I could not help but feel intrusive as we pulled up to the little opening on the street to the New Delhi slum — one of 50 that house 300 million of the world’s poorest of poor. A tired man fed an unclothed child some dirty water from the cup of his hand, with the backdrop of a burned-out little bus.
I expected to see much sadness as we were swallowed by the narrow dankness on our visit to this Indian community. Children were everywhere. Some were frightened to see us and others were thrilled and curious. They lined the narrow alleys, filled the doorways and swung from the rooftops. Our destination was the school, a 12-square-foot affair that served as one clean spot for classes held in rotation because of the swelling population. It also was the place for meetings and leadership decisions on slum health and education.
In that space we met with women leaders of the community. About 70 per cent of them were from rural areas and had lost their farms. (The average farmer in India makes $1,000 per year).
Being of a lower caste, they knew they could not escape where they now lived so they were determined to make it a better place to be. These ladies had a terrific governance system of leadership and took their responsibility seriously. They were so proud of the changes that they were part of, such as bringing child mortality down to 17.5 per cent through education and the acceptance of vaccination, pre- and postnatal care and the use of contraception. The mentorship program they had developed served to strengthen the ties within the community. Each school class had assigned mentors and elected leaders. The children were responsible for each other.
The women adopted and shared this structure with the children so they would have the skills to manage in the world and to gain in their perception of self. These were powerful women who held us in awe at the determination to ensure their children had opportunity outside of the slum. You may think that quite ordinary in a society but one has to remember that prior to this, the women rarely left their homes (home size averaged six to eight feet square) and were subject to abuse by their husbands for “learning too much.” With bravado and determination they continue to increase their knowledge of business, even borrowing money to start shops or send children to school. Some women owned several slum houses that they rented out thus creating a slum commerce. The result was a strong community and healthier children who had an education.
A few young people were in university, travelling up to five hours a day to attend class, and many had hopes of being lawyers or social workers. At no time did people ask for money or beseech our help. Rather, they were proud of who they were and what they had done.
The air was sweltering and a tour several hours later of the entire area was more than exhausting and heartbreaking. Open sewage, lack of drinking water, filth, flies, runny noses and stench would have broken the most hardened traveller.
After nearly 3,000 miles of rural India, I was not only hardened, but I was able to view the slum with new eyes. I praised the woman who had a tiny shop for her fine selection, and the neatness of another’s home (which only contained a dirt floor and pots neatly arranged on the shelf). I admired the work of the seamstress and character of the women diligently working with plastic, cutting up pieces for shoes at $.06 per bushel bag. I joyfully shook every hand and touched every child. In some unspoken and quiet way we understood each other. It was a quiet breath amid the chaos and a whisper of hope for a new tomorrow.
India reminds us that another world is possible — even within the depths of our future uncertainties. We only have to have faith, believe in ourselves and at the beginning and end of each day — to count our blessings.