Sunday, January 20, 2013

Simply Surviving

The other day, the patient recruitment director, Runa, asked if I wanted to follow along to some important meetings out in the districts. As I have mentioned before, we get a constant flow of patients thanks to partnerships with the Assam government and the NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) that the patient recruitment team has worked hard to develop. Without these partnerships, we could not find the cleft patients that live in the smallest villages of Assam. A program within NRHM, known as ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists), trains women from villages to be the face of public health within these small communities. GC4 finds most of the patients—and keeps in contact with most of the patients—through these ASHAs. (Some breaking news: the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre has developed a new partnership with Megahlya, a nearby state. This way, we are reaching more of northeast India.)

On Thursday, I ventured to Morigaon, a two-hour drive from Guwahati. Runa had two meetings with the top members of the district council. This district ranks as one of the five poorest districts in India. As a result, Columbia University has given the district a large grant to improve its health system and education system. Also, the Indian government has developed a system in which young, ambitious, educated Indians who have done well on their international relations, political science, economics and a lot of other exams get placed in poor districts as deputy commissioners to develop education, health and other infrastructures. We went to Morigaon to meet with the deputy commissioner (district head): Shri Solanki Vishal Vasant.

Guwahati to Morigaon
On the drive to Morigaon, we ran into a traffic jam. 
I felt like I was meeting the prime minister, but on a larger scale. Runa told me that I had to always say “sir,” sit up straight and be very polite. He was young (maybe 26), determined and ambitious. He agreed to help us in several ways. Most importantly, he said he was committed to making his district “the first cleft free district” in Assam. When Runa and I walked out of the meeting, we screamed and jumped up and down. Not many district heads agree to help us like this. District heads are district heads for different reasons, some only for political or financial reasons. He also gave us other non-profits to meet with in the area that would be able to help us find more patients. It was really interesting to see the business and behind the scenes of GC4.

She is pictured wearing the pink scarf in front of her organization.

While there, we also went to a small non-profit run by an older woman. She teaches unemployed women how to weave so they can make money. She works really hard as she has very little help (so if anyone is looking for a volunteer opportunity, here is one!). Listening to how she has grown her NGO in such a rural and poor area was interesting to hear. She developed relationships with the district council and other important people and took it from there. Honestly, I think she is a rockstar.

After our “business meetings” were finished, Runa and I went to a fair. In this district there is one big tribe. Some live in the hills and some live in the plains. Both meet up in this big field to trade. They camp out for a couple of days, create a “hotel” for themselves, and then begin their business. It is so interesting to see how they decide if one item is equal enough to trade with another item. How they decide, I cannot figure out, but a lot of thought goes into it. This tribe even has a king. It seems to live in the 15th century.
The "hotel" they have set up for themselves on the fair grounds. 
Their new homes for the exciting fair. 

Biggest pieces of ginger I have ever seen. Getting ready to trade!

More of the "hotel" for the week.

A cozy room for a family of nine.
One thing for sure: these people had never seen a foreigner before. Word had gotten around that a foreigner was there, and important members of the tribe presented me with their tribe's traditional scarf. They wanted to show me everything and explain why they do this. People here are always so welcoming. I asked why they still do this week of trading and they said they do it to show respect to the king. Because the fair was just beginning, buses of people from the other villages were being shipped in. It was like a Mardi Gras parade of village people, riding on the tops of buses and trucks. It was such a huge fair and seemed to be a big tourist attraction for other Indians.

Fair grounds. 
Fair grounds. 
People selling beautiful furniture at the fair, next to the rice field. 
You can probably tell, but what do I find so interesting about going into the districts? You see the simplest of the simple. Some of the shacks you pass by are little more than a piece of plywood in the middle of the rice fields. To go anywhere these villagers must trod through the wet rice fields. Their lives are comprised of basically working food and shelter. That’s it. You see families working in mustard seed fields, rice fields, tea fields, from the moment the sun rises until the last bit of light. You see kids lifting heavy farming tools to make money in the hopes that one day they can sit and relax. You see strong women, emotionally and physically, doing intense work alongside other men. They work for what they need to survive. Simple, man. Maybe we should all try it one day.

I often wonder if these people like this life or if they know any other way of living. Maybe that will be my next adventure to try and figure out.

Sending smiles and simplicity from India,

Various pictures from my trip to the Marigaon:

Dried fish

A common scene: a shack in the middle of a rice field.


  1. Wow! The portraits are fabulous!
    I think the pink shirt one is my favorite. Do you ask/How do you ask permission to take their pictures? I'm just wondering how it happens.

    LisaJ (just outside New Orleans)

    1. Hello LisaJ!

      Thank you so much for reading my blog. I think the pink shirt portrait is my favorite too. If I am taking a close up/portrait, I always ask and point to the camera and say "photo?" Most of the time, they nod their head. Only sometimes do I regret asking because they change their "natural" pose to a "camera-ready" pose but I believe asking is the polite thing to do.


  2. oh my goodness! I feel like I am "talking" with a celebrity!
    Thanks for the reply, I have been wondering how the exchange went. Now I can get a better view in my minds eye...anyway, thanks again! Keep up the Great Posts!

    Lisa J