Tribal communities are some of the most vulnerable groups in the Ganjam district of Orissa. Treated as criminals during British rule, they are in the scheduled (lowest) caste, and they have long been excluded from receiving assistance by the Indian government.
Earlier this year, I visited the Denotified tribe colony. Their village is located in the foothills of the Eastern Ghat mountain range, which runs through the centre of Ganjam district. To reach the village, I spent two hours bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover as we made the journey from the nearest definable road along parched-earth tracks.
Even now, five months after the cyclone, evidence of its devastation remains. Uprooted trees lie scattered across the barren land. Those that had fallen across the dirt track, which provides the only route to the villages higher up, have been moved to the side. The remaining stumps and root clusters, some as long as ten metres, will provide evidence of the severity of the cyclone for years to come. The trees that remain standing, mainly coconut palms, still have a battered and bedraggled look, their huge leaves hanging limply. Though it is the season for coconuts there are none on these trees and there won't be for some time to come.
The tribal people in this region have a strong sense of pride and cultural heritage. And although I had been told about their hospitality and community spirit, I was not prepared for the overwhelming welcome I received and the friendliness and openness from those I met. Women from 30 villages had walked up to 10 km to have the opportunity to tell their story. "Ask us anything and we will answer", they said, "you must tell others of our stories".
One woman recounted the day the cyclone hit: "When the cyclone started I collected my mother and three children together and we all sat in the corner of my house. The winds just kept getting stronger, until finally the wall of my house collapsed. I lost my 10 year old daughter. My one-and-a-half year old son was injured, and I had to take him to hospital after the winds stopped. He needed seven stitches and the doctor wanted payment for his work. I had no money, so I went to the Village Women's Centre. They were very kind and gave me support."
A few years ago, the women of Denotified tribe had been given a few hectares of land by Ganjam's rich landowners. However, this land is largely unable to support the growing of any crops. This meant that until the cyclone struck, the women relied on paid work on other farms.
But the cyclone destroyed much of the local farmland, and has deprived them of much of their income. When Oxfam's partner organisation in Ganjam district, UAA (United Artists Association), arrived in the village, they immediately started a food and cash-for-work programme. They worked with Swosti (which means 'good' in a local tribal language), a local women's community organisation, and gave the women the opportunity to decide which projects would most benefit their community. UAA had worked with Swosti for a number of years, and had found this the best way of directly benefiting the poorest people.
Their first priority was to rebuild their homes. The women then wondered how they could now earn a living. Oxfam helped the women begin to reclaim some of their land for cultivation, and to work on a rain water harvesting project to channel water to the land. "This gave us some independence" they said, "from both the land owners and from reliance on government assistance".
With Oxfam's help, Swosti women's organisation opened a bank account for the savings they made from the food and cash-for-work programme. This helped to give the women a say in the running of the village. "The men have to listen to us now because we are earning", said one of the women. "We have different priorities for our money. We think of what would be best for our community and our children. We now have savings which will help us cope if anything like this should happen again".