There is so much going through my head right now that I want to discuss- The Bhutto assassination- repercussions in the subcontinent, New Hampshire and the farce that was Hilly Boy’s tears, India v. Australia cricket controversies, My suicidal poptart Brit-Brit- to name a few- but I will spare you for now because an update on my life is due (before I start ruminating about the world as a whole). PS- speaking of poptarts- who remembers my obsession with strawberry poptarts and strawberry milk prior to 9am Organic Chemistry every day of sophomore year? That’s right- everyone.
I just returned having spent December in basically the Guam of India. No, really. I was in Gadchiroli (which to Indians is akin to joking around about Timbuktu), a region in the northwestern-most tip of the state I live in, Maharashtra (map on left). It was actually pretty cool- I took a flight to the ‘city’ of Nagpur which is the dead center of India; in fact, there’s a small strip deemed ‘zero mile’. Take that, Eminem!
On a serious note though- Gadhciroli is also a hotbed for the Naxalite movement- which is an insurgency within India that not many Indians know of! They are basically a revolutionary communist group that belongs to various trends of Maoism. They have carved out a guerrilla zone in the underdeveloped tribal area of eastern Maharashtra in the last two decades. It was during the 1980s that the Naxals entered from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh with the slogan 'liberation against state repression.' They managed to establish rapport with the local poverty stricken tribals by regularly visiting their villages. These days however they have just transpired into becoming goons that blow up communication towers, bomb government buildings, and target government officials- with no set purpose in mind. Don't worry, I was safe wherever i went- I would either be on a motrocycle (yes) with a village person, or incognito on a bicycle- and looked like a normal village girl. A non malnourished, tall village girl that is, lol.
The name of the organization is SEARCH (Society for the Education, Action, and Research in Community Health). It was started by a doctor couple- Abhay and Rani Bang- nicer people I have never met. After completing their medical education and subsequent MPH at Hopkins, they decided to return to India- and work in the remotest, economically poor, and infrastructurally backward part of their home state of Maharashtra (where I am from as well, hence my interest in going there), which was the district of Gadchiroli. It is a demographically interesting mix- on one hand, there is your run of the mill rural farmer population that earns their living working in rice fields (earning a meager $100 a year or so), while the other half is populated by the adivasi people of the Gond Tribe. The latter indulges in paddy farming as well but are poorer than any other sub-group I have seen in India; yet remarkably socially progressive.
The actual SEARCH camp is in the middle of a freaking jungle (peep the video at the end- taken by a visiting spine surgeon on an elephant. I won’t say more, just see it for yourself and we will discuss).
Let me provide a little background on what the Gond tribe is for future context- These people don’t speak a lick of the state’s language- Marathi; they have their own dialect that sounds more like Telegu than anything else, probably because of the proximity to the Andhra Pradesh border (sorry whites if you didn’t understand this sentence. Moving on). The women wear sarees with no blouses (calm down boys- seeing shriveled OLD ladies in this state will reverse what you are feeling). They wear that chunky African looking silver jewelry around their necks too, which I wanted one of. Their diet consists mainly of using bamboo in any way possible. In fact, their ‘specialty’ is this red paste that they eat with most meals- upon asking what the ingredients were, I was informed that it was a red ant paste. I still wanted a taste, but I thought to let these poor people enjoy whatever sustenance they had available without hungry Apoorva attacking. That brings up a funny story though- I despise Indian masala chai with a passion. Never drank it at home- matter of fact, can’t even stand the stench of it. At every house in every village that I visited due to my project (details later), I was offered water (which hi hello I don’t need cholera/diarrhea thank you very much) so I politely declined, food- (which hi hello these people toil 18 hour days to make ends meet, I don’t want to steal their food), so CHAI was the only saving grace. No joke, I would drink about 9 cups a day because I didn’t want to offend Indian hospitality. BLECH.
Upon reading this last paragraph, I realize how disjointed all my thoughts were communicated, but whatever- there are so many little things that I want to add, that a little disjointing doesn’t hurt. Anyone here double jointed though? I was thinking about that the other day while watching these contortionist twins on Ellen and how it creeps the shit out of me.
