India

'I HAD BEEN CALLED'

A linguist works to improve the lives of thousands

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS,SEEMA B. NAIR July 15 2002
India

'I HAD BEEN CALLED'

A linguist works to improve the lives of thousands

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS,SEEMA B. NAIR July 15 2002

'I HAD BEEN CALLED'

A linguist works to improve the lives of thousands

India

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS

SEEMA B. NAIR

AFTER LIVING AMONG the people of India’s remote Araku Valley for the last 32 years, Uwe Gustafsson has become one of their own. Whether carrying pails of water, or leading animals, locals stop to salute him wherever he goes, bowing in his direction with the palms of their hands pressed solemnly together. Slightly embarrassed, the stocky 64-year-old Canadian, whom they consider to be their babu— “the one in charge”—places his palms together and bows in return.

The people’s reverence has been earned. This unassuming man with mottled greyand-white hair and denim-blue eyes has helped improve the lives of thousands— one hard-to-learn word and one reclaimed acre at a time. Gustafsson, a linguist, moved from Toronto with his wife Elke and five-month-old son Andrew in 1969 to Hattaguda, a village in a poverty-ridden valley in the state of Andhra Pradesh in

southeastern India. The Gustafssons’ goal: to work with the 250,000 members of the Adivasi Oriya tribe in creating a written version of their language—which for thousands of years had only been spoken—and then teaching the people to use it.

Gustafsson’s knowledge of agriculture is also helping to turn the scorched valley into a fertile farm belt. No wonder

Gustafsson, who returned to Calgary in April due to his wife’s illness but plans to return to India in August, is revered by so many people across the valley. “If Mr. Gustafsson did not come, I would not be able to earn this money and would not have this job,” says Pangi Kumpani, 35, who found work as a bookbinder after he learned to read. “He is equal to God.”

That is uncomfortable territory. Gustafsson, a devout Lutheran, also traffics in the word of God. After the Adivasi Oriya learn to read, the newly literate tribesmen can also study parts of the New Testament, which Gustafsson has translated into their language. But promoting Christianity in a region dominated by Hindus can be dangerous. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive in their jeep in the state of Orissa, just north of Andhra Pradesh, by Hindu fundamentalists who objected to his attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity.

A few days after the Staines’ death, Gustafsson was summoned to the local police precinct, where authorities opened

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an “extra file” on his work. Gustafsson says the police visit was just a matter of protocol and insists he is not a missionary, a term he feels only creates trouble for his development work. To ensure his safety, Gustafsson usually declines invitations to speak at churches and holds Sunday service at home with his family.

He’s wise to keep a low profile. Acharya Giriraj Kishore, a senior vice-president of the Global Hindu Association in New Delhi, says he has no problem with Gustafsson helping in areas such as agriculture. But he strongly rejects efforts to convert Indians, which he says creates family disputes and in turn causes wider problems. “We have come across many Christian institutions doing good social work,” he says. “However, in the garb of social service, there should be no conversion activity going on.”

GUSTAFSSON GREW UP as a member of the Lutheran Church in Waren, a small city not far from what was then Sovietcontrolled East Berlin. When his mother, Anneliese, died of cancer in 1947, he found solace in the Scriptures. The Communist regime scoffed at religion, but determined to follow his beliefs, he said goodbye to his father, Hans, in 1955 and set out by train for West Berlin. “I was afraid,” he recalls, “but I was looking forward to the future.” He earned a diploma in horticulture and by 1959 had saved enough money to immigrate to Canada. A year later he arrived in Moose Jaw, where he worked as a production manager in a greenhouse.

It was in Moose Jaw, while reading the Bible one night, that he says God tapped him on the shoulder. “The room filled with a very clear, bright light,” he says. “I knew I had been called to service.” A year later he was back in Europe, this time to study the Scriptures at the Bibelschule Beatenberg in Switzerland. It was there that he met Elke Fedde, also a German, who had moved to Toronto. They returned to North America to study linguistics at the University of North Dakota together, and in 1966 they married and settled in Toronto. But Gustafsson had always had an interest in India, and in 1969, with a group of Canadian churches sponsoring them, they set out.

The dirt roads were still slick from the

monsoon rains when the couple arrived in Hattaguda. Their tiny house had a mud floor, and no electricity, toilet or running water. Most of the people in the valley followed an animist faith. Deeply superstitious, they believe ghosts wandering at night will possess the souls of the living. Hundreds of curious villagers were soon peering through the Gustafssons’ door. The men, dressed in their lungis, the equivalent of a kilt, and the women, with strings of orange flowers in their hair, carefully examined common items like scissors and kitchen utensils.

Whenever the villagers pointed to an object and talked, the Gustafssons started taking notes. “It was frustrating at first because we couldn’t understand them,” Gustafsson says. “But the only way we could learn the language was from their lips.” The couple persevered and soon accumulated thousands of three-by-fiveinch cards with words and phrases written on them. By the early 1980s, the Gustafssons’ work had achieved results. “People were able to write letters to each other, and we published a newsletter with articles they had written,” he says. Gustafsson recalls how Ram, an Adivasi man in his early 20s, reacted after understanding his own language in written form for the first time. “Yes!” Ram yelled. “My people will be able to read this!”

To teach the new written language, the Gustafssons trained locals to instruct night classes in more than 100 villages across the sprawling valley. Instructors have to traverse hills, mountains and forests on foot

to get to their students. The Gustafssons often had to endure such trips themselves. “We always had tribal guides with us,” he recalls. “If you were in a group, the bears and tigers would not attack.”

Today, the Adivasi Oriya dictionary contains more than 10,000 words and phrases. But the Gustafssons brought more than literacy to the valley. The region was once covered in lush jungle, but was deforested by the tribesmen. In 1987, the Canadian International Development Agency, which had helped fund the literacy project, also agreed to finance agricultural development in the valley. Soon the Adivasi Oriya were using pickaxes and crowbars to break open the rock-hard soil. Gustafsson also organized the tribesmen into a co-operative which has moved into banking, chicken farming and honey production. In March the co-op began enrolling 1,000 tribal farmers in 80 different villages into a program to grow organic coffee beans. “What has always been imbibed into the tribal people is that you are ignorant,” says Gustafsson. “Entrusting them, and telling them, ‘You can do it,’ is what has worked.” But Gustafsson wants to leave more than just a material legacy behind. “We want the people to come out of their desperate poverty,” he says. “But we would like them to come to know God.” To that end, local Indian missionaries now come to his home, leaving with translations of the Scriptures. But even if many people in the valley never convert to Christianity, Gustafsson says that seeing them read in their own language is reward enough.