The Urban Dictionary defines a witness tree as a “solitary tree amid remote or wide open landscape. Usually a witness tree has been around for many hundreds of years and is the only witness to the history in that area.”

In January my Lutheran World Relief (LWR) traveling companions and I came across such a witness tree in Pandedih, a remote village in the Bihar State of India. It’s funny how a tree, like a mountain, can capture your heart no matter where it is.

Pandedih was the last of our village visits. In the days before our group had visited two other villages, JoraAam and Kusumdih, each rich and unique in their cultures and their progress in the “Women in Food Security” project for which we were visiting.

But somehow, Pandedih was special for me. Perhaps it was the way they welcomed us into their homes. Perhaps it was the fresh peas they picked for us right from the fields, handing them to us like they were offering us their hearts. Perhaps it was the young woman who insisted on practicing her English with me as she led me around introducing me to every single one of her family members.  Perhaps, unlike the other villages, it was because the people were more forthcoming of their questions about what our lives were like. It seems that they were just as curious about our lives, as we were about theirs. They wanted to know among other things, if we all had cars, if we grew our own food and if we arranged marriages for our children.

Honestly, I think it was because these women were so sure of themselves and they knew exactly what they wanted from this program. When asked, without hesitation they told us that they want 1) peace in their village, 2) an equal opportunity for boys and girls to go to school, 3) gender equality, 4) enhanced food production for better nutrition and income and 5) to eliminate the need for their husbands to migrate to the cities for work during the non-growing season. Currently about 98% of the men in the village are away from home, working in factories for six months of the year.

The social changes in the village have already been substantial. One of the most significant changes is that the women and girls in the village are no longer eating last, thereby getting more food and nutrition. Their families are now eating together, a feat that I pointed out, many of our families have a hard time doing.

Another significant change is the elimination of money lenders in the villages. Each self-help-group works as a small “credit union.” Each time the group meets (usually weekly) women will bring 10 rupees (about 15 cents) if they are able. They pool this money and then lend it to other women in the group for various needs like medicines, school, or farming supplies. The money is paid back in installments at a very low interest rate.

The men in the village seem most supportive of the changes in their wives and daughters. You could see the pride in their eyes, and in the eyes of their sons.

As I left Pandedih and the witness tree that day, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of changes the tree would witness in the future. I am confident that with the continued support of LWR and their partners in India the future of the village is in good hands.