vaccum cleaner since WWII.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the Dhangar dogs where a collar of spikes to keep the leopards from attacking them. Dogs play an important role – they are the night watchman, warning the shepherds of wolves, jackals, leopards and hyenas. This particular dog looks more like a Scottish Terrier than the usual dhangar dogs we see.
The easy way around was a 3km detour but it was the only way that us inexperienced trekkers could make it to the camp.
And finally we make it to the camp. The pen (where the horse is roaming) is empty as the 800 sheep and goat have been taken for grazing.Horses play an important role for transporting the homestead and young lambs who are too young to walk.Chickens provide a good supply of nutritious protein rich eggs. An egg a day for the children, they say.
None of these children have received any form of education or immunization and they are prone to things like helminths (worms and flukes) being around animals. None of the children have been dewormed either. BUT they were all wearing slippers (even this little one in the picture below) so that is a great preventative measure. A shepherd watches a UNICEF made video in marathi, on a tablet about the importance of immunization.
And this picture because lambs are just so cute The woman from the earlier picture who delivered her fourth baby watches a video on the importance of breast feeding immediately. Pre-lacteal feeds (like sugar water, honey, dates) are a common practice in many south asian and arabic communities. The valuable colostrum which contains about 95% of the good stuff, the antibodies a baby needs, is often thrown out because it looks like a yellow mucous substance and not like milk. The ten day old baby was fed sugar water for the first three days. Our French intern watches on.Ten day old baby born on migration.
This shepherd examines the hoof of a sheep that’s been lagging behind of late. He looked quite out of place with his photochromatic glasses (which of course, I quizzed him about). None of the others, including the old lady reported vision problems during the day or night. They do have one motorbike (in picture below) but it is slow going in this very rocky landscape. The shock absorbers are shot within months. We talked about a lot of things with the shepherds and here is one of our girls, Sangeeta having a good ol’ laugh…i can’t recall about what. We talked climate change, global warming, sustainability, health, happiness, importance of the girl child, the meaning of poverty. We could have talked for much longer…we have been invited to stay the night, with a lamb slaughtered for a big feast.The status of women is quite low in this community, much like everywhere else. They play a vital role in the health and upkeep of the animals. Child marriage is common.We are working with these communities looking at how we can harness the interdependence between human and animal health because animals play a huge role in their lives, culture, myths and livelihood. The life of the shepherd and his family is a hard one. Sometimes it can sound like I romanticise it but that’s because I don’t live it – i just drop in and out of it. But when I gave him Amartya Sen’s words, ‘Poverty is not just about empty wallets but about empty lives’ he couldn’t relate. Yes, it is a hard life but he felt that rearing sheep and goat was the best job to take a person out of poverty. He says that their lives are definitely not empty. Their wallets are filled with the sheep they raise.
The beginning of an exciting journey with the shepherds.