Dear Ezra and Lian,
This letter is so difficult to write. I’ve been trying to write it for over a year. I think about it, but it literally makes me sick to my stomach. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it. I try to type words, but I don’t proceed. I’ve written you almost 50 letters now and I still struggle to get this one done. Here goes.
I’ve told you about the worst thing I’ve eaten (rat), but not the worst meal I ever ate. Physically and emotionally, this meal took a far greater toll on me. Imagine eating a meal that you think about every month for the rest of your life? That’s what this meal did to me. It haunts me still.
One of things I used to do in Mizoram, was take old, no longer used microscopes from Canada there. These microscopes were then used in small malaria clinics. Small villages would build a small, simple building the size of a Canadian tool shed. The village would have a committee that would organize fundraising and volunteers. They would select a young person from the village to get trained in detection of malaria and how to run the clinic. Each of these clinics would save lives every year. Rural people would easily and cheaply get tested. They then could get life-saving medication. It also kept them healthier and able to provide for their families.
Once we had a unique opportunity. The Border Security Force (BSF) near Tlabung had a terribly high incidence of malaria amongst their personnel stationed there (over 50% at any one time). They had no microscope. So they would over-prescribe malaria medication or respond too slowly to a malaria infection. They offered a deal. In exchange for a microscope, they would fully staff its use and give out free tests and malaria medication to the local people near their headquarters. Too good to pass up.
So one day, I, Sanga and Saia travelled to the remote border region near Tlabung. Sanga is the best driver in Mizoram. Saia is a worker for the Relief & Development department of the Baptist Church of Mizoram. From Lunglei, it was over 4 hours of driving on roller coaster roads. I think there was even a mudslide along the way.
When we got there, I was introduced to the chief medical officer for the BSF regiment on that sector of Bangladesh-India border. We had a brief conversation about the malaria situation in the region and what we were going to do that afternoon. Then I was asked some questions about myself. What did I do back in Canada? The usual one in India, “How did I ever end up in Mizoram of all places?” I told them I was married to a Mizo (Mommy) and about her family (Grandpa being a high-ranking police officer).
The medical officer offered me lunch with the other officers. Then he told me that Sanga and Saia would have to eat outside on a tree stump. Inside was nothing special. It was just a big shack with flies buzzing around. However, it was “explained” to me that since my Mizo friends were low class, they couldn’t eat with officers. I, however, was invited to join them.
There was so much riding on this day. Not only would over 550 people get free malaria tests and possibly medication that day, they would also get it permanently. Also, Tlabung was on the border with Bangladesh. It had recently been designated as an approved entry and exit point for cross-border trade by the Indian Central Government. However, BSF guards could easily shut that down or demand huge bribes from local traders and farmers. Before I left, my friend Dawnga, reminded me of this. I was being sent on a goodwill mission on behalf of the local people. I was there to foster good relations between the BSF and the local tribal people (Mizos, Chakma, amongst many others).
With a heavy heart, I dragged myself inside. I lost most of my appetite. I felt sick to my stomach. I pushed as much food as I could into my mouth. I tried to feign cheerfulness whenever I was asked a question. At the earliest opportunity, I got back outside. I had to get the microscope ready for a busy day.
Soon there was a huge, long line up of people waiting to get their blood tested for malaria. One at a time, people would give their names, get a pinprick and give a drop of blood for a blood smear. This went on for hours. Over 550 got tested before I left. Of those, at least 277 were positive for malaria. Each one of them would get the necessary medication from the BSF. The chief medical officer (CMO) would keep them under his care to ensure they didn’t develop complications.
The CMO told me a story while the testing was going. He described how a local man had a terrible case of malaria. Since, the doctor at the local hospital is only present to collect his salary once a month (like almost every hospital outside of Aizawl and Lunglei) there was no one to look after the man. This man was soon going to die without help. He was getting fluid on brain. The CMO and a driver took him to Lunglei. The man was vomiting constantly. So much so, that he started to cough up blood. It was a horrible situation, but somehow they made it to the hospital in time. The man’s life was saved.
I want you to realize, the CMO didn’t have to do any of this. He was not responsible for this man in any way. In fact, a local Mizo doctor was responsible, but he lived comfortably in Aizawl away from the people he was supposed to serve. It wasn’t the CMO’s duty to give free medical care to the local people. He had other ways to look after BSF personnel. However, he took his Hippocratic oath as a doctor seriously. He really did go beyond the call of duty to save lives and care for people.
I also want you to realize this CMO was a terrible man. He was a high caste Hindu, who clearly was bigoted against those who were not. He was racist against all the tribal people around him. He thought them lesser human beings. He was incredibly classist. Those who served in some occupations deserved respect, others disdain. He believed in high birth and low birth. (Ironic that he let me eat with him.) I still resent to this day, the position he put me in. He intentionally made me choose between my friends’ dignity and the lives in that village. On the way home that day, Sanga and Saia talked to me about the insult they were given for being Mizos.
Kids, I want you to know two things. One, growing up in Canada you are going to be taught repeatedly that racism and bigotry are THE worst sins you can commit. (Only in a comfortable country can people believe this.) It is a complete lie. There are so many things far worse. The apathy that lets someone live in ease and comfort, while there are those less than 50 miles away being denied medical care or food to which they are entitled, is far, far worse. That apathy kills people. You will be told that racism is the root of death and violence. It’s utter nonsense. Greed, laziness, apathy, selfishness have killed far more. Some of the proudest Mizo “Christians” live in Aizawl. They love Mizos in all their Mizoness AND they are quite content to let their fellow Mizos die due to neglect. Meanwhile, a racist, bigoted, arrogant man from another religion living in very difficult circumstances in area filled with disease, was not willing to casually stand by and watch them suffer. At the end of the day, actions are far more important than attitudes. Actions speak louder than words.
Secondly, I want you both to know this; you will never have to make that choice I did. While you are in Mizoram, you are going to eat with the officers and with your friends and with anybody you care to invite. I stood there unsure of myself. I was a foreigner from humble origins. You are going to tell them who you are. You are going to tell them that if they want to insult all the people of Mizoram, they will exclude your guests. You will turn the tables on the officers, the rich and the powerful. You will invite them to eat with you. You will invite whoever you want to eat with you. You will have the confidence to do that because you will know who you are. It is an honour to eat with you and your friends. If someone doesn’t want that, then let them eat by themselves.