Lent begins on March 1; in the weeks leading up to Easter, Christians around the world spend extra time fasting, praying, and reflecting. This year, SIM Stories invites you to journey through Lent with Chetna, a community health and development program in North India. May their work inspire you this Lenten season.
When Madhu studied community development, his university professors said it was a job that would take a lifetime or more. Perhaps back then, he didn’t feel the weight of that as he does now, twenty-five years later.
Jolting along the unpaved dirt road, Madhu goes through a list of unusual things he’s seen while driving. Once there were two men with a long metal container precariously balance on their heads as they zipped down the road on their motorbike. “People here have a lot of creativity,” he laughs.
Bihar isn’t a place usually lauded for creativity. It’s one of the poorest states in India, synonymous for most Indians with crime, poverty, and backwards people.
Madhu remembers a village mayor who once blocked their way with his jeep, “He was shouting at us and threatening us because we had visited his village and told the local committee that they should be getting money from the government to improve their village. He was mad because he’d been skimming money from the fund and now he couldn’t do that anymore.”
The hard parts of Bihar – those are what hit you first. But if you look, you find amazing beauty, resourcefulness, and – yes – creativity. In twenty-five years, Madhu has had plenty of time to look.
Madhu’s first stop of the day is an hour away from where he started, in Rena’s village. His work here goes back over a decade and villagers come away from their work to greet him. Rena isn’t among them.
Like 70 percent of village women in her state, Rena was illiterate. Uneducated about other opportunities, she expected what every girl she knew expected from their future: an early marriage, several children, days spent trying to put food on the table, and constant fear of an unexpected illness or accident that would push the family further into poverty.
Madhu works for Chetna, a community health and development ministry run by the Emmanuel Hospital Association, a partner of SIM India. Every three years, it takes a renewed look at the villages it has chosen and decides what issues to take on next. This means its focus projects change over time and staff are regularly thinking about how to best empower and equip the community to carry on the work once resources are focused elsewhere.
Rena first met Chetna staff nearly a decade ago when they were facilitating girls’ literacy groups. At first, her parents were skeptical about letting their preadolescent daughter learn to read. Girls leaving the house, even to go just a few streets over, was unheard of, and doing so would make her a target of community gossip. Even more damaging – it could hurt a girl’s chances at marriage. The local Chetna volunteer persisted and finally Rena was allowed to attend.
The group of girls gathered in the home of one of the few local woman who was literate and had been equipped with materials by Chetna. They learned quickly and found they loved learning. When the literacy program finished, Chetna found them a sewing teacher. The opportunity was one of the earliest Income Generation Programs (IGP) Chetna offered in multiple villages.
Rena quickly learned to sew; her nervousness giving way to self-confidence as her aspirations grew. She began to make clothes for local families to earn a small income. Her parents’ confidence in her grew as well. She went back to school and graduated while simultaneously teaching other girls in her village how to sew.
Rena has left her village and moved into a local Christian hospital. She’s training to become a nurse – the first person in her family not only to pass class 12, but to pursue higher education. Hers is an entire lifetime changed by a single literacy class facilitated by Chetna.
Much of the Chetna staff's ten-hour work days are spent bumping over roads between villages. Those who’ve worked for Chetna as long as Madhu has have the lower back problems to prove it. Dust swirls through the jeep’s open windows and coats his salt-and-pepper hair. Chetna’s female staff members, like Gracie, use their long scarves to cover their heads and noses against the dust while Mintu, Chetna staff member and today’s driver, rolls his window up to avoid the worst of it.
Most houses in Bihari villages are just one room and plastered with mud and straw. Their floors are packed, well-swept dirt, and doors are often just a sheet hung across the entryway. Most of the household activity happens in the courtyard where the family buffalo is staked. Laundry dries on top of the house’s straw roof and a cooking fire smolders off to the side.
At the edge of it all, near the road, is a hand-pump, the only source of water for 15-20 village households. Here family members bathe at the end of a long day of field work; here the midday dishes are washed; here the laundry is scrubbed and wrung out. The entire area around the handpump is ankle-deep mud.
