So after nearly 4 hours on trains, taxis and rickshaws I arrive at one of Mumbai’s largest slums. This is where I have volunteered to teach for two days week for as long as we stay in India.
The word ‘slum’ is not a word that I like; sometimes these areas are called ‘compounds’, and I am not sure I like that term much either. But here mostly they are called ‘slums’.
The slum that I am working in as been described as a vertical slum. In 2003, the Indian Government decided to rehouse some of the homeless people and even destroy an original slum so people could move here. They call this rehabilitation, another word that I don’t much like. I thought this word only referred to animals not people. They built 65 ugly- looking concrete buildings, 9 floors in each block. This slum now houses an estimated 9300 people. The buildings look like they have never been painted and seem to look a lot older than their 14 years. They were, of course, provided with electricity, but soon after the first bills were due to be paid 14 years ago, no one could afford to pay them. So much of the compound goes without electricity and the lifts have not been operational for years. I have been told that people have been known to dig up the ground near their tower block and try to physically transfer live electricity to their home. I have yet to visit my work place at night, I am not sure that I will, but I can imagine it to be a dark place, in more than just the lack of light.
Once I finally arrived at my destination, I had a piece of paper that was given to me at the office of the Voluntary Schools Organisation, (which I will now refer to as VSO.) On this piece of paper is the school’s address, which is within the slum. The paper was nearly wore out from the amount of times the poor rickshaw driver had to refer to it and ask directions. This for those who have been following my blog, was the rickshaw driver, ‘No map’.
I had to get to a private school that was directly opposite the slum, and hopefully work out the route from there to get to teaching and the teachers. As I stepped out of the rickshaw with only a piece of worn paper to help me, I realised that this wouldn’t be easy. However for the first time being here in India, I felt alive, vulnerable, but alive. I had no idea what to do next, where I was going and how I was going to find the school. I stood for a moment and smiled to myself, I quite enjoy this strange feeling, and it is one I have not had since travelling on my own nearly 30 years ago.
Anyway, I was soon woken from my day dreaming and the first thing I noticed was all the rubbish and dirt covering the roads and the pavements. I was thinking this certainly would not be a place to wear sandals. I looked up and I could see the yellowy coloured concrete tower blocks, could they be the slum that I would be working in?
I said goodbye to ‘No Map’ and started to slowly walk away from the rickshaw. He pulled up alongside me, and said. ‘Sir, are you sure you have the right address?’
He was worried about me, I was worried about me. I had been in Mr No Maps rickshaw for nearly an hour, and we had sort of built up a relationship. I guess there was no way that he could understand how a white westerner could end up here.
I smiled to him and said thank you, this is where I want to be. And he drove off.
I was then soon approached by a young boy, guessing I would say he was about 12. He was dressed in a clean and colourful school uniform; he attended the private school that was opposite the slum.
‘Sir, can I help you, where do want to go’
I was thinking my answer could have been back to the UK, but no I was on a mission, and the white piece of worn paper reappeared.
‘I am looking for VSO, No. 25, B Wing Sai Darber, Co-op Society, room number 112, first floor.’
The boy looked at the paper.
‘Voluntary Schools Organisation, I know follow me’. At this point lots of the boys friends appeared, all trying to speak to me at once, ‘where you from sir?’, ‘why are you here, sir?’. There must have been 20 boys, all trying to help me. I pointed at the first boy and said:
‘I will follow you,’
How lucky was that, I was thinking, so the piece of paper went safely back into my pocket and I followed him. These were my first memories of my new work place. I had to step over so much rubbish on the floor, including dead rats, and all sorts of things that I will save for another time to describe. We walked passed two more tower blocks, turning left and then right, I was still following, concentrating where to place every footstep in a safe a clean position. I was thinking ‘this can’t be where VSO is teaching, surely not’. The boy kept reassuring me that he knew where he was going, so I followed.
We entered a tower block, and this reminded me of entering tower blocks back at home when I use to collect insurance premiums for the Prudential. I was 18, and it was in the late 80’s. I worked in areas such as Tottenham and Camden Town, but even though these building were similarly built and looked the same, the differences certainly outweighed the similarities.
By the time we entered, it was approaching mid-day, but it was dark. I followed the boy up the stairs, there was a dog guarding the corridor, he barked. I could tell he didn’t like me, I was right, but that is another story.
We move down to the end of the corridor the last room at the end of the corridor,
‘Here, sir this VSO.’
I looked up and see a poster advertising VSO.
‘Thank you,’ I said to boy. ‘Many, many thanks. I would never have found this place without you.’
I was thinking ‘should I give him some money?’, but I didn’t. We shook hands and he walked off.
I looked into the room, this is the school, the classroom, really. The room is about 18 feet by 12 feet. There was a chalkboard about the size 3 foot by 2 foot. There are no desks. In the corner of the room, there is a door, which I assume is the toilet, but I wasn’t about to look inside to check it out.
I saw two ladies in their forties, sitting on the floor eating their lunch. I speak first.
