Together with six other volunteers, final-year Naturopathy student Shannon Chafkin, travelled to India to partake in an integrative health immersion tour with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Jagran Jan Vakis Samiti (JJVS) in Udaipur India, through Terindah Travel in association with Australian Naturopaths Without Borders.
Founded in 1985, JJVS is a grass root organisation which directly translates into ‘People’s Awakening and Development Society’. JJVS has been providing alternative health systems with the help of traditional health practitioners working within historically proven traditions.
India’s traditional health practitioners or ‘Gunis’ are experienced health service providers and are recognised by national and international institutions. They have been achieving remarkable competencies in solving typical rural health problems including chronic pains, malaria, stomach disorders, arthritis, pneumonia and heart troubles. Traditionally, Gunis will train their sons and daughters about their ways and pass on their knowledge.
While the natural beauty of the Rajasthan landscape was certainly an attractive feature, for Shannon, this trip to India would not include camel rides through the desert or lounging about in colourful saris drinking chai. Instead they would head straight to the dusty, windswept, unpaved streets of the rural villages where many families live in rundown, hand-built shacks with little to no access to modern healthcare. Days would be spent seeing patients in make-shift clinics at various health camps, treating patients out of the Bedla clinic, learning about traditional herbal medicine wildcrafting and preparation as well as interacting and exchanging knowledge with the Gunis about health concerns and traditional treatment practices that exist in the area.
These health traditions are largely based on indigenous knowledge and JJVS has made it their mission to encourage this generation to pursue and preserve the traditional knowledge of their forefathers, and establish a solid foundation for the future of traditional medicines.
During Shannon’s placement, she would discover that naturopathic healthcare as we know it, was quite challenging to apply. Access to resources such as nutritional supplements, western herbs and certain fruits and vegetables in rural areas is limited. However the exchange of information and skills with the Gunis was invaluable and enabled them to recommend Ayurvedic herbs and local produce for similar ailments as well as learn some new perspectives on common complaints such as diabetes, high blood pressure and nutrient deficiency.
Many of the health issues could be traced back to diets rich in sugar (which is added to everything), high GI foods, excessive Jappati intake (up to six per meal), unfiltered water, unhygienic environments and lifetimes spent squatting and doing hard labour in the fields. Almost all cases presented with nutrient deficiency, especially vitamin D3, however the lack of accessibility to nutritional supplementation made it tricky to treat these patients efficiently.
Between work at the health camps, volunteers were treated with tasty traditional home-cooked meals and trips to palaces. There were also excursions to Ayurvedic hospitals and naturopathic medicine schools enabling them to learn all about the healthcare system and the herbal medicine of India.
Shannon also visited medicinal herb gardens, traditional healers clinics deep in the villages, Panchakarma (detoxification) centres and various other health facilities. She met the most interesting, knowledgeable group of doctors, healers, practitioners and locals, all doing what they can to offer the best service and to empower those with limited access to healthcare. Overcoming the language barrier provided some interesting conversations but to enable the volunteers to work effectively they were given basic Hindi lessons to get them through case taking and questioning clients. The integrative health immersion tour was a great opportunity to get clinical experience abroad as well as exposure to traditional practices.
Overall, volunteering in India was one of the best decisions I’ve made since embarking on my path through natural medicine. My time spent in India was an unforgettable opportunity to share what I could with others whilst gaining insight into the country’s ancient culture, which is rich in healing knowledge and way of life. I learned that simplicity and selflessness is an art, and random acts of kindness can happen anywhere at anytime.