Journey of Community Health Learning of Fellows

by Anusha Purushotham

I joined the Community Health Program (CHLP) at SOCHARA in January 2014 with an intent of understanding public health. My background in biomedical research and healthcare contributed to a very specific and limited idea of “health.”  Therefore, to say that my experience at SOCHARA has been transformative is an understatement! To illustrate how this change was brought about over the past year, I would like to share my first fieldwork, which was one among the many experiences that shaped me during this fellowship.

One of the most striking features of CHLP is the time allocated to hands-on field experience, which equals the time devoted to in-class learning. As a flexi-fellow, I joined mid-way of an ongoing regular full-time program. Thus, I had a crash-course orientation to the principles of community health through stimulating lectures and group discussions with the facilitators and co-fellows. Shortly thereafter, with this new “paradigm of health” in mind, I began my first field learning project at Headstreams, an organization that works on enabling women and children in low-income neighbourhoods of Bangalore city to lead a socially productive life.

On my first day at Headstreams, I was introduced to women from all the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) associated with Headstreams at a large gathering of SHG Representatives at a municipal tailoring center. What struck me the most was the warmth with which all the women received Madhavi, another CHLP fellow and me. This openness and acceptance was a constant theme that I experienced in all the SHG meetings during the entire two month period of my field-placement.

The first month of my internship involved accompanying two Headstream staff members to the SHG bimonthly meetings across Bangalore City. During these visits, I got an opportunity to observe and interact closely with the women. The initial field visits were quite challenging because I had to unlearn my idea of health. I had to refrain from asking the women pointed questions about their health since such questions inadvertently introduced a distance between us – I became the provider and they became the recipients. Once I changed my approach and began to interact without a rigid idea of “helping” them, I saw a huge transformation within myself and the women.

The women became very comfortable around me and I was treated as one among them. They began to freely share their stories with me. I learned about their personal lives, their families, their work and their daily challenges.  Their experiences redefined how I viewed health - it was more than just a system of symptoms, diagnoses and medicines. It became a holistic concept where elements like socio-economic status, family structure, gender roles and cultural practices were equally, if not, more relevant.

From numerous discussions with the women emerged an idea of developing a self-help home remedies booklet in simple Kannada and English. The aim of this booklet is to empower women to effectively manage minor ailments within their families by using easily accessible cheap ingredients found in their kitchen or gardens. During initial focus group discussions, SHG women showed great interest and initiative in being collaborators in composing this book. With their valuable feedback and participation, Madhavi and I were able to make contributions to the composition of the home-remedies booklet during the second month of our fieldwork.

The extraordinary lives of the women, their resilience and loving attitude towards life greatly humbled me. Providing a platform for the women to voice their opinions, identify their problems, build on their strengths and engage with others in the community to arrive at collaborative solutions was, to me, a lesson not only in empowering the women but also in enlightening the “professional” community to understand the power of participatory community action and the need for demystification of health.

These lessons from my first field experience at CHLP have formed strong building blocks for the lifelong community health journey that I have recently embarked upon.