Jonathan: Health, youth power & roasting seeds

March 31, 2011

Before I begin, I should share a nifty map I made that has all the places mentioned in this blog marked to give you a better idea of what in the world I’m talking about.  It can be reached by clicking here, or clicking on the link to the left titled “India Travel Log”  Railmangra and Jaipur are marked in red.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve artfully avoided discussing specifics about what I’m actually doing on a daily basis here in Railmagra and at Jatan Sansthan since arriving on 8 March.  This, of course, is based in a couple of factors.  First, I didn’t really know what I was doing until six days ago.  Second, I was never quite sure if what I was doing was long term or even feasible.  Third, I’ve been playing a lot of Holi (Sunday in Udaipur, Friday in Baneria, and Saturday in Railmagra).  But finally, after three whole weeks, I am finally ready to describe, in full, the amazing project I have the privilege to work on and the ways that it has changed my approach to health, wellness, and youth empowerment.  I went from reading a book all day punctuated by a two our trip to a dusty village for a couple of hours to working ten hours a day and loving every minute.

As many of you know I have spent much of my young adulthood working on both sexual health and youth empowerment issues.  I’ve had the privilege to work with some amazing social workers and activists (and social worker-activists) who are looking at the way that power and privilege affected marginalized communities throughout American society.  I have, however, in recent years become increasing frustrated with the way that the trajectory of discourse has shifted.  Take HIV, for example: what was once a community action that brought gay men together is now sanitized into the private realm of doctors offices and dislocated public health posters.  What has occurred is that messages are simply not relevant to those most at risk for contracting the virus such as young men.  Coming to India for me, in large part, was about expanding that dialogue; about answering these question: How have Indians taken the needs of their communities and developed culturally competent approaches to health promotion?  In what way is the dialogue uniquely Indian?  I have been able to learn this and much more.

Jatan runs about 50 youth groups across the three districts that it works, however most are located in the Rajsamand District where Railmagra is located.  These groups are run by an adult mentor and peer educators who run informal education activities on a number of issues of particular importance to rural youth.  Many of the young men will participant in labor migration and many of the young women will experience the effects of their brothers, fathers, or husbands move.  For many in this area, migrating to find work holds the promise of a better outcome for ones family through increased income, but also a chance to experience life in the “New India” of booming urban centers.  This process does, however, have a number of unintended effects on the village, the family, and the individual.  These, mostly young, men are placed in vulnerable positions and are at risk for exploitation.  Their lack of knowledge on a number of issues regarding sexual health, basic occupational hazards, and certain skills such as English or trade-specialization pose risks to their health and success.  Furthermore, being far from home with little access to familiar support networks (or the watchful eye of community mentors, for that matter) place many of these young people at heightened risks.  For women, migration poses unique risks such as potential exposure to HIV through husbands who engaged in condom-less sex while away, the need to run a household by oneself and potentially work outside the home, and confront topics such as domestic violence in new and challenging ways.  These youth groups provide vital resources and support networks for the young people by providing them exposure to information, but also to discussions where youth power and youth-based solutions are discussed to relevant social issues present in their lives.

Jatan hopes to take this concept to a new level by formalizing youth group lessons into a six month, twelve part, curriculum that confronts health, wellness, and empowerment issues.  And here is where I come in.  I have been given the amazing and fun responsibility of taking the hours of research that past interns have done and compiling it all into activities and ‘lesson plans,’ and forming that into a published curriculum by mid-April.  This process is daunting, but perfect for me, as it draws on all of my past experiences while allowing me to work closely with Indian activists regarding youth issues.  This past week I shaped most of the ‘lessons’ and in this coming week I will travel with youth group leaders to surrounding villages to begin field testing.

