Nancy: life in the desert

When I was a teenager, Nancy's story of being an anthropologist, living in a tribal village in the middle of the desert, sparked my imagination. I wanted to do something similar, but I was too scared of the hardships. Happily, Nancy and I connected through facebook a year ago and I asked her to write about village life. She wrote two pieces, this one and anotherwhich I am delighted to share with readers of these 300 stories. 

Don and I had been married for only one year when we moved into a tribal village of Hindu outcaste people in Rajasthan. We are originally from Canada, but Don had already lived in the region for four years and learned the local languages. He was almost 30 and I was 26.

After a year of theological study in Vancouver, we arrived in Pakistan in 1983 and were promptly sent to the village of Jain-ji-veri, in the most south eastern corner of the Thar Desert. The region was in severe drought and our job was to work with an ongoing relief program.

Jain-ji-veri’s elders desired the presence of a western doctor because of the devastating rates of tuberculosis. At the request of the village, we allowed ourselves to become absorbed by the village – the headman’s family most specifically – in order to open a clinic. Our own focus was to discover why the statistics of female TB patient defaulters, was so high, both in the region and in comparison to comparable male patients. (I think Don married me for my research/linguistic skills and my American Express card).

We arrived in a "mega" NGO type vehicle and were then deposited in the village's public meeting hut with the men of the village, and assorted children.  I would later learn that most of the village women had gathered behind a thorn fence (a physical and metaphorical veil) above the structure in which we were installed.

As an anthropologist by training, I found everything rich and worth contemplating.  The very next morning I found myself being tossed from one mud wall to another as I grappled with beginning to learn Rajasthani, as well as joining in the work that all outcaste women do each day.

There was water to be fetched, most women carrying up to 40 litres (or 5 to 10 gallons) at least once a day from the well to their household compound.  There was grain to be ground using a hand-turned mill stone structure, which Don and I could not, as a twosome, move in those early days. Eventually I could manage that on my own. I could name dozens of tasks, effortless for any young village girl, which I eventually mastered to one extent or the other.

We spent four years in that village before we lost permission to live so close to the Indian/Pakistani border, although we were able to visit whenever we wished, so we moved on, living in various larger desert towns.

What have I carried with me from the desert and its environs?  A few things.


  • Human beings are built to live in community.  In the patriarchal society of the desert, that primary community was, for me, a women’s world that gave stability to all matters domestic from cradle to the grave. Outside of female space there was no viable, reputable place for a female to dwell.
  • Greed is not the domain of the elite wealth. Even the poorest people we came to know were beyond generous and hospitable, whilst others would have sold their mothers for limited financial gain. I discovered that envy and covetousness were alive and well in all areas of society. 
  • Enmity is a temporary luxury, not a lifelong state. In the West we readily change jobs, churches, neighbourhoods, schools or cities should conflict arise. In village life there is no notion of such mobility. Isolation, retreat or ‘having a snit’ are indulgences few can afford. This enriched my notion of reconciliation in dire circumstances. Not only is it possible out of necessity, it is possible for virtually any who humble themselves and seek it.
  • I observed far too many marriages teeter because of the failure to ‘leave and cleave’.  In fact I would say that to this day that is the most distinctive flesh-eating disease of couples that I observed whilst in that culture. The expectation for a son to remain cleaved to his mother was so much the norm I despaired, until recently I realized it was a pertinent, indeed more than pertinent, area about which to pray.
  • The microcosm of the village held every opportunity to observe and participate in the worst and the best of human behaviours. I returned to Canada with a far more politically responsible worldview than that with which I had departed.