Last spring it was a vision clinic—“eye camp,” in local lingo— in the little village of Kanai Khurd in Rajasthan, India, population 997. That went well and we learned a lot, getting prescriptions and glasses for 127 people so this time we partnered with a local NGO and provided more services. Not wanting to duplicate, it made sense to move operations the next village, Kanai Kalla, which is four kilometers away.
Four kilometers doesn’t sound like much, at less than three miles I can easily do that for a morning walk, but in a place where most people get around by foot….carrying burdens and working in fields, it is a definite distance. Kanai Kalla has about twice the population—kalla means “big” and “khurd” means small. It also has a newer more spacious school, which we were allowed to use for our clinic. We occupied three classrooms the first day, for vision and cardiac services—classes doubled up in the remaining rooms—and on Sunday when school was out, we used seven classrooms.
In many ways this school is entirely familiar. I took pictures of the math problems on the blackboard to send to my math-teach sister and brother. Boys and girls are lined in neat rows for morning assembly. The children wear two-toned brown uniforms and hair is tidy in the morning, girls with braids, boys with sharp parts. Having created chaos in the school, it seemed polite to visit the classrooms. The eleventh and twelfth graders were ones who had doubled up. They are tall, seemingly better nourished than their grandparents were, and in this classroom there are none of the skinned knees and rumples of the little ones. Also missing are girls. Not a single one in the twelfth class. I turned suspicious; child marriage is a problem here, but not a single girl?
“Where are the twelfth class girls?” I asked.
“They are all in Ajmer for an athletics competition.”
So much for my understanding of local culture. A few days here doesn’t do that. A few weeks doesn’t do it. No matter how many questions you ask. And I ask a lot. And I keep my eyes open too. The prime minister of India is also in Ajmer, about 80 kilometers away, and so our clinic has serious competition. But most important competition is the time of year.
We are at the peak of harvest and the villagers are desperate to get their crops in. Untimely rain destroyed about 60 percent of my host’s Mung beans, an important dietary staple. People here also grow sesame seeds (for oil), cotton, wheat, and lentils. Also lot of livestock.
Volunteers aplenty here. The classrooms need cleaning and furniture moved. the walkways need sweeping. We need to register patients—in the temple, or under the tree?
Under the tree, and under the next tree on another table a technician checks blood sugar numbers. Nineteen year-old Honey serves as impromptu pharmacist. I had bought mirrors so people could see how they look in their new eyewear. Deepu, however, is the fashion consultant for frames, looking at a person’s face and making a snap recommendations. The mirrors didn’t even make it out of the box. Only once do I see a problem with frames. A man in a white turban and dhoti—long fabric wrapped into a cross between pants and skirt—was holding a pair of pink frames and Goldie had to tell the man that the frames are for ladies. (Sunglasses are so highly prized that the men—who especially need them for riding their motorbikes—could care less if the frames are for women.)
Most of our volunteers, though, are in the field, literally. Flyers have been distributed to every single house in both villages. Many people are illiterate, however—the eye test uses symbols not letters—and so we do more than that. Two days we have a tuk-tuk—a baby taxi—drive around with a megaphone. And on the clinic days we go to where the people are, into the fields.
“I know you are busy, but you have to take a break for lunch? Just half an hour.”
My accounting on expenses goes squirrely, diesel for tractors to pick up people, tuk-tuk fees to bring them in for a quick check up. None of the costs are much, but glad I’m not going to audited. And how to be equitable between the villages? We are going to provide cataract surgery for those who need it, but what about those who came to our clinic in the spring and needed cataract surgery? Preferential treatment for Kanai Kalla over Kanai Khurd? A reminder, if ever I needed one, why I’d never want to go into politics or government. No matter what you do, everyone will not be happy.
“How many of the cataract referrals are for ladies?” I ask.
Mr. Rathore flips through the stack of twenty papers. “Six.”
They hadn’t noticed the gender imbalance in the patients. I had. So we agreed to give women preference from the other village and if anyone drops from the list, the replacement will be female.
The best part is the delivery of glasses, seeing how much difference that can make how quickly. And even the pictures—glasses delivered to people’ homes—shows a good bit about what life is like here. The ladies who wear veils; note the heavy tribal jewelry and ceremonial henna on the woman in the pink veil, the cow right there in the other. Turbans. Work clothes. The sleeveless shirt on the one man has so many holes it looks like lace. I am especially pleased about the eighth grade girl pictured here.
I don’t know her name. But that’s okay, you won’t know the names of most of the people you help. The girl has no vision in her right eye, obviously so, it’s cloudy and turned inwards. She was miserable and self-conscious during our clinic and I don’t blame her. It was a bit chaotic, people asking her to do new and unfamiliar things, so many adults she didn’t know. The thirteen-year-old was so clearly uncomfortable I didn’t want to take a picture of her from the front.
I’m thrilled to see her here, in pink and blue weekend clothes, looking calm and beautiful, wearing the glasses that will help the remaining vision in her left eye.
And just maybe change her life.