Hoshiapur is a little town located in the North Eastern region of India. The area is generally referred to as Punjab due to having a dominant Punjab community. The closest large city to it is Chandigarh and I was living in a little village called Boothgarh in Hoshiapur. I had traveled over 5500km, moving from a city life in Kenya to rural lifestyle in India, to volunteer teaching children in this region.This was the first time I was away from family and friends, away from my norm and truly, this area changed my life in more ways than one. I met a community that had never seen an African, and a black African at that, yet they took me in as their daughter, sister, granddaughter and friend. I made some of my greatest friendships here, I started breaking stereotypes here and I started discovering another version of me here. Below are some of the activities I was engaged in and would highly recommend to all.
1) Engage in their culture
a) Dressing: The dominant community in the area is Punjab with the main religion being Sikhism. The men wear turbans to cover their hair whilst the women dress in Punjabi suits. A Punjab suit is composed of three parts, the kameez which is the long top that reaches near the knees, the salwar which is baggy trousers that are made with pleats and are supposed to loosely hang on the body and the dupatta which is a long scarf used to cover the hair, neck and shoulders. It was interesting to note that most of these outfits were home made by the ladies and I had the privilege of having mine made by a friend’s mother. We were not required to dress as such and only asked to dress modestly. I took any and all opportunity to dress in my new favourite outfit while there.
b) Greetings –When greeting each other, the individuals will clasp their hands together, bow slowly and say, “Sat sri Akal”, which is then repeated by the respondent. This statement roughly translates to “God is the ultimate truth” and is the common mode of greeting.
c) Gender separation: The men and women do not mix unless they are family. This you will easily observe on the streets and even in the classes where boys sit on one side and the girls on the other side. At first, I was greatly troubled by this but with time came to accept it. However, being a foreigner, we were exempt from this rule and we tried to keep the interactions as general as possible.
d) Dance-The Punjab and the Indian community generally love to dance. Dance isn’t just a way to pass time, it is their way of life and it is truly enjoyable. Learn to dance, they will readily teach you. They mainly dance with their feet and hands and their songs are very enjoyable. I danced, danced and danced some more.
e) Eat their delicacies-They are strict vegetarians thus allow your system to be filled with a variety of beautiful vegetarian dishes. I love my meat but during my visit there, I could not get enough of the paranthas, dhaal (lentils), rice, rotis (bread), pakoras among others, yum yum. I am getting hungry just at the memory.
2) Make friends
The community we stayed with went over and above the call of duty to make us feel at home. Continuously, several homes would invite us( volunteers), to dine with them, dance with them or even just hang out. Take rides with them on the public transport, share life stories, laugh, cry, live, sit with them on the floor, eat together and allow your life to be changed for the better. This allowed us to delve deeper into understanding them and their culture and to date, some of them are still my very good friends.
3) Accept different to be a good thing
Oh my gosh, the differences between my life and the life here were worlds apart. Everywhere I looked, I saw differences, the food they ate-they are strict vegetarians, the clothes they wear-the Punjab ladies wear the Punjabi suits daily, the accommodation-I would be staying in a Sikh Temple (gurudwara) compound, during events people would sit on the floor to eat together, the language, the religion, norms, you name it, the differences were glaring.
When I arrived in this area, I caused a buzz, I was the first black person they had ever seen. Curiosity, amazement and anxiety betrayed their bewilderment. Some even stared at me point blank, without uttering a word. However, instead of them being racist or nasty, they went out of their way to make “the different one” feel at home.
At first, I was a bit scared and I almost wanted to return home to the usual I identified with. However, the love that resonated from this community engulfed me and soon I was almost a complete Punjabi lady. One of the elders of the village whom I came to call grandpa, would religiously bring me fruits twice a week, as he had heard that in Africa, we like fruits and thus he didn’t want me to miss home much. The older ones would come spend time with us after classes, show us around and ask me tales of Africa. The parents took us in and treated us like one of their own. They appreciated our differences and highlighted our similarities, we all need friends and family, we all need love and we are all human.
