Chirag: Live among the people

                Just yesterday I concluded a two-night homestay in the village of Rheeta with an older woman by the name of Bina. She puts Ironman competitors to shame with her daily physical work on her farm located on the foothills of the Central Himalayas. By the time I awoke at 6:30am, she had already been up for over an hour, prayed, milked the cow, fed fodder to all the cows and goat, walked the 5 kilometers uphill to the dairy truck to sell the fresh milk, began making Chai for the family, and prepared an onion dish for part of breakfast. When I went to accompany her, she immediately served me, Revethi, and Ishana, another two Chirag volunteers staying with her, the best Chai I have ever had. I helped to make berentha, a flour tortilla-like food, but I can never be sure how helpful I am being in this unfamiliar place. After breakfast, I played with her grandkids while Bina took just a few minutes of personal time to bathe. Meanwhile, her daughter-in-law picked a crate of plums and the three of us girls followed her and Bina downhill to the orchard. The crate must have weighed over 15 kilograms, but her daughter-in-law easily carried it on her head, maneuvering effortlessly down the steep slope in over-mended flip-flops while I scrambled to keep my footing. Together we picked the peaches and plums, but, unfortunately, all the fruit are only half their usual size this year due to the drought conditions. Everyone in this area is praying for the long overdue monsoons so that the rest of the crop can flourish, the springs can replenish, and the forest fires will no longer be as frequent.   

By 9am, we brought all the fruit to a small shack off the side of a government-built dirt road. The shack is the meeting place for the Fruit Cooperative that Chirag originally helped start up for the balwadi (poorest) women in the area. The cooperative serves to increase the value of the fruit that these women can sell. Weighing the crates with a scale and grading the fruit into A, B, and C class allows the crop to be sold for more rupees when it gets to Haldwani, the closest city, or even the 11 hours to Delhi. This essentially bypasses the middleman and Chirag assists the women with identifying the best market price. All morning, women carried heavy crates of plums and peaches many kilometers up and down hill on their heads to this spot, while I helped them sort and pack the fruit into boxes labeled “Fruit from the Women Farmers of Uttarakhand – Flavors of Kumaon.” Along the way, I snacked on a few pieces of the freshly plucked fruit; peaches in the US will never taste the same again. We then headed back for lunch and enjoyed rice with dal and apricot chutney. The food Bina has prepared for us has been the best I have had so far in India!

                Something in the air up here (over 1600m up that is) has made me oddly lethargic all the time, and it’s been happening to many of the interns at Chirag. Despite getting almost 10 hours of sleep each night, I still get sleepy randomly throughout the day. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to the thinner air, walking all day through the terrain, or the change in nutritional value in my diet. Regardless, shortly after our 3pm lunch, I napped for over an hour. I woke up to find Bina and her daughter-in-law peeling apricots, keeping the pits to sell to apricot oil producers at 18rupees a kilogram and drying out the flesh to make chutney. This seemed to be the first time I saw Bina sit still, but nevertheless she was still busy at work with her hands. The next task was to feed the cows again. Because the hills makes it difficult for livestock to graze on their own, Bina took a curved sickle and went to cut down fodder to feed her three cows and one goat. She had also purchased earthworms to mix with cow manure for her land in preparation for planting legumes. I helped spread out this mix and tried to overlook the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to wash my hands with soap before eating dinner with my bare hands. On the way back up to the house, she harvested the seeds of a type of grass that grew to be good fodder so she can sell the seeds for a good price. Much of Chirag’s initiatives have focused on increasing the incomes for these women, and it appeared to me each second of Bina’s day was centered on these profit driven activities.

