Saturday, November 26, 2011

7 Days In India - Second Day

Friday morning, November 25

Our team members joined us today (some good friends who are also leaders in our church) and we had a full day planned for us.  We were finally going to visit some slum schools and begin to give out Buffalo milk from the money we had raised!

It was our second day, so I felt a little more adjusted to the culture and the overall busyness of the Indian streets that were full of people and, equally important, the manner of driving through Indian traffic.  I was also prepared and eager to hand out some food, should the opportunity arise that a beggar child came knocking on our car window again.  We had a long drive ahead of us, and there was plenty of traffic to maneuver through.

We came to a place along the road that was intersected by a large overpass.  I could see that many children were playing in the rubble, that some homeless people had make-shift shelters and laundry hanging up.  Most heartbreaking, was seeing the very young children - practically babies, wandering around with just a scrap of a shirt on and bare bottoms, playing with the garbage on the ground.  Too often, I saw little ones without any sort of supervision and it made me wonder how they could possibly survive.

Traffic became heavier, plugged up with the two lanes packed 4 cars and 2 motorcycles across the road, and we had to wait for a light to change.  Then a little boy approached our vehicle, barely tall enough to see over the window, and he began to knock on the glass with his dirty hand and looked up at us with large brown eyes, asking "Rupee... rupee??"  I pulled out a packaged muffin from my bag and handed it to my friend Steve who was sitting in the passenger position where this little boy was knocking on the window.  He rolled down the window, and with a quick snatch, the boy grabbed the package and scampered off.  We tracked him as he weaved his way through the cluster of vehicles, away to a sheltered area under the overpass.  He ran with light steps, seemingly excited by the treasure we had given to him.

I felt better in that moment.  It felt like, for once, I was able to alleviate some suffering - one little child would have his tummy temporarily filled.  Yet, next on the agenda was a visit to a slum school - what would that sight behold?

We drove a great distance - in heavy traffic we would have expected to take 2 hours to reach the school, but today we were making good time, and it took around 1 1/2 hours.  Some stretches of the roads were smoother highways, other areas were crowded streets lined with small shops and cars haphazardly parked and double-parked on the side of the road.  As we drew closer to the slum area, the streets narrowed and became far more bumpy and unkempt.  We saw our first cow on the road, which was very exciting for us Western tourists, but a mere annoyance to our driver.  We began to see a lot more run down homes and structures - if that is even possible.  More of them were semi-constructed brick and sticks and plastic, surrounded by heaps of refuse.  Always, there were young children wandering aimlessly or playing in the dirt.

We came to a brick enclosed structure and the driver honked his horn and a gate opened up and let our vehicle inside.  A clean, yet very modest structure with colorful paintings on the walls greeted us - we had arrived; the first slum school!  There was a small open courtyard, and a couple of buildings attached to it.  One had several school rooms - just small 10X10 or maybe 12X12 rooms constructed of bricks with cement floors.  Then, on the other corner of the courtyard was a taller building that had a second story with a classroom and an open roof-top sitting area that was also used as a classroom.  Everything was dangerously constructed by North American standards - with an open concrete stairway that had no walls or railings to keep you from falling down.  But by slum standards, this place was an oasis.

As we stepped out of the vehicle, I was completely overwhelmed to see that 4 little girls, with timid smiles, and a look of awe in their eyes, were holding flower necklaces to give to us in honor of our visit.  I felt so humbled and undeserving (did they know what a horribly selfish Canadian I was?) but I gratefully accepted their gift with a very sincere "Thank you!".

We gathered in a small meeting room with an old computer and some plastic chairs lining the walls.  This appeared to be the office or meeting area.  Then we were introduced to the Pastor and his wife who cared for the children and managed the slum school.  They immediately began to serve us, and brought us cups of cold water to drink.  In a way, it felt terrible how well we were being treated - like we were dignitaries or something.  I just felt so undeserving - here was a couple who were giving up so much to serve the lowest of the low, yet, they were just genuinely happy to see us, and the Indian culture is naturally very hospitable.

We took a quick tour of the buildings and observed for a few moments the children in their classrooms.  This happened to be one of the nicest slum schools, and although very crowded, they children had small desks lined up in which to do their learning.  What shocked me the most was how young some of these children were!  Tiny little 3 year olds sat respectfully and quietly in their seats, in their miniature sized school uniform,  some looking up at us white people with large frightened eyes.

There was a watchdog also, up on the rooftop.  He was precariously chained to a peg, on a short leash and wandered in small circles quite happily, wagging his fluffy white tail.  One false move though, and he'd be hanging off the side of the roof.  (Don't tell the SPCA!)

We were informed that we needed to travel to a lesser slum school in the area, that we'd be giving those children their Buffalo milk and buns first.  So we piled into the vehicle and began to drive through the village slum area - people staring at us as we passed them by.  Along the side of the road were some "nicer" apartments - government buildings that would then be sold to people.  For most of the people in this neighborhood, however, they were entirely unattainable in cost.  We turned at an intersection, deeper into the slum and on one side of the road I saw a man cooking on the ground in a pot, and on the other side of the road, a man was peeing.  We passed by many more broken down buildings, the streets filled with busy people and wandering children, garbage heaps randomly filling a vacant space with goats, pigs, dog and even cows rummaging for something interesting to eat.  Here there were open sewers along the side of the road, more accurately described as a deep gutter that was filled with garbage.

