June 27, 2010 Mumbai, India
“Wish You Were Here”
At eight a.m. Kane and I entered the slum which was already throbbing with the sound of Indian music being played at full volume on huge speakers in the garden. Everyone was awake, although some were still hanging in their doorways, not yet ready to join in on the excitement that was building. We came with party supplies, streamers, balloons, masks, candy and donuts. Kids were already dancing in the garden to the loud music near a large speaker, and adults scurried around attending to details.
Ashley greeted us at the Balwadi and ushered us upstairs to the new second floor. He was happy, beaming even, and was anxious for us to see the what the space looked like completely cleaned up of construction debris, paint cans, and leftover tiles that had been there when we left the night before. He and Pakia, Simon and Gotia worked long hours last night to ready the space for the party and the grand opening. At the top of the stairs, at one end of the space, hung a banner that read, Janvi Charitable Trust Thanks Dirty Wall Project Foundation. It was a touching gesture on behalf of all the donors who support The Dirty Wall Project, and it made us cry.
The addition of a second floor to the original, small Balwadi (school), was started on April 8th. What should have taken only a month or so to complete, took almost three months. It has been a labour of love with Ashley and Kane at the helm, managing to make everything work, staying sane during countless setbacks and having the vision to complete the task. The result of their efforts and the donations to DWP that made it possible to build, is a space that is over 400 sq. feet, beautiful and airy, and the pride of Saki Naka. (Most families in the Saki Naka slum live in approximately 80 sq. ft, with few or no windows.)
The celebration was, like India, unpredictable, noisy, chaotic and unpretentious. There were impossibly loud fireworks in the garden, Indian dance performances by two beautiful little girls dressed in costumes with silver bracelets glistening on tiny arms and ankles, their hair braided, pinned up and laced with jasmine, and a breakdance performance by two young boys. The music came from a cell phone hooked up to a giant speaker. Even though the music failed them at times, they danced on in front of a polite and respectful crowd of kids and adults.
When the performances were over, everyone was eager to see the new space. Indians don’t skimp on ceremonial gestures and rituals. I was ushered into a home, surrounded by women, twirled in to a glittering saree, my hair was pinned back, and a sparkly bindi dot was placed between my eyes. My flip-flops were replaced by worn, dusty, stappy, shiny sandals. When my outfit was complete, the women and I squeezed through the narrow doorway of the home, stepped into the lane way , and walked a few meters to the Balwadi. A red ribbon was strung across the entrance at the top of the stairs and I was thrilled to be the one to cut it. Sujata, a lively, engaging woman, approached us with an offering plate. On it was a brass holder with a wick dipped in oil and lit, food offerings and red powder. She moved the plate in a circle a few times and then fed everyone a piece of sweet. She dipped her thumb in the red powder and placed a red dot on our foreheads. The second floor of the Balwadi was now officially opened. And the party began.
Over 400 people ate samosas, donuts, pastries and candy, everyone patiently waiting their turn, lined up down the lane way, into the Balwadi and up the stairway. The little girls had done their hair in braids, bows and ribbons. Their dresses had sequins, glitter, and frills. The boys were energized and spirited and found it hard to contain themselves. They played a ceremonial beat on large drums in a circle. The pounding was high energy, contagious and deafening, just like India.
This project was a huge undertaking, fraught with problems, set-backs, and stress. Ashley, never without his phone, and without a need to sleep or take a break, was anxious to get this built for the community he works so hard for. Kane brought much needed energy, funding and a willingness to get dirty. The workers, who live in the slum, worked with primitive tools. (Rocks to cut rope, metal bowls to carry sand and bricks on their heads, buckets and pulley systems rigged to bring supplies to the roof). Suresh and his children, Akash, Sumeet, and Ritik, who share a space with the school, cleaned up construction debris, climbed on to the roof to lash bamboo to the metal poles, moved sand and bricks and painted. It was a barefoot crew. Outside contractors were called in to tile, weld, and do cement work.
The new second floor will allow more classes at the Balwadi, a clean, uncluttered space to work in, a place to hold meetings, celebrations, and Ashley can run more and varied programs to offer the people who live here, but also important, the new second floor offers a view. The people of Saki Naka can climb up from their ground floor, tiny, cramped spaces for a view of their community, the roadway and the bridges. The new Janvi school uniforms were modeled by two patient little children to the delight of everyone. The vision that Ashley had for the school included uniforms and a strategy for the kids to keep learning and start moving forward.
