Monday, February 12, 2007

Helping a Kindergarten in Calcutta, India

I have come to India to check out a children's school project in the slums of Howrah, called Samaritan Help Mission, run by a fellow named Mamoon, who is basically a male version of Mother Teresa. His whole life is dedicated to helping poor children and abandoned women.

The day starts at 8 AM and I'm tired. I was up till 1 AM writing, though I was in for the night by 8 PM for my own safety. As a woman alone in India, I don't even feel safe in my room (granted, I'm staying at a cheap hotel on Sudder St.)--where the attendants keep calling my phone line and asking me out while doing heavy breathing. At 11 PM one of them knocked on my door and I refused to open it. After that, I didn't sleep so good. My plan was to ask my friend, Mamoon, to come talk to the manager tomorrow.

Visiting a Children's Orphanage/School In India

I hailed a taxi for "Science City," which was near my destination, a school run by another organization that helps children (I'm always trying to learn all I can from others, to improve how we help children). He got me there, but there was no sign of the school. I walked past slums made of lean-to shacks. This didn't seem good like a good place to be walking alone, so I phoned the school with the cell phone Mamoon loaned me for safety.

"You're almost here," she said. "Keep walking." Twenty minutes later, past many pairs of curious eyes, a garbage dump with two people digging for treasures (including a young boy) and a river of sewage sludge alongside shacks where people live, I arrived at the school. But there were no children. They had the day off. Malati, the woman who invited me, apologized, saying she thought they were putting on a cultural show that afternoon, but actually it's that night. Did I want to stay?

I couldn't, but I had a lovely chat with Malati, a woman from the UK who had lived in India for 16 years, about her many projects in the rural areas of West Bengal. She learned to speak Bengali in order to connect with local women, then the door opened to their extremely difficult lives. This led her to raise money under her own tiny NGO to be found at I learned about the many challenges she faced with scheduling (volunteers going to the wrong train station for example), monsoon season, supply issues and especially funding shortages--guess all grassroots charities face that challenge! (BTW: If you're looking to help build a school in rural India, physically or financially, this is your woman!) She invited me to catch a train with her in a couple of days to visit a school project, but I'd already committed to helping Mamoon's school this time.

It's frustrating when there are so many children to help, and we only have the resources to help a few. With JDCF, we want to keep our focus small so we can closely monitor everything we do and make sure it has a real impact.

We shared a tasty vegetarian lunch on the kitchen floor with the teachers and women from a live-in ashram. They talked me into eating a salad they'd just made. I knew better, but it was literally dumped on my plate.

The Danger of Diarrhea
The cramps began at midnight, and full-fledged puking two hours later. The rest you don't want to know. But I now have a firm understanding of how so many children die of simple stomach issues--because you lose so much water so quickly that you become severely dehydrated. If you haven't experienced it, it's hard to get across just how much pours out of your body. And it happens fast. When I woke again at a 11 AM, I felt like I'd been hit with a frying pan. I had water, and I'd been drinking it regularly, but my lips were still cracking from dehydration. I needed electrolytes (a mix of salt, sugar and water). Problem: I couldn't stray from a washroom for more than 15 to 30 minutes...which, incidentally, meant I was still losing water.

I knew Mamoon would come and help me, but I didn't want to bother him. The people he was helping needed him more than me. I convinced myself that if I just got more sleep I'd have the strength to go out. I'd had food poisoning before and it only lasted 12 hours. Of course, not all food poisoning experiences are equal. When I woke again an hour later everything was spinning. And when I stood up, I almost blacked out. Now I knew for sure I was seriously dehydrated. I had to go out. I went to the front desk and asked the guy (who was leering at me, even though I looked like hell) where the nearest pharmacy was and inched my way there. It was many blocks but I made it. On the way back, I kept blacking out on the busy street. Every few paces I stopped and talked myself into staying conscious. Anyone watching must have thought I was stoned.

At this point I realized I should have called Mamoon for help but it felt too late. Halfway back to the guesthouse, the cramps started again (time to run), and I wanted nothing more than to be alone. I bought some plain cookies and more water so I wouldn't have to venture out again. The rest of the day was spent in bed, grateful for my private bathroom, but still feeling supremely sorry for myself, sick and alone in Kolkata.

That night it rained. The water poured in torrents. This made me forget about my small stomach problem. Because I knew that just a few feet outside on the street there were families with babies with no shelter at all.

There are over one million homeless in this city, and at least half of them will have stomach problems like mine at any given time--children are especially prone because their stomachs haven't yet met all the new bacteria. And many of those children will die.

I saw their open lives with my own eyes. It's not possible to miss them here; you would have to be blind. Though many people choose not to look, I'm glad I'm no longer one of those people, and that I'm trying to do something no matter how small. I'm also glad that I've met so many great people who feel the same way, and this can change the world. It was Mother Teresa who said that famous phrase: You can't do great things in this world, only small things with great love.

