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.


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