It started at 2:30 am in Mariani, Assam when Naryan a friend and colleague of my fellow fellow Dharamjeet waited for our train from Darjeeling to arrive. The train was an hour late and my phone did not have any service so Naryan and his brother were waiting in the middle of the night for two strangers to arrive without any information about when that would happen. I was traveling from Darjeeling with Elisabeth, a medical resident from America that was doing an exposure internship with DLRP/Broadleaf. When we did arrive we were greeted with warm smiles despite the delay and inconvenient hour. Naryan and his brother took us on motorcycles to their home and to our surprise their parents woke up to welcome us into their home. When I apologized for disrupting their sleep they smiled and said it was their pleasure to us in their home.
We slept for a few hours and then were served a delicious breakfast, all of the food was grown and cooked by our hosts. Naryan’s family invited their neighbours and other family members over to meet us. We were gifted Assamese gamchas, white and red cotton embroidered cloth that are given as a token of respect and welcome. We were in their home for a total of 4 hours but left feeling loved.
Naryan arranged an auto for us to meet Mridu and Pranjit, two more of Dharamjeet’s NEADS colleagues. NEADS is the North- East Affected Areas Development Society where Dharamjeet works as an AIF fellow. We came to Assam to learn more about their work on improving the health of tea workers. Mridu and Pranjit brought us from the auto to a ferry on their motorcycles. The ride was incredibly beautiful, Assam is lush and green, at one point a giant pelican flew directly above the motorcycle we were on. Along the way another friend and NEADS colleague, Dhruba, met up with us. The five of us were headed to Majuli, an island that is losing so much land to erosion that it might not exist in a few decades. Dharamjeet is doing incredible work with weaving communities there, you can read about his work here.
Majuli was beautiful, after a few days there we headed back to Jorhat for an evening before going to Dibrugarh for the tea estates the next day. In that short amount of time the landlord of the building we stayed in heard that Americans were visiting. Later that evening his wife and her sister stopped by in their pajamas to introduce themselves, welcome us to Assam and invite us for breakfast the following day as that was our only remaining meal in Jorhat. The breakfast was delicious and it again we were humbled by this incredible hospitality.
NEADS works on 40+ tea estates in Assam conducting a nutrition program that distributes seeds and trains community members to maintain kitchen gardens. We visited two of the partner estates where NEADS arranged for us to meet with tea workers. They facilitated a conversation in Assamese, Hindi and English between us. We learned about the worker’s lives and health. We also heard about the work that women’s group are doing to increase school participation, delay marriage and explain the importance of taking iron supplementation among the younger generations of their communities. The women’s group seems to be a bridge between services being offered by NGOs, the government or other outside organizations and the community itself. For example, despite iron supplements being free and the rates of anemia in adolescent girls being around 90% most girls would throw the iron tablets away because they caused stomach aches. The women’s group helped their community understand that the benefits outweighed the risk of a stomach ache and now girls are taking their iron supplements.
Every time we walked through a market Elisabeth and I would see vegetables we had never seen before. We kept asking our hosts what they were but it was difficult to come up with English names for the various vegetables. On our last evening in Assam Dhruba bought all the vegetables we had asked about and cooked an incredible spread of food incorporating the various vegetable dishes so that we could try them all before leaving. It was such a kind, hospitable gesture and the food was amazing. Our trip was marked by this sort of hospitality. Strangers consistently went far out of their way to welcome and share pieces of their culture with us. Going to Assam was a highlight of my fellowship, I am so grateful to Dharamjeet and the NEADS team for welcoming us into their homes and communities so completely.