PHULBANI DISTRICT, India (BP)–“Khond” means “mountaineer.” And the ancient word for “dry season” among the Khond people of India means “hunger.”
Those two words explain much of the reality of the 1.5 million Khond people today. Most of them have long lived in the forests of the Khond Hills in central Orissa state, which lies in eastern India along the Bay of Bengal.
“Orissa is the poorest of the poor,” says Baptist leader Satya Nanda Patra. “Most people don’t speak of breakfast and lunch here. There is one meal at 3 p.m.” — and even that isn’t guaranteed. Eighty percent of the state’s more than 30 million people depend on farming. But irrigation is inadequate at best, and the oven-hot dry season cooks the land nine months a year.
In the hills, life is even more desperate. The forests provided for the Khond for centuries, but the trees are disappearing — along with the fertile topsoil. A state that once was 70 percent forest lands is now just 23 percent wooded, says Patra, a forestry professor and government consultant.
Unregulated logging has been banned in Orissa since the early 1970s. But the traditional Khond farming that worked for many generations now exhausts deforested land quickly. And the process continues at the hands of the Khond themselves, who depend on wood for fuel. They go to the forests each day to get it, cutting nearly 400 square kilometers each year. The hills — and the people — are dying from the impact of deforestation and soil erosion.
But a small band of Baptists is fighting back.
The Asian Rural Life Development Foundation (ARLDF) training center, high in the hills of Phulbani District, teaches Khond farmers how to grow more than enough food to feed their families while restoring soil and trees.
The Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center in the Philippines launched the foundation in 1988 to help highland farm families throughout Asia fight poverty and erosion with simple methods like SALT — Sloping Agricultural Land Technology. SALT is now being applied in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The foundation began the training center in the Khond Hills several years ago with the enthusiastic support of Orissa Baptists.
Young Khond men who come to the center are learning a new SALT variation called “Indian SALT.” It emphasizes producing enough food to survive the long dry season while growing trees for fuel or sale — thus sparing the forest.
“These young men, when they go back to their village, can stop soil erosion,” says Calvin Fox, a Southern Baptist consultant working at the training center. “They can produce food in the dry season. They can stop 50 to 75 percent of the infant mortality, and they’ll give God the credit.”
Families who send their sons for training are often sacrificing their main food providers for a whole growing season. “Basically the families have said, ‘We will give up you and your labor so you can learn the things that will help our family and our church,'” Fox says. He dreams of training 500 “master trainers” who will, in turn, transform the hills.
Benjamin Pradhan, a Baptist farmer now using SALT methods, proudly shows off his field a few hours’ drive from the training center. “As I apply the technology, I am making a profit, and in the future I will make more,” he declares. “If the villages follow this method and work hard, they will develop in every respect — food, clothing, everything. Some people will still be hungry in dry season. But if they use this, they can change it to a food season instead of a hungry season.”
Trainees at the center also learn the Bible from Khond Baptist teachers — and how to teach it in the story-loving Khond culture through the chronological Bible storying method.
Complementing their efforts is a radio program — the first and only program ever produced in Kui, the Khond language — offering farming and health information as well as Bible teaching. Up to 200 “listener groups” in as many Khond villages gather twice-weekly to listen. Whole communities, Christian or not, gather around to hear “the radio that speaks Kui.”
The gospel is spreading quickly among the Khond, who have long followed Hinduism and their own tribal religion. Periodic, sometimes violent persecution of Khond Christians by Hindu extremist groups has only increased church growth. For more than two years, Khond Baptists have started an average of a church a week.
“We have come to realize that it is our responsibility to share the gospel with others,” says Sudhansu Naik, a Khond Baptist pastor and training coordinator at the ARLDF center. “The church is growing very fast and is very strong. There is no fear now. We are not hiding anything. We are simply trying to help others.”