Sitting on the steps of the anganwadi center in Yarakannagadde. The men on the health education team are out of sight, painting health messages in curly Kannada script on the walls of the colony. There is supposed to be a community meeting on TB at noon, and the women of the team have just returned from going hut to hut & calling on women to convene at the anganwadi center. We wait. The sweet, acrid smells of smoke and dung fill our nostrils. Someone is either cooking or burning garbage. Stray dogs with sagging teats sleep on the bumpy dirt hill, look up drowsily and extend their long pink tongues in slow yawns. (read: I’m in love with rural india.)
I’ve been spending the last few weeks with Karuna Trust’s health education team. They’re doing a two-week campaign targeting the tribal population in BR Hills, and they’re spending two days per podu (a podu is a small community of about 50, 60, maybe 70 homes) doing health education and awareness activities. On their first day in each podu, they go around meeting with elected village officials (panchayath members) and anganwadi teachers (anganwadi’s are like Montessori schools for children aged zero to six, but they also deal with the health of young children and their mothers). On the second day in each podu, they do more awareness activities and end with a street play on a health or social issue such as child marriage or open air defecation. These plays are loud affairs – speakers blast music through the podu to attract people to a central location, the team sits in a circle playing the tambourine and dholak and clapping in rhythm as Umesha the team leader sings with his honey-smooth voice. The songs are total foot tappers, and it’s hard to believe that these very catchy, make-you-wanna-dance melodies actually have to do with such serious topics as child marriage or maternal mortality.
I’ve been so inspired observing the health education team at work. The team is made up of four men and three women, and their work strikes me as even more important than that of the doctors here. Their aim is to change attitudes, to address the underlying social issues that give rise to illness in the first place, whereas doctors’ work is often to treat the physical manifestations of those social issues. Child marriage, for instance. Child marriage leads to girls giving birth at early ages, which can often lead to higher maternal mortality. A doctor deals with the birth, with antenatal and postnatal care. The health education team, on the other hand, tries to convince people that marrying in one’s twenties rather than early teens is a healthier life choice, and, if successful, they cut down on maternal mortality as well. In addition to being inspiring, their work is also the most challenging and frustrating. Anyone who’s ever tried to change anyone else’s beliefs knows that it’s hard work, especially when those beliefs are deeply entrenched in history, tradition, culture, and religion. In YK Mole, one of the villages, the task is not to simply tell people to build toilets in their communities, but also to convince them that building toilets won’t lead to their being spited by God for building something so “unholy” in their homes. The task is not to simply say, “Stop female infanticide,” but to convince people that their daughters hold just as much worth as their sons and therefore shouldn’t be neglected after birth until they die. And these messages take a ton of persuasion, reevaluation of one’s own convictions, and time to sink in. I wonder sometimes how effective the health education team really is. Will doing street plays actually make people see things differently? Or will they come for the nighttime entertainment in a village where there is little else to do, and then go home, fall asleep, and forget?
I have a ton more to write, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I will hopefully be updating my personal blog on India more regularly, (notesfromindia.tumblr.com), so check that out sometime for an extended version of this post. =]
— Shrestha, Karuna Trust, Gumballi/BR Hills
(ps, I’ve also been computerizing mental health records for the past few weeks, but since that work makes me want to alternately cry or die, I won’t talk too much about it here. It’s important work, I know, but sitting in an office and staring at a computer screen and entering tidbits of unintelligible information into tiny blanks all day brings me to a state of despair I can’t possibly convey. All else is well. =])