Saturday, December 3, 2011

7 Days In India - Day 3

Saturday, Nov. 26
Just another cow on the road, slowing down traffic...

This day we had the opportunity to visit another slum school, earlier in the morning before the Pastor conducted a church service for the slum area.  By this point we were already more comfortable with the ridiculous, confusing flow of traffic that followed no typical Canadian laws or standards.  So the drive over to this slum school was less stressful than our previous day's journey.  We still would poke at each other occasionally, wide-eyed and gasping with comments of how INSANE everything was - like seeing an entire family perched on the back of a scooter, weaving in and out of the traffic, or a rickshaw packed with 7 or 8 passengers, or the fact that our driver would continually squeeze our vehicle into utterly small spaces, in effort to get ahead of the buses, trucks and rickshaws that slowed us down.

There was hardly ever a break from the poverty.  Occasionally, we would see a new, updated building and it may have wall surrounding it - but that didn't stop the garbage from piling up outside.  And it didn't' stop people from constructing shacks of wood, bricks and tarp outside the walls.  Again and again, we would pass an empty lot cluttered with trash - and there was almost always people living on the outskirts of the heaps of refuse, and children picking their way through the junk; either playing or searching for something of value.

We stopped at a red light - at least I think it was a red light , but it felt like a traffic jam and all the cars were wedged together and waiting.  Along came a dirty, barefooted little boy, his clothing permanently grayed with the dust and pollution.  Around his waist was a medium sized metal hoop - somewhat smaller than most colorful, plastic hula-hoops that we are familiar with.  He began to dance around outside our window on the side of the road, attempting to provide entertainment and perhaps acquire a few rupees.  When his tricks were done, he came over and held his hands out to my closed window.  This time, I was prepared and I pulled out an apple from my bag and handed it to him through the window.  He took it, looking both puzzled and a little bit miffed.  He rubbed his fingers and thumb together, slightly shaking his head at us and said "Rupees... Rupees!" with an aggressive plea.  He was actually snubbing our offering of food!

We looked at each other with dismay, astonished that he was upset with us.  "No rupees!" Steve said to him, and I shook my head as well.  He plodded off towards an older boy on the other side of the median, showing his apple to him.

Just a minute later, a pretty young street girl spotted us in our vehicle.  (As I've mentioned, traffic here is crazy, so you can be stuck in one spot for quite a while!)  This girl wore a dirty old tunic an pants, and she also had metal hoops to do tricks with as well.  She seemed quite excited at the prospect of performing for some white people, and right away did some hand stands and flips, jumping through her hoop and twisting acrobatically.  She actually was quite impressive in her antics! As she came to my window to be rewarded I as a little nervous and wondering whether she would even appreciate my offering of food.  I pulled out a packaged brownie, leftover from our flight, and pointed at it, asking if she would like it.  She nodded and I handed it to her through the window, glad that she seemed a bit more grateful for the food.  We watched her as she brought it over to an older woman who opened the little plastic box as if to inspect it, and then closed it again.  The transaction was complete.

It was quite frustrating to see the behavior of these street kids.  There was a system in place and at work.  They were being manipulated and used for their age and vulnerability and they didn't even get to enjoy the "fruit" of their labors, so to speak.  Obviously these kids were working for a handler - someone who would guard them and send them on the streets to beg.  Every bit of money and food would go directly to their handler, who would, in exchange see that they were fed and somewhat protected.  If the child had an extra good day, and brought in a greater amount of rupees, than they might get extra food that night.  The handlers themselves, reported to a higher power, including the requirement to bribe the police so that they wouldn't be disturbed on their territory as "their kids" worked the streets.

It was really difficult seeing this, and feeling like our contribution and helping hand really didn't help.  We could give them more money, and maybe the child would be treated better that day, but then we were just feeding the system.  We could give them food to eat, but as we just witnessed, they might not even have the freedom to eat the food themselves, having to bring every bit of profit to their handlers.

So many children spent their days out of school, wandering the streets and begging.  While there are free government schools available for all people, the quality of these free schools is very poor and the kids have both no encouragement or discipline so it is difficult to get a real education.  Not only that, but using children to beg is a very lucrative business.  Those who profit from the children's efforts - whether it be their own parents, or a handler - will prevent the kids from attending school and continue to force them to work the streets.  it means that these kids have no sense of a future and no scope of life outside of the streets.  They are doomed from the start to live out their lives as the lowest of the low - helpless and hopeless.

This is where the slum schools were were visiting showed such a huge difference and turn-around for these types of people.  The moment you walked in the doors, you would enter an oasis of peace and hope.  Everything is cleaner and tidy.  The busyness, clamor and clutter is gone.  It is like walking into a different world, one that offers an entirely different way of living.

We drove into one of the worst areas we had seen so far and hopped out of the vehicle.  There was a narrow walkway alongside a brick building, and all sorts of people stopped their activities and began to watch us as we walked through the area.  Some appeared merely curious at our presence, others looked a bit more suspicious.

We turned a corner, and stepping up five worn and slightly crumbling concrete steps, we found ourselves at the entrance of a 12 X 12 brick building filled with children.  We were welcomed into the dark, cramped space that had a small spiral staircase just to the right of the doorway, that led to living quarters for the slum school's directors - a married couple with a baby.  The children greeted us with their practiced English words: "Good morning!" and we waved and smiled back at them.