The problem could be solved with a platform – a simple four-feet-by-four-feet concrete slab with a drainage hole at the back. The lack of platform means most people who use the pump have skin rashes and fungal infections from clothes and skin that are never quite clean. Dishes washed in these conditions mean diarrhea is more common than not.
This hand pump sits in the poorest section of the village. A few rough lanes over, the wealthiest family in the village heard that a Chetna volunteer had helped the villagers access government funding to create a platform around their handpump. Outraged they weren’t being given a cut of the money, they tried to stop the work. The villagers didn’t protest; they were used to respecting the family because of their money. When Chetna staff found out, however, they drove to the village and showed the villagers how to advocate for the platform. The rich family was forced to give up their demands and the platform was finished.
Having a clean place to wash dishes and bodies isn’t the biggest benefit the villagers received. They’ve learned they have the power to change their own circumstances. Reflecting on all the enemies Chetna staff have made of powerful, corrupt people, Madhu shrugs. “We’re not afraid,” he says, “because now the villagers will stand up with us.”
Teaching villagers to advocate for themselves means Madhu is watching his work multiply itself. “When I first started,” Madhu reflects, “we were using a services-delivery model. We would come in and do things for people. But now we use an empowerment model so people learn how to take themselves forward. One day, when we’re gone, they’ll still be strong.”
The last stop of Madhu’s day is in a village where Khushboo is leading a vaccination drive. He’s simply come to support and encourage her while she leads.
“I never thought I’d be able to give an injection!” Khushboo laughs, writing down the information of a child she’s just given a vaccination to.
Khushboo’s stubborn gaze and steady hands seem like they should belong to someone much older. Unlike most of the young women in her village, Khushboo meets people’s eyes and speaks confidently to both patients and village leaders alike.
Khushboo’s began life with unquestioned acceptance of the expectations her culture placed upon all the girls she knew. The best women, it’s believed in Khushboo’s village, enter their husband’s house and don’t go back outside until they’re carried out at death. No education, no involvement in the broader community, no options.
Khushboo, however, met a local Chetna volunteer who was teaching local young women how to run mother and children’s clinics. Khushboo couldn’t imagine doing anything like that, but after several encouraging visits from Chetna staff members, she was convinced to try.
Khushboo learned how to give prenatal exams, how to determine when to send a woman to the hospital three-hours away, and how to give vaccinations. Despite her reservations, she turned out to be incredibly good at all of it! She eventually used her new skills to got a job in another local program, where she offered family planning information and helped at a mother and children’s clinic. Then she found a job in another town, moving farther than she ever could’ve imagined.
“I’ve been 400 kilometers away from my village, making good money,” says Khushboo in awe of the opportunities she’s been given. “But now I’m back to help my villages here.”
Khushboo returned to her local area, got married, and now has two small children. She reconnected to Chetna staff, who were focusing on helping village committees learn to serve their communities for themselves. Village Health, Sanitation and Nutrition Committees, funded by the government and overseen by the district’s mayor, are supposed to include five people specializing in certain health or sanitation needs. One of those positions is the asha – a village nurse.
Khushboo applied for and got the job. She’s responsible for three wards – somewhere around 2,000 people.
“All my wards have 100% vaccination rate,” she says cheerfully before admitting, “hospital births aren’t quite there yet, but I’m working on it”.
The challenge of the job suits Khushboo, who says, “Until I’ve done something hard, I’m not satisfied with the day”.
A local organization has told Khushboo they have a job waiting for her when her children are just a bit older and they’re in school. In that job, she’ll be overseeing maternal and children’s health initiatives for multiple villages.
Madhu’s community development teacher warned him he was signing up for a job that would take a lifetime or longer. What he’s finding now that a lifetime of faithfulness to it doesn’t mean you see all the problems taken care of – but it does mean you get to see multiple lives transformed by your work. The early investment of Chetna staff in lives like Khushboo’s and Rena’s will be affecting thousands of lives for decades to come. It’s the rich reward for a lifetime of work.