The Kitchen of Change
- A unique culinary initiative is empowering the wives of former poachers in Assam’s Manas National Park
- Nearly 40 women now form part of the Gungzeema kitchen
In a thatched hut in Pulsiguri, a village populated by the Bodo tribe and located on the fringes of the Manas National Park in Assam, a group of women are hard at work. Dressed in vibrant dokhona and jwmgra, they deftly chop vegetables, grind herbs and spices, soak silkworms and steam meat. The atmosphere in the kitchen is congenial, with good-humoured banter punctuated with giggles.
Sumitra Goyary, 32, rattles off the list of ingredients required for onla, local chicken cooked with rice flour. Her colleague, R.N., 31, gets the black urad dal ready for sobei, a traditional fowl dish. They are among the nearly 40 women who form part of the Gungzeema kitchen, an initiative to empower the wives of former poachers. Named after a giant water bug which forms part of traditional Bodo fare, the kitchen has been helping women from four villages located on the edges of Manas generate a livelihood since 2018.
The women recall the days between the 1980s and 2003, when the agitation for Bodoland was at its peak. This underdeveloped area saw an insurgency, with the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) demanding statehood and opposing the entry of “outsiders" into the region. Caught in the middle, Manas witnessed a period of heavy poaching in the early 1990s—so much so that the entire population of over 100 rhinos was wiped out. The formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003 brought peace. A rhino conservation effort (Indian Rhino Vision 2020) was launched in 2005 by the Assam government, with support from the BTC, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), International Rhino Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
It had two significant elements: the translocation of 18 rhinos from the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park to Manas between April 2008-March 2012, and the rehabilitation of locals to draw them away from illegal activities. It worked. The poachers turned into protectors. They grouped themselves into conservation collectives and began to assist the forest department. “My husband now helps with the patrolling activities. He knows every corner of the forest well," says Goyary, whose husband is part of the Swankar Mithinga Onsai Afat group. However, they are not full-time employees of the forest department. “Their job is not regularized. Hence they are not assured of a regular monthly salary," adds R.N.
Last year, the WWF began trying to create alternative sources of livelihood by empowering the women. “The women are prolific cooks. So we thought of starting a culinary initiative by way of which they could supplement the household income while the men could focus on the security of the forest," says Deba Kumar Dutta, landscape coordinator, Manas Conservation Area, WWF-India. And thus Gungzeema came about.
The idea was for the women to showcase authentic Bodo fare to groups of tourists who visit the sanctuary.
Convincing the women was the first challenge.
“The biggest stumbling block was to get them to trust us. While we have long-standing relationships with the menfolk in the villages, based on our conservation efforts, the women couldn’t understand why we were reaching out to them," says Deba Kumar. This changed gradually.
The next challenge was to instil a sense of professionalism. “Some would not turn up. Others would start giggling in the middle of a session," Deba Kumar adds.
WWF-India roped in Mitali Dutta of the Guwahati-based culinary studio FoodSutraByMitali. “WWF came across a mention of my work on social media," says Mitali. With a diploma in hospitality and tourism and work experience in the same, she seemed to be the ideal choice for training the women from Manas. “They didn’t know anything about cooking in large volumes. Also, I wanted them to work in a way that would maintain the authenticity of the dishes while not compromising on the hygiene or presentation," she adds.
In addition, given that the Bodo tribe is so close to nature, care was taken to ensure the enterprise did not harm the ecology of the region. “We made sure only to use biodegradable material," says Mitali. Demonstration sessions were organized, with the forest officials standing in as guests, before the kitchen went live. Now, they serve traditional Bodo fare such as pork in jute leaves, a fermented dish called napham, and snacks like pitha laodum. Prices depend on the group size, and packages are customized.
Goyary says the training instilled a sense of discipline in them. “Even the demeanour that needs to be maintained while serving guests—we learnt that," says Goyary. The popularity of the initiative could be seen during the Manas Spring Festival, in April 2018, organized by Mitali, and attended by prominent food writers and chefs from across the country. “Ticket sales for the food hit the roof as visitors to the festival revelled in the simplicity and honesty of the food. Many who were staying at the local resorts came to the festival grounds to try out the food, thereby adding to the sales," wrote Kalyan Karmakar in his popular blog, Finely Chopped.
Both Mitali and Deba Kumar feel there is a need to do more. “There is a need for more market linkages," says Mitali. Through her culinary tours initiative, FSM Food Trails, she is looking at tying up with international agencies to connect tourists who are interested in food with the Gungzeema women. She is also looking at guiding tourists who sign up for cooking classes at her culinary studio to Manas. Catering to sets of two-three such tourists would help the women earn anything between ₹10,000-15,000 per group. “When tourists express a desire to learn from them, they end up making them more confident in their journey," says Mitali.
The initiative is already helping them change their lives—they have been able to send their children to school and support the household expenses. “I have three children and I now send them to an English-medium school," says Goyary. Deba Kumar says some of the changes can’t be measured. “They are intangible. But you can see it in their body language, in their eyes. There is a sense of confidence, of being empowered."
FIRST PUBLISHED23.11.2019 | 09:40 AM IST