Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Red Willow Baskets, the Lives of Young People

The red willow hedges last season grew thin leaders straight up.  We trim them and they are perfect for basket-making.  Caitlin and I start by making hoops and wrapping them with spiralling weavers until they are strong and can accept many tied-off ends between their parted strands.  Soon there is a handle and a belly.  The weavers mirror each other, over-under, and we wrap the edge and handle tight and neat.  The willow strand glow in the light, deep red and shining yellow like the desert sands.

The word for basket in Ladakhi is “tse po.”  We made a few as gifts.  Then there was a youth camp at SECMOL, and ten or twelve of the young women on campus joined us to weave gnarly little willow hoops.  Then we showed them how to lash and weave, and most of them left a few days later with a small completed basket.  Some of them loved it, and asked at every opportunity for us to help them weave.

“Chang ma” is the name for willow.  And they seem to grow everywhere people live in Ladakh, so these students should have a chance to make more baskets, if they want.

Basket weaving seems to be a new skill for these young people.  I don’t think that would be true if we were here twenty years ago.  At that time I imagine young people learned more of the old ways.  It was a time when Ladakh was being flooded with new products and new jobs.  If you could speak English or if you made it through school they would give you a stable government job with good pay, benefits, and a pension.  The parent generation these days seem to think we are still in that time, but we’re not.

Young people these days are sent to urban centers.  They help at home and learn farming only a few weeks of the year.  Textbooks and exams are written far away by people who know little about Ladakh, and most of the young Ladakhis are failing them.  The teachers in the government school by and large don’t want to be there.  Many of them hit the students with sticks and pinch them as means of maintaining “control” of the classroom.  This apathy and abuse is part of the lived experience of many teenagers we have met here.

If you have a lot of money you can send your kid to a private school in the capital where they will learn a lot more, but they still aren’t learning the old ways and there still won’t be enough jobs for them afterward.  Many educated people “collect” masters degrees until the jobs they want open up, and it takes a long time.  People who don’t succeed in this system of education join the army or work construction to make money, and build cement buildings and roads and power lines, all of which the people of Ladakh did not “need” until quite recently.  Their old homes of earth brick are holding strong.

So who is farming?  Who is practicing the old ways?  Most families are, but the participation is a bit different than it used to be.  Growing staple grain crops with hand work is common practice.  Most families keep animals for milk and fiber and manure, and some keep many and live a herding life, especially at higher elevations.  Most families in the villages grow most of their vegetables, their fruit at lower elevations, and everywhere people harvest wild greens from cultivated fields and pastures for fresh use and drying.  

All the students here at Secmol can describe the basics of farming and the cycles of village life, but most have not really lived there since they were six.  Since then, they have learned, in their daily practice of life, to achieve academically in a setting where their success is determined by writing appropriate things on exams.  These exams are created in Jammu, a world away.  They have been graded in past years at a wage of 2 Indian Rupees per exam.  (This comes to approximately four cents.  It is clear that the graders are sometimes not even reading them.  Students in India have been known to staple money to their exam papers.  It is common knowledge at SECMOL that if you merely handwrite a copy of the Urdu language exam’s questions you will likely pass.)

These young people also learn that food fills the stores from far away, that loud pop music and smart phones and pre-packaged snacks are cheap, fun, and easy to come by.  And the voices of their ancestors pour from their mouths as they sing ancient songs, and they dance beautifully together with a confidence and grace that touches my heart to see.

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