Paderu is a sleepy little town in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. It essentially consists of a solitary winding road with quaint produce shops and tiny grocery stores dotted all along it. Cows languidly compete with rickety auto rickshaws for the right of way, mooing discontentedly when one appears into sight. Sari-clad women haggle noisily with shop owners, as the men smoke beedis and watch the world go by. Among all this, there's a figure that stands out from the rest. It's young Frenchwoman Christelle Ledroit, trying to blend into the crowd with a bright red salwaar kameez.
"It helps in connecting with the locals if you dress in Indian clothes," she says, hailing an auto rickshaw for us. "And I think the patterns are really pretty." She seems to have connected with the locals alright. She belts out instructions to the auto driver in fluent Telugu, and several passersby hail her with wide smiles and waves as we drive past.
Christelle has been living in Paderu for the last two years. She arrived here from England in 2011, fresh after an Master's in Biodiversity Survey from Sussex University. "India is exceptionally rich in its biodiversity," she says when asked why she picked India, a place so far away from home. "And also, it helped that my boyfriend was Indian." She'd looked at relevant jobs in her field, and had heard of the Naandi foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Anji Reddy, the founder of Dr. Reddy's Laboratories. They offered her a field role that involved apiculture-- something she'd always been passionate about. "Bees are absolutely critical to the environment, and the world is slowly waking up to this fact. So I didn't think twice when I was offered this role." she says. "And I didn't really mind living in a small village. I grew up on a farm in France. And my life here is a fair bit healthier and safer than the big city," she laughs, welcoming us into her house.
She lives alone in a compact two-bedroom home at the edge of town, overlooking the edge of a rugged cliff. Unlike her neighbouring dwellings, it is a concrete structure with an attached bathroom. However, there are other problems. The power is intermittent at best, she says, pointing at the large collection of candles that is neatly stacked into a shelf. And there's no internet, she laments. "I get a hard drive full of movies whenever I go to Hyderabad."
Christelle's day in Paderu begins early. She gets up as the sun streams in through the meshed windows, designed to keep out the mosquitoes that are endemic in the area. Soon her translator turns up on his motorbike and she sets off, riding pillion, with us following in a car. "I needed the translator when I first came here. The people around this area are tribals who are very wary of outsiders. They don't particularly stick to a particular dialect of Telugu either, they are all varied, sometimes even a healthy dose of Oriya thrown in for good measure!" The area is ruggedly picturesque, with coffee plantations dotting the countryside, but the grim signs of poverty are unmistakable. The houses are little more than mud huts, connectivity to the village is restricted to one mud road, and there are no quality health care centers nearby.
We reach a field and immediately a cluster of children gather around us, eyeing us curiously. We stride up to a red and white house with a tin roof. "This was one of the first few houses that we provided with a bee hive," explains Christelle, deftly avoiding the puddles that the monsoon rains have left in the area. Naandi had initially run the project with 12 farmers across 5 villages. They provided the farmers with trainings and sessions on proper beekeeping practices. Things were hard initially. Only one beekeeper from the initial set was able to capture a colony and house the bees successfully in her hive. The other bees absconded, a trait not unusual among Indian bees. Christelle began focusing on greater trainings for the bee farmers. She founded bee farming communities where the members had regular discussions. She says she was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic the response was, especially among women. "It was great to see rural Indian women of all ages come together, united by their interest in apiculture."
Laxmi was one of those first dozen farmers to have taken to beekeeping. She meekly approaches us and displays her beehives. She expertly handles the hive that has been built by local carpenters to suit the Indian climate. The bees buzzing around her seem menacing, but she hardly bats an eyelid. "I used to be afraid of the bees earlier, but now they don't bother me at all," she says.
"It's a great project for this area," says Christelle. "Apart from empowering rural tribal women with an additional scope of income, it's also helps to rebuild the ecosystem due to the pollination."
We get invited to attend one of the meetings. Around 10 bee farmers are patiently seated around a tarpaulin sheet placed in front of a large house. They all break into large smiles when they see Christelle approach. The mood at the gathering is enthusiastically studious, something my school teachers would've been proud of. Christelle begins expounding on the role of honey bees in the environment. She uses colourful prints and graphics and speaks confidently in Telugu. Later, the attendees talk shop over cups of chai.
"It wasn't easy when I first got here. The first month was a bit of a rude shock." she says over dinner at her place. We have spread out newspapers on the floor and are eating traditional Andhra fare--rice and rasam. "It was hard adjusting to life in Paderu. People tended to stare at you all the time, and commonplace things become hard if you're a woman, even more so if you are an outsider. It was difficult to convince the farmers that I'd really come all this way to talk about bee farming!" she laughs, digging into her rice with her hands. "But things changed for the better. The people here have been really supportive. When they realized I was only trying to help out, everyone rallied around."
The lights suddenly go off and Paderu slips into darkness. It's a power cut. We fetch a little lamp and carefully make our way to the terrace. "Nature has such a delicate balance, you know," says Christelle, perched on the terrace wall. "You're so removed from that realization if you live in a city. Here you see things first hand. There's a spate of heavy rains and entire crops are washed away, the bees migrate. Living in a village like this, feeling the fresh air, working on the land, it keeps you grounded. It's magical." The night sky twinkles back at her in agreement.
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