“My name is Chandan Yashraj and I am studying public health, international studies, and emergency management at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. I am going into my senior year of university.
I had the privilege to come to Odisha this year to spend 2 weeks, from July 14 – 27, with the villagers of Guptapada, a beautiful village located about half an hour from the city of Bhubaneshwar. I had always heard about the amazing work that AMMACHI Labs does throughout India, but I never thought I would go myself to a village, let alone in Odisha, my home state. In November of 2014, Amma told me to get involved with the toilet project in Odisha. When I came to Amritapuri, I was an intern for a couple weeks at the AMMACHI Labs office. Eventually I planned this trip to actually go to the village. I always come to Odisha every couple years to visit family, and have only witnessed the rural people and communities from afar, since my family in Odisha lives in the city and town areas. This was the first time that I was actually going into a rural village, and I can honestly say I did not know what to expect. Would the villagers accept me? Will I want to come back again and again? How must their life in the village be like? These were just some of the thoughts running through my head as I was making my way to the village the first day.
My first thought of the village when I got out of the car was how simple it was, with only a small school building for the children and huts everywhere. Eventually, we met the women in the training center, and immediately they welcomed us like we were their long lost friends. Since Oriya is my mother tongue, I was able to easily converse with them, and instantly we clicked. They joked, laughed, and kept saying how grateful they are that we are here to help them. That is when I knew that I will have a fantastic time in this village. The villagers took us on a tour of their village, and invited us to see their homes. I was surprised how open they were to us, and how much they trusted us.
During our time in the village, we had many projects and activities. My mother, sister, and cousin came on one day to lead a women’s health class, where they discussed topics such as pregnancy and the importance of giving children proper nutrition before and after birth. We conducted interviews with the women and asked them about their access to healthcare and medicine, what they feel about the changes that have happened in the village, and also how important education is to them. I worked with zonal leader Kripasagar to validate surveys, and tailor the words used in the survey questions to the vocabulary that the women and men understand. We also worked on telling the school children and men about the He For She campaign, a campaign initiated by UN Women, which aims to make men and boys advocates for gender equality. It was inspiring to see one man in particular say he wants to get involved and agreed to supporting the women empowerment projects more that are happening in the village. Towards the second half of my time there, I helped build and paint the new toilets. I will never forget the experience of working alongside the women to build the toilets, and seeing their smiling faces after each toilet we finished building. On the last day, we had a small ceremony where we distributed vocational training certificates to the women, which was so touching to be a part of.
One of the highlights for me was teaching a hygiene class to the children of the village. Most of the children said they never brush their teeth, and more did not have access to antibacterial soap. We first showed them a video in Oriya on the importance of hygiene, and then had a demonstration session for each. We provided them a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. One of my favorite memories was seeing them all washing their hands before their school the very next day, something they never properly did before. I also asked each of them if they brushed their teeth, and they said yes with so much excitement!
In the future, I can honestly say that every time I come to Odisha, I will come to Guptapada. If I can’t spend time with the villagers like I did this time, I will definitely at least come to visit. I also hope that we will be able to expand to nearby villages and impact more people in the area. I would absolutely love to volunteer my time in new villages as well. Next time I come, I hope to stay longer and also invite my sister and cousins to come stay in the village with me and experience the village for themselves. I encourage anyone who wants to spend time with the villagers and see how happy they are, to come and spend some time in one of the villages. It will be an experience that you will never forget.
I will never forget what the villagers said when we were leaving. They were saying how we became like their own in these 2 weeks, and the thought of us having left the village would be tough for them for a few days, but they would eventually accept it and move on. They held our hands and told us not to go, and the children surrounded me and gave me a big group hug. I knew then that a piece of my heart will forever be in Guptapada. I can’t wait to go back!”