When you get bit by a snake, you have to suck out all the poison

Chandu, Uma, Pandit and I set up on mat in a temple in the center of the village Kusadgaon, just another day in the village working on our HIV/AIDS study. We had just enjoyed chai and groundnuts offered generously to us by Baby, Kusadgaon’s Village Health Worker of ten years. The temple had a bell hung right in the entryway, and whenever someone entered, either to pray or have their blood drawn, they rang the bell, which echoed loudly, a bold announcement of your arrival. Ratna was walking through the village to spread the word that we were here and cajole women to leave their cooking, cleaning, washing or fieldwork to take our 5-minute test.

Ratna returned to the temple, her smile sending a message louder than that darn bell ever could. She beamed, holding the hand of a woman who trailed her. They sat down in front of me, and Ratna proudly introduced her as a very good friend. They giggled like young girls and spoke in Marathi too quickly for me to understand before the woman stuck out her hand to show me a big patch of discolored skin. “She was bit by a snake, and treated the wound by herself,” Ranta explained. “She sucked out the poison and told her family to take her to our hospital immediately. She refused to be brought to the temple, as most people would do. She saved her own life. She knew all of these things because Baby taught her during a Women’s Group meeting.”

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brownish blotch healed snakebite wound, and henna-dyed fingers

So far for this HIV/AIDS study, we have only found two women to be positive for the disease. This is great news – two out of the 823 women we have tested to date is a .0024 prevalence rate – ye it is also news that caused me to sit back and wonder how important (comparatively) it is for these women to be educated about HIV: when so few women are positive for HIV, but so many women suffer from anemia, malnutrition, or domestic violence, is learning about HIV/AIDS a high priority? Aren’t there other, more relevant topics to teach?

I mulled this over for a long while. I thought back to the snakebite woman. I hadn’t seen any other snake bit wounds until encountering her and her incredible story. I thought about Baby, and the many meetings and hours she must have spent instructing the Women’s Group members how to properly treat a snake bite, convincing them to trust modern medicine despite generations of traditions and local healers that mandated otherwise. If she had not conducted lessons in treating snakebites, this woman with the patched-skin hand would probably not be alive today.

It hit me: the knowledge these women gained empowered them to take matters into their own hands. Empowerment – there’s that word again – through education. Furthermore, each of these women is entitled to as much information as possible. Why not teach them about HIV/AIDS? If one person is diagnosed, the stigma that they would most likely face – people refusing to touch, care for, share food or chai, work with them – would be tragic. They would be scorned by their communities and disowned by their families. Perhaps, though, a woman has learned about HIV/AIDS from her VHW. Perhaps this woman opens her arms and cares for the infected individual, and perhaps they teach the ignorant community about the truths of HIV, breaking down associated discrimination. Perhaps this education redirects the fate of of the HIV+ person, diverting from a life of neglect towards a path of fulfillment and respect.

Perhaps not, if this education – moreover, this person’s life and the community’s camaraderie – is not high enough priority. “Knowledge is power” has never felt more real, more relevant, more potent. Although the efficacy of this value is something I am just now appreciating, CRHP identified education as a pillar to its mission from the very start, and exemplifies this value by demystifying medicine and empowering all members of society – despite caste, gender, age – with knowledge.

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“There are so many educated people in the world who have knowledge, but they are like stagnant cesspools because their knowledge does not flow.”

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