Transforming the health of communities
Here I am on the way to visit a Dalit Education Centre in northern Bihar, travelling with a friend on top of a small bus. It was amazing to meet the students and see the development of the Madhubani school which now offers education to 240 students from lower-kindergarten to grade 4. As a medical researcher, I have also been so impressed with the development of the Good Shepherd Healthcare Initiative, training village health workers to reach communities surrounding Dalit Education Centres. Many of the health problems in rural India are preventable through primary prevention and care. Please join me in supporting these trained village health workers who are providing high-quality and accessible health care to underserved peoples and transforming Dalit communities.
I was greatly moved when I recently saw the following video and would like to share it with you. Although it still greatly disturbs me to observe the stark inequality and oppression experienced by so many, it is so encouraging to see the progress being made across India. 104 Good Shepherd schools are now providing a high quality English-medium education to 24,000 children which is affecting thousands of communities. Primary health care is being provided by trained community health workers. Thousands of Dalit women are receiving job training and successfully starting their own businesses through micro-loans (97% success rate in loan repayment). Please consider how you could be part of this great work of bringing hope, empowerment and transformation.
I began preparing for retirement while still employed. Part of the plan for my sabbatical in 2003 was to consider what might be next in retirement years. I had hoped that this trip to India might bring some clarity and I was not disappointed. Since retiring in the fall of 2008, I have found much fulfillment, purpose and joy in working with the Dalit Freedom Network. Each trip back to India has been rewarding and challenging. Let me share with you what I wrote in my diary after returning from my first trip to India:
“1) Within the first hour of arrival at Delhi (as I experienced the sounds of horns, music, and rush of traffic; saw cows, pigs and elephants on the road on the taxi journey to our destination; only to end up at the police station to resolve overpriced taxi fares while reading warnings on the wall about police bribery), I knew I had to make the conscious choice to trust God for health and protection, to stop worrying and backseat driving, and to ‘go with the flow’.
2) My worldview was challenged. I discovered the need to look past the externals (the dust, polluted air, noise and apparent ‘anarchy’ in traffic; the ever-present cows and pigs on the road; litter; poverty; polio; beggars), and see and experience the generosity of the people, their work ethic, the bond of being one in the family of God, the joys of hearing and sharing personal life stories.
3) My personal comfort zone was challenged. I remember carrying orange peels in my pocket rather than litter the street when it is already covered with litter; vehicles with working horns but uncertain brakes racing down narrow roads head-on with last second swerves to miss each other by millimeters; riding motorcycles without helmets; eating foods at questionable road stands; fasting on 42-hour train rides rather than use the Indian-style toilets on rocking trains; being confronted by beggars with polio and poverty-stricken children begging for money and wondering how to respond.”
I had no idea that this trip would be so life-changing and would lead to further involvement with India in retirement years. I have now returned to India six times and each visit is stretching, rewarding and helps me refocus on what really matters. This includes working to promote human dignity and freedom from oppression for the Dalit by providing quality education and improved health to their children and communities.
India is the world’s largest democracy and urban India is booming and developing at an amazing rate. However, there is such contrast when one visits rural villages and towns that have remained largely unchanged. If you saw the movie, Slum Dog Millionaire, you might of caught a sense of the emotional roller coaster of seeing life as it is being lived out on the streets and in the villages, and the desires for hope, change and freedom in the oppressed ones, especially the children.
The primary focus of Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) is to open the door to freedom from oppression for the Dalits and to provide sponsorships and quality education to Dalit children. This is in response to the initial request received by DFN from local Dalit leaders. However, DFN is also committed to the betterment of living conditions for Dalit families, which includes improved health status.
As a medical scientist, I have spent my career in health promotion and I am encouraged with the holistic approach of DFN to community transformation. I am also fully committed to bringing health education and primary prevention from disease through trained community health care workers to each village where there is a Dalit Education Centre. It is for this reason that I am privileged to serve as a champion for the school health care worker project.
MDH Good Shepherd School is the first Dalit Education Centre that Canada played a major role in development and support. It is located in the state of Bihar, just below Nepal. Bihar is the poorest state in India and quite remote. In order for us to reach MDH from Delhi, it took 22 hours by train, 8 hours by bus (sitting on a broken back seat over bumpy roads with no leg room), followed by a short ride on the top of a bus. Having travelled through India for several weeks before visiting MDH, I was learning to “go with the flow and enjoy the ride”, even if it meant riding on the top of a bus.
I first visited MDH in 2004. At that time, about 120 students were meeting in 3 classes in a reed and bamboo structure for their classroom activities. Even in this difficult setting, I was greatly impressed with the enthusiasm in the children, and devotion and care in the teachers, school manager and principal. It made the challenge of getting to MDH well worthwhile.
I again visited MDH in 2009, at which time 250 students now were meeting in 6 classes in a new brick school facility. The change and improvement in school facilities were dramatic and impressive. I was inspired to see the same enthusiasm in the students, and devotion and care in the teachers and staff that I first saw in 2004.
As an epidemiologist at the BC Cancer Agency, my research had focused on cancer prevention and early detection, the development and evaluation of educational interventions, and cross-cultural communication in cancer care. In the spring of 2003, I had the opportunity to go to India for 1 month with a friend, Rob Sinclair, as part of a sabbatical leave to explore first-hand the life experiences and health issues of South Asians, a major immigrant group in BC. This trip would also provide the adventure of joining Rob on his legendary Ganges walk (which is another story for another time).
During that first visit to India, I was greatly impressed with the diversity and beauty of the peoples and country. However, I was also greatly disturbed with evidences of poverty, slums, street children, beggars, and disease.
I came home changed and 10 pounds lighter. This experience led to joining several local boards working on health and education initiatives, village transformation and development of resources for India.
Then in May 2003, I attended the Third International Dalit Conference, which was held locally in White Rock. Here, I first learned about the Dalits and their struggle for freedom and dignity. At this meeting, I also met Dr. Joseph D’souza and was asked to start the Canadian chapter of the Dalit Freedom Network. Since that visit, I have returned to India annually, for a total of 6 visits to date.
Joined the community of Health Care