Raising money for the poorer children in India is something that I had become passionate about. So when Michelle’s school was organising a rice drive to another slum area, I was more than keen to help out.
The idea was that the school would be collecting rice for a few weeks before and then, through a charity organisation that one of the teachers was involved in, The Robin Hood Foundation, the rice would be distributed to a slum area. This turned out to be a great experience, if not sad, not just for me, but for all the family. Andrew and Theo were very much part of the distribution.
Rice was brought into Michelle’s school from in any way the children could get it. There was a competition set up in school, for the house that could bring in the most rice. We donated and the hotel, where we were staying, The Jewel of Chembur, also donated. The amount of rice that was collected was phenomenal. It was all stored in a cool room next to the office, and when I saw the amount rice that had been brought in, I was blown away. After it was all collected, it was then sorted by the students into 1kg manageable bags ready to be distributed. This was hard work, some students were selected to weigh the mountain of rice and put the rice in small sealable bags. Both Andrew and Theo were keen to be involved in the whole process.
So after a busy Sunday morning taking the boys to football, the afternoon was the time we were all to meet to give the rice out. We all meet at Michelle’s school, and the older children, some year 10s and above were in charge of the operation. Andrew and Theo, being teacher’s sons, got the privilege to join in as well. All the teachers from Michelle’s school were expected to go, and so we all met up at the school and loaded the rice onto the mini bus.
We were going to a slum area which had developed by the side of a main road. These places are sadly plentiful here in Mumbai, and I had passed so many over my time here. Developed on waste land by the side of roads, or under large road bridges to provide shelter from the rain. Really homeless people that have teamed up through families that develop into communities. They then expand into slums. This is when in the past, the government have got involved, and have tried to clean the streets up and move these people in purpose built areas, making sure these poor people are hidden from society. The slum area where I teach is one such area.
But before these people are asked to move on, a community is formed. House are shacks, made from any material people can find to provide shelter. Corrugated iron for the walls, usually blue polythene sheets for the roofs. I have even seen whole families and up to ten people sleeping in abandon cars, and why not – at least it is dry. Just like any first settlement, even if these slums are formed by the side of the road, there is usually a river close by or even attached to the back of the dwellings. Sometime to provide water for washing, but ironically usually for sanitation. So any washing would happen upstream from the flow or direct sewage. This was quite shocking the first time I saw a river next to a slum, but this never shocked me as much of the amount of rubbish just left in the rivers. So with the amount of human rubbish thrown into the river, this stops its flow. Then with no flow, the river can’t deal with amount of human sewage and thus stops becoming a river and just turns into a human dumping ground, if you pardon the very unfortunate pun.
Where we stopped to drop the rice was a typical example of one of these areas, and when I exited the bus, I was trying to peek through shacks to see if I could see a river or a stream, and there was one, running along the back of the shacks that were on a very fast and busy road.
Erin was the teacher that was organise the rice drive and she is from Australia. Like myself, she had really thrown herself into helping the poorer people of Mumbai, and had got involved with this charity that organised regular rice drops all over Mumbai. The plan was that we didn’t just turn up and give these people rice otherwise they would see it just as charity. There had to be a focus, so the children in the slum would come out, and all the teachers and the selected children from the school would do some educational work with them first. So the adults of the slum took a back seat, while we all left the bus, and tried to find some street children that we could teach. We were all armed with pencils and work sheets, with mainly number and maths work to do. The children in the slum were aware that they had to do some educational work before they were given any rice. It was obvious that the charity had used this system before, and all the children were keen to sit with us, and the year 10 students from the school to learn. I was told later that if the rice was given out first, the children would just run back into the slums and not do any work at all!
This was a sad situation. They had to do some learning, before the rice was given out. I realised that these children in the slum never went to school and at least this way, some education was being provided by this charity. I did wonder how much good an hour’s teaching from a worksheet would help these children, but then I guess it was better than just turning up and giving out rice.
I walked around, taught a few groups of children, but we let the year 10 students take the lead. I watched both of my sons Andrew and Theo, and they were totally engaged in helping these slum children. Maybe one day, they might become teachers like myself and my wife. I was sort of hoping maybe not, but that’s a different story.
I explored around and looked into the slum to compare it with the slum areas I was working in. And to be fair there was a physical difference, but the poverty was evident here just the same as in the slum I teach.