We were seated in plastic chairs in front of the crowd of 60 or so children who sat, crowded together on the floor.   There were a couple of chalkboards attached to the walls and a few colorful posters with English words for things such as vegetables or days of the week.  Other than that, it was drab, dark and felt more like a tiny, old brick garage than a school for 75+ children.

Packed into the classroom, some even sitting on the spiral staircase
The first part of our visit, the children sang a couple of songs and then began to show off their learning.  Some of them were painfully shy as they quoted a scripture or told us the days of the week and their spelling, in English - others seemed excited at the prospect of preforming for and impressing some white foreigners. 

All too soon, it was our time to impress and we were given the opportunity, with a translator, to speak to the children.  Today, we felt much more at ease and having experienced the slum schools yesterday, we had processed in our hearts more of what we desired to give to these kids.  We smiled and greeted them, and Dan introduced all of us and told how we were so happy to visit.  I spoke to them, asking if they were working hard on their studies, to which they answered in English a resounding "Yes!".  We told them how we were so proud of them, and that if they worked hard, and if they followed God, that their lives would be blessed and that they would do well in life.

A couple of us had the opportunity to pray for the kids, and when I prayed, I think they thought they were supposed to repeat me, because every time I paused, they copied my words!  I quickly changed the direction of my prayer into something that the children could say with meaning, asking for God's help and blessing.  Kindra prayed as well, speaking blessing and protection over their lives.  It was so strange how inadequate we felt to minister to these kids - they deserved so much more, yet they looked to us like we were celebrities.  We just wanted to bless them - yet they honored and blessed us so much.

Next it was time to hand out milk and buns to the children, since they had to clear out the building for that morning's church service.  They brought the large stainless steel vat of steaming buffalo milk, and we lined up and began to hand out the cups of milk and small buns as the children walked out the door.  I went outside to get a better camera angle as the children emptied from the building with their treat.

After taking a bunch of pictures, someone invited me to see inside the building next to the school where I saw a small area where they were heating up the buffalo milk in a large stainless steel pot.  This was in a tiny "kitchen" area that would be comparable to the space that most of us have for an entryway into our homes.  From there, I could see into a doorway of another very small room that held around 30 children, all seated on the floor, with a couple young woman standing at the front of the crowd with a tambourine, leading the children in some worship music, in Hindi.  I loved how their singing was so heartfelt and real.  They didn't have an amazing band, with professional musicians.  They didn't even have instruments.  Yet they sang with joy and faith, lifting up their hands and worshiping the Lord.
Preparing the Buffalo Milk
I could tell that my presence was a bit of a distraction, and I didn't want to disrupt this group, that appeared to be a Sunday-school class for the slum kids.  So I squatted down on the floor in the doorway, attempting to connect and be a part of this whole experience, not detract from it.  I gazed upon the children, all so obviously poor, but somehow looking clean and healthy in this otherwise dump of an area.    There seemed to be such a night and day difference between the beggars on the street and the children just wandering around in the slums - and the kids here, who were attending the slum school.  They didn't have the same empty, helpless look on their faces.  They looked hopeful and you could tell that they had a sense of worth.  I continued to sway and nod my head in time to the music, enjoying it wholeheartedly even though I couldn't understand the words, and I felt my heart fill with the hope that was represented in these beautiful children in the room.

After a couple more songs, I reluctantly went back outside to the open space between the two buildings where the children were still coming out of the school with their cups of milk.  I attempted to connect with some of the kids nearby, pulling out the pictures of my own kids again, and showing them to some of the children who were standing there.  Again, there was great interest in these cute little white children - a novelty with their blond hair and blue eyes.  Suddenly, our driver came over and asked us to go back inside the building.  Apparently there was a concern that we were drawing too much of a crowd, and there could soon be a riot of people, demanding milk and bread, if we did not get out of sight.  We spent a couple more minutes within the brick walls, talking with the pastor and meeting his wife and baby.  Then, all too soon, it was time to leave.

It felt like we really didn't have enough time to spend with these kids - all of us felt a sense of loss, wanting to express more love and just be able to sit with the kids and show them that we cared.  However, we were still at risk, being a novelty within this small slum village and we had to leave quickly before more people were attracted to the area.  We walked away, down a dirty sidewalk, with people lining each side and staring at us with their solemn brown eyes.  In the midst of such despair and dirt and desolation, it was amazing to see the contrast of the people with their bright, colorfully dyed clothes.  There was life, and hope within this desperate, run-down area.
It felt so different today, to be able to come and visit this slum area and minister to the children.  We didn't feel as out of touch and out of place, and found our hearts drawn to the children - wanting to be with them and to really do something to make a difference.  We reluctantly piled into the vehicle, gazing back at some of the children who had followed us out to the road.  It was such a picture -words cannot describe it, and the pictures that we took can hardly even capture what we saw and felt.  We waved back at the children, and snapped a few more photos.  Suddenly, one of the young boys came running after us - we had forgotten a water bottle and he wanted to make sure it was returned to us!  We felt such a gratefulness for their openness and hospitality.  They welcomed us as friends and made us feel like we were special to them... and all we could offer back was a smile and a cup of milk.

All of us felt sad that our time was so short here.  Something had changed in us, and the awkwardness was gone - replaced by true compassion and a God-given love.
"Don't forget your water!"

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