Death and Life on the Ganges – Outreach for Mere Saathi

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Dr. Audrey Barker described Mere Saathi’s mission in India to empower and improve the lives of impoverished village women through veterinary medicine for the dairy animals in their care. UUFE’s Don Barker told stories about Death, Uncertainty, and Liberation – from his India journal and books he carried on his recent trip with Mere Saathi to the holy city of Varanasi and Untouchable villages along the Ganges.

Don’s text is brown.

Audrey’s text is black

Our Ultimate Concerns

I’d like to begin by introducing Dr. Audrey Barker.  Audrey was raised in Caroline County.  After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, she served as Medical Director of Falls Road Animal Hospital in Baltimore.   She currently practices veterinary medicine at Eastern Animal Hospital, also in Baltimore.  While still a vet student at UPenn, she began her work in India and started the non-profit Mere Saathi.

This morning we combine our Sunday sermon with our monthly Social Justice Outreach presentation and collection for Mere Saathi.  So this is something new.  You might call it an “Outreach sermon”.  Audrey will talk about milk, cows and goats, and the women who keep them.  About how Mere Saathi partners with these women, and how you can also become a partner.

I will talk about “What Happened to Me in India” when I travelled with the Mere Saathi team last winter.

Together we titled our sermon “Death and Life on the Ganges”, because it’s a sermon not only about Social Justice but also about Religion – our Ultimate Concern — how we live our lives, and how we give meaning to our lives through service to others, until the day we die.

Audrey will present the Mere Saathi mission in a way that a few of you here today are already familiar with, because you attended events in Baltimore or visited the Mere Saathi website.

I will be telling stories – about Death and Uncertainty and Liberation in the holy city of Varanasi and in villages upriver, where Mere Saathi does its work.  I will mix readings from my own India diary with quotes from two books that I carried with me in India – Kaleidoscope City by Pears Moore Ede, about the year he spent living in Varanasi, and Siddhartha, An Indian Poem, by Hermann Hesse, which protrays a spiritual journey of self-discovery during the time of Gautama the Buddha.

Audrey and I will both be talking about Liberation – but in different ways.  We hope that, between us, we can help you make the connection.

Don near the Ganges upriver from Varanasi at the village of Dwarikapur

Mere Saathi Mission

Good morning. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. Although I’ve never been a member of this Fellowship, I feel like I have roots here.  My father and I stopped by for the first time in 2004.  I told him about this church I wanted to check out. We looked through the windows of the empty church building.  We both liked what we saw – rainbow flags and your large wall poster of the Seven UU Principles – especially the Seventh Principle about the Oneness of All Humanity.  After that, we started attending here.  I left home for college shortly after, but my parents joined UUFE and have been members ever since.

I’m so honored and appreciative to be here this morning to tell you about the project I started while I was still in vet school; it’s called “Mere Saathi”, which is Hindi for “My Partner”.  Mere Saathi’s mission is to empower and improve the lives of impoverished Indian women by providing veterinary services to the animals in their care.   Mere Saathi works in the poorest Dalit villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh.  “Dalit” is the name of the Untouchable caste, the lowest on the social order, the most impoverished.

Mere Saathi team in the Dalit (Untouchable) village of Dwarikapur near the town of Kachhwa

Taking on the Impossible

Here is my first journal entry – December 11, 2016:

I talked by phone with my father.  He turned 84 today.  I told him that I’ll be traveling in two months to India with Audrey’s Mere Saathi team.  His reaction to that news didn’t surprise me, really.  He asked why they don’t help farmers closer to home.  Why spend all that time and money to go all the way to India?  And besides, poverty there is overwhelming.  How can you possible make a difference?

I didn’t have an answer that was good enough to satisfy Dad.  I just told him, “Hey, maybe give Audrey a call and ask her yourself.”

My grandfather never called to ask.  But I’ve been asked this question so many times – why India? There are needy people right here.  And of course, this is true.  There is great need EVERYWHERE.  Much like one’s religious or spiritual beliefs, my response to this isn’t a logical one, it’s one driven by gut and emotion.

