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TBI Blogs: From Sahiyas to Honey Hunters, Meet the Wonder Women of the East

AIF’s Clinton Fellow Audra Bass shares her experience of meeting the Sahiyas in Jharkhand, who help communities get access to resources to meet healthcare needs for expecting mothers.

She.

Jamshedpur, Jharkhand

She came to them in the night. They were scared, at a loss, and gave no consideration to hope, but she sought them out and came. She brought her proper black bag filled with all the necessities, yet more than anything, she approached the household with confidence and determination. She had already considered hope.

They had returned from the hospital only a few hours ago, with the new mother who stepped into motherhood just a few months early, holding her baby who embarked on the world just too soon. The little one barely took up space with only 0.95 kg. of mass in this new, spacious world she had just entered, and the doctors saw no possibility of her gaining embodiment and growing into her space in the world. The medical professionals said it was just a little too late and sent them home to the village to console their pre-emptively damned but just not yet happened loss.

Yet she came. She saw just enough life to hold tight and coax into place.

Sahiyas in Jharkhand

The Sahiya, the designated community health worker of her village, came every day. She taught the family how to utilize kangaroo mother-care – give the baby skin-to-skin contact, because body temperature would give the infant more warmth than a mere blanket.

The baby had not yet developed the facial muscles necessary to suckle milk. Thus, the Sahiya fed the tiny infant every hour or two with a small device that gently dripped milk into the feeble mouth. Her utmost attention and dedication continued for weeks upon weeks, and after an exhaustive amount of hope and patience, the tiny baby girl gained 3 kg. after two months.

It was six months later, and soft fat rolls bulged from the infant’s little thighs and arms, a wonderful indication that she was slowly but surely becoming healthier. Not quite the right size for a 6-month-old babe, but at least (blessedly at least!) she was filling in her space in the vast world…

Baripada, Odisha

She lives with the rest of her village on the outskirts of Similipal Biosphere Reserve, the forested park filled with shy and stealthy tigers, trumpeting elephants, and bustling honeybees. Each day she toils. One season, she gathers wild potatoes from the forest; the next season, she gathers sal leaves to make leaf plates; then another, and another, and another. Her life is based upon the seasons, the various times when certain crops or NTFPs (non-timber forest products) are available.

She and her village depend upon them heavily – they are their means of livelihood, medicine, and food. These seasons and their bounty are deeply ingrained in their, in her, traditions.

There is a particular season that comes with a cultural practice passed down for many generations that she herself participates in and has taught others to do the same. It is the honey hunt. The time of gathering honey from large or looming cliffs requires the utmost skill and daring. She is well prepared. Taught by her father and mother before her, she understands the looming dangers of the forest and how to evade them. She is familiar with the tasks of scaling trees while balancing tools, attempting to prod honey combs. She realizes the need for this forest commodity, both for herself and the rest of her people.

Willingly, she faces these challenges every year to gather this sweet gold. It is not a man’s domain.

She, too, preps the necessary tools to climb and gather honey from the large trees. Walking deep into the forest at the break of day, she, too, begins the collecting at the start of dusk. She, too, will climb the trees and confront the imposing hive to retrieve the coveted forest sweet.

Facing insurmountable dangers, such as the wild tiger or herd of elephants, she, too, is sure to return every year. She, too, not only gathers the wild honey, but also collects stories along the way, her own and of those who join her in the hunt, and returns to the village with both of these precious things – one to fill the stomach, and one to fill the soul.

The Women of the East

During an AIF public health conference in Jharkhand, and work-related travel in Odisha thereafter, I had the unexpected privilege to interact with women, face-to-face, who blew me away. Such heroines can be found throughout history and present-day news (albeit, not nearly enough), their stories revealing the great strength, audacity, and ambition of women. Once more, I was incredibly fortunate to meet them and hear their stories.

The greatest theme I found that connected both sets of stories is these women’s utmost dedication to their communities, and their determination to give, no matter the challenges ahead. I was deeply inspired, and that is an understatement, yet I don’t have the words or language or proper thought to convey what they made me feel. At the very least, I can convey gratitude. My utmost gratitude to the women I had a mere two weeks to work with, and who yet left me with a lifetime of impact.

About the author: Audra Bass works with the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu.

Find out more about AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) and how you can help here.

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American India Foundation's William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.