The wealth of resources available for these ‘lessons,’ especially those touching on sexual health, is truly fantastic and worthy of mention.  Nearly ten years ago, when Jatan was first chartered, the current executive director and his friend of Vikalp Design embarked on one of the first studies of creating culturally appropriate sexual health illustrations for rural communities in India (or rather, Rajasthan, since as I’ve mentioned close to a hundred times, there are many Indias).  Meeting with village young and other community members, they began asking them to draw various people and concepts.  First, they were easy illustrations: man, woman, baby, cow, house, farm.  Next came more complicated subjects: sickness, death, hospital, uncertainty, healthy food. Finally came technical topics: infertility, condom, heterosexual sex, pubescent changes, hospital birth, taking pills regularly.  What has developed in the last decade or so is an amazing collection of visual representations of complex health topics so as to provide comprehensive resources to low-literacy populations that are understandable, appropriate, and medically accurate.  With this amazing wealth of images, Jatan has developed fantastic resource materials, some of which are amazing in their pure ingenuity.  Take, for instance, the Reproductive Health Kit, a small box which can be used to discuss contraception and STI prevention.  The Kit measures just 4x4x1, but contains a substantial amount of resources and material.  When receiving the box, one first notices the color and designs of it.  The light brown of cow dung, around the box are simple line drawings found on traditional desert dung dwellings in Rajasthan.  The box is tied shut with a tie-dyed string in the traditional style of Rajasthani worship strings.  As such, before the box is even opened, it is immediately identified as a community tool.  Once opened, the four top flaps fold out.  On each half of the fold is either a visual description of a birth control method (such as an IUD) or the actual method itself (such as a condom).  The description is kept very short, perhaps just one or two words, in clearly printed Hindi.  Each flap can be folded in half to reduce distractions (since some have anatomical drawings).  Inside the box itself are triangular pamphlets, also foldable, with information about HIV, STIs, and other relevant topics.  In addition, there is a small pipe to conduct a condom demonstration with.  After the box has been used to demonstrate its content to the original user, it can then be easily taken if migrating, used as teaching tool for others, or used to store condoms or the preferred birth control method.

As if this was not enough, the office is literally filled with amazing teaching tools like this.  I am a kid in a candy store, constantly stumbling upon visual, tactile, fun, interesting, and informative content.  Take, for instance, the reproductive health aprons, which can be worn by an educator to demonstrate everything from the menstrual cycle to how to use a condom.  They have cloth flaps attached to their front with anatomical drawings of the male and female reproductive system.  On the female apron, one can watch the egg be released from the ovary, travel through the fallopian tube, dissolve, and have the menstrual lining shed.  On the male drawing, everything from basic anatomy to how to put on a condom is shown, along with a fantastic illustration of a vasectomy.  There is also a great visual flip book with the stages of puberty, and a corresponding display.  Built in the traditional Rajasthani style that has been used in this area for generations by a special caste of street performers, these displays are typically used to demonstrate stories from the Vedas.  Instead, Jatan has had some built which tell the story of puberty, and one can watch the human body develop and change in a familiar and culturally appropriate way.  The list goes on.  There are pamphlets and wallets and songs and every iteration beyond of fascinating material to read and interpret.  My favorite game currently is guessing what every image is, and looking for key signs that make it particular to this population.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all of this is how tremendously applicable it all is to my American context: while the majority of, if not all, people I work with are literate, the use of effective visuals is severely lacking in sex education.  These creative and innovative ideas are making my mind work overdrive.

But yes, there is still one unanswered piece of this whole puzzle.  The title of this post includes ‘roasting seeds,’ and thus far, I have done none of that.  In developing a curriculum for rural Indian youth, I am clearly at a disadvantage (and philosophical conundrum).  After all, I am not a village youth, I am not Indian, I am not a migrant laborer, and I am not illiterate.  And yet, this is my task.  And thus I wanted to be able to meet with and interact with some of the young people who would be participating in the ‘lessons.’  And thus I wound up in a field at the peak of the days heat around an open fire with 10 young men aged 14 to 22.  We each spoke about the same amount of each others language but somehow managed to make it work.  Roasting seeds, we munched on their version of chips, sipped Fanta, and they gave each other nick names (mainly cow, monkey, elephant, goat, and another third of the Animal Kingdom).  They taught me how to roast wheat stalks without burning them, and extract the delicious seeds from the charred exterior.  I taught them that Americans cannot play cricket and cannot drink from glasses the way Indians do (by tipping the head back and pouring into the mouth without getting all over your face, shirt, and most of your pants).  I too met the daughter of one of the ‘youth,’ a barely walking one year old who was passed around to every one of the bemused boys making all sorts of silly sounds into her face.  It was not necessarily a complete cultural exchange, but it was a lot of fun, and I went back with a much better idea of my audience and a mild bout of dehydration.  I am kicking myself for not taking my camera, mainly because they all asked to have their picture taken at least three times each.  (A quick lesson in what it means to be a young man in India: you LOVE having your picture taken at every opportunity.  They seem to do it all the time, everywhere. Every marginally scenic location is guaranteed to have a small group of men snapping photos of each other in various poses.  It’s hilarious.)

And thus, I finish my post.  Next time, I hope to have news of my field testing and my first overnight Indian train ride.


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