I went to India for the very first time about 10 years ago when I was in undergrad.  I had never been out of the country, much less to a third world nation with a different language and an entirely different construct of reality and norms.  I had my first encounter with a village woman in India when our student travel group was on its way to tour a temple.  We had to park far from the site, and I was walking with my group and stopped to take photos. I soon realized that I had fallen behind the group.  So I start running after them, and I slipped on a huge pile of cow poop (which are everywhere in India), and I got it all over me.

It happened right in front of a hut where a young woman was milking a buffalo. She was giggling at me.  I was embarrassed and thinking there is no way I can go into this sacred temple now with poop all over me.  But the young woman – she felt my anxiety – she gestured to me to come over, and to help me wash off.

She had no running water, so we worked from pails of water that she had collected.  She was trying to show me how to use this strange brush device to clean.  And of course, we didn’t understand a word either was saying, so it was this awkward, there was poop, and we were engaged in this fumbling social interaction.  We both ended up just laughing so hard at the absurdity of it.  Neither of us knew a word the other spoke, but there was this connection – an understanding of humanity.

This was my first experience – first of many – connecting with these extraordinary women.  It was an incredible experience — finding that even though we are from completely different worlds, at heart, we are all the same.

After that experience, I simply felt compelled – felt I just had to return one day and try to have some positive impact on the lives of these women.

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Long after that conversation with Dad, I heard a couple of sermons here at UUFE about facing impossible odds in social justice work.  Rev. Diana Davies came and talked about Old Testament prophets and modern prophetic people.  I always thought they were just fortune tellers.  But no, she said, all of those Old Testament Prophets called out injustice in the society of their day.  And it’s the same with prophetic people today.  They don’t predict the future; “they interfere with the future.” she said.  “They actively mess with it, not based on predictions [and cost calculations – like my father’s] but regardless of them. … They don’t just tell the future, they have a vision of a better future, a better world, and they use their words and actions to make that vision real.”

After that first visit, I started vet school and looked for ways to help rural Indian women.  I returned nearly every year for 10 years with other students and faculty.  We started simply by visiting villages, meeting and talking with women, and building relationships with individuals and organizations, like local vet schools and government officials.  We became immersed in village life, took surveys about living conditions and animal husbandry practices, did physical exams of cows, goats, and buffalo, and documented our findings.

Audrey and other Penn Vet students in India, 2012
Audrey and other Penn Vet students in India, 2012

Death and Life in the Villages

So you may be thinking, “How in the world does a vet help village Indian women?”

Its all about milk.

In these villages, every family owns a milking animal- a cow, goat or buffalo.  These women and their families are primarily Hindu, thus vegetarian, so milk is the primary source of protein for them and their children. Protein is monumentally important for proper child development.

I had an experience a few years ago that really illustrated this point. We were working in villages in the Ganges Delta, at the mouth of India’s most sacred river, an area that is also home to the world’s most dense populations of tigers.

We were awakened one morning by screaming and shouting.  We learned that a tiger had come through the village and killed several goats.  When we learned that no humans were harmed I, in my naivite, said, “Thank goodness, it was just the goats.”  But the village woman we were staying with turned to me and shook her head. She said, “No, you don’t understand.  If a tiger came to my home, I would rather he kill me than my goats. If he kills me, my sister will take care of my children.  If he kills my goats, my children will starve.”

That, as you can imagine, has made a lasting impression on me and has helped fuel this passion – helped me to never give up.


Death and Liberation in Varanasi

So, you might say that death is ever present, everywhere you go in India.

When I told my father about the India trip, I also said we would be staying a few days in Varanasi on the Ganges, a holy city for millions of Hindus, before we headed upriver to work in the villages.  He was a bit dismissive:  “What would you want to see there?”

I told him I wanted to visit the burning ghats, the cremation grounds along the Varanasi waterfront.  I confess that I was goading him a bit.  Because my father is afraid of death. He does not want to talk about it – ever.  When his mother died, he did the funeral arrangements as the oldest son, but he would not attend the funeral himself.  I guess I can understand his special fear of death; his father had killed himself with a shotgun on the back porch of their farmhouse before my father left the farm in the 50s.

But all I told him was, “Hey, Dad, devout Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you’re guaranteed a place in heaven – a free pass.  Maybe you want to come with us?”

