Monday, June 3, 2013

Jhul Bitaran (Mosquito Net Distribution)

I received a phone call at 6AM from Anita. I had not yet gotten out of bed. But these early morning calls are something I have come to expect in Nepal, even if I’m not entirely used to them. I answered the phone. “Hello? Anita?”

“Tori-ji! Do you have leisure time today?” Her voice cracked and rung with feedback. Her good phone had been stolen; she was using her broken phone now and her voice didn’t carry clearly.

I had planned on writing up the community group interviews I had conducted the week before; I hadn’t had a free day to listen to my recordings and formally type up my field scratchings. But I didn’t have a field visit scheduled today, so I said yes.

“Then come to the jhul [mosquito net] distribution with me.” Anita was working for the Red Cross, distributing free, Nepal-government issued mosquito nets to the population of the Saudhiyar VDC in which we both lived. The Terai is known for being malarial during the summer, and these nets are supposed to help control the disease. “Have tea at my place, and we’ll leave on the 7:30 bus from Saudhiyar.”

“Will this take all day?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, you can eat with us!” Anita laughed. She must have recalled the conversation we had a few days earlier, where she had wanted me to come to the jhul distribution then, but I said that if I left with her that early then went straight to my scheduled community group interview, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to eat my morning meal of rice and lentils.

“No, no, because, I don’t have to go the ‘field’ today, but I do have work on my computer,” I told her.

“Oh no, we should be done by 2PM, but if you’re late, I’ll send you with someone on a bike.”

“Ok, I’ll come to your place at 7:30” I said sleepily.

“No! No! We’ll LEAVE on the 7:30 bus! Come to my place NOW!”

“Ok, I’ll come.”

“La, la.”

I sleepily did my morning routine of paying a visit to the charpy and washing my face. I got dressed, put my backpack together—water, notebook and pen, camera, hand sanitizer and iodine tablets; what else would I need? Anita had told me basically nothing about what I was to expect that day—and went downstairs. Sabita was cooking on the outside stove.

“Anita called, she wants me to come to the jhul distribution.”

“Well, eat first.” Sabita said.

“No, I’ll have tea at Anita’s, and I’ll eat with her at the VDC.” 

I arrived at about 6:40AM. Anita appeared in the upstairs door; she told Bishna, her sister-in-law, that my tea was downstairs in her kitchen. Bishna brought that for me, and Anita gave me a plate of fried cheura [flattened rice] to munch on as well. Her six-year-old daughter sat down next to me on the stoop outside the house, and we had our morning snack together. The tea was spicy; Anita had put in a lot of black pepper.

Bishna came out to bathe by the well. She asked me if I had found the short-cut road to Narayanpur that she had pointed out to me the day before. Since Khopi was out of town, I had been walking to Narayanpur to catch a bus each morning, following the bike path. When Bishna and Anita heard that, they immediately offered to show me the shortcut through the khet [fallow rice field]. This footpath had reduced my walk from 75 minutes to about 45 minutes. I told Bishna that I had found the path, and that it was easy. She was pleased.

“Tori-ji, its SO HOT at night now! I can’t sleep!” Bishna continued. I relayed that I hadn’t been able to sleep until 1 or 2 in the morning, when the temperature in my room reduced. “A cold bath in the morning feels so pleasant!” Bishna commented as she dumped a bucket of cold well water over her body, shivering with pleasure. I admired her fortitude to bathe that early; I was still not quite used to cold baths and preferred to bathe in the heat of the afternoon.

There was an older man also visiting; he sat on the stoop with us and was also served tea. After a while, he went inside, to the room where household deities were kept, and began singing in a low voice. As Bishna walked dripping inside, wrapped in her petticoat, I asked her who he was. “He’s a guruwa [traditional healer],” she replied. I asked what he was doing. Bishna said that he was performing fertility rites for the house. I had suspected as much; during the month of Jet—in which we were now—I was told that the dharharya guruwas, who specialized in fertility rites, would perform these house to house for the protection of pregnant women and to ensure women’s fertility for the year.

