Have you ever eaten a rat? Ormilla* doesn’t look like a ‘rat eater’. She’s a beautiful young lady with a shy smile and is dressed in a sunshine yellow shalwa kamise. She stands out a mile from the children who mill around her. Yet Ormilla and her community are known as ‘rat eaters’ and it's not meant as a compliment.
Ormilla is unfortunate enough to belong to the very lowest of India's 900 sub-castes of 'untouchable' people. As a 'mahadalit' (meaning 'most crushed') Ormilla's traditional place in life is to do the dirtiest jobs, to be banned from drinking water from wells used by higher castes and to be forced to eat separately at school. That's if she ever got to school(1). Yet Ormilla is a remarkable lady and what has happened in her community challenges this story.
Ormilla used to have 'no food so I would drink water to fill my stomach, but I wanted to study. I heard there was a church nearby and that if I went they would guide me'. The church did help, using their own small resources to provide 900 Rupees ($12) for the entrance costs for school and supporting Ormilla for extra tuition. 'Now I am in Standard 11 studying science, the only person in the entire history of my village to get this far'.
As Ormilla has been blessed so she longs to pass on that blessing to the children around her. 'I want every child to be able to study like me' so she is currently looking to begin a non-formal school in her community.
Later on I am playing a game with a lively group of kids in a nearby mahadalit community. It's a fun game called Samson, Delilah and the lion and the kids are particularly enjoying roaring like lions at each other. Each precious kid here is part of a non-formal school started by the church and community. They demonstrate to me their perfect knowledge of the English alphabet and, rather shyly, their beautiful singing. Life for them is beginning to look more hopeful.
There are many other signs of hope in this community. I walk past new brick houses being built, in all 19 have sprung up in the last year. Encouraged by the dynamic local pastor the community have lobbied the previously disinterested local government. As a result 62 of the 75 families here have now gained access to the government benefits they are due. We drove to the village over 500m of new government funded road. The community have planted trees to help look after the land. Realizing the problems resulting from their previous involvement in brewing strong alcohol, the community has completely stopped.
This has all resulted from 'Parivartan' (church and community transformation), an approach which releases the potential of people to change their own situation with no funding from outside.
I think it's time to stop calling Ormilla and her people 'rat eaters'. I think it's time to remember how precious they are and so call them 'loved by God'.
* Name changed for privacy.
(1) Only 1 in 50 Mahadalit women can read and write (Telegraph Online News 20 May 2014).