When any given population’s children are experiencing eye problems, it’s likely that they are suffering from a Vitamin A deficiency. So it makes sense then that two of Vitamin Angels‘ partners in the sprawl surrounding Bombay are connected to eyecare.
The first one we visited yesterday, Tuesday, February 26, was the Vasai Blind Relief Organization, a hospital in the quaint, tree-filled town that performs as many as 20 cornea replacement surgeries everyday – to the tune of 2,500 per year – and serves the villages that occupy the coastal flatlands about an hour north of Bombay. After touring their hospital, where all ages undergo eye treatments, mostly for cataracts, we headed out past banana trees, papaya groves, and dormant rice paddies (they’re monsoon irrigated) to a fishermen’s village. There, at a school whose children greeted us with song and dance, we endured the typical Indian welcome/thanks ritual, and then watched a distribution of Vitamin A and deworming tablets.
After getting flowers, speeches, and presents – nice pens, which shall prove useful later in the trip-Howard Schiffer delivered a nice address to the children. “You’re all very important,” the founder of Vitamin Angels explained, his words being translated immediately into Marathi, the local language. “You each have a very special gift to give to India and to give to this world, and to give that gift, you have to be healthy. Vitamin Angels is happy to help you be the healthiest person you can be.” Compulsory applause ensued.
While the older kids seemed engaged with the health teaching and pill popping, the younger toddlers were either freaked out by us white people or didn’t like the oily taste of the vitamin fluid – they were crying, some rather intensely, but their teachers were dedicated to keeping them healthy and made sure the tablets were properly swallowed. “If the teachers and women and the people of the village are receptive,” said Schiffer as we exited the yellow schoolhouse, ” that’ll ensure the success of the program.” And in this village, the future seemed promising.
Following an Indo-Sino lunch at Planet 50/50, Vasai’s trendiest eatery, we headed back toward Bombay to see the work of the Child Eyecare Charitable Trust, run by doctors and serving the slums of Mawlenaga Malad, on the city’s northern Westside. More than 20,000 people live here in some of the worst conditions imaginable – raw sewage flows through the streets, single toilets are shared by 300 people, dirty water is taken daily from a well, electrical wiring runs precariously close to murky gray puddles, and a nasty, nauseating aroma permeates every breath.
The trust’s volunteer work is saintly. Educational classes for kids and mothers occur weekly, check-ups are regular and well documented, and a sense of genuine care is exuded by all the doctors involved, who could clearly be focusing their time on much nicer places. When the clinics open every week, the line is out the door for people wanting to be treated, which says a lot for a population of northern Indian natives that often relies on red string bracelets to ward off evil spirits. The level of meticulous record-keeping was mind-boggling: statistics had been kept since the program started in 2004 on individual children, and the percentage of improvement – in terms of vitamins, immunizations, and disease control – was impressive. For just Vitamin A alone, less than two percent of the population was taking it in 2004, and now nearly 90 percent is treated.
The work being carried out by this trust is saving countless lives. “The fact that they’re not seeing epidemics break out is because there’s this team coming here every week,” said Schiffer, clearly pleased with the professional work being done.
After spending a couple hours touring the slumland labyrinth, where smiling kids played cricket, spun colorful tops, and followed our every move, it was time to head back to the Hotel Midtown Pritam in central Bombay, our homebase. Tonight is our last in this maximum city, as tomorrow we head north to Ahmedabad before Calcutta and Chennai. The Internet capabilities will likely be stunted until we reach Calcutta, so this may be the last post for a couple days.
Matt Kettmann is reporting from India until March 4. For more, tune into Independent.com/india.