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Overcoming Barriers

Workshop at highway to excellence Toastmasters January 21, 2021

Introduction by Marylee D. Mims , Toastmasters International

It is my pleasure to introduce tonight’s program. This presentation will incorporate storytelling, music and art as a way to high-light Peggy Carswell’s work with the people of Assam, India. In addition, to honor her for the life-changing work she has facilitated in the area of organic farming, tea cultivation, and the resulting personal empowerment of the people of Assam.

As part of the program, Peggy, who is with us tonight from British Columbia, will share some of her thoughts and experiences with this ongoing project to improve the conditions of the people she has grown to love. Peggy Carswell is the winner of the 2016 Women’s World Summit Foundation award for women’s creativity in rural life. WWSF is a non-profit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ankur Bora, our Toastmasters club member found Peggy’s work compelling. Although he did not know her personally at that time, he nominated her for the Women’s World Summit Foundation Award because he believed in what she was doing, in her accomplishments and the work she continues to do. Since joining Toastmasters, Ankur felt our club’s workshop was an appropriate venue to honor Peggy Carswell’s work because as Toastmasters we overcome barriers such as self-confidence, public speaking and communication.

Peggy has overcome many challenges such as distance, language and culture. Her efforts in coordination with the Canadian non-profit Fertile Ground have been successful in connecting small tea growers and farmers with resources, training and educational materials.

Ankur coordinated the team members who were willing to help him achieve his vision. Tonight’s program will move from one section to the next without formal introductions or applause. This is how the evening will flow. At the conclusion of my introduction,

· Ankur Bora will give a speech sharing memories of his childhood in Assam titled: Saving the Lychees

· Vanessa Rivera will present an instrumental reflection

· A picture typical of the area of Ankur’s childhood will be unveiled. It was created by Hirak Medhi a young artist from India.

· Peggy Carswell will be given our virtual stage to share with us some of her experiences while working with the people of Assam.

Video link to the event

Saving the lychees

Trees have been an essential part of my life. No matter how far I go or how high I achieve, they always remind me of the roots that I draw substance from. My ancestral home had a huge backyard adorned with varieties of trees and among them, the main attraction was a lychee tree. Lychee fruits have striking shades of red and yellow shell outside with a delicate, sweet and aromatic flesh inside. When I first arrived in America, I could not find this fruit anywhere. I was pleasantly surprised when I found them at an Asian market and was delighted seeing my daughter getting their hands and their taste buds on these delicious treats. Thus, I began telling them my childhood stories - saving the lychees.

As a young boy, my summer vacations were all about the outdoors – no school, no homework, no studies. My favorite past time was climbing the trees, jumping and sitting in the branches, enjoying the cool breezes, gazing out over the treetops to see what was beyond. The Lychee tree , which we liked a lot, produced numerous fruits at its peak. However, when the tree was filled with ripe fruits, the night bats would appear ! Before we could do anything, these bats would attack the lychee tree in droves, devour the watery flesh of the fruit, and leave the paltry seeds in the ground. While the bats were relishing, we were ruing the lychees.

Finally, our grandmother came to our rescue. Every summer, a large number of laborers from the Eastern part of India come to my state. The land in that region , especially in summer time, is dry and rocky. On the other hand, the soil in my state is fertile and the monsoon rain makes the soil conducive to growing seasonal fruits and vegetations. These poor people travel hundreds of miles for some extra income. My grandmother found a reliable laborer and engaged him on a daily basis to secure the lychees. This old man devised a creative technique - he tied an empty tin to the branches of the tree, and the tin in turn was connected with a long rope. At night, he would pull and release the long rope, again and again causing loud repetitive sound. The technique was elementary, but it worked. “Bang , Bang, Bang “ - the bats were so scared that they never came back.

One time, I woke up in the middle of the night with the sound of music, where was it coming from? It was so enthralling that I began to follow and soon found myself walking up the dirt path to our backyard. As I approached the Lychee tree, I recognized the voice –It was the old man playing a melodious tune on his flute. I stood stand-still mesmerized by the vibrations of the music. That night, the moon was very bright, casting cool , blue shadows on the ground. Against the music and under the moonlight, the dark green tree with it’s thin looking branches laden with hundreds of ripe lychees turned into a little paradise. My children loved that story - the enchanting image of the lychees, the flute playing old man and his indigenous technique to scare away the bats.

A few years later, in the summer of 2016, I no longer found these fruits in the Asian market. The shop owner, on my enquiry, was telling me some disturbing news about the indiscriminate uses of chemical fertilizers on these fruits. I was shocked– In the countryside of India, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were often sprayed excessively in the flowering trees making these tender fruits vulnerable and a health hazard to the consumers. It was a rude awakening to me - I realized if it continued, our children would never be able to play in the trees or enjoy the sweetness of these fruits. I saw the lychees in an entirely new light, and I knew this defenseless gift of mother nature needed someone to save it from destruction. That someone, I decided, would be me!

I began a campaign by raising awareness about the environmental crisis concerning the lychee tree, in our monthly meeting of community and non-profit. I was talking passionately against the indiscriminate uses of chemical fertilizer. In the call, someone mentioned an environmental activist - Her name was Peggy Carswell, Born and raised in British Columbia, Canada, her inner calling led her to the other side of the planet, to my home state. Since 1998, for more than 22 years, Ms. Carswell has been visiting that region, promoting traditional farming practices, teaching tea growers and farmers how to cultivate tea and vegetables organically. Every year, she would travel from Canada to my home state in India and then devote her time moving from village to village, showing the villagers firsthand the uses of naturally available organic manure, or compost. When I learned about her work, I was awestruck! I was captivated by the remarkable story of a woman who had shown that geographical distance was not a barrier to human resilience, audacity, and commitment. I realized I had to start my campaign of “saving the lychees” with her and thus wrote a newspaper article about Peggy Carswell. The article titled “Good Earth” was published in a prominent daily of that region as a cover story and was well received. As it turned out a lot of people were aware about the harmful effects of the fertilizers and the story of Peggy Carswell influenced them to shift to organic farming.

Emboldened by the response, I pushed myself to a new frontier. Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF) is an organization which every year, confers awards on women and women's groups around the world who exhibit exceptional creativity, courage and commitment in improving the quality of life in rural communities. I decided to submit a nomination for Peggy Carswell. In the nomination letter, I introduced Ms. Carswell as someone who stood up for what she believed in and saw it through. She is a living example – that language, culture and physical distance is not a barrier if someone has the willingness to serve. Ms. Carswell made us aware that our future is inseparable from the future of our blue planet; in taking care of the soil, trees, and plants, we reclaim our humanity. Friends, I am glad to inform you that Peggy Carswell was awarded the 2016 WWSF prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life.

Friends, it has been a great learning experience for me. While taking on a new endeavor, people often shrink from the enormity of it. Instead, when I began the campaign of “saving the lychees”, I started with what was necessary. I organized my community, I wrote newspaper articles, and I ran an awareness campaign. As I saw the outpouring of response, I knew it was possible and then as I became emboldened, I pushed myself to do the impossible. Friends start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

Friends, my childhood story of the lychees has an ending beyond my wildest dream - an enthralling night , the very bright full moon casting cool , blue shadows on the ground , a tree laden with hundreds of ripe lychees , an old man playing a melodious tune on his flute, a boy standing mesmerized by the vibrations in the music- whose life came full circle when as a grown up man, he was touched and inspired by a fellow human being to take upon himself a mission to save the Lychee trees.

District 25 Newsletter: Everyone has a story to tell – Peggy Carswell


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