Yesterday I got back from my first trip to Khansyu, a village in the Okhalkanda block where I will be doing my fieldwork. It was a short trip of just two days but it seemed to open my mind and heart to the work I’m doing. Living in Satoli, I am without many comforts of my home in California, but it the context of these mountains I am living in luxury. I don’t have to take cold showers, there is no shortage of delicious food around, and I have access to clean water. I appreciate my home here a great deal as well as the atmosphere of the office and the wonderful people in it, but I’ve been missing the connection with the people that all of this work actually benefits. Aarohi works in about 35 different villages that dot the mountains around us. Some are quite close, while others take long drives followed by days of walking to reach. The drive to Okhalkanda is about 2.5 hours of winding turns on a road not quite wide enough for two regular size cars to pass each other. This is no problem however as everyone is quite eager to lay on their horn every chance they get. The car ride is one of those when your eyes are glued to the changing scenery outside the window. First we went up. I watched the forest change and felt the temperatures drop. The air felt thin and cold as we reached a high pass and had our first glimpses of the Gola River in the valley below. This was Okhalkanda. We made our way down the mountainside stopping and honking here and there for monkeys and cattle. We arrived in Khansyu which compared to the surrounding villages is a hub of activity. Many were busy painting their houses in preparation for Diwali (the festival of lights).
Our work of the day included conducting Focus Group Discussions with the Swasthya Kamis (SKs) who are health workers that have been chosen from each village along with their supervisor who are also from the area. The SKs are employed through a Government rural health initiative, and Aarohi works closely with them, training them in mother and child care and a range of other topics. My discussion was on drinking water. The vast majority of people in these areas do not treat their drinking water; their methods of collection and storage combined with what is often an already contaminated source explains the frequent illness due to water borne diseases. The SKs pointed out that women spend so much time with chores that the thought of using their precious fuel (that took them hours to collect) to boil water for 20 minutes was just not realistic. Because of their training the SKs were quite familiar with the connections between contaminated drinking water and disease and ways to prevent it, but when asked whether they themselves treat or boil their water, most said no.
The following morning I was taken by a supervisor of Khansyu to a few homes where they showed us the chulhas or stoves they cook with. Working towards an improved design for a smokeless chulha is my other main project I’ll be doing in Okhalkanda. While the visits were not formal or planned, I was able to talk to people about how they cook and why they preferred cooking on a chulha that is essentially a small open fire in a room with no ventilation and if they have any complaints about the smoke. They said that Roti, which is the staple flatbread they have with every meal, is too difficult to make on a smokeless or closed chulha so they just made do with the smoke, which indeed burns their eyes and makes them cough.
I plan to spend a lot of time in the coming months in Okhalkanda learning about how the people live and hopefully finding ways to bridge their ideas and concerns with the resources of my host organization Aarohi.