Braving adversity to serve brings reward
Nurse's dedication to Andaman tribe earns her one of India's top awards
Shanti Teresa Lakra (right) receiving her award from the Indian president
When Shanti Teresa Lakra, a Catholic nurse, was posted to a dwindling tribe living in a forest on a small island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain, little did she know it would bring her one of India’s top honors.
Lakra, 38, received the Padma Shri, the country’s fourth highest civilian award, from President Pratibha Patil on March 24 for her dedicated service to the Ongees, who are on the verge of extinction.
Ten years ago, when she first visited the Ongees, Lakra was the only female government employee in that cut-off forest. She had difficulty in communicating with the tribal people as she did not know their language.
“I used to communicate through facial expressions or sign language. It built trust in me and they started to respond,” Lakra said recently in a telephone interview.
The federal government has provided a settlement in the forest for these tribal people, who prefer to live naked and eat boiled or roast food.
During the hot months they prefer not to live in the settlement. Some like to live near the seashore while others like the forest. “But I had to tend to them wherever they were,” Lakra said.
The 38-year-old Oraon tribal woman had to traverse difficult forest paths to reach people.
“They were very unhygienic. I tried to change their habits and encouraged them to maintain a healthy and clean environment,” she said.
The nurse had to visit every family as the shy tribal people never opened up about their problems, especially maternity-related cases.
“Pregnant women never allowed us to touch their stomachs during a checkup. I had to persuade them a lot to provide medical care for them,” she said.
Despite these problems, Lakra said she never felt like quitting the job or look for a better life.
“I could have taken leave but it never occurred to me. I had developed an attachment with these people. My routine was set,” she said.
Lakra’s determination was such that she stayed on the island after the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands of people in southern parts of India.
She had a one-year-old son with her at that time but that too didn’t deter her from serving the tribe. “I was alone there but I realized that if I left them, there would be nobody to care for them,” she said.
Lakra says her biggest support has been her family.
Lakra had to leave her infant son with her in-laws when she went to remote villages. “It wouldn’t have been good for the child to live in a tent, with insects and snakes common during rainy seasons.”
Lakra claims her efforts have brought some positive changes in the tribe.
“The tribal women have started wearing clothes. They have become more open in discussing their health problems with our medical staff,” she added.
The Ongees numbered just 78 when Lakra first went to the island but now their population has risen to 102.
In 2006, she was posted to G.B. Pant Hospital in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a federally-administered hospital. Here she takes care of the medical needs of all the tribes in the Andaman Islands.
The island chain also has four other tribes -- Jarawas, Andamanese, Sentinalese and Shompens.
Lakra says she never thought she would get the Padma Shri for her services. “My faith has helped me a lot. I could do all this because God was with me,” she said.
She hopes the tribe will someday become part of the wider society. “They have given me so much. They will always be there in my heart,” Lakra said.