1) Cocos nucifera, a drupacious palm fruit endemic to South India
2) an American born Indian who's brown on the outside, white on the inside, exploring his tender core, and exposing his nutty shell


If you're interested in global health, cultural conundrums, social innovations, and life in India then read on!

Dec 12, 2009

Shit Luck & Slum Health: Dropping Your Phone into Sewage Slush


What would you do if you dropped your cell phone in raw human sewage in the middle of a slum?

This was my dilemma last week in Bhopal. I was rushing to the airport, navigating my way on foot through a slum in Old Town, dodging potholes with my roll-a-luggage, when I bumped my cell phone off my hip clip and it flew into the gulley of raw human sewage, right where I had seen boys pooing the day before. The image of one lad was fresh in my mind. He must have been 3 years old. While maintaining his squat nicely throughout the download, he waved at me with one hand and screamed "Hello, Hello, Vat Yer Name, Vat Yer Name, Hello, Hello?" The image vanished as I realized the task before me.

Option A: Don't even think about going for it. Head to airport.
Option B: Look dejected and deeply troubled until a good Samaritan comes and gets it out for you. Offer them a cash reward.
Option C: Start screaming "Oh No, Hurry Hurry - Aye-oooooo, Julthee, Julthee" As people gather, wave a 100 rupee note and see who goes for it.
Option D: Delve in with your hands and pick it out.

I pondered for ten long seconds.
Mind you this wasn't your average plastic Nokia Indian cell phone, it was my Palm Treo PDA-Personal Digital Assistant. Basically, my secretary was drowning before my eyes and I had to take action. Given my rush to catch a plane and the thought of all the necessary information I had stored in that phone (all my Indian contacts, my calendar, my medical drug encyclopedia and clinical software programs), I chose Option D and fished out the phone. It was submerged in brown tarry goop. A lady in a nearby shack brought me a bucket of water to wash my hands and gently rinse off the phone. I dropped the phone into a spare plastic bag and rushed off to find an auto rickshaw. After airport security clearance, I dashed to the bathroom and used Dettol soap to scrub my hands and my phone. The smell wouldn't go away. While trying to use the phone, I discerned that clots of gunk had gotten stuck in the ports on the bottom of the phone. The phone was optically sensing the micro-poo-pieces lodged in the ports and thought it was the cable connecting to my laptop so the phone was stuck in "Synchronizing with Computer, Please Wait....." mode.

On the plane, I asked the air hostess for a plastic tea stirrer that, to my luck, looked more like an olive spear. I broke it into pieces and used it as a tool to dissect out the poo pieces. After 15 minutes of using my cadaveric trained surgical precision, with full sterile procedure taking care not to fling pieces on my neighbor or get my hands dirty, I had managed to dislodge all the major pieces. "Synchronizing with Computer" had disappeared. Victory! Unfortunately, I had more hurdles ahead. I quickly learned that none of the buttons on the phone worked. I reached home and scrubbed the phone more. The following day, I took it to a phone repair center for a thorough inside clean-job. 250 rupees and 24 hours later, I had my phone back in order with 80% of the buttons working and only 10% of the stench still present.

In a perfect world all kids would poo like this boy from the classic Japanese children's book Everybody Poops.

"washes his hands" "with soap and water" the cartoon forgot to add

Unfortunately, the situation in slums is quite different. Due to the rush to catch my flight and my acute traumatic reaction, I was unable to photodocument my experience. But with a little imagination, you can put the following 3 pictures together (obtained from Google Images) and recreate the exact scene.

I gained great compassion for those who don't have toilets and especially for those slum-dwellers who may occasionally drop something into the sewage gully. This is more than a few little boys. 32% of humans currently live in slums. The UN predicts that before 2030, two billion more people will be crammed into urban spaces. Slum health is a serious issue that I will write more about in future postings. If you'd like a nice overview you can read this article titled Slum Health: From Understanding to Action, co-authored by one of my professors Dr. Lee Riley.

But for now, in honor of going into sewage to get what you really want in life, I present my favorite movie vignette of all time, from the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Although I got my cell phone back and was able to rehabilitate it, I didn't get an Amitabh Bachan autograph like this brave soul.

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