We pulled up along the side of the road, and entered a small gate between a couple of buildings, following the sound of children chantings something.  There, on the uneven ground with broken up pieces of red bricks and dirt was around 30 children, sitting and squatting in front of their teacher.  We could now see through the doorway into the rented space that the slum school was using, and saw that this 12X12 room was also packed with children on the floor.  We were greeted with a chorus of "Good morning" from the kids, and I tried to smile back although my mind was overcome just trying to process these conditions and the state of the children in front of me.

We were invited to greet the children and speak to them and I was grateful that Dan, being in the most senior position in our group, had to go first.  But as he spoke to them, I felt compassion welling up in my heart and managed to come up with some words of encouragement as well.  As simple as it was, all I really knew to say was that these children were special, and that we loved them and cared for them.  What really do you say?  What can you possibly do?  After we spoke to them, we were allowed the opportunity to photograph the children and they were being given their milk as they were dismissed from school for the day.

I felt so inadequate and unsure of how to relate to these children. I crouched down, and tried to make eye contact with a few of the little ones, but they looked at me suspiciously.  I smiled awkwardly and just waved in their faces "Hello!" 

What do I do?  I thought, with panic.  Will I just be one of those horrible tourists who takes pictures and says "Oh, that was so sad..." and carries on with life?  Can I make any sort of impact on these children's lives?

Moments later, the children were being served their milk and a little one was stumbling on the uneven ground, trying to make her way to a safe spot to eat and drink.  An older child, perhaps a sibling, took the cup from her hand for a moment, to keep her from spilling and she burst into tears!  He grabbed her tiny elbow and helped steady her, and gave her back her cup of milk.  She quickly found a step to sit on and began greedily breaking off chunks of her bun and dipping it into the milk. 

Outside the doorway, a small group of people were gathering; curious about the commotion going on at the slum school today.  We were encouraged back to the vehicle so as not to draw a lot of attention and cause a crowd to form, demanding milk and food.  We drove back to the larger, nicer slum school that was a few minutes distance away and I stared out the window, feeling quite numb and overwhelmed by what we'd seen and how helpless I felt.

Back at the nicer school, there were long carpets rolled out and the children were assembled to have their milk and buns.  Soon there were lines of children, back to back, seated on the red rugs, each with a cup in front of them.  The children prayed together, a prayer of thanksgiving and began to gratefully receive their warm buffalo milk and soft buns.

This time, I was determined to get in closer and bridge the gap between myself and these precious children.  I immediately thought of the pictures of my kids that I carried in my wallet and I pulled them out.  I squatted next to some little ones and began to show them the pictures, pointing to myself and saying "These are my babies."  All at once, the barrier was broken and the children leaned towards the photos, looking with keen interest.  They smiled brightly at Ezra's chubby little baby picture, taken on his first birthday.  They looked on with enjoyment as I passed through all six pictures of my children, and then I repeated the actions as I moved down the line, to different clusters of children. 

Eventually, all the kids were done eating and I continued to show pictures, and a crowd began to form around me.  I stayed squatting, low to the ground so I could maintain eye contact with all the little kids.  Little ones began to push their way through the group, vying for a good position in order to see my photos.  After showing the pictures multiple times to the group of kids, I began to tell the children each of my kids' names.  "Baby Ezra." I would say, slowly and clearly.

"Baby Ezra!"  The children repeated in unison.

I went through all of my children's names and then began to ask children around me what their own names were, touching their arms and faces gently as I did so.  I couldn't believe that I was finally able to connect and after learning some of their names, I wasn't quite sure what I should do.  Here I was, literally surrounded by 20 or so slum children, all of them fully at my attention.  I began to sing "Jesus loves me" to them, and would stroke little faces or gently squeeze children's arms or hands as I sang.  They listened attentively and seemed to enjoy it.  More children pressed into the throng.  I felt slightly overwhelmed at the need, and the desire for attention, but I carried on, singing and showing my children's pictures to the crowd.

At one point, I felt a little silly, and my legs were cramping from being crouched down for so long, so I got up and twirled like a ballerina.  The children laughed at me, and several of them copied me.  So for a few minutes, we played a little game of "Simon says" where I would do an action and this crowd of 30 or more kids would copy me.

All too soon, our time was up.  In some ways though, I was spent.  I felt physically exhausted, struggling with my insufficiency to meet the needs of these children.  These were not normal poor children who had less clothes, less toys and less "nice experiences" like the poor in Canada.  These were the lowest of the low, the untouchables, just one out of the 250 million classified Dalit (untouchable caste) in India.

I hated how awkward I had felt with the children in the other smaller slum school earlier.  I hated how I just wasn't able to express love to them; how I was at a loss as to how to communicate Gods love.  I kept thinking of how Jesus would welcome the little children into His arms, saying "Do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven..." (Luke 18:16)

The kingdom of heaven was somewhere here, in the slums of New Delhi.  It was here, in the eyes of these little ones.  I looked closely today, and for a moment I touched it - God's kingdom in the warm smile of a little child.


LZF said...

I was very moved upon reading this. I am so glad that you are there, Lisa. You enormous heart and deep compassion is a gift.

Janine said...

thank you for blogging this, love to hear about your days.