Yesterday we spent another four hours going around with UNICEF having a look at their programs in some of the especially vulnerable areas in Varanasi. The day before we had seen the rural areas but yesterday we went round the urban parts, visiting a hospital, a slum, a poor area where textiles are made on clattering looms and a nomad family squatting in an abandoned lot. Those in charge here worry about Varanasi because of the population, the poverty, the poor sanitation and amount of people visiting from nearby countries where polio and other diseases are still endemic. There are also thousands of visitors every week from within India, making perfect conditions for the spread of disease.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the development work that is going on here is the record keeping. Looking at an average street in India I found it hard to believe that all of these people, especially the children, could all be accounted for or even registered somewhere. UNICEF and the government seem to be right onto it though, at least as far as polio and education go. The community workers, each given around five hundred families to work with, had drawn accurate maps of the slums and streets themselves and penciled in the families with small children, pregnant women or those resistant to vaccination. It was all very practical no-nonsense stuff, obviously done on a tiny budget. The map we saw was drawn on the back of framed photo of the white house- I initially couldn’t work out why the young lady was walking around with it and her UNICEF kit.
The community workers at the local level are all chosen because they come from the community themselves and therefore have more influence and know the area inside out. I don’t think it could be done any other way. Most are young women who find it easier to gain the confidence of the household and the mothers themselves. They have an amazing success rate and walking around you realise just how important this side of development work is. Half the battle is raising awareness of things like sanitation and vaccination and simply making sure everyone is reached.
Dana took some photos of the UNICEF offices too, the local government has given them a room in an old government building that overlooks the train tracks. We’ll upload a photo later.
We then went for a delicious lunch at a local restaurant before heading to the train station. We have been treated to some real Indian hospitality over the past couple of days- yesterday we were stuffed with sweets and chai at three consecutive places and could barely stomach dinner. The locals here have a specialty that is made from cane sugar juice called Jaggery. They reduce the juice until it forms a block that tastes like golden syrup and then eat it like that or make obscenely sweet treats with it. I think I ate about half kilo of it yesterday! Indians must be close to the greatest consumers of sugar on earth I reckon.
I was also made to try the local chewing tobacco which was actually kind of nice. Here they mix some lime (the kind you use to make concrete) with some tobacco and a kind of root or rhizome I’ve never seen and wrap the whole thing in a betel leaf. You stick the thing in your mouth and chew, suck and spit as you like. It has a tannin effect on your tongue like strong black tea without milk and tastes like you’ve eaten an incense stick or some exotic perfumy soap. The walls in India, even indoors, are all covered in fragrant red spit from this habit. Someone has spent a long time at this computer spitting tobacco juice against the walls of the desk. Varanasi is the first place we’ve seen the betel leaves though, in other parts the tobacco comes in little sachets that litter the streets everywhere. It makes for some hilarious interactions with shopkeepers and the like who try and communicate with grunts and nods while they hold tobacco in their mouths. Not recommended by dentists either, I’ll bet!
I’d better leave it here. Today we are in the town of Faizabad next to Ayodhya, supposed birthplace of Rama. We are about to head off to see the temples and watch a performance of some stories involving Rama this afternoon, should be good!