I thus learnt some of the language, learnt the dances and music, loved with their food, loved my Punjab attire, loved the people and soon they felt like family. Some of the people we interacted with spoke no English and my Punjab was very basic.I however learnt that one doesn’t need to speak the same language to communicate. Smiles, body language, sign language and sometimes sheer silence are a means of communication.
4)Learn to cook
Their food is oh so good, the best thing you can do is learn to cook. One thing that impressed me was that even the men are actively involved in cooking both at home and in the functions they have.
The people are always too willing to cook you a meal so you may as well learn to cook or you will suffer withdrawal symptoms like I did when I left.
5) Learn basic words
Greetings – Sat sri Akal
Thank You- Sukriya/Shukria
Bad – Bura
I love you -Mai tainu pyar karda haan (male to female)
I love you-Mai tainu pyar kardi haan ( female to male )
Welcome- Shishri Akal
6) Get involved in their festivals
During my visit, there were several festivals and as much as possible we got involved. During festivals, the whole community comes together, works together, assists each other and have a good time together.
At this time, there is no male or female roles, all are equals working towards the success of a festival.
The men cook and clean, the women cook and clean, all parties dance albeit respectfully and the warmth and love can be felt all round. I got to attend a gurudwara(temple) official opening as well as a national public holiday among others.
7) Explore your environs
The Boothgargh area being a rural area, I daily enjoyed fresh food and walking among the livestock. The cattle kept are not for meat but either for milk or as pets. The air is clean, the mooing of cows a constant song, chirping of birds and the frogs that croaked in the rice paddies an interesting experience. The highlight for me was the frogs that came to dry land at night, littering the pathways we would be using and thus forcing us to navigate around them, curing me of my phobia.
We explored Boothgarh region, visiting various homes, schools, farms, functions among others. We then ventured out to both the immediate environs and beyond. This allowed us to also experience the diversity that is in the area and share our culture with them. We had time to visit and stay at Adamwarl village which was a completely different cultural experience. The community there is mainly Hindi and again, the love and warmth the people showed us was overwhelming. Everything from opening their homes to us, teaching us their culture, dancing with us, being our tour guides to becoming our lifelong friends are experiences I will cherish forever
8) Ride the public transport
You must, you have to try out the various interesting options available. First up, ride the interesting vehicle as seen below called a bajaj . It is quite comfy, seats many people and though looks scary, is an alright mode of transport. The other common means of transport are tuktuks and buses. Be prepared to be annoyed by the constant honking that rends the air.
I highly advise you to get your vaccination shots prior to your trip. I didn’t, as I was clueless to such requirements due to being a newbie at international travel. I didn’t get any vaccination shots as I embarked on this trip which later on came to bite me, literally. I got bitten by a dog, yes, or rather it attempted but I was too fast for it. It is the funniest story, there I was walking in the village when I came across three ladies walking their dog. We said our pleasantries and as we passed each other, my gut feeling made me jump and then turn back. The dog had actually also turned and attempted to bite me. Luckily the jump and having been wearing heavy trousers only allowed it to scratch the skin behind my knee with its teeth. I am convinced to date that it was unable to comprehend the “black being” thus the attack. The owners were very apologetic and they applied first aid, which is washing the wound and later applying chilli to sanitize it. Worry not, I eventually went for my anti-rabies shot, though my first shot was done at a chemist.This issue became a community issue with everyone coming to check up on me to ensure I was well. For more on this story, check out my article Rabies, Nah!
Live, love , laugh. Share with those around you. Learn as much as you can from those around you but also teach them about yourself, your home, your culture, your faith as you may be the only “different” person they would ever interact with. Incorporate positive learning points from them without going against the core of your being.
I truly experienced hospitality, friendship, love, humanity and community while here. If only the world as a whole would learn from these people, there would be no racism, stereotyping or discrimination of any kind. I still miss my people in Hoshiapur and will definitely try to visit again.
For more stories on my escapades in India, check out:
India 101: http://wangechigitahi.co.ke/india-101/