                Once we got back, Bina promptly began to fix up a meal of dal and chapatti. As the pressure cooker sat over the small fire she had made in her low-ceiling kitchen, she went out to clean the cattle shed located on the first floor of the house. This meant using her bare hands to lift fresh dung off the ground and bringing it to a pile for agricultural use. Afterwards, she brought the animals into the shed one by one and milked the mature cow. I could not comprehend how such a slight woman could pull a grown cow around so smoothly.  After a quick night prayer, Bina gave out food to her grandchildren, her youngest son, her husband, her daughter-in-law who is here visiting from Delhi, us three girls, and even the little kitten. (Usually, the daughter-in-law would help with the household chores as well, but because she is menstruating, it is traditionally believed that she is impure and unclean so she must stay out of the kitchen during this time. In the past, this traditional belief was held so strictly that women were forced to stay in the cattle shed for those days. Feel free to ask me more about these traditional health practices that still remain in place in some villages nearby). Bina is always the last to eat and no amount of discussion with her will change that.

The day’s work seemed never ending. Not for a moment was Bina resting or taking care of her own health. In addition, she runs to meetings as a member of the Village Health and Sanitation Committee and for the board of the Women’s Fruit Cooperative. She has much to think about each day, including where to find water if the small well on her land runs dry. Already, not enough water is around to water the crops despite Chirag’s efforts to recharge the spring using a system of check dams, contours, and terrace farming. In surrounding villages, people have resorted to purchasing safe drinking water by the tank from a truck. Another main initiative of Chirag is to empower women because in almost all families, the women do the back-breaking physical labor while the men work in nearby cities. I definitely felt this vibe during my stay with Bina because she was constantly active while I hardly saw her youngest son contribute around the house or on the farm. Despite all this, Bina does all her chores with a spring in her step, smiles cheerfully when she speaks, and still has the energy to reprimand her rambunctious grandchildren.

This homestay visit helped me better understand the tough life of a woman in the Kumaon Region of the Central Himalayas but has left me bewildered with all the areas that would welcome support from Chirag. While I constantly thought about the ethics of foreigners entering these communities and trying to initiate change for improved living conditions, I am already here so I can only hope that my research contribution to Chirag can be put to good use. In the meantime, I hope to be started on my research project by the end of the week. I intend on examining a women’s health issue, such as antenatal care or family planning, the functions of the Village Health and Sanitation Committees, and health expenditures on minor illnesses in a few of the villages here.

I have truly been enjoying this summer thus far. Each day, my Penn companion Shumita and I ask ourselves “What is my life?!” It has been a combination of being astounded by where we are, but also at the shear differences between life here and life as we know it at Penn or at home. The window from our 14-bed hostel room at Chirag overlooks hills dotted with homes and blanketed by terrace farming and forest, including both the benevolent oak trees and the evil pines that Shumita mentioned in her last post. Just yesterday, we hiked for over two hours through the mountains to Mukteshwar, a nearby town, and the scene was beautiful and the weather pleasant the entire time.  I do have to admit some things are quite difficult to get accustomed to though. For example, I secretly frolic in shorts and a t-shirt in the hostel room because wearing a salwar kameez (a long kurta top and leggings or haram pants and a dupati – scarf) can feel a bit confining. Although the food is tasty here, I have been too spoiled with the diversity of dishes in my life, so Shumita and I were ecstatic over the honey and banana wrapped in roti we had this morning. Our bodies are also craving green leafy vegetables and protein in any form, so we may have to buy some eggs to add into our diets. And the frustrations of not knowing Hindi are starting to catch up with me, since I really would like to get to know the people working for Chirag. Lastly, toilet paper is not a thing here, so I have committed to using it only sparingly. That leaves the left hand for the squat toilet and right hand for eating. But really, I have no right to complain about any of this. It only highlights the privilege I have had my entire life, and privilege, along with so many other topics. is definitely something I will continue to think a lot about throughout this summer while living among the Kumaoni people this summer.

‘Til the next chance encounter with internet! 



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About Lucia Xiong

Current medical student at University of New Mexico. Former science teacher at Tse Yi Gai High School on Navajo Nation. Studied International Relations with a concentration in Global Health and Penn Class of 2013 graduate. CASI Chirag Intern summer of 2012.