From Bombay, with love: My time with the Dirty Wall Project in Saki Naka slum community, Mumbai
Written by Sarah Petrescu who volunteered with DWP for two weeks.
We step out of the autorickshaw onto the side of a dust, traffic and waste-filled road. The people, dogs and cars move around each other like notes in a symphony that miraculously do not collide – at least not as often as you’d think. The brown veil of pollution hangs low, intensifying every shallow breath, sweet and sour scent to this newcomer’s senses. We follow a clearing through a garbage dump of sorts and come upon the entrance to the Saki Naka slum community in the Andheri East area of Mumbai. My heart sinks at first glance. Ramshackle, matchbox-sized, lean-to homes go for miles in either direction. A murky mote of sewage runs along a lane where half-naked toddlers play with broken boxes and run barefoot on gravel. The centrepiece of the scene is a thick, rusted metal pipeline that protrudes about three feet above ground. On it, children run, women squat and beat laundry, men gather and chat. I wonder how many millions of impoverished makeshift homes the clear water inside passes before it reaches the taps of the unimaginably wealthy nearby. Though half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums such as this, the city still boasts one of the highest numbers of millionaires per capita in the world.
I’ve come to visit a fellow Victorian, Kane Ryan, and his small, grassroots charity the Dirty Wall Project. An avid traveller in search of an elusive bureaucracy-free volunteer opportunity, he decided to create his own. In 2008, he found the slum and his Indian counterpart working there – Ashley Perriera of Janvi Trust. Kane’s mantra was to “See a need and fill it.” This has manifested in everything from running a school and turning a dump into a garden space to tending the medical needs of community members and starting Girls Can Be, a collective and centre to help educate and employ women who lead difficult lives. I recommend browsing through his blog entries to learn more. The project is fuelled by Kane’s fundraising efforts in Canada – where he returns every six months to sell his photographs and help host money-raising events. With some high-profile media coverage in India – such as a full-colour foil front page story in the Times of India – the project has also drawn many Indian supporters. This appears to be promising for its sustainability as well as morale.
The seed to get me here was planted by Kane’s parents, Cindy and Todd, at a mutual friend’s Christmas party. They told me how their son’s work inspired them in part to sell their popular Sally Bun restaurant on Fort Street, renovate their basement suite, rent out the top floor and move to India to help him. When I mentioned my upcoming year-long sabbatical from my job as a reporter at the Times Colonist newspaper, they suggested I make Kane’s project a stop. The idea held in the back of my mind as I planned for the year. I began to read Kane’s blog religiously, becoming emotionally attached to the people and struggles he documented with frank, descriptive writing and captivating photos. The more I considered India, the more I fell in love with the idea of visiting a country with such a rich cultural history and myriad of riches, issues and opportunities for adventure. Journalists experience much of the world at an objective arms length with the purpose of inciting others to take matters to heart. This sometimes contradictory state led me to explore my own matters of the heart – namely participating in a community as opposed to briefly observing it.
While Kane was in Victoria on his latest round of fundraising for his projects and working to sustain himself while in India we met and discussed the possibility of me coming. I wasn’t sure what I could offer Kane or the community other than a willingness to learn and to pitch in whatever way possible – even just playing with the hundreds of swarming children. Before I knew it, I was being greeted by the Ryan family (minus their daughter who lives in Vancouver) at the Mumbai airport and shuffled into a rickshaw in the muggy Mumbai night air.
As we walked alongside the pipeline on remnants of train tracks, smiles, nods, good morning and calls of “teacher, teacher” from the children greet us. Kane (or “Kane, Sir” as he’s called) is a veritable celebrity, his parents have become equally so, as it seems do most visitors to the slum – bombarded by generous invites of chai tea, hand-holding and photo requests. I make note of the “outsider” lens with which I am viewing life here, the one that prompts wealthy western tourists to remark how quaint and happy poor villagers appear without truly seeing the challenges they face.
Kane has been here long enough to tune-in to the struggles and complexities of slum life, especially with the help of Ashley who speaks Hindi, Marathi and English. He’s worked in this slum for 10 years and as he walks through the community he is met with greetings and complaints – be it the news a gravely-ill man passed away on a bench the day before or that a feuding group of women are not equally sharing their duties of sweeping outside their houses. This is just one morning’s examples.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with the children here; the raspy-voiced, front-toothless Sanjana who wants to sing and play clapping games, the good-student Sneha who proudly shows off her grade one notebook, brothers Sunni and Arful deep in Bollywood dance character at the Diwali celebrations, even the slightly-menacing Nepalese boy Ganesh, who will as eagerly clean up a mess of paper and crayons as he’ll make it, is easy to love and care for. Cindy and Todd have gotten into the habit of bringing fresh fruit to the slum in the morning and pouring water into the mouths of parched kids.
