No Santa in India

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By: Hellen Kotlolo, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Hellen Kotlolo, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

All around the globe, the Christmas trees, lights and decorations are going up as December hits. Children are hinting for presents, shopping malls are decorated, Christmas carols are sung and in South Africa many children are getting new clothes: ‘Christmas clothes’. But unfortunately for many this is the only time they get clothes, and others, even more unfortunate, have to go without any gifts. Parents are borrowing money just to buy their children Christmas clothes while some are planning for holidays and to visit their close family, relatives and loved ones.

In India things are different; it is mostly ‘business as usual’, apart from a few Christmas decorations in some of the more ‘western’ malls and shops. In the first week of December, I attended a National Convention for compiling innovations for improving primary newborn care in India. The convention was a participation of different NGOs and their efforts to improve newborn care and working in collaboration with the Government. The workshop went well but to my frustration I still felt and voiced that it was important to provide integrated care of newborns and mothers. In the two day workshop, HIV was not even mentioned, and the innovations were limited to the urban wealthy in contrast to focusing the care for the poor and most vulnerable. HIV is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa but exists around the globe and although the estimates are low and unknown in India, I ask myself about those babies that are exposed. I sometimes wonder with Africa engulfed and burdened by HIV/AIDS if it is only our issue, or if it is really a global issue?

For months before my departure for India, I had been working on getting together a PMTCT documentary. After painstakingly recruiting a willing pregnant woman and finding an obliging and interested trusted health journalist, the piece was finally aired on national television in South Africa on “Special Assignment” a week after World AIDS Day and so far the feedback has been great. The website is:

Following the workshop, I returned to the office and started preparing for the meeting we had with “GRAVIS” our NGO-partner responsible for implementation and statistical support of the Birth Preparedness and Complication Readiness (BPCR) project. They are working in the underserved villages of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. I worked on the presentation and identified the emerging issues from the baseline survey in order to make recommendations. The meeting was meant as discussion for not only sharing the data and the emerging issues but also for planning activities and methods of interventions for the project. We set up dates and deadlines for the weeks to follow. A day after the meeting I went with the team to a meeting to Paranpur to attend a review meeting where the district and government officials also attended. Language still forms a great barrier in communication so at times I take the role of a photographer and I am becoming good at the job. I also shared my experiences in India and experiences in South Africa along with my Ashoka Young Champions idea to the state CDHO, NGO coordinator and representatives from the NGO.

Christmas was approaching and as the messages and phone calls from home began, I started feeling the Christmas spirit and missing home even more as the days approached. I was fortunate to take the 24th and 25th off for Christmas. We shared Christmas with our neighbours, a family that lives in the same apartment block as us. They do not celebrate Christmas as such but shared the day with us, and for Christmas lunch we exchanged a few presents. It made the day special as it is both my husband’s and my favorite time of the year and far away from home where we would have indulged in his mom’s wonderful cooking followed by my family’s annual get together with huge and lovely Christmas lunch. The 26th I was on the road to Rajasthan to attend GRAVIS’s state level workshop that we had been invited to. As we drove down to Rajasthan my heart was in Africa more than ever and speaking to my grandmother was a very motivating and emotional reminder that far away across the seas there awaits love and warmth for me.

December and January are also wedding seasons in India and we were invited to a wedding which was a wonderful experience in such a diverse and interesting culture. It is not about just attending a wedding but experiencing society which one is in.

We organised a belated Christmas party in the office and exchanged presents as wishes for the New Year. The question of Santa brought about many religious complexities and the Christmas party at work showed how different people, from different religions, cultures and different beliefs came together to share the love and purpose of the festive season. To have faith, to believe, to share, to help others, to love beyond, that’s also what my nine months mentorship represents and that’s what the Christmas party represented for me. Sharing and spreading of the festive spirit.