Visiting a slum was and was not what I expected. I expected I would become overwhelmed, and cry, and I did actually, but not at what I thought would move me.
My husband's company supports several local organizations doing humanitarian work. When I expressed interest in doing some volunteer work while here, the company offered to organize visits to the programs they are supporting, a mutually beneficial prospect - I get to see some local organizations in action, and the company gets an outside perspective on the work they are contributing to financially.
We arrived at Asha, a community health clinic in a poor New Delhi neighborhood shortly before ten am. We were warmly welcomed by the staff, and led past local residents in the waiting room, to sit in a reception area where we were shown a short film about Asha's work, and provided with refreshments. We then had the opportunity to talk at length with some of the staff. I could have sat talking all day, if the children hadn't begun to fidget after about 30 minutes or more of my questions. I am so curious about the conditions in the slums, the situation here for impoverished children, and women's rights and prospects. I have been silently observing since arriving, and now I could ask questions.
We then toured the medical facility which includes a lab for blood work (equipment provided by my husband's company), an xray room is under construction, a doctor, and an ultrasound room (again, provided by my husband's company). The premises are neat and tidy, though not spacious. Different days are dedicated to seeing different communities of patients - antenatal check up days, pediatric days, etc.
I spoke to the doctor at length about the antenatal care for women in the slums, cultural impacts on women's and children's health, access to vaccines, nutrition, and contraception...again, I could have listened for hours. She was gracious to tell me so much.
From the medical clinic we got in a bus to drive to a community outreach center in one of New Delhi's slums. Asha runs multiple programs in a variety of areas so we were only seeing two. We drove down a narrow lane way before getting blocked behind a garbage truck, so we hopped out to walk the short distance to the community center. The surrounds were what I have seen in many places here - there is an open sewer that runs in a channel cut into the walkway. Animals like goats, cows, and pigs frequent the landscape. Carts piled with pyramids of perfectly arranged mangoes alternate with stands of symmetrically stacked fried goods, and piles of trash and debris soften all the edges. Children, in various states of dress and undress are about, with or without adults, seemingly cheerful.
We ducked into a doorway in an iron fence, stepping into the Asha community center compound. Peppermint colored plaster walls rose around a central courtyard, off of which led many rooms, all occupied by busy groups. English classes, tutoring, community women's organization, all in action.
Just like the U.S. and parts of Europe, there are currently school holidays for children in India, and many spend that time studying and getting prepared for the start of the next grade. My children were escorted upstairs to a room with children their age, and given permission to distribute the paper we had brought to make paper airplanes. I was escorted downstairs and sat at a chair in the front of the room with my guide and the program director, while several groups were brought before me to explain the programs they were participating in and how it was making a difference in their lives.
First there were Year 12 students, in a class to help them apply to university. Evidently the online application is extremely tedious and requires the scanning and uploading of many documents, which is very challenging in a country where internet stability can be spotty. Next came current university students, explaining what they are studying, and how they contribute to the community through tutoring and mentorship. Then, there was a class of middle schoolers learning english. Finally, the women of the community came and saw down, crossing their legs underneath them, saris settling into colorful pools. They explained how the work of Asha had changed their lives and their communities.
"I lost a child to diarrhea. I didn't know that I should give the child water, or salt, or sugar. I thought that would make it worse. My child died. No one else's child needs to die in my neighborhood because now I tell them what to do if their child has diarrhea." The women told me how at first they were suspicious of Asha, but after they saw the improved health of the children that received vaccines, they were emboldened to try for their own children. The message rippled on, once I learned, I told my neighbor, and she told her neighbor, and now we don't lose children in this way anymore.
The stories continued...these women underwent six months of training to become Directors of areas in their community. Their slum encompasses four blocks (not U.S. city blocks), and each block contains 500 residences. Each lane is overseen by a community mother, and a series of laneways by another higher woman, and so on, until every resident in every lane is connected and looked after. If someone is sick, their lane mother knows and their neighbors bring them food, or take them to the hospital. If a couple wants to marry but lacks funds, they pull together to make the wedding happen. If a child is struggling in school, the lane mother knows, and the child receives tutoring and encouragement. If an elderly person is unable to tend for themselves, children take a collection and buy what they need and help with their household needs.
Each residence is a small room, about eight foot square. A curtain hangs over the doorway, and the open sewer is cut into the lane, and must be stepped over to access the residence. The lane width is about four feet and animals occupy lane spaces as well. Power is unstable. Some families have AC units. I am not sure I understood where the toilets were.
Through Asha, the majority of children in this specific slum complete their education and go on to university. If they are not suited for university, they enroll in a trade course in electricity, or mechanical repairs.
The women agreed that their community is family, they are devoted to each other for life. They explained that they would like to live in a better place, but live there together, because their community is beyond friends, they are a family. I had to blink away my tears. I spent my time listening, only offering one message to them.
"In my community, we had a big flood. Many people's houses were filled with water and they had to leave them. Our community strengthened around them. We helped fix houses, we brought food and clothes. We gathered together during the crisis. Now, that crisis is over, and we have returned to living isolated lives. I admire the strength of your community, and think you are doing an amazing job."
If I closed my eyes and ran the audio through Google translator, I could have been listening to the sales pitch for the most amazing planned community ever. Inter-generational living where elders are respected and cared for, high community connection and nurturing, tutoring by local college students, struggling children identified and nurtured, the highest level of neighborly kindness and care... I thanked them for explaining their community to me and stepped out into a few brief minutes of touring their neighborhood.
I declined going into people's houses when offered. I didn't take pictures. We walked down two lanes and then were escorted back into our waiting car. A veiled woman holding a child stood knocking on the window begging for money, her elementary aged daughter holding her hand outstretched. We exited past the piles of trash, the men laughing together, the children hopping the sewer, and the goat chewing on a plastic bag. The neighborhood where everyone is connected and Asha is providing a ladder from poverty to success and encouraging each child to climb it.
Everything is complicated. Some things are very simple. I am chewing on all the layers.