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My greatest success was with the children of my village. I knew that their vegetarian diet meant that their food had incomplete proteins—and the missing amino acid was generously supplied by milk (I think it is lysine, but I’m not sure). Beans and legumes (also good sources of lysine) are strictly animal food, they told me and were not for human consumption.

Milk is, for Hindus, one of the 5 sacred products of the cow. And there is a Hindu ritual in which milk is brought to a boil and allow to boil over three times.

So I built upon that belief. I convinced the opinion leader in the village to take a quarter cup of the milk she got from her cow, heat it till it boiled up, let it cool and give it to her oldest son, who was about 8 or 9 (right at the beginning of a growth spurt).

In a ceremony of my own, I measured him against the door post of my hut, with all the women watching, and explained that we would measure him every month and see how fast he grew with the milk added to his diet.

I was just as astonished as they were to see him growing tall and strong. Each month we would make a new mark on the door in front of all the women of my village. He was getting enough rice and vegetables, and with the extra added milk he grew like a weed, making up for lost time.

Every mother wanted her sons to grow tall and strong, too, and soon they were working out strategies for getting a little milk without cost. I explained that it didn’t have to be every day, but that when they did get some milk for their sons, they must follow the Brahmin’s example and let it boil. Milk was one of the sacred products of the cow and it must be treated properly. The real reason, of course, was to avoid tuberculosis or other disease. I tried explaining germ theory and all I got was that glazed expression that said I was getting nowhere. (Ever try to explain a medical concept in a language that has no word for germs or infection?)

I’ve been very happy with the thought that I was able to accomplish a positive, sustainable change in my village. The only niggling regret I have is that they were unwilling to apply it to the girl children. Boys are always more valued than girls.

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