Searching for Sitala Mata by Cornelia E. Davis

Searching for Sitala Mata

Eradicating Smallpox in India
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An American doctor tells of her experience fighting smallpox in India.

In this debut memoir, Davis recounts the years she spent as a young doctor working with the World Health Organization in the 1970s. The book blends elements of travelogue, as Davis was determined to experience the country of India during her stay, with descriptions of administering a smallpox vaccine program, tracking the spread of disease in rural communities, and navigating post-colonial and intergovernmental bureaucracies. The author was the only African-American woman in a group composed largely of white American and European men, which offered her a unique perspective on the communities she worked with. However, as a Western woman, she faced some challenges in the field that her male colleagues didn’t (“Experienced field epidemiologists told me that I would ruin my kidneys and that I needed to drink more water. They were all men. Where was I to pee?”). She was exempt from many of the traditional local restrictions placed on women, though, and at times her complexion allowed her to pass as Indian and to access dangerous areas that the WHO had forbidden its staff to enter. As a Catholic, she found lodging and friendship among the rural missionaries, and she writes movingly of a visit to Mother Teresa’s hospice. She draws a vivid picture of India and the regions she worked in, from West Bengal (“the kaacha roads, the heavily overloaded bullock carts headed for market, the bicycle rickshaws vigorously moving in and out of the congested traffic, and the ubiquitous sacred cow just wandering down the middle of the road”) to Rajasthan (“I met children living in the desert who were ten years old and had never seen rain”). Her descriptions of small details of daily life will allow readers to easily picture the world that she encountered 40 years ago.

An engaging, readable depiction of the foreign-aid worker experience.

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0692341131
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: KonjitPublications
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2015


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