“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl
This quote has always been a favorite of mine, and there’s no place I’ve been this rings more true than Tamil Nadu. When we first arrived at the ashram, Swamani told us that there are two types of people, those who love India and those who hate it and never want to come back. Having just arrived, I was in love with the sights, sounds, culture, and vast array of new experiences India had to offer. I couldn’t imagine not loving everything. I didn’t know what separated the “love” type of person from the “hate”. Three weeks later I have an idea. To love India means you have to first believe in magic. The poverty, trash, corruption and inefficiency make it hard to see, but look a little closer and like Roald Dahl says and you’ll catch it. There’s magic in the sincerity everyone greets us with. There’s magic in the eagerness of the children at the pre-school to hold our hand crossing the road even though we’re complete strangers. There’s magic in the soft Hindu chants of the women on our morning commute. Most of all though, there’s magic in the CORD office. The genuine manner in which the people of CORD interact with the community is truly awe-inspiring. After three weeks of witnessing some of the worst injustices, I can understand how someone could hate India. But I think if you look hard enough for the greatest secrets they always show themselves.
A few days ago, a UNICEF employee named Dr. Devraj came to speak to CORD about sanitation in India and the cultural implications on sanitation. His presentation was brilliant–the statistics he presented were shocking and he had a way of sensitively approaching his Indian culture from a public health perspective. One idea he stressed in particular, however, was very simple–to listen to the people/community you are working with. To exemplify the importance of listening in public health, he described to us an assignment he was given by UNICEF to go into an eastern tribal state in India for nine months. In this area, it was a common practice for the mother of the woman in labor to roll a bamboo stick on her stomach, evidently causing many stillbirths. In order to approach this issue in which culture and health were drastically intertwined, Dr. Devraj said the key was to observe this process without criticism and ask questions to understand their mindset. Only after he entered the perspective of the birthing mother, he then began to gave little piecing of advice. “Try rolling the stick very gently”, he began and then progressed to, “Let’s try with using no stick”. By using this approach of understanding and compassion, he gained the trust of the women and made a difference. Dr. Devraj mentioned a poem, that has really stuck with us throughout our GROW internship, called “Go to the People”:
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, “We have done this ourselves”-Lao Tzu
Through our GROW internship, this poem and Dr. Devraj’s advice key to our sanitation project. Through talking to village members and community leaders, we have come to learn that it is a common practice for a group of about four women to get together once or twice a day in order to practice open defecation. During this time, they are able to have the privacy to talk about issues involving their life at home or in the village. An NGO or the government can implement toilets, but without understanding the mindset of the people upon using the toilet it is often useless. When observing the detrimental effects of cultural practices on health, it is often difficult to have the patience needed to fully understand the mindset of the individuals. However, Dr. Devraj’s story truly exemplifies its significance.
We’ve been collecting and relishing in some really absurd moments over the past two weeks, on top of our complete immersion in open defecation. Today, for example, I found myself sitting cross legged on a tarp in the center of a tribal village in attendance of a sort of “town hall” where I couldn’t understand the language. I did pride myself in catching the words plastic, toilet, and Boston (I think that last one was about us). I’d estimate we spent about an hour like this, knee-to-knee with both tribal people and government officials. I couldn’t help smiling about the absurdity and beauty in this moment.
What I loved about this experience was the presence of the Boluvampatti panchayat president, Mr. Sadanandam, who was sharing this tarp with the people of this far off tribe. A while back when we were surveying the villages, Steve, Meera, and I had the chance to meet with him when he abruptly took time to welcome us into his office. He showed us garbage collection bins for the town (an astounding improvement in a country without widespread trash collection) and explained a project to provide work for tribal people by constructing elephant protection ditches. His humbleness, despite these achievements, struck me as unique amidst a blatantly corrupt and sometimes infuriating bureaucracy.
A few days after that, we met again at a large trash segregation plant (where we provided entertainment via our poor hand eating technique amongst piles of trash, but that’s a story for another time). Immediately, he waved and smiled and despite not speaking English and us not having a translator, I felt acknowledged and welcomed in these ranks of government officials. To see such a motivated individual really connecting with his constituents gives me such hope and joy. What more can you expect from a man whose name means “always smiling?”
