Thursday, 27 March 2008

Lunch in the Slum: Sunita’s Story

Because I am spending most of my time in the slums with the children, I have not spent much time with the women. Although they are around each day to greet me on arrival, sometimes lingering at the door to watch a class and always there to say good-bye at the end of the day, we have only had brief conversations but nothing much more than that.

Today I had lunch with Anita and Sunita. Anita works for Asha in Jeevan Nager and has looked after me each day. Sunita heads up the Mahila Mandel (women’s group) in Jeevan Nager. I had been instructed to arrive early, so we headed for Sunita’s home soon after midday.

We had a great time, chatting and exchanging stories, with Anita translating as we chatted. As with other slum dwellings, Sunita’s home is small, with 2 rooms. Perhaps it is easier to describe it as a small rectangular building divided width ways in two. The first section is the entrance and kitchen, with a 2-ring gas stove and fridge. Water is stored in buckets on the floor; one clean for drinking and cooking the other for washing. The second room has a small double bed, cupboard and carpet on the floor. This is where she and her husband and 2 teenage sons sleep. The house is beautifully neat, cool and comfortable. The cool bit was because of a large fan “air conditioner” in the bedroom/living room. Our chats were held sitting cross-legged on the bed, three women, from different walks of life, talking about stuff. As we chatted Sunita started to prepare the vegetables for lunch and a few more women drifted in.

When I first met Sunita she told me of the difference Asha had made in their lives and how she barely spoke to the women in the area. Now she has prayer meetings at her home every Sunday and through the course of the day 50 – 60 people will stop by. She has applied for a bigger home, as she can’t host this many all at once. Her visitors are not only slum dwellers, but from homes in the area and beyond. People travel to pray with her and she travels to them if they have prayer requests. Not only is her home open to all who need her, she provides drinks and a light meal. I asked if she worked to pay for the food for the constant stream of visitors and she said that her work is for Jesus and that God provides. She says she has all she needs and is happy. We talked of her husband who is both supportive and generous. He gives her complete freedom to come and go as she pleases. While this may seem the norm to most of us, this is not the case in many homes here, where some women are forbidden to speak with others and have no freedom of movement separate from their husbands. Sunita’s husband supports her activities financially and by helping with house work and cooking.

It was great sitting chatting and I even had my nails filed and painted! Maybe strange to you chaps reading, but it’s fun to have a “girlie” afternoon sometimes. I have a few friends who get hold of my hands and ‘sort my nails out’ with some colour - not something I fuss with much. I now have sparkly pink nails, fingers and toes, (as we’re barefoot in the buildings) which were immediately noticed by my kids when I went to teach later!

Lunch was delicious, a large bowl of rice with a chili vegetable sauce. (Should I admit that I looked on with concern as they chopped the chilies – I should not have worried, as they prepared two versions of the same vegetable dish, the second with a fraction of the chilies.) I was interested to note that they used a pressure cooker. I think my mother is the only other person I have seen using one. Such a sensible vessel, only needing heat for a relatively short time, as they said, “lunch will be ready in no time” and it was!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Medics, CHVs and a Frame of Reference (Part 2)

Last night I joined Kiran, some of the staff and the Tearfund team for dinner. The Tearfund team have had a rough time of it as almost the whole crew have been ill and some in bed for 3 - 4 days. In a short trip, that's a chunk of time. Anyway I was talking about teaching children who have so little exposure to the world beyond the slums and one of the directors, who has been involved with Asha for 15 years explained how this also impacted them in those early days. Aditya is a journalist and helped translate the medical terms and terminology into understandable Hindi.

The initial Asha team was primarily made up of medics. This was their primary role, pediatric and pre- and post-natal care. The medics are assisted today by the Community Health Visitors (CHVs) , slum dwellers who show the aptitude and inclination to get involved. Once the CHVs are selected, they are then trained. Once their training is complete, they have a small medical kit and can help on visits in the slums for minor ailments. They help with monitoring pregnant women and observation of all children under 5. That all seems fine, until you get back to this frame of reference concept.

I have said the women initially stay in their homes, they cover their heads, don't speak to strangers, and definitely not to men who are not their husbands. Now change their circumstances. They are encouraged to venture out of their homes and to get involved in the women's group and in community affairs.

To be trained as CHVs they get a little medical training. The medics use everyday terms (to them) like "blood pressure". All this needed to be translated into basic Hindi. How do you begin to explain to someone who has hardly left her home, let alone the village, who has little or no experience of medicine or doctors what blood pressure is and why it is important. Aditya said they'd translate the messages into basic Hindi and be faced with blank faces. Even though everyone involved was Indian, and native Hindi speakers, still it was so hard to find a starting point. Even here the gap between how many live and these slum dwellers is so significant. The task is not insurmountable, it just requires patience and understanding. It is evident by the success Asha has and repeats in the slums where they work.

Monday, 24 March 2008

A Frame of Reference

Whenever I have taught, presented or demonstrated, it has been key for me to try to establish a frame of reference for my audience. It's not always easy, specially if an audience is big and the audience at different experience levels. But I feel without it, the listener has nothing to build onto and I might as well be talking a foreign language. No matter what the level, if the listener has a base to build new information onto, then I feel the learning is more solid. The learner or listener is filling in gaps into an already known base. I call them hooks. Without hooks, the information goes into free fall...

Suppose for example you are learning English, as a first language French speaker, I'd probably be able to ask you to describe your home using English terms and we could work on a vocabulary and fill in the gaps. In the same way we could talk about holidays, customs, school outings and eating out, trips to the movies, shopping, hobbies... Now consider a child who lives with 7 other people in a 10' square room. Where the sleepers take turns to sleep on the bed, and then it is width ways, not length ways. Where there is a TV set, fridge and small cooker, in the same room and the room next door, is the next house. There is no experience of a kitchen, and bedroom being 2 separate rooms. When a street address is a house number and block number, i.e R/21 - 29. That is Block R21, #29. Where the other side of the city is an unknown quantity and shopping and restaurants are vague distant things that people do, but have not been experienced in any way. Now let's work on a vocabulary! I need to be a sketch artist, mime, actor and gymnast! I do have a few pictures at the start of a lesson, but inevitably there is a word or something happens and I need a little impromptu action to try to explain the meaning. Not too difficult for concrete words, when they grow more abstract it becomes more interesting! This is more difficult for the little ones who have such a limited range of experiences, compared to many children in other parts of India and the world. Still a wonderful challenge and a suggestion for those who come in the future to bring loads of big bright pictures of buildings and lakes and mountains and snow... bring on the Internet for these kids. Let's show them more of the world.

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!

How lurgy's are treated at Asha!

So my last post was Tuesday last week. Frustratingly, I had a really bad night on Monday, last and on reporting it to the clinic on Tuesday morning, they ran some tests and had me on killer antibiotics within the hour. (Frustrating because I thought I was stronger and had been careful)
I have said for years that if you want to be helicoptered to a trauma hospital and have surgery, then South Africa, and preferably Johannesburg, is the place for that. (I speak from experience) and it seems that if you are going to catch a water borne bacterial infection, the Delhi is the place to be to have it treated! While the infection and drugs knocked me for the day, I was back teaching by Wednesday.

I'll update the events and activities in the next few days as I am back near an Internet connection.