One of the social customs of these tribals that amazed me and made me draw parallels to the West was their tradition of ‘Gotuls’, seen on the left. So when young women and men ‘come of age’ aka hit about 15-16, they are sent to this special hut in town where they live together etc (emphasis on the etc) and choose who they want to marry. Interestingly, if one young tribalette gets knocked up by a tribal boy, and then she later decides she wants to marry someone else- it’s not frowned upon! In one case, this girl told me that when she got married to someone else, her ex danced in the wedding procession (along with the child she had with him), but cried so loudly and for so long that she had to go calm him down and then continue to get married. How fun if that happened in any of our marriages, haha.
The SEARCH camp is set up to be very tribal-friendly. Gondis are very intimidated by government run hospitals with their many floors and confusing signs, as well as the fact that doctors and nurses are dressed in white (which is the color they adorn their dead with before cremation), so according to them- how can we trust someone to give us life when that’s what our dead wear? They also tend to travel crazy long distances in the rain/heat/bitter cold by FOOT, so when they are turned away from hospitals due to strict visiting hours, they get disenchanted. So the Bangs designed this health care camp with all these cultural sensitivities in mind- and came up with a masterpiece. Their OPD (outpatient department) is set up to look like a Gotul, little huts around it accommodate family members of patients- complete with their kind of stoves to cook on etc. As for me, since this camp attracts ridiculous amounts of international attention (as it should), there are great living arrangements for students/visiting doctors etc. In fact, there were 2 other girls there- Leena from California and Alivia from Minnesota. You would be proud to know that we performed the Soulja Boy in front of people and made Baby Bash’s ‘Cyclone’ the theme song of the people that worked there, hahah good times.
The entire staff at SEARCH consists of the Bang doctors, their son, Anand who is also a doctor, and another doctor named Sushma. The rest are researches, counselors, lab technicians, nurses, administrative staff etc who live on the premises with their children (who were the most adorable things in the world and would pluck little flowers and bring them to me every day- in turn I had to spin each one of them like a helicopter over my head for 5 mins, yeeesh). Although I was there for a short period of time, there was a definite sense of community and importantly- fraternity that I experienced and loved. Some people found that feeding me is all I need in life to smile, so would make me anything I requested much to my joy. So amidst all these interactions, learning, overall immersing myself in community health- I found a sense of fulfillment that I have never felt in any job that I have had. Look at me talking like I’m 58 year old. But real talk- I recommend an experience such as this to everyone if interested- no amount of lectures in classrooms, reading in textbooks can teach you as much as you will learn by spending time with people there. This was the basic premise behind why SEARCH was started- “Go to the people, live among them, love them, listen to them, learn from them, begin with what they have, build on what they have.”
Work at SEARCH concentrates on maternal and child health (my main interest), and they have an amazing success story- They have successfully reducedthe infant mortality rate by a staggering 75% by implementing a simple low-cost home based neonatal care project. The global IMR is near 4 million, with 1.2 million of these in India itself. In the tribal area, the parents of a newborn hold off on naming their child for the first month of birth because they are not expected to survive that long! The underlying important factor in SEARCH’s mode of work is that of using human potential within villages to do so. They train VHW’s (village health workers- one seen above) to attend to newborns and treat asphyxia, birth infections, hypothermia, jaundice etc- and also train TBA’s or trained birth assistants as midwives. These women are illiterate village women, and to see them knowing how to (proudly) use oxygen masks, breath counters, administer sepsis medications (with antibiotics such as co-trimaxazole, gentamycin), jaundice injections, and even teaching mothers how to breast feed- is simply astounding. And the cost per mother-newborn served? $7. That’s it. Now the task is to scale this up to a state level, then eventually national level- incredibly exciting stuff that I am honored to have been able to see first-hand. In fact, I will be going back at the end of February through March or so for a 2 month mini-project that I can spearhead on my own. Can’t wait!
Other than that, life is pretty good- saw Shivani and Akhil at their 324th wedding reception, so that was fun (plus she got me SWEDISH FISH!! So I love her for that- not that I didn’t already)! Champ is still the best thing that ever happened to us- made me believe in love at first sight etc. I can’t wait to be done with these damn applications though, because then I get to enjoy some down time especially with some of you coming to visit soon! (not you Tommy, I’m still mad at you).
NOW FOR THE VIDEO I WAS TALKING ABOUT: