“We must find ways to show Adivasi ‘superfoods’ a way into our kitchens!”

As per the United Nations, there are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. They are the holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages, and knowledge systems. On this International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Dr Deepak Acharya, an Ethnobotanist, a PhD in Plant Sciences and a herbal enthusiast, who has been working with Adivasis for many years, takes us to the jungles of Dang in Gujarat, Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar in Chhattisgarh to introduce us to some of the ‘superfoods’ that the Adivasis living in these regions consume; some of which can and should make a way into our kitchens! A first-person account …     

…..

I have been visiting the Patalkot Valley in Madhya Pradesh for the past 20-25 years. The breathtaking and mystical valley, situated 78 kms from the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, has been my second home for years now. The valley, spread over an area of nearly 80 square kilometers, is known for retaining its original culture and customs and is home to the Gonds and Bharia tribes, who, experts claim, have been living there for the past 500 years. 

The Patalkot Valley is the home of some of the rare medicinal plants and herbs and the Adivasis living in Patalkot make pulps and extracts of these herbs and plants to treat many illnesses and diseases, including measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes, cough, snake bites, and many aches and pains.

Over the years, the Adivasis living in the 12-13 hamlets in Patalkot have not only become my family and friends, but they have also imparted their wealth of traditional knowledge onto me. These are their secret formulae that you will not find in any academic books. One gets to learn so much just by observing them and interacting with them.  

For instance, in the initial years, when I used to visit Patalkot, it was astonishing for me to see how even the elderly, the women and the children would walk for 15-20 kms daily without getting exhausted. I would feel ashamed as even a kilometer-long hike would make me breathless, and they all would stare at me as if I had committed some crime! Then, gradually, valuable tips shared by them helped me work on my stamina and strengthen my lung capacity. I started documenting the stories narrated by them and that’s how I discovered a superfood — their secret recipe to physical fitness!

Immunity-booster agithas. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

These Adivasis consume a root vegetable called agitha (known as Air Yam or Air Potato in English). Full of potassium and manganese, proteins, minerals and macro and micro- nutrients, these agithas give them the requisite strength to survive in difficult terrains by making their heart stronger. It also improves their digestive system.

Now, this is what is incredible. Adivasi women recommend agitha to treat vaginal dryness and hot flashes. It is also eaten extensively by women who have hit menopause. Initially, when I learned about agitha, I wanted to crosscheck the claims made by the Adivasis with the facts existing in scientific journals. It is well documented that agitha contains an element called Diosgenin which has diverse medicinal properties, including antioxidation and anti-inflammation. In fact, a review article mentioned that Adivasis living in Africa make pulp of agithas and use it to treat vaginal infections, irregular periods, and other inflammations. However, there is no study that elaborates on the connection between African Adivasis and Patalkot Adivasis! I have no idea whether, back in the day, the Adivasis from Africa visited Patalkot or the Adivasis from Patalkot went on an African safari! But it’s incredible how this knowledge gets passed on from one generation to the other and transcends geographical boundaries!

Agithas, that taste like boiled potatoes, are often eaten with salt and rotis. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

If you visit Patalkot or other such Adivasi-dominated regions, you will find these Air Yams carelessly hanging on to the fences of their homes. One crop fetches 10-12 kgs agithas in one season. This goes on year after year. Interestingly, one big root that produces these small agithas keeps growing beneath the surface of the ground. It’s taken out once in 2-3 years and weighs between 6 and 12 kgs. This is also boiled and consumed, however, once this root is uprooted, a new crop of agitha has to be planted.

Once, when I visited the Dang district in Gujarat, also an Adivasi-dominated region, I was ecstatic when I was served agitha with a roti made of rice flour! The agitha-roti combination was the best meal I had had in days!

Agithas taste like boiled potatoes. If these agithas find their ways into our kitchens and are given to women and children, imagine how fit and healthy the next generation is going to be! Unfortunately, we have been bitten by the consumerism bug, and most of us often end up picking up such ‘traditional superfoods’ from supermarkets and end up paying a bomb for these products in the name of healthy living. Instead of popping health capsules and multivitamins, we must create awareness among people so that they start consuming these traditional healthy superfoods; treasures that Adivasis and those living in remote corners of the country have preserved for years.   

I am glad my work has taken me to places and I was able to document some of these incredible stories.

The Madia crabs. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Crabs and mushrooms to beat monsoon illnesses

As soon as the monsoons arrive, the Adivasis living in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh flock to the nearby rivers, ponds and lakes to catch crabs. Seen in the picture above are the Madia crabs, which are said to be packed with healthy minerals. The Adivasis living in Bastar either make crab soup or eat a roasted delicacy. They believe the Madia variety of crabs boosts their immunity, keeps them warm during the brutal monsoon, and makes their bodies stronger. If you visit the markets in Bastar during the monsoons, you will find many Adivasis selling these crabs as they are also a source of their income. These crabs are also eaten in Dang, Gujarat and Patalkot, Madhya Pradesh.

