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An Amma Story
‘More than being able to read’

Janice Orrell

In 1984-5 I was teaching literacy to women animators in remote villages near Dindigul, South India.. These women would work all day as coolie labourers, feed their families and then try to find time to attend a literacy class 5 nights a week. They wanted to be able to read public notices, bus signs and more. But access to an education was difficult for these women because they had so many responsibilities with so few resources and such little support.

Back in Kodaikanal, I took a deep interest in the women who carried huge loads of wood gathered from the forest and paused for a rest near our house. With the help of Maria Selvi, our cook, I tried understand their lot in life.

These women with head loads had little or no education. They were often abused by forestry workers, would get little money for their loads and saw no chance of change. Few people saw their worth or the value of their work.

As a privileged educator, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to do something. I was arrogant enough to assume that my Australian education and feminism would provided some explanation, but did not seem practical in these conditions. I often felt that I was part of the problem.

I heard many in India espouse the approach of Paulo Freire, but few were able to translate his principles into programs and appropriate strategies for the poor uneducated village women. A hierarchical approach to education still prevailed in India at every level despite the genuine commitment and Freire’s principles were taught in didactic fashion. It was a strange contradiction. I was fortunate to find a group of like-minded people willing to develop a program that was learning oriented not teacher oriented.

Grihini is more than teaching literacy; Grihini is developing an awareness and understanding about the realities of village life and learning how to begin the process of change. In that process, women begin to restore a sense of self-worth. It has been a privilege to have been part of Grihini and I am honoured now to be part of the Grihini family and be called Jan-amma, mother Jan.

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