And now I am grateful for this simple room, which, at home might be called basic, but here it is a luxury that many can't afford. I'm fortunate, at least, to have a dry place to sleep.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A Brand New School That Needs Our Help

All of this brings me to Mamoon's latest project, which I visited yesterday. At the moment it's only a ramshackle building in the middle of the worst neighbourhood you can imagine.

I walked in through a narrow alley of closed doors, turning left to follow the river of open sewage, piled with garbage. Here I saw the women washing their clothes and themselves. Children played all around them. There were also huge piles of something that looked like long paper firecrackers. I asked Mamoon what they were. "They wrap thread around them," he said. They were the centre of thread spindles, almost worthless as far as production, yet here were the people who made them. "Which people" I asked. "The children," Mamoon said. This was backed with an interview with four of the children, all of different ages. None went to school, all of them made the paper spindles.

By the time we reached the building for the future school we were completely surrounded by children of all ages, many of the youngest ones wearing dark eyeliner. They laughed when I made faces at the youngest children, loved seeing themselves on video and followed us everywhere. The building was a basic concrete construction, sturdy but needing a lot of work. It had a huge yard surrounded by high brick walls (very useful for a neighbourhood such as this), and lots of potential. The property was donated. From the roof I could look out over the expanse of the district, a barren place littered with garbage, shacks and sewage. But a large group of laughing, beautiful children huddled outside in front of the school waving at me . While filming them I started to cry, but quickly wiped the tears away since Mamoon isn't used to such shows of emotion. But how could I not look at this and cry? Not a single one of these children was in school, had ever been to school. And they all worked for what was essentially an outdoor factory making these paper spindles. Is this progress? Whatever it is, it's plain wrong.

So the school needs everything, from refurbishing to all supplies. When I show you the pictures and video of these kids I know you will feel as strongly about it as I do--it's not possible to see them and not want to help them. The best part is there is a leader in place here, Mamoon, who will make sure everything runs efficiently and not a dollar is wasted (of course we will keep track as well, as is our policy). But first I will give this project due diligence and make sure we're in the best position to help. He has appealed to another organization with more funding, so if he can get that he may not need us for this particular project.

He also has a bigger dream--to build and run a full-fledged school from kindergarten to grade 10. He has collected some funds toward this dream, but nowhere near what he needs. This project is likely out of our league because of the large costs involved, but if you know a person or organization who might be interested in helping him let us know! Right now, most of Jai Dee's help on this project has been in an advisory capacity--sharing best practices and ideas on fundraising, building leadership capacity, and ideas for future local ventures that could support the school.

I will spend the next two weeks visiting the various existing projects learning as much as I can, in order to find out the best way we can help with our limited resources. We have a small amount of money to spend on this project right now, approximately $1,000--which will likely go directly toward books and similar resources for the children, as well as toward a busted water tank for the toilet. Of course I will continue sharing whatever happens with you!


A Man on a Mission; Helping the Forgotten Children

Last month, Mamoon Akhtar won an award for integrating children of different beliefs in a harmonious way, and helping to improve their lives through education (there are many problems caused by religious differences in India). At first, he refused to accept the award because, he says, he doesn't believe in them.
"Awards grow dusty and the sound of clapping fades. The true award is, from the lap of the mother till the death bed, how much time a person has spent serving humanity." He did go to receive it, however, once he learned that it included an opportunity to speak with a large number of youth.

Frankly, when I first read about Mamoon on the Internet, I thought he sounded too good to be true. Then after emailing with him for a while I was intrigued enough to empty out my bank account for a plane ticket and haul my butt to India to meet him. Now I'm here for two weeks to learn all I can about his work, and I can tell you that after just one day I am humbled by what this man is doing, not to mention exhausted just attempting to follow him around.

The Making of a Great Leader

When Mamoon Akhar was 12 years old he got polio and lost most of the use of his left hand. At 13 he was kicked out of school. It wasn't his fault. His father had been pushed out of his job, so he couldn't pay for school exams. A year later his father died. Mamoon went to work to support his mother and family, first in a shoe factory then an iron factory. But he never gave up on education. In his spare time he took courses and managed to finish up to grade 12. Finally, he found a job as a librarian in a local school. It seemed like he had come full circle. But this was only the beginning.

One day, a boy came running into his house in the slum of Tikiapara (a few kilometres from Kolkata), where he was sitting around with some friends. The boy said a man was beating his mother, and pleaded with them to help. When they went they discovered that his mother was being beaten by a notorious druglord, a common problem in the area where druglords force women and children into the illegal trade. The druglord told the men, "Mind your own business," but they didn't listen. Instead, they called the police. A fight ensued where Mamoon was badly injured after being thrown down on the ground. After the druglord left, the woman said she didn't want to sell drugs, she wanted to keep her dignity. The boy said he wanted to learn how to read.