‘Are you Marie, from VSO? I am John I was told to meet you here. I am from England and I am a teacher living here in Mumbai. I am here to volunteer and help teach in your school.’
‘Yes I am Marie, I was told you would be phoning me.’
‘No, I thought it might be easier just to turn up’ as I wiped the sweat from my brow.
‘It’s good to meet you, you are welcome at our school.’
She got up and shook my hand, the other lady smiled, she didn’t speak much English. Marie was the teacher that I have asked to help, while I am here. I was told at the office that this would be the best place for to me to work, because it was the closest to where I was living. Also, the only way I could use my 20 years of teaching experience would be for me to teach English. And anyone who knows me well, that is not my best subject!
VSO helps all children across Mumbai and Pune and has been running for 30 years. When I decide to volunteer for this organisation, it had a good name and good reputation. The organisation helps children that can’t afford to go to school. Some children on the slums can’t afford to go to school, because they are working. From the age of 7, some children will not attend school, they might have to roam the streets begging or collecting plastic bottles, so they can help themselves and family have enough money to eat. VSO provides schooling to such children, and drive school buses to the slums where the children enter the bus and are taught. The thinking is if they can’t get to school, the school can go to them.
In this case, VSO provides English lessons to children in two separate classes, one class in the morning and one class in the afternoon. In Marie’s class there are 29 children in the morning and 19 in the afternoon. Most children that attend these classes also attend state school, but not all of them. Some children that attend Marie’s English class don’t go to school at all.
Here in India, the government school children go to school either in the morning or the afternoon; depending on their ability, here it is called Standard. So VSO is a service to provide the children with additional education, either in the morning or afternoon, because no child in a government school goes all day.
VSO is a fund raiser charity and can only exist by people giving money for these services to continue.
I find out talking to Marie that she has to travel nearly two hours one way by train to get to school every day. That is a job on its own, without a full day’s teaching and then another two hours back every night. She is about late 40’s, a tiny women, who is Catholic. Her first language is English, therefore enabling her to teach English. She is married and has a teenage daughter. A wonderful women, and I already know we will be friends.
Just as I continued with the conversation, the area manager that I briefly met at the office is keen to show me around all the other tower blocks. The organisation rents rooms to be used as classrooms to teach in from the community. VSO has about 9 rooms rented on the compound. As I said, I will be with Marie teaching only English.
Govad, the area manager, talks to me about VSO and promotes what a good job they are doing. He shows me the computer room, which is the same size as Marie’s room housing about 10 computers. I am impressed; he explained that these computers are the only computers that children will see. Every class has one afternoon a week to use them.
As we walked to the next class, there is a load of noise and some youths look like they might be fighting.
‘Don’t worry, John, that’s just a drug war.’
‘Really?’ I say. I am thinking the only person who is going to learn the most from this teaching experience is me.
He just calmly turned away and walked in another direction. I say ‘really? A drug war?’
‘Yes. Common here’.
He then goes on to say there are 3 rapes a week, and 1 murder a month in this area.
I really didn’t know what to say to this, it shocked me a bit. Later I think this can’t be true, but after reading about my new work place, these statistics are true. Maybe it will be wise never to come here at night time, with or without electricity.
Lunch is over and I follow Govad back to Marie’s classroom. I entered the classroom and see the children sitting on the floor. As I enter the classroom, they all stand up together. They are amazed that someone foreign will be teaching them.
‘Hello Sir, welcome to our classroom’
‘Pleased to meet you Sir John’
At this point I say hello, and say ‘you cannot call me Sir John’
Marie smiles, ‘Ok, John Sir’
So the children all chant together ‘welcome to our classroom, please to meet you John Sir’
The lesson is started by Marie, a simple grammar lesson, the children show respect and are keen to learn. When the lesson comes to an end the children all stand up, take their reversed positions ready to sing.
They sing four songs in English, one of them being the Hokey Pokey. I watch and smile as they perform. Then they all stop, one child is selected to come to the front of the class. This child is the chosen leader,
‘At ease, attention, at ease attention.’ she shouts confidently.
Then the whole class including the teacher sing the Indian National Anthem. Later I have seen that the National Anthem sung at the end of every class.
Wow, I think.
I have another moment to myself standing in front of my new class.
This is why I am a teacher, just to give something to the children.
I really haven’t been interested in anything else since becoming a teacher nearly 20 years ago. Giving something to the children is all I have ever cared about. I have never been the slightest bit interested in tests, levels and statistics. I feel if a child is trying his or her hardest, what else should matter? I have also not been interested in become a headteacher, (that’s my wife’s role); to do this you become a manager and no longer are a teacher. So, if I wanted to be a manager of people, why would I choose do that in a school? So with all these reasons, this is probably why I have ended up, here, teaching for free on a Mumbai slum!
I take one more look at the children, thinking I hope I can give these children something. I hope I can make a difference. Whether I do make a difference or not, only time will tell, but teaching here will be fun and a great learning experience for me. It shouldn’t be difficult to teach these children, however I think it will be difficult to say goodbye to them when the time comes.