Shortly thereafter, Anita was ready. We set off for the bus stop, Anita commenting on how hot it was nowadays that it made it hard to sleep at night, and asking if I had an umbrella with me because it looked like rain.

The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, between two poultry farms on either horizon. Anita followed a beaten path through a fallow khet. Her friend from work was waiting for us a little ways off. We set out for the VDC office together.

We arrived at the VDC office after about an hour’s walk. It was a U-shaped, one-floor, cement building with six rooms, painted yellow on the outside. It was about 9AM. Some of Anita’s other co-workers were present, and while some had come having already eaten, not everyone had eaten, and were wondering where they would get their morning meal. One of the local men arranged for us to eat in some neighboring houses. Anita and I ate at the same house. Because we were unexpected, we had to wait about an hour for the food to be prepared.

The water given to wash our hands was purple; Anita said that our host had added “potash” to the well in order to kill germs. I wondered if that made the water safe to drink or not. Anita poured the purple fluid down her throat. Our food, served right when it had been cooked, was hot; I burned my fingertips eating it. The rice was incredibly soft (gilo, or pasty-soft); Anita asked if it was new rice. Our host replied that it was. This meant it hadn’t dried and hardened for as long as older rice. Our host gave us green mango chutney; she had shredded the mango from the tree in the backyard, and added salt and chili powder. It was a sweet-sour-spicy flavor that I liked. Anita had instructed our host not to make daal; just to make the vegetables soupy, so as to wet our rice. Our vegetables consisted of potatoes and green eggplant.

After eating, we hurried to the VDC office. It was about 10:30, and a large crowd had gathered. Anita’s coworkers were trying to tell the crowd to get into lines instead of packing themselves around the desks where they were to receive their mosquito nets. They were finally able to get people into separate lines of men and women, yet the lines still disintegrated the closer people got to the desks and a crowd remained, each vying for the attention of the staff to redeem their coupon.

The mosquito nets were lashed into bales, covered with plastic jhut. Someone tried to cut the plastic binding with a razor; Anita said that would never work, but rather a hasya was needed instead. Did anyone have a sickle on them? I thought about my pocketknife, left on the table in my room at Khopi’s place. A wizened old woman in the crowd had a sickle on her, kept in the folds of her sari, and willingly let the men borrow it. I estimated that the blade was long enough to warrant a concealed weapon’s permit in the States. The men borrowed hasyas from neighboring houses too and soon had the bindings ripped open and the packaged mosquito nets were piled behind the desks, ready for distribution.

I sat on the bench behind the desk at which Anita and her co-worker stood. As they found the recipient’s name in their green GPS log books, they had the recipient sign—if they could write—or thumbprint—if they could not—the space indicating they had received their free jhul (I noticed that in the book, there were two spaces for signing—one when the team had originally come to their place, and one for when they picked up their jhul. I guessed that the signatures were compared to ensure that the right person picked up the jhul for the family). They would call out for the number of jhuls the recipient was to receive and one of the men would fill the order from the pile of packages at my feet, passing them over my head to Anita. Anita would then hand me the coupon to hold onto. I soon had a thick stack of these in my hands.

Examining these slips, I saw that for every two persons in a house, the household was eligible for one free jhul. For example, if a family had six members, then they received three jhuls. The number they were to receive was indicated on the back of the slip. The largest number of mosquito nets that one recipient received that day was six—there were twelve members in their household. There were some exceptions—a household with a wife, husband and 1.5-year-old child received one net, as the family all slept together. Only one woman appeared who lived alone. When she handed her slip in, surprised, Anita exclaimed “ekalai? (alone?),” gave her one jhul, and handed the slip to me—upon which only this woman’s name appeared.

