Post by Cindy Ryan/photos by Cindy and Ashley.
The fluffy curls of smoke from burning wood, plastic and garbage snake into my nostrils, held there, while I try not to breathe it in. I wave a quick hello to the family sitting around the fire sipping chai. The haze slowly moves through the laneway and hangs in drifts, reflected in puddles from the rain last night giving the slum an eerie and alien feel in the new morning light. Cutting through the smoke, my scarf held over my mouth, I’m headed to the school, trying to catch up to Ashley.
Children are gathering by the doorway of the school, a little sleepy, but anxious and excited to be going on our outing to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, sponsored entirely by Deutsche Bank.
It’s early, about 6:30 a.m. and while Ashley ticks off the names of each child, I notice the clothing on the kids. Never taking outings for granted, they love to dress their best. For the girls, jeweled barrettes, fancy elastics and plastic costume jewelry was dug out of dusty boxes or plastic bags, and sequined, (although torn and stained), kurtas had been plucked from hooks hanging on dirty walls. The boys, wearing long pants paired with worn, button up shirts, strutted the laneway, playfully punching each other, trying hard to suppress their excitement.
The kids gathered around me, coaxing me to wake-up while combing my hair and hanging on my shoulders and constantly asking me, “Kane Sir, coming?” “No, Kane is not coming today,” I reply. (Repeat as often as necessary!)
As I watched the kids mill about, I thought about my experience with children’s school field trips in Canada. Cartoon backpacks would have been filled with snacks, lunch, more snacks, extra clothing, sunscreen, bug spray and hats, and the footwear would be appropriate to the activity. Emergency phone numbers would have been tucked into a pocket. Nothing left to chance and every child’s individual needs accounted for by the parent and the school.
But, here in the laneway, there is no money for lunch kits, no proper footwear (flip-flops either too big or too small, bare feet, sandals with broken straps, and a few lucky kids have sturdy sandals). Parents don’t anxiously applying sunscreen or attach water bottles to pricey backpacks. The parents in this community are busy washing clothes by hand on broken cement or working outside the slum for a few dollars a day, but excited about the opportunity for their children.
We scramble up to the roadway in single file, kids stepping on the backs of the feet of the child in front, because the sooner they get on the bus, the sooner the adventure begins. Ashley gives some last minute instructions on how to behave, as the kids squirm in the worn vinyl seats. The bus driver and his helper (required in Mumbai traffic) take their seats and start the engine. I sigh as a rush of wind enters the dusty window spreading perspiration like butter over my face and I look at Ashley who is finally relaxing in his seat. The kids squeal, chatter, laugh, and sing songs as the bus bounces along the congested highway taking us past other slums, large buildings and overpasses and into the quiet of the national park.
Deutsche Bank employees and some of their children are already there, waiting for us to arrive to take part in their outing. Their generosity to the children begins immediately as each child is handed a boxed snack. The children quickly find a place to sit and fall silent as they devour the contents. Before we can start our nature walk in the beautiful jungle surroundings, Deutsche Bank has the children line up once again to each receive a box of chocolate, an insulated mug, and a t-shirt. While trudging back to the bus that would take us deeper into the park, the kids could barely hold all their gifts, not something they usually have to think about.
Stashing the gifts on the bus, we were driven to the start of our nature walk, highlighted by guides who supplied the kids with jungle knowledge. We saw intricate ant colonies, spiders mating (the female killed the male immediately after), jungle plants and flowers and large butterflies. The kids got to wander the ragged green pathway, step into a cool, clean, clear stream, stop to marvel at nature and breathe in sweet air, filtered by a canopy of plants. What they didn’t do was complain of the heat and humidity, or beg for water, or ask to pee, or whine about being tired or hungry or bored. Forty kids, two hours of wandering in the jungle in the heat and no complaints. There was no feeling of entitlement, ever. Pulling on surgical gloves, supplied by the guide and helped by Deutsche bank employees, the kids picked up garbage along the path, happily ridding the park of some litter.
Streaming out of the jungle environs, we were treated to a lunch (including a big, fat, moist, chocolaty donut) sponsored by Deutsche bank and we posed for a photo, tired, fed, and educated about the jungle in the city.
The ride back to the community was quieter; the drained, sleepy voices only heard when Ashley and Shashi started handing out brand new backpacks to each child. (With another donation by Deutsche Bank, Ashley happily shopped for the backpacks last week and stuffed each bag with a clipboard, two notebooks, and a pencil case filled with pencils, pens, erasers and a sharpener.).
The broad grins and excitement about receiving these packs was only dulled by the sudden stench and sound of three kids throwing up. (Riding in vehicles is foreign to most of these kids!) When we arrived back in the slum, I noticed one of the ‘sick’ kids calmly rinsing his pant leg under a tap in the laneway, and then off he scampered. With nothing but a few of my wet wipes to clean up with, the kids who were sick endured the mess until we arrived back to the community.
Thank you, Uma, Jelin and Leon and the Deutsche Bank CSR team (Corporate Social Responsibility) for arranging this special outing (and gifts) for the kids of Saki Naka. Thank you to the guides for educating the kids on environmental issues so foreign to their surroundings, and to the employees of Deutsche Bank who lead the kids in song and silliness on the bus in the park.
They had an unforgettable day and when they returned home, they could be seen proudly pulling gifts out of their new backpacks, showing them to smiling, grateful parents.