As the boat docks at the pier of Manipur village, the team from the Southern Health Improvement Samity (SHIS), our field partner in the area, is ready to get off with equipment for the day’s clinic in hand. My colleague, Shruti, and I look at each other in horror as everyone effortlessly walks across the precarious plank of wood connecting the boat to the land. We are already dreading the number of times we will have to make this trip today. Apu Mondal, who has been working as a paramedic in the Sundarbans since 2001, smiles at us and says, “It isn’t as scary as it looks.” In the Sundarbans, this is just a way of life.
For Apu, a wobbly bridge is hardly an obstacle; there are more significant challenges to overcome when it comes to making sure that the people on these remote islands have access to basic healthcare services.
The largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans is home to over 4 million people. Though largely uninhabitable, people continue to live on these remote islands because of the abundance of natural resources. The forests provide raw materials for wood-based industries, the tidal water is ideal for pisciculture (fish farming), and the mud from the riverbanks is used in making bricks. Agriculture is mostly limited to growing rice.
Living on these islands isn’t without its perils. There is a looming threat of being attacked by the Royal Bengal tiger on land or by crocodiles in the water. Adding to the woes is the remoteness of these islands and the resulting lack of access to basic infrastructure like hospitals and transportation.
SHIS reaches the people who live on these scattered islands through their mobile boat clinics. Boat no. 4 (the one we are on) goes to six different islands every week. SHIS has three other boats covering different routes. For most of the population who live on these islands, this is the only health service they have access to – especially pregnant women who otherwise would have to make long, arduous journeys for regular check-ups or to deliver.
A local community center at Kanmari village is the site of today’s clinic. After explaining how to take the multivitamins to a pregnant woman, Apu tells us, “The multivitamins are a boon for pregnant women. Since their access to nutritious food is very limited, the multivitamins help them remain healthy during pregnancy.”
With a degree in History, Apu joined SHIS by chance. “It was on the job that I learned how to collect blood for tests, how to use an X-Ray machine, about WaSH and counseling pregnant women and new mothers on health and nutrition amongst other things.”
While the job started as a means to an end for Apu, after seeing how she has been able to help her community, it became a way of life. “In the last 17 years, I’ve realized that you need to go the distance if you want to make a difference. You have to understand the community’s fears, accept their beliefs, and that’s when they begin to trust you and let you in. I tell them that it is okay if you follow your customs, but it is equally important to get your children vaccinated and make sure they receive supplements.”
On our last evening, Apu invites us to her house back in Sandeshkhali. Her chatty three-year-old niece welcomes us at the door! We can see how happy Apu’s family is to meet her colleagues. Even though we speak different languages (Bangla and Hindi, respectively), we can sense the pride Apu’s family feels about her work. Over hot cups of coffee and samosas, Apu tells us how she has seen a considerable shift in the community’s attitude towards health. “People know the importance of vaccinations, vitamin supplements, and deworming. Now, there is nothing that gives me more joy than interacting with the communities we serve on a weekly basis. They are like a second family, and nothing makes me happier than seeing them healthy.”
Southern Health Improvement Samity (SHIS) has been a Vitamin Angels field partner since 2012. Headquartered in south 24 Paraganas, West Bengal, their areas of focus include healthcare, education, environment and general welfare of the people living in the Sundarbans. Through our partnership, SHIS is reaching 19,000 children under-five with Vitamin A and albendazole and serves 500 pregnant women with prenatal multivitamins
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