Two ladies were sitting patiently on the floor sorting grains of corn individually, I have seen this many times before, and I was impressed at how these women could sit for hours talking and selecting their edible grains. It would be something that you could easily see happening in Africa, not India.
Other young boys came on their bikes from, I’m assuming, another slum to see what was going with all of us white people teaching at the side of the road. Where they there to learn? My guess was they were there simply to collect some free rice. One boy was wearing an old Manchester United top, that by looking at and remembering the kit, must have been at least 15 years old. I wonder where he got it and how long he had been wearing it? All the children that were learning were really dirty, something that I have just got used to seeing, but just another sign of the poverty they faced on a daily basis.
After maybe 40 minutes of working on the floor of a busy road teaching maths, it was time to stop and hand out the rice. This is when the whole situation changed. These slum children had come out of their dwellings to be taught by a lot of strange people, and now they wanted their payment. The whole mini bus was loaded with rice, and looking at the size of this roadside slum, I didn’t think not having enough food would be the problem. But distributing it was, the charity leader and Erin and a few game teachers, including me set up a few stations where the children could come and collected their free bag of rice. Lines formed quickly and the stronger of us adults had to stop the children just running to the station and collecting as much food as they could to return to their parents in the slum. Two lines were formed, girls and boys. They were stopped 10 metres away from the rice and only two children were allowed to then collect their bag of rice from the year 10 students, including Andrew and Theo who were physically giving the rice to the children.
This was a sad situation, and could only be compared to giving out food to poor people during a war, or a disaster like a famine or earthquake. But this was none of those reasons: just people being poor and needing help.
All was ok for a while, but the eagerness of the starving children got harder and harder to control. These children were finding any way they could get to front of the line. One of the charity leaders had decided that the girls should go first, so there were young boys at the age of 6 queuing up with the girls looking down at the floor, so it was difficult for the leaders to determine if they were girls or boys. This did make me smile. A simple cunning plan being adopted at such a young age, gave insight into some of the ways had I had experience from adults here in India. In a poor country, you have to think on your feet to make sure you can survive, and good on them, it is so much better than using physically violence or theft to survive.
The lines were becoming busier and busier, more children lining up. Nearly double the amount of children were lining up compared to the children that were taught. Boys pretending they were girls to get their rice first was just the start of it.
Children were now pushing nearer to the front of the line. It was sad to be involved in such an experience, I was thinking there must be a better way to distribute the rice to these people. But the leader told us that they had tried many ways and learnt from experience. Only the children can collect the rice because there was more chance of being able to physically hold them back, whereby it wouldn’t be possible if the adults were collecting. Also the line is stopped away from where the rice is being distributed, otherwise it becomes a free for all and gets really dangerous.
More and more children joined the line making it harder and harder for us to hold them back. There must have been now over 100 children lining up collect their rice. I was now becoming more and more involved and trying to stop the children from running around the back of the line and going straight for the prize. It was mentally and physically demanding. I looked at both Andrew and Theo, and neither was shying back, and they were both at the front of the distribution station. It made me proud that they could be involved in such an experience, and to see them totally emerged into what they were doing, helping these poor children.
After about 10 minutes of these distribution I could tell that the charity leaders were losing control and it was turning into a frenzy. They knew that they would have to take away the rice soon, get all of teachers back into the mini bus and call it a day.
One boy had lined up with the girls and tried to get his rice. He was then sent to the back of the boys’ line, but somehow, he had got himself to the front of the boys line and then got his rice. Three minutes later, he was back at the front of the boys’ line again, realising he couldn’t pass as a girl. I noticed him, and smiled. I figured everyone had got their rice, so why not try again. He got through the charity leaders and was successful in gaining his second bag. He then tried a third time, and this time he was spotted. But that didn’t stop this 7 year old. He then went back into the slum, gave the rice to his family, and believe it or not, he returned again. I found this determine little guy to be a delight to watch. He was clever; he had not passed as a girl, but that didn’t put him off. He had collected two bags of rice and then got recognised and this had not put him off either. He was like the tale of the determined spider that keeps falling and climbing the same wall.
But he had succeed again, he had returned from his slum dwelling this time wearing a different bright yellow coloured top, and he had fooled the charity leaders and he had got through and claimed his third bag of rice. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A survivor, a leader and so determined to make the most for him and family from this rice drive.
I approached him, he thought I was going to take his third bag of rice away from him, but I just shook his hand. We all got on the bus with loads of rice still left, but that could be distributed again another day and somewhere else.