October blog – The medicine of cleaning

Medicines, hot water,  linen and curtains

Anyone who’s been to India, knows how Indian clinics usually look. Very plain, very basic. That’s how the clinic we sponsor in Sonada is. Everything is minimal. And I am sorry to say unclean. In addition there is a lot of dampness in the building. This week we have been working with the surroundings. Nurse Ambika, Tibetan healthworker Dolma and I went shopping for newness and beauty. We bought linen and blankets for the rest room beds. We all agreed on bright green curtains, instead of “hospital green”. They are now being sewed by the tailor.

We bought first aid medicines and dressings for the children who live in the hostel .  Hygiene is a major issue. So hot water is a must. One day we drove down to Siliguri to buy a water heater. It is  a 2-3 hours drive (only 67 km, but the road is very bad), a steep climb down the beautiful hills through the tea plantations, reaching the planes and the heat, and the extreme buzzle  of a big Indian city. A lot of traffic, and cows in the streets. Here we found the geyser, as they call it here, the hot water tank.  In the shop the electricity had failed (as it often does in India), and we had to look at everything in candle light. If I hadn’t been with friends, I would have been afraid of getting scammed on the deal. In India you have to keep your eyes open doing business.

I realized why they call it geyser, of course it comes from the Icelandic geyser – hot water sprouting from the earth.

The carpenter is making benches for the waiting room, Tibetan style. Nurse Ambika is pleading for a heater for the winter time, which is very cold up in the Himalayas. Wangdi, who is Shenpen’s good helper and the secretary in the cooperative,  is worried for the electricity bill. The cooperative is very poor, and housing all the 144 children in the hostel is a major challenge. The food is very simple, with little vegetables, and the children hardly get any fruit. They have started a small kiwi-production, and have planted apple trees that hopefully will give apples in three years. They have 4 cows (two good and two half good) giving milk to the smallest children. It’s difficult.

Two lovely French ladies from Dolma Enfants du Tibet  is visiting the settlement for a week. It was they who sponsored the building of the clinic in 2008. We talk about the faulty construction, the dampness destroying the building. They are sponsoring 35 children, 2 cows and some apple trees, and have been here to help fix up the bathrooms and showers in the children’s hostels, and have taught the children to wash the bathrooms. They say they have difficulty finding more sponsors in France, and they don’t have much money. But they have bought shoes and socks for the smallest children, and hope to buy tiles for the bathrooms, to make them more hygienic.

I have skype meetings with the Shenpen board. We decide to look for more sponsors (faddere) for the children in the hostel. This will greatly help the economy and the ability to serve the children more nutritious food. 125 NOK a month is all it takes to become a sponsor. Right now children sick with chicken pox lie in the rest room in the clinic, full of spots, on worn-out mattresses, fungus growing out of the walls. It doesn’t look good. Shenpen decides to hire a cleaner, Ganga Maya. I meet her, she bows and folds her hands in greeting. She is happy for the new job.

The day everything turned around

I realize the fungus problem is really severe. It turns out that they repainted the rooms for the second time in 2 years just 3 months ago, and already the fungus is spreading wildly.  I thought they hadn’t cared for the building at all, since it looks so bad.  The whole building is wet. And then the whole truth comes out. The clinic building is too big, too cold, too damp. It’s impossible to keep it dry and warm during winter. The water seeps through from the flat roof, where months of summer rain gather. It’s bad for health. Ambika got colds and joint problems last winter. I feel this sense of crisis. Why haven’t they said it before? Here I am, trying to focus on helping out with health issues, and the very building is dangerous… Just one of the rooms is somewhat ok. And how can we make the clinic smaller, to keep it warm in the winter time? We walk around, ideas sprouting.  Yet I sleep badly that night, overwhelmed by fungus, by dirt. And the slowness of India, every that doesn’t work, my slow broadband, the power cuts, a hint of depression. We call a crisis meeting the next day with our local Shenpen committee: Wangdi, DJ, the welfare officer appointed by the Tibetan government, and the health personnel.  I have to be firm, a little pushy, but in the end we all agree to move the dispensary to the driest room, that is only slightly affected by fungus. And we have to start thinking about the funding for a new slanted roof.  The only way we can save the building.

One of the travelers I met in my hotel in Darjeeling, a handsome guy from England that holds a PhD in politics and travelled for twelve years, told me this his fast-drying towel that usually takes 5-6 minutes to dry, takes 5-6 days in Darjeeling. That’s the climate in the clouds.

The medicine of cleaning

I finally get it. Here the medicine is cleaning and anti-fungal treatment.   The clinic has never been cleaned with hot water. The Indian cleaning style is sweeping, and using cold water with no detergents. And cleaning is not usually done by people with higher education, only by the uneducated lower classes. I go to the big supermarket in Darjeeling and get proper cleaning equipment and bring it down to Sonada on my daily trip in the common taxi. Then we start preparing the new room.  Since the hot water is not installed yet,  water is heated in a huge casserole over wood in the fire place, and we carry buckets with warm water up to the clinic.  I roll up my sleeves, and start cleaning. It has a contagious affect. Helpers are called in scrubbing off the fungus with hard brushes, we order anti-fungal liquid (very expensive, but unavoidable), and the magic happens.  Everything gets a round with hot water and detergents. The nurses are cleaning. Ganga Maya is cleaning the toilets. I give her a brand new toilet brush and disinfecting liquid, and a bucket of hot water. Coming back to check on her, she is using the toilet brush on the walls! I give her firmer instructions, another bucket of hot water, but five minutes later she has sent all the hot water down the squatting toilet and is cleaning the walls with cold water, in a bucket black with dirt. I realize cleaning is an art. She will need a lot of instruction. But she is working on it. We laugh.

Another problem has arisen – we can’t move the dispensary shelf where the medicines are stored, it’s too big to get through the door. The only solution is to knock out a hole in the wall, and move it that way. And we have to saw the long dispensary desk in two to fit it in place. The carpenter starts working on it. Tomorrow the laborers will close the wall again, and fit a window for good lighting. Luckily laborers are cheap in India. I am surprised by their efficiency and creative solutions.

Then we hang up the brand new curtains. There is a spirit of buoyancy. It looks good. Bright. Children peak through the windows, interested by the activity. A Tibetan health worker who used to work in Sonada comes by to help out with the medical questionnaire I have prepared for the health personnel. What is the main health problems in the settlement? His answer is hygiene, sanitation.  And a water cleaning system. He likes what he sees. Preventative medicine, step one. In a couple of days nurse Helen Beard is coming from England to give Shenpen a hand. We will have interviews with the nurses and doctor to get a proper overview of the health situation. The nurses show me their files, every treatment is meticulously written down, even if Shenpen haven’t gotten reports.

Special meals

I am invited for a special meal. Wangdi’s uncle has just died. They have prepared a meal in the big hall. All the families in the cooperative also get a bag of specially prepared food.  There are prayers  and pujas going on, and many candle lights are lit. The prayers will go on for 49 days. It’s beautiful. Everybody stands together.

The ceremony is done every time somebody dies, to help the deceased on the journey to the beyond.

Next week when Lama Changchub comes to visit, Shenpen will sponsor a very special meal for the children in the hostel, nutritious, with lots of vegetables and fruits for everyone.






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