SIT alumnus to document endangered tribal knowledge as Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow

Publication Date: March 26, 2019
Publication Location: Brattleboro, VT
Contact: Kate Casa  |  [email protected]

BRATTLEBORO, Vermont – A two-time SIT Study Abroad scholar will return to India this year to document the disappearing indigenous knowledge of a small tribe in the northeastern state of Tripura. Hadi El Rabbat, of Cologne, Germany, will undertake his project as the newest Alice Rowan Swanson fellow.

El Rabbat plans to work with members of the Tripuri tribe to build a community center that houses an archive of indigenous knowledge. “This community is at a critical point in time, since they still follow indigenous traditions while also being exposed to the globalized world,” he notes.

Alice Rowan Swanson participated on an SIT Study Abroad program in Nicaragua in 2006 while she was a student at Amherst College. Two years later, she was killed while riding her bicycle to work in Washington, DC. Her family established the fellowship at SIT as a living tribute to her desire to bridge cultures and help others, and to the role SIT Study Abroad played in her life.

As a student at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, El Rabbat traveled to India, China, and South Africa in fall 2012 on the SIT International Honors Program (IHP) Health and Communities. The following year, he went to Nepal, India, and Bhutan with SIT’s Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program, and developed research skills while completing an independent study project on happiness in Bhutan.

After graduating, El Rabbat returned to India to teach in Agartala, the diverse capital of Tripura, “I found it so interesting, when I would get invited to a village, to see how much the elders know, how happy and minimalistic they were. They had very efficient social structures that we dream of in the developed world. I thought, wow, I want to learn more about this and write it down.”

Later, working for various NGOs, El Rabbat says he experienced where western influence, even if well-intentioned, can go wrong. “With this concern foremost, my present project prioritizes the community’s knowledge systems as primary resources toward development,” he says.

The tribe he plans to work with is one of the smallest in the region. The village of about 500 people is mostly in the jungle, although a road runs part of the way into the nearby paddy fields. Many of the children are now sent to Agartala to study English, and the village elders are quite old, El Rabbat notes, “so their knowledge is fading on both sides of the spectrum.”

“People who grew up in the village before the road came continue to construct tools from local materials,” El Rabbat writes in his fellowship proposal. “These natural practices were developed through the inheritance of ecological knowledge over millennia. In contrast, the sudden availability of mass-produced commodities and even media creates an economic dependence which, by its very nature, rapidly wipes out traditions and self-sustainability.”

In her recommendation of El Rabbat for the fellowship, SIT Nepal Academic Director Isabelle Onians emphasizes, “The time for this intervention is now, when indigenous knowledge in one of the smallest tribes in northeast India is on the point of disappearing.”

While El Rabbat’s academic record was outstanding, Onians notes, “what really made him stand out was his personal integrity, his special attention to cultural sensitivity, and his commitment to the promotion of peace.”

To learn more about El Rabbat and his project, read our Q&A at the SIT blog.