Residents in tribal-dominated districts of Rayagada, Kalahandi and Kandhamal in Odisha wait enthusiastically for the Mobile Science Lab. The tribes in these districts are uninformed, steeped in superstitious beliefs and face resultant health issues.

The Community Science Programme, a collaborative endeavor of Tata Trusts, TCS Foundation and non-governmental organisation Sikshasandhan, creates awareness among villagers in five administrative blocks of the three districts, through Mobile Science Lab.

The labs are infotainment vehicles, that is, they educate and inform through entertainment. The team conducts the labs’ programmes in the evenings when men and women would be back after a hard day’s work and the children would be back from school.

Mobile labs at villages

Dandiguda, a tribal hamlet with a population of 120 in Lanjigarh administrative block of Kalahandi district, was one of the stops for the lab. Earlier, children of the village had acted as messengers, inviting all the villagers to the village square where the science show would take place.

Located quite far from the district headquarter, Dandiguda does not have electricity. The science coordinator connected the necessary equipment using a solar panel inverter. “Most of the villages in these parts do not have electricity,” Manish Mishra, science coordinator of Lanjigarh administrative block, told VillageSquare.in. “So the lab has its own solar inverter to conduct audiovisual shows without interruption.”

Teaching health and hygiene

Villagers of these tribal dominated districts regularly fall prey to malaria, diarrhoea, and stomach ailments that can be prevented, by creating awareness. Explaining the importance of personal hygiene, Mishra showed the hands of a schoolboy through a digital microscope.

Awareness creation and demonstration on use of mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh
Awareness creation and demonstration on use of mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh

The villagers saw the reality, though the boy had claimed that his hands were clean. They learnt the importance of washing their hands with soap.

Through a film, the villagers learnt how contaminated water could lead to diarrhoea and stomach ailments. “The small videos help the uneducated people understand health and sanitation issues easily,” Mishra told VillageSquare.in. “The videos are quite impactful.”

Prevention of malaria

To tackle malaria, the lab advocates the use of mosquito nets. “The main reason for incidence of malaria is that villagers do not use the mosquito nets provided by health workers,” said Mishra.

Most of the villagers were using the mosquito nets as fishing nets, to fish in ponds. The villagers learnt to put the net to its intended purpose, when the coordinator demonstrated its proper use, with the help of a volunteer from the village.

If they fell sick, the villagers visited witch doctors for treatment. After attending regular awareness programs, the villagers understood the benefits of using mosquito nets, and taking medicines given by auxiliary nurse midwives. Following the advice received during the awareness programs has brought down the number of malaria cases.

“This Mobile Science Lab has taught us many things from cleaning hands to visiting doctors and using mosquito nets,” said 22-year-old Sangeeta Majhi of Dandiguda. “This is a good initiative for the illiterate masses.”

Instilling rational thinking

Mobile Science Lab has travelled through nearly 120 villages, instilling rational thinking among the community in the three districts, where 60% of the population are tribes and Dalits. In the remote villages of these districts, people still do not go to a physician, but depend on witch doctors, locally known as gunia.

“These people fall prey to witch doctors who demand money, goats, hens and liquor,” said Manas Mallick, programme coordinator of Science Project, Sikshasandhan. “Through demonstrations and short films, Mobile Science Lab shows the ill effects of blind beliefs and superstitions that still prevail in tribal society.”

Villagers learnt about hygiene from coordinator Gouri Shankar after seeing invisible grime through a microscope. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh
Villagers learnt about hygiene from coordinator Gouri Shankar after seeing invisible grime through a microscope. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh

The young and the old alike were surprised when the coordinator demonstrated some of the tricks that gunias use to lure the villagers. “It is very important to demonstrate these tricks, so that they will develop a scientific temperament,” said Mishra.

“With regular awareness programs such as this, everyone has started going to the doctors instead of to quacks,” said villager Kamalakanta Hikkaka.

Shedding superstitions

The lab also arranges special programmes such as night sky observation on celestial events. “It was a rare experience when we observed the blue moon and lunar eclipse on 31st January this year,” said villager Dambaru Hikkaka.

The regular movement of five Mobile Science Labs in five blocks helps in generating a lot of interest and creating awareness by exposing people to scientific thought. “Though we educate villagers on topics related to health, sanitation and nutrition, we also expose them to various scientific experiments so as to do away with age-old superstitions and blind beliefs,” said Mishra.

“We are illiterate and sometimes find it difficult to understand health related issues in Odia language but the coordinator explains to us in our Kui dialect,” Pitu Majhi of Dandiguda village said. Till date, the lab has reached about 12,000 villagers, helping them shed superstitions and develop a scientific interest.

Rakhi Ghosh is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist. Views are personal.

This article first appeared on Village Square.