Every day I look forward to my Prem fix. The two-year-old, shaped like a football with wide-eyes and a tiny smile, struts the lane all “ass and elbows,” as Kane says. As affectionate and full of chutzpah is his older sister Suman, acrobatic and wildly confident, and baby sister Nandini – who crawls around mostly nude in search of arms and play. Their mother Maya is a small whisper of a young woman in her early 20s, from Nepal. She stands outside their home – one of the worst in the slum, adjacent a sewer outfall infested with rats – and smiles and nods hello. Her husband is rarely seen, either working or drinking, as many of the men seem to do. During a tea visit Maya’s neighbor Ranjana refers to Nandini as a miracle child. During her pregnancy, Maya tried to abort the baby by ingesting poison but was taken to the hospital before either herself or Nandini were hurt.
It’s easy to worry about my new friends here. In the midst of an impromptu art class, 10-year-old Ashwini falls into a deep sleep on Cindy’s lap. Despite the teary protests of the two-year-old Bhoomi she looks after, we let Ashwini rest as long as possible – wondering what keeps her up at nights to the point she’d pass out in a room of screaming children.
Beyond the odd bike, jump rope and spinning top, most kids don’t have toys. They turn boxes and Styrofoam into drums and rocks into balls. Kane and I walk down the lane greeting the kids when his eyes widen and he says, “Oh, not good.” A girl about 18-months-old is playing with a white plastic bag completely over her head. Kane rips it off and tries to communicate the danger but she just giggles.
By far the most worrisome moment comes on the last day of my visit - when four-year-old Kumkum goes missing from an amusement park into the streets of Mumbai. The outing is for the slum’s women’s literacy class, whose members bring a few more children than planned. Security footage reveals Kumkum walks out of the park, past a security guard, into the streets of a city where thousands of kids go missing and are trafficked each year. We comb the busy streets, dodging cows and traffic, yelling her name and grilling passersby for hours. The park staff and local police are apathetic, to say the least. The women don’t know what to do so they do nothing. It’s clear they don’t have street smarts or communication confidence beyond the slum, so they let the hysterical westerners and program directors take charge. Within a few hours we find Kumkum at a local police station, lying on a cot under the stairs – thirsty but calm and safe. A do-gooder who searches for lost children turned her into the police when he spotted her crying in the street.
I find a kinship with the women, and see a great potential, as the Girls Can Be Collective’s sewing centre and product-making employment program takes off. The women are initially tepid but keen to start making items – including Cindy’s genius discovery of fused plastic bag fabric. Within a day, they are eager to get more creative, learning basic sewing skills and playing with fabrics and adornments. There’s a line-up outside the door. Women such as the lovely Gudi are happily immersed in cutting and sewing for hours while her son Aman patiently plays nearby. Nothing like craftiness to unite and inspire women of any culture! Better yet they’re getting paid.
A promising buzz surrounds Dirty Wall and Janvi in the Indian community, which is as important for its sustainability as its Canadian supporters – perhaps even more so. Navigating the many cultural quirks and “way things are done” in India is no small feat. Visitors and those wanting to volunteer inquire almost daily. Many are curious about the young, blonde westerner in the slums I’m sure.
A local bank sponsors the kids’ to watch the new Bollywood flick Ra-One. Outside the theatre they see another group of children with severe disabilities. One boy cannot use his legs and has to be carried. He has no wheelchair or crutches. He wets himself as Kane carries him from the theatre to wait for the bus. Not an enviable life for a child, even the kids from the slum can see this.
Some supporters take the “See a need and fill it” mantra to heart, obliging to bring prizes for Diwali on the day of the celebrations or computer parts to keep morning classes afloat. Some offer employment and donate materials to Girls Can Be.
Others have their own ideas, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Kane gets an inquiry from an American company wanting to support a project with “lasting impact” that they can implement and stamp their name on in one day’s visit. He suggests a much-needed playground for the new garden, which will help attract kids from the further, isolated region of the slum. The company abruptly pulls out when they realize they cannot claim charitable taxes on the project, even when asked if the employees would like to personally contribute.
During my two weeks in Mumbai, I visited the famous Gateway of India, the super malls, nightclubs, street markets and beaches. Nothing compared to the time spent in the slum, to making new friends and to seeing the potential for the lives of the people there. There’s no tax benefit or self-aggrandizing return to seeing a need and filling it, just neighbourly compassion and the faith that if the tables were turned another would do the same for us.
As I make my way by train to the world’s outsource capital, Bangalore, to work in another city’s slums I reflect on my indebtedness to my remarkable hosts, the Ryans, and the heartbreak of leaving new friends in a small, dusty crevice of big, crazy Mumbai.