During the evening of celebration, Kane incited the kids to be even more boisterous, if that is possible. At times there were five children hanging on his arms, sitting on his shoulders, and stepping on his feet. We now know the second floor can hold at least seventy people! Ashley grinned the entire evening. Before I could change out of my saree, there was one more ritual to complete. The women who graciously spent time with me teaching me how to cook, presented a plate filled with roses. In turn, each woman picked a rose and offered it to us, a sincere gesture of their thanks to DWP. These gentle rituals are an important part of Indian culture. We were honored, humbled, and slightly embarrassed by being the centre of attention. We were also presented with a garland of marigolds from the parents of children that DWP sponsored in school. We accepted the roses, garlands and little presents that were given to us, on behalf of all the supporters and donors of the Dirty Wall Project and wished you were here to taste, smell and feel Indian hospitality and culture, and appreciate their generosity to us.
This evening also marked the last day in Saki Naka for Kane (and me). He has worked with these amazing people for four months, and I have had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of it. It was hard to leave. We stayed until after eight p.m. reluctant to let go of the experience and the people. We started our last walk down the lane way to the main road to catch a rickshaw to the train, and we gathered people as we went. When we finally stepped into the rickshaw, Ashley accompanying us to the train station, there were at least 25 people surrounding us, yelling good-bye. It was hard to count them with eyes filled with water.
The next day as we prepared to fly out of Mumbai, Ashley phoned us to ask us what time we would be at the airport. He arrived at the airport with 22 people from Saki Naka to see us off. This involved organizing six rickshaws, paying for them, getting everyone ready to go and arriving in time to visit with us. Kane took the boys to see the airplanes take off. This is exciting for kids who never get out of the Saki Naka area, and see nothing but rubble and debris, to see the shiny, glamourous airport. I sat with the women, who came in their best sarees. Suresh, Gotia and Simon gave us roses. We visited, with Ashley translating for two hours, until we had to go. Then the women draped us with huge garlands of marigolds, roses and lilies, one for each of us. We left the hot , humid outside air and entered the airport, turning back and waving to all twenty two people lined up along the railing.
As the doors on our time in India closed we couldn’t help but feel humbled and amazed by DWP’s accomplishments over the last few months. For DWP success isn’t measured in the statistics, how many kids we put in school or how many people received care in our health camps. Having an entire community of complete strangers, without being able to speak each other’s language, become family in less than four months is truly something special. DWP doesn’t enter a community with a heavy hand, we don’t tell people how to manage, we ask them what we can do to help, knocking down the walls of formality and creating human bonds between people of different cultures. The people of Saki Naka slum never knew we were a charity but they did know we were their friends and we were there to offer a helping hand.
We wish you were all here to meet the people you support and witness the profound effect your donations have. It is an overwhelming experience.
Dirty Wall Project is now heading to Munich, Germany where a DWP supporter is holding a exhibition of DWP photographs and fundraiser on July 3rd. From there, DWP will be back in Canada, fundraising over the next 2 months before returning to the beautiful smiles of India.
- Labour- Over 40 locals from the Saki Naka slum and surrounding area were hired and given work throughout this project. Total - 65,900 INR or $1532 CAD ( this figure also includes lunches, tea and snacks for our workers)
- Material – Including cement, steel, sand, plumbing, electrical, paint and tiles all purchased from small local shops with in a kilometer of the school. 131,236 INR or $3052 CAD
- Opening Day – Samosas, donuts, veg pastries, sweets, balloons, streamers, fireworks – 4850 INR or $112 CAD (400 people fed and entertained)
- 201,986 INR or $4697 CAD.
- For this figure, Suresh and Shalu’s small home was completely redone, the existing structure was strengthened and the entire second floor was built, increasing the size of the school from 120 sq ft to 550 sq ft.
This project was extremely difficult and one that DWP hadn’t planned on funding completely. DWP was originally going to spend about $2000 CAD as several big corporations and foundations in India had promised funding for the school. Slowly, as the bureauocratic procedure halted construction several times and the risk of building in a slum community began to scare the corporates, their promises of funding disappeared. I am very proud to say that DWP stuck with this project despite the odds stacked against us and fought for the Saki Naka slum community.
DWP is small in size but big in heart and determination just like the people it strives to help in India.
Kane and Cindy Ryan