Truth is stranger than fiction

, 13 August 2014

I was tempted to write this blog post by a photo I saw the other day on Sue Desmond-Hellmann’s Facebook page.

In the picture, Sue sat next to a Community Health Worker (CHW), who was proudly displaying her Mobile Kunji and all parties looked reasonably happy. This picture fills me with immense pride and satisfaction. But, it also belies the roller-coaster ride our team went through behind the scenes. I can’t resist the temptation to tell you the story today.

Sue, the new CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), visited Bihar in June this year. Her objective was to accompany BMGF’s visiting Technical Panel to get a first-hand feel for our Ananya programme in the state. I had the privilege of accompanying her during her visit.

BMGF visits do happen regularly. They give us the opportunity to showcase our work and impact. But, for all the drama we went through, this visit was beyond business as usual.

The last minute rush
Our preparations for the visit, which had very strict security requirements, were pretty much on track. But, just three days before D-day, the district we had chosen – Samastipur – was cancelled on security grounds by BMGF’s Advance Security team. So we had to go back to the drawing board.

For us, it meant identifying a village, an Anganwadi Centre, a household, a nearby Health Sub Centre, and a CHW to demonstrate her work – all with clear marks from the security team.

In the sweltering heat of June in Bihar, with just one working day in hand, it was extremely challenging to deliver. But, thanks to the hard work of our Shaping Demand and Practices (SDP) project team, led by Jaidev (Associate Program Director) in Patna, Paliganj block of Patna district was finalised with all arrangements in place and on time.

A shock or a surprise!
Come 3rd June, the delegation from BMGF landed in Patna. We were scheduled to meet Sue Hellman, Mark Suzman (President of Global Policy & Advocacy) and Usha Kiran (Deputy Director). I, along with my colleague Nistha Dubey, Senior Program Officer, BBC Media Action India, reached the village of Chandos an hour ahead of schedule.

Mobile Kunji

Mobile Kunji

We reached the village at 11 am and met CHWs. We went to visit the house, where we would be taking the BMGF team. It was an ultra-poor mahadalit family with no fixed assets. She had six children. The last child was born during the Ananya programme. We wanted to explore whether her experience with this child was any different.

While waiting for the team at the village, I asked the CHW out of curiosity, “How are you planning to show your Mobile Kunji to the visitors?”

With great enthusiasm she decided to demonstrate it to me first. But alas! She could not play the voice of Dr. Anita. She tried twice, thrice… but to no success! “Abhi tak to chal raha tha… pata nahi achanak kya ho gaya (it was working well until now, dunno what happened suddenly).”

Are the servers down? …is it a glitch in her mobile handset? …just half an hour to go before they arrive… My heart sank when she tried the same SIM card in a different handset with no result.

Without losing a moment, I called up Prakhar, technology manager in the SDP team. Sharing the CHW’s mobile number with him, I asked him to look into the issue. Every moment that passed felt like an hour.

In a few minutes, Prakhar called back to inform me that the CHW had already finished her monthly toll-free quota of Mobile Kunji minutes. This left me speechless! What to do?!?

I had such terribly mixed feelings. The CHW had consumed all her allotted minutes within the first three days of the month by playing out Mobile Kunji to the families she served. On another day, I would be thrilled to hear this. But today, I was at a loss – how would we showcase our work to BMGF?

OnMobile, our technology partner, reset the IVR system log for the CHW and the Mobile Kunji started working again on her phone. Nistha and I once again felt like humans after this ordeal.

A drunken brawl
If you thought everything rolled out smoothly thereafter, hold your breath – the drama was yet to be over.

A CHW informed us that there was a ruckus in the household that Sue and Mark were scheduled to visit – the husband had drunk liquor and was hitting his wife. Once again, we felt the odds were against us.

Drunken brawls like this were apparently a regular affair in the family. With 15 minutes to go, it was difficult to identify another household that would be willing to interact with foreigners at such short notice, and meet the security requirements for Sue and Mark.

We encouraged the CHWs to talk to the husband with the help of village elders. Time was flying by. A bit of respite came with the news that Sue and Mark were running late by half an hour.

Luckily, the husband left the household shortly afterwards, apparently for an hour or so. We heaved a sigh of relief.

The happy ending
The visitors arrived soon after. Sitting under a mango tree, the CHWs explained their work to Sue and Mark, who were excited to hear Dr. Anita’s voice when the CHW played her Mobile Kunji. The CHW said, “I have completed the training course of Mobile Academy with this phone.”

Mobile Academy certificate

Mobile Academy certificate

“They [CHWs] actually paid from their own pocket to take the training,” I pitched in. This led to an interesting conversation on how the SDP programme, with Mobile Academy, has reversed the paradigm of CHW training programmes in India, which usually pay the CHWs instead of the other way around.

During our short walk up to the family’s house, I explained the family’s background to Sue and Mark. The lady of the house turned up with an infant in her lap. Notwithstanding what she had just gone through with her husband, she clearly explained to us what had changed in her life since a CHW started visiting her house.

It was moving to hear how she saved Rs. 1500 during her last pregnancy after the CHW talked about birth preparedness using Mobile Kunji and about how she used the money to hire a private vehicle, when the ambulance from the Primary Health Centre failed to turn up. When asked what she was cooking, she showed us the semi-solid food she had prepared for her eight-month-old based on the complementary feeding knowledge she had gained from Mobile Kunji.

The dividend of Ananya
It was really heartening to both see and showcase how the outputs of the SDP programme have touched the lives the families and CHWs and how they have started adopting simple-doable life-saving actions.

Now, when I look at the photo on Sue’s Facebook page, it reminds me of the never-say-die spirit of the team at BBC Media Action India that made it happen despite the odds.