What I did not confess to my father was my own fear of death, of course. A few days in Varanasi might be good therapy for me, because “Death is ever present in the holy city. To visit there without encountering it is impossible.”[1]

I had read that “[in the narrow alleyways above the waterfront], you hear the distant sound of chanting.   Then a minute later, six men bearing a corpse on a bamboo litter come into view, walking purposefully toward the river.  [The corpse is] bound in white muslin [and] decorated with silver tinsel or garlands of orange marigolds. It moves toward the cremation ground at the river bank, and to the world beyond.  … Bodies pass through these alleyways [as frequently] as cattle or goats, and there is no cause for alarm.” [2]

Maybe not not for the city natives and Hindu pilgrims.  But I was not so sure about me, a Westerner.

Harishchandra Ghat, one of the "burning ghats" on the Ganges in Varanasi
Harishchandra Ghat, one of the “burning ghats” on the Ganges in Varanasi

A Varanasi native said, “You Western people fear death so much.  But you fear it because you do not know it.  For you, death is the counterpoint to life. It is something final, something bad.  But we Hindu people see death as simply the counterpoint to birth.”[3]

So, we hired a boatman to row us along the waterfront to Harishchandra Ghat.  He held the boat steady with his oars while I blinked and squinted to make out the dark forms of the corpses in the flames.

“There’s something extraordinary about this interplay of life and death, the passing boats, domestic animals, dark spires of smoke rising into the pale sky…. and a group of mourners who have brought their father’s body to Varanasi for the cremation.”

Later I read about the holy men known as Aghoris, for whom the cremation ground is a kind of meditation hall.  In a rare interview, one of them said, “For us, liberation is not possible until we accept this primary fact of life, and so we live around death for as long as it takes until this lesson has been learned. … The cremation pyre is the ultimate reality for us – a constant reminder that everyone has to die. …

“We simply see the world as God.  All the world, without excluding anything. For this reason, we seek out those things we fear, those things which the mind has told us are not God.  … Gradually, one leaves fear behind entirely. That is liberation!” [4]

Audrey and Don at Assi Ghat, Varanasi
Audrey and Don at Assi Ghat, Varanasi

Liberation in the Villages

The most important thing that milking animals provide, above and beyond the nutrition of the milk itself, is the potential to liberate village women from centuries of gender bias and caste stigma.  Dairy cattle can not only improve their economic condition but also build village women’s self-esteem and independence.

The majority of the village womens’ work is in the fields – laboring on other peoples farm land.  The wages earned for this back-breaking work is paid to the husband  The woman never sees this money, nor does she have a say in how it is spent.

However, as keeper of the family’s dairy cattle, any money earned from the sale of extra milk goes directly to the woman.  She decides how this money is spent.  And studies show that more than men, women will invest in the future of their families.

So, the formula is simple:  If we can increase milk production, not only do children and families receive better nutrition, but women also gain independence and freedom from centuries of gender bias and oppression.

So what is the key to increasing milk production?  We were still looking for the answer last February when we arrived in the town of Kachhwa, on the Ganges upriver from Varanasi.

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Uncertainty in Kachhwa

We arrived at the Kachhwa Christian Hospital just before dusk. My first impression of the grounds and buildings was of elegant decay, well cared for. The modest one-story hospital was built probably in the 60s. The red brick administration building is over 100 years old. It has a long veranda that faces a small garden that was in full bloom. When we were not working out in the villages around Kachhwa, that is where I spent most of my time, writing in my diary and reading Siddhartha.

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Dairy cattle in the poorest villages are often severely underweight and may produce only one-half liter of milk per day and few offspring.

In the villages around Kachhwa, the animals can’t provide milk enough for family nutrition, much less extra income.  Cows like the one in the picture here – skin and bones – are the norm in these villages.  When we examined these animals, we discovered the reason: 80% of the cows, buffalo, and goats carry severe parasite burden –  ticks and intestinal parasites.  Parasites dramatically reduce milk production. These cows average a half liter per day in these villages. Compare this to the average of 10 liters in other parts of india,  and 33 liters in the US.  Parasites also reduce the animals’ life expectancy and ability to produce offspring.

So the veterinary solution was now clear.  These animals need to be dewormed.  But the question still remained: How do we do this in an effective, sustainable manner?

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Dr. Audrey examines a goat for external parasites in the village of Lachapur.