Mamoon decided to teach him, but when the boy came to his house he brought along five other boys. His friends and sister Jahanara helped teach the children until there were so many they needed a better location. So, in 2001, Mamoon turned a small piece of property (600 square feet) inherited from his father into a one-room school. It was located only steps from his home. As more children streamed in through its doors, two more floors were added. At this point, he says, he knew he had been given an important job in life: to help save the women and children from the clutches of the drug mafia in Tikiapara, and give them a real future.

He now has over 400 children and three schools (two in similarly tiny buildings donated by a local charity). He convinced local college girls to teach the children for free, though he covers some of their basic expenses. The children also pay a small fee to attend (5 rps per month), so it fosters a feeling of value. Mamoon donates half of his own small salary toward the administration (the other half goes toward supporting his wife, child, mother and the neighbourhood elderly women who have been ignored or abandoned by their children).

Every single classroom in each of these three schools is used in shifts for optimal use. In one classroom, kindergarten children are followed by computer literacy classes for girls (with donated computers), then classes for recent school dropouts, then coaching to children going to school who need help. When I visited the school last night, the final class, coaching for current students, was conducted by candlelight since power had gone out in the district (a regular problem). While the atmosphere inside the classroom was warm and collegial, outside in the alleys it was dark and menacing, a dangerous place to grow up and live, where children are often taught to hand out drugs to clients in small packets.

At another school I visited, a vocational school, I watched young women and widows who had been forced to work as housemaids or for the drug mafia, learning intricate embroidery, dressmaking, fabric painting and cosmetology. Eventually they will be able to work from home, where they can spend more time taking care of their children. This new independence will also help to keep them out of the drug trade.

Not only does Mamoon help the children, but he adopts their whole families. He believes it's the only way to educate the child and create a stronger community. He holds monthly meetings for mothers to talk about the importance of children being on time and clean when they come to class, and on supporting their efforts. He helps them with any problems they face, whether it be with electricity or druglords. He also teaches people self-reliance. Once when a woman kept coming to him asking for help whenever her husband beat her, he said: "You also have two hands. Why don't you use them?" Every time she would just put her hands together and beg for her husband to stop. So the next time her husband beat her she fought back, and that solved the problem.

He also helps the elderly. While I was with him, he gave one toothless woman a few rupees and a bear hug, and she cried with gratitude. He said there are a few elderly people in the neighbourhood he supports out of his own librarian's salary.

His schedule begins at 6 am and ends at 1 am, closing with hours of paperwork and solving school-related and community problems. He looks exhausted, with a ragged cough that he ignores. His wife tells him he works too much, he says, then defends himself with a quote from the famous Indian sage, Baba Amte, "My work is my life, my life is my work."

Jai Dee in India: Visiting the Forgotten Children

I have arrived in India on my own. I have so much to share with you, I don't know where to begin, so I will just begin...

Jobs For Children

I'm walking toward Park St. in Kolkata (previously Calcutta)-- when I hear the rhythmic pounding of a drum. A small crowd has gathered, mostly children. My first instinct is to avoid whatever it is, because I'm craving familiarity. My goal is to find a cafe for breakfast.

Then I see her, balancing like a trapeze artist on wood pole no thicker than a handful of pencils. It is raised up about 8 feet on two basic wooden platforms. I can only see her from behind as she moves to the beat of the drum, her tiny body inching forward, her feet pushing along a metal pan with each step. The drum is played by a pre-teen boy, possibly her older brother. When she safely reaches the end and jumps down to collect money from the crowd, I see a flash of her eyes, thickly decorated with black kohl, now smudged down her cheeks. She's about 5 years old. This is her life.

And this is one of the better jobs for children in India. Thousands of children work up to 70 hours a week in the slums around this city. Yesterday, in Haora--just across the river from Kolkata, I saw an 8 year old boy crouched in a tiny cement room in an alley, covered from his forehead to his toes in black powder, used to make metal. All down this street the scene was repeated, machines clunking, fires burning, people sorting metal parts. Mostly young men working with dangerous materials. Two were using blowtorches, staring at the bright blue and white flames without protective glasses. They will eventually go blind.

Right now you can't find a newspaper or magazine in India that isn't boasting about it's new wealth and prosperity--Indians see themselves as living in the second world power after America. But as it often happens, the people helping to build this wealth are not benefitting. You could say at least they have a job, but what does that matter if you will go blind or get cancer from the chemicals, or if your childhood passes by in haze of smoke and machines?

But there is hope. And I have come to see its light; to see if we can help urge its flame into a brilliant fire. There are many people here trying to make a difference. I am here to visit one of these people, a man named Mamoon Akhar, who calls his project Samaritan Help Mission.