Another common monsoon delicacy for the Adivasis are the mushrooms. Seen in the picture below are the Boda mushrooms that are predominantly found in the Bastar region. A fun fact. The Boda mushrooms are one of the most expensive vegetables sold in India! A kilo of Boda mushrooms easily fetch Rs 1,000-1,500 or more! And the reason for this is that they are packed with medicinal properties and essential nutrients and minerals. The Boda mushrooms are full of carbohydrates, fibers, zinc and, iron and are used to treat heart and blood pressure-related diseases. There are two varieties of Boda mushroom found in Bastar — Jaat Boda and Lakhri Boda, but it’s the Jaat Boda Mushroom that’s more famous and lucrative.

The Futu and Boda mushrooms. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Interestingly, these Boda mushrooms are also very elusive. The Adivasis have to do a lot of hard work to find these Mushrooms in the dense forests of Bastar. However, they also have an eye for these mushrooms and they spot them easily.   

Another variety of mushrooms that’s commonly consumed by Adivasis to keep monsoon illnesses at bay are the Futu mushrooms that are packed with antioxidants and proteins. Many varieties of Futu mushrooms grow in the jungles of Bastar. Not all are meant to be consumed, but the Adivasis can identify the varieties, like the Jaam Futu, that can be bought home and consumed.  

Mahua rotis and raspberries leaves to reduce labour pain

A couple of years back, I visited Shimla to attend a conference organized by the National Biodiversity Board. After the meeting sessions, I would go hiking into the jungles. I would walk for 25-30 kms daily and meet and interact with local people. One day I saw an old lady plucking raspberry leaves. I came to know while interacting with her that these leaves are packed with medicinal properties. Expectant mothers are given these leaves. Consumption of these leaves helps in reducing labour pain. These leaves are also used to treat other stomach aches and stomach-related illnesses. Those living in the interior villages in the Himalayas have been using these remedies. One cup full of raspberries contains 56% vitamin C and 45% manganese and micro-nutrients. Do consume raspberries when you can!

Raspberry leaves are crushed and given to expecting mothers. Image credit: Sangita Thakur

Another delicacy that’s not just a hit with the Adivasis living in the Central belt of the country but is also a lucrative source of income for them is mahua. They make and sell liquor made of mahua, but they also consume chapatis made of dried mahua flowers. Also, the mahua seeds are crushed to make an oil which in local parlance is called ‘gulli ka tel’ (gulli oil). It is used to treat many skin-related infections.  

There are many such food stories that Adivasis all over India are ready to share. We must start documenting them for our own good. Some of these superfoods stare at us from the shelves of supermarkets, and many of us end up buying these super-expensive products in the name of health, but in reality, some of these products are present around us. All we have to do is look around and try to make these Adivasi traditions a part of our lives.  

Do you know Adivasis use the pulp of raw papaya to remove unwanted hair? Those living down South use coffee powder to exfoliate their scalp? Many Adivasis use dried pomegranate to deal with dental plaque? Deepak Acharya documents such stories regularly on Facebook. To read such interesting stories, follow Deepak Acharya on Facebook.

“One April afternoon, we left to meet our new mom”

says Anjali Fahnline,14, as she looks back and writes about her adoption journey. Fahnline and her two sisters were adopted in 2017, and she is our youngest ever contributor, bringing in the much-needed perspective as an adoptee, and an honest account of her experiences and feelings

When I found out that I’m getting adopted to another family, I didn’t understand what they meant. Few days later Amma, who was the head of the hostel, said that my sisters and I were going to meet our new mom. I understood then that I was getting a family. I wasn’t excited to meet my new family, but I just pretended to be because I didn’t want them to think that I was not happy to see them.

One April afternoon, we left to meet our new mom. I was nervous. When we arrived, I saw a woman wearing a beautiful saree. She came towards us and I said, “Hi Ma’am.” She smiled. Then I said “Mom?” She said yes. She introduced herself, “Namaste, I am Rama, your new mom.” She sounded friendly. However, because she was wearing glasses and had short hair, I was afraid that she may be strict. She reminded me of a woman I knew who was very mean to everyone in the first hostel we stayed at.

When we went to a separate room to talk, our new mom asked, “What do you like to do?” I said, “I like to play with the kitchen set.” I used to love to pretend play. It was so much fun to cook, pretend to be a parent and send kids to school. Our new mom got a delicious biscuit which we all shared and talked about other things for a while. She asked us about the things we don’t like, and I replied, “I don’t like it when adults fight.” I don’t think any kid likes it when their parents fight. They get scared and sometimes, it becomes traumatic and haunts them for the rest of their lives.

Sometime later, she showed us her husband’s photo. We were shocked! My sisters and I had never ever seen a white man or woman in our lives and there he was in the picture!

