Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Slum Senses: Experiences working with some grade 'A' cuties in the slums of Mumbai

Elana Winchester is a GPM-Entwine Spring 2014 Fellow. Nearing the end of her last full week working in the slums, she shares some thoughts on her experiences working with 'some grade A cuties.'

Rickshaw. Garbage. Goat. Pig. Garbage. Another pig. Banana stand. Children. Donkey. Little boy's butt. Garbage. Dog. Huge pig. Another butt! Donkey. Garbage. Garbage. Pig in garbage.

Nothing gives you a morning wake up, and makes sure your five senses are in check, quite like the walk
Seen on walk from train to slums
from the Kalwa train station into the slums. The smell and taste of burning garbage, the sight of children running around half-naked and barefoot, the sound of pigs squealing and the feeling of rocky, trash laden pathways beneath your feet are enough to make you feel shocked, overwhelmed and extremely fortunate for what you have.

But as India has proven time and time again, this country is one of contrasts.

Past the garbage, poverty and chaos, are a second set of senses more striking than the first. The smell and taste of the nutritious food we help cook and deliver to the classrooms, the sight of children with the biggest, whitest smiles, the sound of "good morning, teacher!" every time I enter the classroom and the feeling of being bombarded by children asking for high fives and handshakes. "Amjad, just ek (one) high five this time, okay?" It's never just ek.

Marketing Manager, Social Media Coordinator and Hillel Board Member are a few of the hats I've worn over the past few years. In October, as part of The Gabriel Project Mumbai, I was privileged to add one more to my repertoire. To 60 children, 5 days a week, I am known as "Elana Teacher". the English speaking white girl who came all the way to India via airplane (a machine these kids are fascinated by) to teach, sing and play games with them.

As the children learn math and reading during their regularly scheduled classes, our job is to provide lessons on informal education, touching on topics they are rarely exposed to, such as art, music, science and
Elana Teacher
geography. The freedom to teach these children whatever we want gives us an immense amount of power. But it also comes with a host of challenges and responsibilities...What if we teach them something that will go over their heads? WHAT will go over their heads? What would they appreciate? What do they already know? What don't they know? How can we teach and build connections if we don't speak Hindi? Are we actually making an impact on their lives?

There was no guide book that could give us the answers to these questions so we relied on the old fashioned trial and error method. And with the help of our translators, David and Haley, we have been able to communicate with our students and put together some amazing lessons that we feel are truly making a difference. And even with the frustrating language barrier, my experience in the slums has reinforced the notion that relationships have the ability to transcend verbal communication. I've made best friends out of Sunil and Poonam just by putting my foot in their laps every day and leaving it there as they giggle and try to push it away. They think it's hilarious, but's gross. These feet have been in dark, terrible places.

Because our classrooms have students ranging from ages 4 to 12, it's hard to organize lessons that won't be too challenging for the littluns while not being too simple for the older kids. And through our scientifically tested trial and error method, we seem to have found a decent balance through the combination of educational information, games, children's songs and experiments.

During the first week of class, we focused on teaching the kids about emotions, showing them that they can express themselves beyond being just "happy" or "sad." The kids took turns sharing what makes them scared, excited, embarrassed, surprised, angry, etc. and it was interesting to hear their responses. (An upsetting number of students said "I am scared/angry when my father beats me.")
Put your hands in the ayer

My favorite lesson thus far has been teaching the kids about inventions and inspiring the kids to think creatively and out of the box. We introduced the invention of the airplane (which the kids loved), telephone, stethoscope, bicycle, etc. and we challenged the kids to create inventions of their own. We had creative workshops in which we gave the kids an object and told them to pretend it was something it was not. (This pen is a microphone! This pen is a rocket! This pen is a snake!) From this week, it was very clear to us that these kids are rarely pushed to think creatively. Fingers crossed that our lesson lit some sort of creative spark in those cute little heads of theirs.

For our science week, we taught the kids about static electricity, energy, and why some things sink while others float. We brought in a bucket of water and a bunch of objects, challenging the kids to guess whether the objects would float/upar or sink/niche. It was such a fun lesson and, when I saw how engaged and excited the kids were, I was even more proud to be part of this project.

The kids freak out over duck, duck, goose, powerpoint presentations, coloring, music and limbo - such simple things that we take for granted. And even while sitting in a hot, dark, 10x10 classroom, their eagerness to learn is palpable and I am floored by how well behaved and appreciative they are.

But some students are not so lucky. About one month into the program, one of my students, Anand, stopped coming to class. It wasn't until I bumped into him carrying two jugs of water in the alleyways of the slums that I learned he had stopped attending because it was his responsibility to make sure his house had water. Since when do kids take on adult responsibilities? Since when do small children take care of their, even smaller, siblings? This is the reality within the slums and it's really hard to grasp.

Despite the differences between the reality of the slums and the reality which I am familiar with, it's important to note that life within the slums is not sad. In fact, it's the opposite - people seem really happy. Children play, women gossip and goats frolic, just like in the rest of India. It just takes a bit of effort, and a different perspective, to notice that life within the slums is not defined by its garbage, chaos and poverty.

Before coming to India, my knowledge of the slums (and India, in general) was limited to that which I learned from the film, Slumdog Millionaire (which taught me about rupees, the train system, and chai wallahs - success!). But most kids don't have Jamal Malik's luck and will never transition from slumdog to millionaire and live happily ever after with a choreographed Jai Ho dance sequence. While it's extremely difficult for a slumdog to make his or her way out of the slums, my hope is that, through the Gabriel Project Mumbai, we are inspiring children to explore the world around them, ask questions and ultimately fulfill their dreams.

Elana Teacher in the class

GPM's Fruit campaign: 'Banana Day!'

The high five master himself, Amjad

My precious little Poonam

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