Monday, 24 March 2008

A Visit From Ireland

Two weeks into the trip and there was no teaching. There were two sets of visitors on Monday , 17th. Kiran likes to have a few faces to greet those “fresh off the boat” so to speak. So I spent the morning in the office working on a few Asha bits and then went out to meet the new team from Tearfund.

For those of you interested in getting involved in something like the trip I am doing or a shorter, taster trip, organisations like Tearfund help you do just that. This team are from all over the UK, all ages and from all manner of jobs and had each taken 2-week’s leave to do voluntary work. Apart from a weekend orientation, run by Tearfund, they did not know each other at all. Having landed the previous morning, they still did not have their Delhi feet and were a little jet lagged and perhaps a little bewildered.

After a brief welcome and a run through of do’s and don’t, mostly heavy reminders of be careful about food and being vigilant about hand washing, I joined them on a brief trip to a Kanek Durga, a slum only recently completed by the St. Stephen’s team this year. So newly done, in fact that the smell of fresh paint lingered. Kiran has not done this before, but as the St.Stephen’s team had done such a fabulous job, Kiran wanted to show the new team the type of mural’s that worked. I think it’s a great idea. It gives a new team an idea of the type of murals that get done and may help them plan their own. I remember our team last year and how we spent quite a bit of time trying to get arty. These murals were big and bold, a little fanciful and perfect for a children’s resource centre. What were also striking about Kanak Durga were the contrasts. I had I seen the before photos at St. Stephen’s, but it seems that Asha only has access to half the building, so the other half was not done and the contrast between the two sections is huge. I hung back and chatted to one of the children in the centre, where they now have 3 or 4 computers. The young chap was proficient enough in English to tell us about the products on the machine and show off a few skills. On this occasion, the Tearfund group did not go into the slum, but saw the clinic and went back to the main clinic, to await the arrival of the second set of visitors.

Perhaps carrying a slightly different profile, the second group of visitors, included the Irish Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Mr Eamon O Cuiv TD and was accompanied by Pat Byrne, Deputy Ambassador. Kiran introduced the activities at Asha in a brief presentation. Then everyone, the Tearfund team, and Irish entourage and a few of us “old timers” moved into Ekta Vihar, the slum just alongside the Asha Clinic, to meet the Women’s and Children’s Groups.

I have experienced this a few times; where we are taken to the slum clinic and visitors or guests sit on chairs surrounded brightly dressed women on mats on the floor. A translator, this time Kiran, introduces the women and has them explain their role in the women’s group. The Irish contingent were on a deadline and so the talks were shortened to having one woman give us a break down of life and the changes over the years.

You’d think they’d never told the story before. In theory there is one spokesman and she sets the scene, but any omissions might have others adding bits to the story. So it can be a little bit of a happy babble. They still seem to love the story and laugh and explain in earnest how conditions have changed over the years.

Before you go dewy eyed, the conditions are still appalling. The walkways are now concrete, the little homes are brick dwellings and many are 2 stories. The people have land rights and there are toilet blocks, running water and drinking water. But there is still filth, there are flies and the water in the little gullies is pretty indescribable. I still think, though conditions have improved beyond recognition, this is still no way for people to live.

My walk to the Ekta Vihar clinic the week before had been passed a small, temporary “butchery”. Blood and flies everywhere, this was the day or time of day for converting chickens to food. Crates of birds, followed by a slaughter section, followed by a cleaning section and final the completed, end product ready for the pot. The flies and blood were gruesome and unpleasant. In years gone by, this slum was all hardboard and plastic dwellings. Washed away by the monsoons and held together with whatever materials they could find.

The transformation for me is the women and people themselves. The extent to which these people have grown is so significant that I wish more people in the world could experience that growth in their own lives.

During the talk, the women grew very excited and all burst in on the telling of the tale. Kiran stopped translating and listened. Just the previous week, one of the drinking water pumps had stopped working and they’d requested the water department to come out and repair it. This was met with casual disregard and so the women staged a sit-in. Not only did they refuse to budge, they threatened the water department that they’d bring their husbands and children to join them until the pump was fixed. Needless to say the pump was repaired within the day. The wonder of this is that in the past, these women would not even leave their homes much less stand up to a government authority to demand their rights. Asha is helping take control of their lives and their community and that’s was so encouraging. Get dewy eyed about that!

Mr O Cuiv then spoke to the women, first thanking them for sharing and telling them about his visit. The women were full of question for him, asking about levels of poverty in Ireland. He told them that there had once been extreme poverty in Ireland and that it was not that long ago and that today there is nothing like the poverty he was seeing in India. Actually he was very encouraging, saying that it is possible to change things and that they’d taken the first steps to change and that the hardest step is the first one.

He went on to meet the children’s group, telling them how education is the key to development and related the story of his grandfather who walked 7 miles each day to get to school. It turns out his grandfather was the first Prime Minister of Ireland!

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