Health and hope in Deoghar

Health and hope in Deoghar

Today I was given the opportunity to spend the day with the Health Coordinator, Arif; together, we would be traveling by motorcycle for more than 100 kms for field visits to see Chetna Vikas’ health-related work in action. I happily abandoned my laptop, grabbed my digital camera, and hopped on the back of Arif’s bike to begin the journey…

And so, the rural countryside of northeastern India finally began to unfold around me. As we pulled away from the tight, congested dirt paths of Deoghar district, the fields and roads opened wide, and the horizon began to undulate with the spectacular “Trikuti Hills” – a distinct cluster of mountain-sized hills that loomed blue and beautiful above the banana trees, the rice paddies, and the toiling, solitary agricultural workers who comprise rural, Indian life.

Slowly, we ventured out of Deoghar district and into the neighboring Dumka district, comprised of 10 “blocks”, which in turn contain several villages. Our first stop was the Saraiyahat Block Hospital to meet Dr. Om Prakash (Medical Officer in Charge) – one of just three doctors who serve hundreds of villagers. This Doctor is an avid supporter and advocate for Chetna Vikas’ health-related field work.

As our bike pulled into the general area surrounding the hospital, we had to slow suddenly… The entire outdoor area around the building and over the road was entirely occupied by men, women and children, sitting, laying and standing in huddled groups and on blankets. Arif explained that the women were all here for “family planning operation”. It took me a moment to understand that that meant the women were waiting for tubal ligation. In fact, some of the women had already undergone the operation and were spending the 5 day recovery period on the lawn outside the hospital due to a lack of space and facilities.

Arif went on to lament that very few (if any) of the men who were standing around outside the hospital were there to receive the vasectomy procedure that would, in fact, be a much simpler (and reversible) procedure. Apparently, there is a cultural misconception amongst men in India that a vasectomy will render them incapable of work. That belief, combined with a general “secondary status” for women, means that wives are simply offered up for the operation, despite its physical demands.

Notably, in an attempt to control the overwhelming Indian population, the government actually offers a financial incentive to Indian families to become sterilized; specifically, men receive 1100Rs if they undergo a vasectomy, and women receive 600Rs if they undergo tubal ligation. (Obviously the cultural misconception amongst men is strong enough to deter them from the added money; so, this is a problem that requires serious awareness raising and education in addition to financial incentive.)

Next stop was the Hasdiha Primary School where the Chetna Vikas Education Coordinator, Sobha Soni, had organized a meeting of all the Anganwari Workers (government preschool teachers) and Balwari Workers (Chetna Vikas preschool teachers) so that they could each be presented with a new water drum by the Chetna Vikas Child Development Program Officer (CDPO). Unfortunately, the CDPO was delayed en route somewhere, so I never actually met him or witnessed the ceremony. Instead, Arif and I were seated at the front of the small room of approximately 30 female teachers and I was encouraged to ask them questions about their work with Chetna Vikas and the children, using Arif as an interpreter.

At first, the women smiled shyly behind their scarves and wraps, sitting cross-legged on the floor, but slowly, they began to speak with enthusiasm about their role in helping children to learn the basics of hygiene, drinking clean water, eating nutritious foods and attending school. The Anganwari workers also explained that they play games with the young, 3-5 year old children, helping them to grasp the basics of reading and writing. Then, once a month, the teachers meet with the children’s parents, to help instill the fundamentals of nutrition, hygiene and childhood immunization amongst a population that is simply settled in a habitual, traditional means of raising children and running a household.

Finally, Arif and I ventured to Banhati Village – one of the most remote, undeveloped villages I have ever visited. Just as we arrived, several of the local women came to put hand-strung flower garlands around my neck, and then to touch my feet in a warm blessing and welcome to their village. I felt overcome by the gesture, and entirely uncertain about how to respond. It turned out that sharing the simple delight of a digital camera and instant-replay of digital photos was more than enough to endlessly delight the children and parents alike.

Having successfully integrated ourselves into the scenery, Arif and I set about the task at hand… Banhati is one of many villages across Deoghar and Dumka Districts where Chetna Vikas Health Coordinators visit on a regular basis to perform health care, to generate awareness of issues from malaria to hygiene, and to encourage community participation in identifying and creating solutions to various health concerns. Today, the objective was for Arif to hold a brief “community meeting” with the villagers, whereby they could share the impact that Chetna Vikas has had on their lives and their overall satisfaction with the services and care that they receive.

Our meeting was brief, but it was quickly apparent that the villagers regard Chetna Vikas’ activities in their small community as essential and life-changing. Although it wasn’t possible for me to understand much of the discussion that ensued, I did hear Arif take the opportunity to stress a few key points such as green vegetables for child nutrition, childhood immunization, the use of mosquito nets to prevent malaria, and the warning signs of TB.

By the end of the day, I had come to deeply respect Chetna Vikas for its willingness to toil on a daily basis in parts of the world and on issues that demand so many sacrifices and so much dedication. I am already anticipating next week’s planned field trip – this time focused on Chetna Vikas’ literacy activities with rural women. I fully expect that this next “grassroots” field experience will be just as today’s… inspiring and frustrating, exhilarating and humbling, all at once.

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago with a small organization called “Chetna Vikas”. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on February 7, 2008.]

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