I imagined his whole family looking white, it was like he had put so much powder on his face; that’s what some people do in India. I asked our new mom, “When are we going with you?” I wanted to make sure how much time I had with my friends in the hostel. She answered, “As soon as the paperwork is done.”  We had a good time talking and sharing things about our lives. I felt happy because she wanted to know about my life, my likes, and dislikes.

I didn’t feel good about going and living a completely different life and leaving my birth mom. I thought what if she comes to my hostel and looks for us, and we are not there? It was very hard to think of living in a new world. That evening, at the hostel, everybody asked questions: “Are they rich? Are you going to America? Are they nice?” I didn’t answer because I didn’t know if they were rich or if I was going to live in America. America is a big and rich country to live, and I had never even dreamed of living there.

At the same time, there was something that made us happy. My sister and I were excited about getting beautiful dresses, living in a nice neighbourhood, and having things. We had been poor and faced many difficulties. The place we lived was not very safe, my birth dad had been violent, and we were not able to get a good education.  I was kind of excited about the new opportunities. But I still wondered if I was ever going to see my birth mother again. So far, I haven’t, but I know I will one day! I was scared too because some people in my hostel frightened us. “They’re your second parents, so they’ll be mean, and will hit you and your sisters.” I’ve heard a lot that second parents don’t treat you like their own kids. I was anxious about our safety.

From what I have experienced, I don’t think all second families are mean. To be honest, I do feel worried about my family getting rid of us or doing bad things to my sisters. Kids who are adopted have that kind of fear inside them. It takes time to trust everybody again and adjust to the new life. It took me and my sisters a lot of time, and I’m still working on trusting everybody again.

After few months, my new mom and dad came to pick us up; we were going to stay with them until the court hearing. It was so hard to leave my hostel. My sister and I cried. Everyone there kept us safe and happy for three years, and now I was leaving them. I gave a speech saying how much I loved them, I was so sad that I couldn’t even say anything properly. I distributed ladoos to everyone and took a final picture. I didn’t want to leave anyone, especially the woman who took special care of me, like a mother.  Before I left with my parents, she gave me some of her jewellery, and her photo. I still have them with me.

From top left to right: Anjali with her siblings, Anjali and her siblings earning how to drive a bicycle with the help of their father, Anjali’s youngest sister playing garba with their father, and Anjali and her siblings with their mother Rama

It rained heavily as we drove nearly three hours to get to our hotel. My sister and I were so tired that we fell asleep before we went inside the room. My sister wanted to use the toilet, but it was not the Indian style that we were used to. My mom helped her use the bathroom and my sister went back to sleep.

The next morning, my younger sister saw my new mom wearing a short skirt. And she called out to me and said, “Didi (elder sister) look, she’s wearing small skirt, doesn’t she feel shy?” I told her, “Shhh, she will hear you and then she’ll be upset. Be quiet.” But my mom already heard her and said, “It’s ok.” We never saw women wearing anything short. Then we went out for breakfast. There was nothing that we knew or liked except bananas. There were pancakes, waffles, and other things that we had never ever seen, not even in books or on TV!  We had bananas and omelette for breakfast, after which we went shopping for clothes. I was so surprised to see such a big store, then I found out that it was called a ‘mall.’ We bought some pretty dresses and night clothes and went back to the hotel.

We stayed in the hotel for few more days, then moved to an apartment in Thane. For my parents, it was hard because the bathroom was Indian and there was no furniture. We had to get a lot of things. We sisters feared the dark, so we kept the lights on the entire night. We all slept in the same room. One day I woke and didn’t see my mother. I started crying, worried about how to take my sisters back to the hostel. She came out – she was in the other room. After that night, my mom left a note beside me even if she went to the bathroom. We watched Hindi movies on the iPad. It was something familiar. Our parents sent us for classes so that we had a routine. People were friendly to us, and we learnt a lot of new things. My mom bought north Indian food from outside because that’s what we always ate. She didn’t cook north Indian food. Her cousin lived a few houses down, and we spent time with them. I learned to use a library, got pocket money, made choices on how to spend it, and ate out at restaurants.

Soon it was time for the court hearing. I asked my mom what will happen at the court hearing. She said, “They will ask you if you want to live with us or go back to the hostel.” I asked, “What if I said no, I want to go back?” She replied, “The judge will listen to your choice. You will go back to the hostel and I will go home.”

I had to make that decision for me and my sisters. I decided that I will say yes. I wanted to live with them because I liked the few days that I spent with them. I felt safe. I was also happy to give them the responsibility of caring for my sisters. I couldn’t accept her the same as my birth mom, but I felt comfortable with my new mom.

When the judge asked me if I was ready to go with my new parents I said “Yes, my sisters and I will go with our new family.”

(Anjali Fahnline enjoys designing clothes and henna, is an avid photographer and is excited to help other children in similar circumstances. You can read more of her writing at Anjali’s corner at www.forallourkids.com)

You may also want to read Sangitha’s piece on adoption.