As always, I return energised from visiting the slums. My destination today was Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri, New Delhi. This where Katha runs its public school, a buzzing pulsating place full of joy and cheer. Like in all other schools, the walls reflect the happenings. I was amazed to see how deep the understanding and explorations of concepts went. Through the medium of exploring life in the sea, these children had studied and debated issues like sustainability and exploitation, diversity of life forms, survival and propagation of species, life cycles and natural systems. Also they had a philosophical take on the sea. How they identified with the sea; And being the sea change!
After interacting with the staff here, I see a passion and hunger for learning and teaching, a will to make change possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired! I look forward to two days of interaction with class 12 kids in January, when mHS gets in a group of American students to interact with Katha kids and try and develop a template for what quality of life means to a slum dweller. Since children will facilitate this, it should reveal some surprising results.
Walking out if the community, I captured two images that offer contrasting aspects of slum life for our consideration. One on hand, slum dwellers struggle to access basic services. You can see people gathered around a water tanker. On the other, the pace of life, home based work and an intensely interdependent social network means people can catch a few hours of repose on their charpais in the warm winter sun. On the street onto which their tiny dwellings spill out, while taking in the hustle bustle and latest gossip. Plus chai!
Going to the slums or an equivalent informal settlement is always a refreshing experience for me. Today, I had the delightful company of two undergraduates. Trap, a sociology major from Princeton and Isha, a history honours student from Chandigarh. We wove in and out of the narrow, winding streets where families sat and chatted, peeled vegetables and even napped, kids played and squabbled. One home had two bird cages with parrots in one and lovebirds in another, the indulgent resident looked lovingly at the birds and gave us a proud look when I patted the chirpers! We encountered many smiles and polite stares, no hostility. Isha wondered aloud about what we would do if such a visit got a hostile reaction. Frankly, it’s never happened to me!
On the outskirts of the slum, the young men hung out, jeering harmlessly, wondering about us and our intentions. Kids followed us. Isha had a conversation with one of them about school. He claimed he knew all his multiplication tables and then, cheekily, he wanted to know if she knew hers!
The amazing thing about informal settlements is their tremendous energy and the variety of activities. A walkabout can tell a lot about the income sources of the residents. We saw an all woman tiny workshop in which some sort of circuitry used in automobile horns was being assembled! The long line of hand pushcarts in the back lane told us many residents were vendors, most likely selling vegetables and fruits. Kabaadiwaalas were aplenty too and mountains of neatly segregated waste materials stood there awaiting transportation to different destinations where they would be recycled.
I was particularly enamoured by the charpais we saw- colourful and neatly woven, they told the story of a skill nearly lost but still valued here among the poor. Tonight, as cool monsoon winds blow outside and my terrace looks more inviting a place to rest than my still warm bedroom, I long to own one of those charming charpais.