Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Birthday in the Slums

March 6th was my birthday and for some reason I felt like celebrating. Forty three is not an unique birthday, nevertheless I felt like marking the day in a special way.  The problem was that I was in Mumbai, away from my family and friends; volunteering with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM). I was expected to go into the slums  that day, along with the other volunteers, to help GPM’s nutrition and literacy efforts for the children living in the slums. I went along with my colleagues, a little begrudgingly, knowing that my birthday wouldn’t be marked in any special way.

We started the day jumping in an auto-rickshaw for the 15 minute ride to the slums – five international volunteers and GPM staff. We walked over to train tracks that marked the beginning of the slums, where 80,000 people live – about a third of them children. We proceeded down the winding narrow alleyways till we arrived at a small room where a few local women greeted us with words of sincere welcome (in Hindi) and large smiles. I have spent many hours with these women over the past year and they have graciously accepted me as a friend. We have spent countless hours preparing nutritious food for the 500 children attending the classes in our particular slum. We have also chatted, talked about our lives, joked around and laughed a lot. The women have invited us to their homes on all the Hindu holidays and offered us a taste of festive foods (I am looking forward to Holi next week as the women have invited us for breakfast and to partake in a sweet treat prepared for the holiday.)

While the children’s food was being cooked on the gas burner, the volunteers and I trekked twenty minutes through the slums and taught three classes. The lesson plan for two classes that day was a revision on the continents, where they are on the world map, which major countries are in each continent and a few animals that are unique to each continent. The GPM volunteers were fantastic! With the invaluable help of the GPM staff translating difficult English words into Hindi, the volunteers inspired and motivated the beautiful children with valuable information, fun classes and a lot of care. The greatest moment was when the children sang ‘The Continent Song’ taught to them by one of the volunteers, Erin, earlier in the week. With loud confident voices the kids reminded us ‘not to forget Australia and Antarctica’ in the list of the world’s seven continents (growing up in Australia, I find that line quite funny!) In a few days the children who live with so little and have never seen a map before, understood that they belong to a larger community of many people’s, each nation unique in its own right. In a subtle way, we hope to instill the idea that we are all part of a large vibrant planet and that we can all achieve greatness.

The third class we gave was a lesson on the solar system. Here too the GPM volunteers showed incredible ingenuity with limited teaching materials. Each child was given a planet, a ball, that they were to represent and act out their orbit around the Sun. Slowly children/planets were circling the sun, spinning in their respective orbits. Soon ‘moons’ were added and shortly the small metal hut was full of activity…and giggles…

Soon after, the children’s meals arrived and they began to eat food that adds nutrition and health to their lives; providing active minds the fuel to imagine, wonder and explore.   

During the long walk back through the slums, and in scorching heat, I realized that I was smiling. I realized that the work we are doing is helping disadvantaged children in a profound way. I realized that the women in the slums are empowering themselves and benefiting from microcredit system we have in place. On a selfish note I realized that this birthday was very special. Come to think of it, I did spend my birthday among friends and family. --Jacob

Jacob Sztokman is the director of Gabriel Project Mumbai

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