David is a U of M pre-med student in the Global Future Physician course, who recently traveled to India as part of a 3-week experience. Below is a reflection on his recent experience.
"Seven months earlier, I had been looking at similar holes in the ground. The work of my parents in Pakistan included sanitation among its central aims, so when I went back to discover some of my roots in rural Mansehra, I found myself looking at a latrine. It was built in the same year that I was born, founded in the same Pakistani soil. And so, to visit the model latrines by Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement in India was for me a form of homecoming, of rediscovering my community health heritage.
Water-borne diseases still account for a large portion of the burden of disease in rural India. According to UNICEF, 1.7 million children worldwide under 5 years of age die from diarrheal diseases, accounting for 16% of all child deaths.
Diarrheal deaths are both easy and difficult to prevent. Easy, because prevention is low tech: all that's needed is basic sanitation and access to life-saving oral re-hydration salts for when children do get sick. Difficult, because these are infrastructural solutions, and the problem persists in areas in which infrastructure is most lacking: remote, rural communities. Since these areas tend to be politically disenfranchised, and because sanitation projects aren't very glamorous, mobilizing the resources to confront the issue can pose additional challenges.
After taking this photograph, I stood staring at the holes in the ground for a time, even as the others started down the road toward the school. This model latrine seemed to be the intersection of my past experiences. From my childhood confrontations with poverty in Pakistan and my corresponding lifelong interest in community health, to the maturation of this interest in rural Ecuador, to my return to Pakistan, and finally this visit to rural India, the concrete between the bricks of the latrine seemed like it was holding together the disparate pieces of my personal history. I felt that if I could put my figure on the unifying theme between these experiences, I might have some indication as to how I should approach the future.
Standing there, I found one possible answer, one unifying thread to join each of these experiences together: leadership. In Pakistan, it was my parents; in Ecuador, it was the Ministry of Public Health; in India, it was Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. In each place people dedicated themselves to the problem of infant mortality, and set about finding the best way to bring about change. As I stood gazing at the latrine's narrow profile, so familiar I swear I could have found myself in Alto Ongota or Mansehra, the wall's seemed to tell me a silent message: It doesn't matter where you are. Just be a change agent."
- David, U of M Pre-Med Student