I also noticed that many of these households were intergenerational—grandparents were listed in their fifties, some in their sixties; parents ranged in their twenties and thirties, and children were teens to school-aged and younger. On numerous slips however, the grandparents would be listed, in their fifties, and then teens and younger children would be listed—the parents were off working abroad. If there was someone in their twenties or thirties, it was usually the woman, with the husband off working abroad. While many of the slips listed “Chaudhary”—Tharu families—I recognized Bahun names—“Pandit,” “G.C.” “Bhandhari”—and new last names that I didn’t know where to place in the spectrum.

Anita gleefully told me that there would be fights happening that day too. There were certainly disputes. One old Bahun man from ward 2 showed up and was told that he would have to wait a bit until others from wards 3 and 4 had received their jhuls; his ward’s day had passed. Upset, he told them that he had work in Gorahi—the district center—to get to, and he had been gone to Muktinath—a sacred mountain where many people went on pilgrimage—on the day when his ward had been called to receive their jhuls. Other people, seeing me with the stack of coupons sitting next to the pile of mosquito nets, tried to bypass the line entirely and hand me their coupon. One of the distributors always pushed them back into the line, or instructed them to wait at the table. Later in the day, one woman showed up to find that someone else had collected her family’s jhuls; someone’s signature was in the logbook under her family’s name. She wanted to know how that could be—she had the coupon, and everyone else in her family had work at the bazaar that day, so would not have been able to come. One person argued that they needed three nets instead of two for the four people in their household—one of their family members slept separately. Some people insisted that they had lost their coupons, and they would not be found, but they should receive their jhuls in any case—hadn’t Anita and her co-worker come to their house with their GPS and logbook and taken their names and told them to come get their free jhuls in the first place? Others claimed that Anita and her coworker bypassed their house entirely, and the makeshift coupon—with everyone in their household’s names and ages on it—should suffice to redeem the coveted free jhuls.

By one o’clock, the massive crowd had gone, but a steady stream of people continued to show up at the VDC office. The wizened old woman re-appeared, asking for her hasya; she was going home. After having three hasyas presented to her, each which she claimed was NOT her sickle, she was finally presented with the one she identified as hers. She walked away swinging it in her hand.

About 1:30, the tables were closed for a naTak—skit—to be performed. This skit was performed in the round—a circle had been drawn in the cement courtyard of the VDC office, in which the actors performed; people sat along the walls of the office to watch. In this skit—performed in two acts—a village man decided to sell his precious rooster in order to buy a jhul under which his pregnant wife could sleep (and the actor held a real rooster under his arm; the bird angrily peeped out at the crowd, its feet tied and its wings held by the man). But the village doctor told him—after reciting the various symptoms of malaria—that he could in fact receive a free jhul for his pregnant wife from the VDC office. In the second act, two women show up to the same doctor’s office. One woman’s husband and the other woman’s son both had the same symptoms, which the doctor diagnosed as malaria. He told them that they too could get a free jhul from the VDC office for their families, and he then went into details as to how they were supposed to take care of their new mosquito nets—don’t wash it with soap, just water, and make sure you wash it with cold water, and don’t hang it directly in the sun, but in the shade.

Anita later told me that, while instructions were printed all over the mosquito net packaging, and on pamphlets they had handed out when they initially registered people, not everyone could read; this naTak was supposed to educate people about malaria, how they could prevent it, and how to care for their new mosquito nets.

After the naTak, the tables were re-opened for distribution, and the steady stream of people, arguments, and hustling began again. By 3:30PM, I told Anita that I had to get home; I had work to do. She put me on a bike with someone going to Gorahi, and instructed me not to walk home in this heat but wait for a bus. Upon coming to the road however, there was no shady spot to wait and I wasn’t about to stand in the heat, so I put up my umbrella and began to walk home. I met a bus coming the other way, but not going my way.

Later in the week, Sarswati—one of the staff at HS-Nepal—relayed some news she had heard on the radio. There had been a mosquito net distribution in Dadeldhura as well—a mountainous district in far western Nepal, where frankly, there weren’t that many mosquitos and the elevation was too high for malaria anyway. So what did people do with their new nets? They went fishing!