Summarizing our experiences over the past five days has been haunting me. I’ve really been taking advantage of not having internet to avoid writing my blog post. This morning, at 6:30 AM, we headed off to what we thought would be an observation of the nearby international school. Upon arriving we were given chairs and microphones and asked to give a presentation about various subjects. As we were talking about what service has meant to us, Steve called the conditions wonderful but horrifying. Maggie spoke about letting the experience break our hearts. Of course there is so much beauty here. I’ve come to love the sound of monks chanting their mantras and the spicy surprises on our plates every meal. I love the bright colors of sarees and the beautiful drawings in rice powder on the doorsteps. But the inequality we see every day is ugly, unfair, and unsettling. We’ve had the chance, as mentioned in Steve’s post, to sit with government officials and attend a conference where we heard intellectuals speak eloquently about the need for peace. However, during our participation in a government survey of toilets in slums, we saw homes that were simply not enough to protect against monsoon rains and children who if not undernourished were undeniably malnourished. It’s often easy to draw attention to their joy and their hospitality and shrug off these unacceptable conditions. My reassurance to these unsettling conditions is in watching Meera and the team at CORD Siruvani work. Meera has such an acute awareness of the needs and conditions of the villages in the panchayat she works in. CORD Siruvani has been extremely progressive in taking a holistic approach to solving community health needs. Now as we lie reading the two volume, extremely thick, CORD training manual, I’m still surprised by how well rounded their approach is, possibly more progressive than NGOs in the states who love specialization and charts. Perhaps this slightly haphazard method of attending to immediate needs has its time and place, such as those around us. I apologize for this haphazard manner of posting to you all, but if I can send a message back after week one it would be what a kind man in the Chennai rail station told us; India will show you her worst, but She will also show you her best.
While Dr. Krishna was off performing her morning superhero duties, we had the chance to visit nearby Puthur to meet with a member of one of CORD’s Mahila Mandals, or women’s self help group. Preema, the group’s president, described to us the process of obtaining government funds to assist in the construction of a drainage system for the village to carry off excess rainwater which could otherwise stagnate or get into their homes. They began petitioning the government in 2008 and, after 5 years of revisions, finally obtained the funds to build the drainage system for half of the village. However, rather than a closed network of pipes and sewers, the drainage system is an open grid of shallow canals, exposed to village life. As a result, discarded plastic and other garbage litters the inside of the drain. This debris may clog the drainage system, potentially allowing water to stagnate anyway and provide a breeding ground for bugs and disease. The members of the Mahila Mandal are still working on closing off the canals to prevent such easy access, as well as extend it to include the other half of the village, but in the meantime the open system is a good start to help control rainwater, flooding and disease transmission.
Yesterday, we were granted the opportunity to follow Dr. Krishna, the head of CORD-Siruvani, around as she walked back to the CORD office through the Thenamanallur village. Just through this short walk, it was easy to see the impact Dr. Krishna has on all the community members, along with the compassion and dedication she has towards making her community a better place. Within this tiny time span, when Dr. Krishna technically had no work to do but walk back, she managed to still do so much. She gave maternity advice to a new mother and checked up on her current health situation. She stopped a young girl returning from the market with food and advised her not to use plastic bags, but rather reusable cloth bags. She continued to take the plastic bag and return it to the market. When a group of boys ran up to her, complaining of their broken cricket bat, Dr. Krishna settled the problem. This was all after a fourteen hour workday. Its as if she never stops! The influence she has around her is incredibly inspiring, and I hope to one day have the same enthusiasm and dedication to my work as Dr. Krishna has with hers.
To be honest, getting to Thenamanallur was hell. Door to door, from Wilmington to Dr. Meera’s house was 75 hours and I don’t know that I would ever have been mentally prepared for that. We got into Chennai at 3:00 am and then spent 10 hours in the Chennai Central Train Station. It was hot. It was smelly. We were hungry. We were tired. And boy did we complain. We were miserable and did not hesitate to make that known. When our train was delayed from 2:30 pm to 4:30 it was like our world had ended. Looking back though, I can’t help but think maybe I wasted my first day in India being so focused on myself and my level of comfort I missed the real opportunity to experience the culture around me. When I replay that day in my head and take out the complaining, the train station was an incredible and true taste of India. It’s a hub for moving goods as well as people and plenty of both was happening all around me while I hungrily sulked, afraid to eat the food. I had the chance to get a glimpse of the treasures India had to offer and the daily life of the people, but I gave that up. While I still feel that getting there was an incredibly trying journey, it served as a quick reminder to always keep my head up. India was swift to show me that by refusing to look beyond myself, I would miss the culture and humanity I had come to see.
* Strictly the opinion and point of view of Maggie Bennett.
With about a week before departure, we are scurrying to finalize our preparations for our GROW trip to Tamil Nadu, India. As the silence upon the matter of open defecation in India is coming to an end, we are thrilled to have this opportunity to participate in creating a solution. On May 28, 2014 the Deputy Secretary General of the UN launched a campaign to end open defecation and educate people that open defecation is a leading factor in the spread of disease and a main indicator of poverty. Although over one billion people practice open defecation, an act that contributes to the fact that a child dies every 2.5 minutes from diarrheal diseases, talking about the issue remains taboo (“End Open Defecation”-Millennium Development Goals). As an intern team, we plan to fully immerse ourselves in both observing and taking action upon this issue while in Tamil Nadu. This includes testing for waterborne diseases at local schools, collecting data on patients with waterborne illnesses in the clinics of CORD, filming an educational sanitation video, and digging a hole for a soakage pit. We will keep you updated on these activities and more by posting pictures and stories on our blog. We thank everyone so much for the support, especially the Boston College University Fellowships Committee, Arup, the Jenzabar Foundation and Millennium Campus Network, and the dedicated GlobeMed staff at Boston College.