On the veranda, I wrote in my diary about my feelings of uncertainty in Kachhwa.  Here we were at a Christian hospital across the street from a Muslim mosque in a town that is predominantly Hindu.  The hospital staff had told us about the hostility between Hindus and Muslims, and of the government’s hostility toward Christians and foreigners.  Cultural diversity like this feels so good at home, but here it made the future feel uncertain  Then I read about the humble ferryman who taught Siddhartha how to listen to the river when he was fearful and uncertain.

Audrey and Don on the veranda discussing new options for Mere Saathi work in the villages around Kachhwa.

Listening to the River

We briefed the hospital staff on our findings about parasites in the villages and their impact on animal health and milk production.  Then we listened as these human doctors proposed the way forward for our veterinary solution.

The hospital already had a community outreach team teaching health, sanitation, and domestic skills to women in these villages.  Team members live in these villages themselves, so they already have the confidence of the women and the village elders.  The hospital director proposed that we utilize this invaluable resource.

So we came up with a strategy to teach and empower the outreach team members to deworm the animals in their villages.

Mere Saathi team with hospital staff and Community Outreach Team at Kachhwa
Mere Saathi team with hospital staff and Community Outreach Team at Kachhwa

Siddhartha said to his friend Vasudeva, the ferryman, “Rare are those who know how to listen; never before have I met anyone who was as skilled in listening as you are. This I shall learn from you.”

“Yes, you will learn this,” Vasudeva said, “but not from me. It was the river that taught me to listen, and it will teach you as well.  The river knows everything, and one can learn anything from it.  You too, after all, have already learned from the river that it is good to strive for downward motion, to sink, to seek the depths. The wealthy, elegant Siddhartha will now will row the ferry as others bid him; and so, the learned Brahmin Siddhartha will become a ferryman. In this too you were instructed by the river. You will learn the rest from the river as well.”…

“Siddhartha did indeed learn from the river, which taught him unceasingly. Above all, it taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.”

Dr. Audrey measures a buffalo’s girth to estimate weight and parasite dosage in the village of Dwarikapur.
Dr. Audrey measures a buffalo’s girth to estimate weight and parasite dosage in the village of Dwarikapur.

Back to Work

In just a couple months, Mere Saathi is going back to work in the villages near Kachhwa with a team of volunteers.  Our goal is simple:  Treat 300 dairy animals in three villages and – more importantly – train the outreach team to continue our work bi-annually.  We believe this program can double milk production in these villages within 3 years.

The parasite medications cost just $3 per animal, and our volunteers traveling to India are paying their own expenses.  So all donations are used entirely for medical supplies and logistics.

This is a small, very focused effort.  I know we can’t change the whole world, but I know we can make a real difference to individuals in great need.  We really are one small village helping another.  And I hope you’ll join us.

Siddhartha asked his friend the ferryman, ”Have you too learned this secret from the river: that time does not exist?”

Vasudeva’s face broke into radiant smile. “Yes, Siddhartha,” he said. “Is this what you mean?   That the river is in all places at once, …  so for the river, there is only the present moment and not the shadow of a future?”

“It is,” Siddhartha said. “And once I learned this, I considered my life, and it too was a river…”

Siddhartha spoke with rapture; this Enlightenment had made him profoundly happy. …  But Vasudeva just smiled at him and nodded silently … And then he turned back to his work.

Sunrise on the Ganges at Assi Ghat, Varanasi
Sunrise on the Ganges at Assi Ghat, Varanasi

Thank you so much for listening to this talk. And of course, now comes the plea for donations.  Every little bit matters, even the smallest of donations, because our work is so narrow and focused. And perhaps even more important than donations is my plea to stay connected.  Please join our mailing list and follow us on Facebook  – stay connected with our work and adventures.

And please email us if you’d like to get involved –   We always need help with website, social media, and communications, legal and business matters, board of directors, fundraising, and volunteers to travel to India.

From the bottom of my heart, bahut bahut, dhanyavad – which in Hindi means, with deep gratitude, thank you.

Dr. Audrey with village kids in Dwarikapur
Dr. Audrey with village kids in Dwarikapur


[1] Pears Moore Ede, Kaleidoscope City, A Year in Varanasi, p. 9

[2] Kaleidoscope City, pp. 8-9

[3] Kaleidoscope City, p. 18

[4] Kaleidoscope City, p. 22-26

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