Heart for Mumbai

Heart for MumbaiAfter the announcement that she would be visiting friends in Mumbai, India with her brother and parents, 7-year old Emma Timmermans from Nijmegen decided she wanted to help the ‘poor children’. At school she learned that poor people live in India and she didn’t want to pass the chance to help them out. There are 18 million people living in Mumbai, the old Bombay, many of which in some of the largest slums in the world.

Her parents obviously supported her sweet initiative and looked for a reliable partner, which was found in Atma Mumbai, a Dutch-Indian NGO that mainly focuses on education and health care for underprivileged children in the city of Mumbai. Through this NGO Emma got in touch with the local CHIP foundation. This foundation adopted and largely rebuilt the Prateeksha Nagar School in one of the slums of Mumbai in 2004.

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Fundraising

In our initial dealings with Atma Mumbai it quickly became clear that it was better to raise money than to collect goods. In India the value of money is much greater than in Europe, and helps support the local economy too.

Long before the actual visit Emma and Casper begin thinking of ways to raise funds. They make their first Euros by washing cars and bicycles, and doing other little chores in their street. All nickels and dimes go into a special jar in a well-locked cupboard.

After informing Emma and Casper’s primary school about our project they also happily offered their support. All donations from the weekly children’s charity fundraise during the 11 weeks between school holidays were dedicated to our project.

Apart from donations from friends and family we also got attention from the local media. In September there was an article on Emma’s project in local newspaper ‘De Brug’. A week later Emma got live airtime on a local radio station to talk about her project.

The week before we left we could happily report a final result of almost 2,000 Euro (USD 2,800)! A great result for which we like to thank all that donated.

Going to India

On an early Saturday morning October 21st we leave for the airport to start our adventure. After a long journey we arrive in a warm and busy Mumbai late at night that same day. Fortunately our friends have come to pick us up and it doesn’t take too long to drive to their apartment and get to bed. The next day we carefully take our first steps in the large Indian metropolis. There is a large neighborhood with small houses and little shops immediately around our friends’ flat, where we get our first impressions. However, most of the day is spent on good Indian food and relaxation by the pool under the tropical sun.

Heart for Mumbai
Since a few weeks the monsoon is over, and it is now a period of relatively cool temperatures and low humidity. Cool really means not too hot and humid, probably comparable to a warm summer day in Europe. It is a nice change from the Dutch fall, especially after having to scrape off the season’s first ice from the car windows back home a day earlier.

Impressions of Mumbai

The streets of Mumbai offer a chaotic kaleidoscope of colors, movements, sounds and smells. Everything tries to find its way through narrow alleys and wide lanes. Buses, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, handcarts, tank trucks, playing children, street vendors, cows, stray dogs. Everyone seems to happily use horns and bells. In between all that people are sitting on the side of the street to eat, groom or sleep. You just don’t know where to watch.

As a white western person it is impossible to go unnoticed. People look at you smiling and beggars touch you or pull you by your sleeves to get attention. Street vendors try to sell you something; rickshaw drivers look if you are interested in a ride. Children shout ‘Hello Sir’, hoping to practice their English skills in a friendly conversation, or want their picture taken.

It strikes us that this overwhelming chaos definitely has a happy look and feel to it. People are friendly and seem to be relaxed in the masses. It is also very colorful. Most women wear brightly colored sari’s and there are large and colorful shop signs everywhere, often larger than the shops underneath. The goods for sale are also very colorful. Fruits, vegetables, toys, magazines, tires, electronics, food, utensils, everything mixed up in thousands of mini-shops.

Heart for Mumbai

Despite the fact that Mumbai is a very large city, the number of tourist attractions is relatively low. Mumbai is clearly a workers city, and doesn’t seem to focus too much on tourism. Its largest attraction, the famous Bollywood studios, isn’t even open to the public at all. These studios throw out over 1,000 productions every year, many more than the more famous Hollywood.
Heart for Mumbai
We do visit other sights in our week in the city. One of the best-known Mumbai landmarks is the Gateway to India, built by the British around 1915, commemorating a visit by the British Monarchs a few years earlier. Directly opposite the gateway is the Taj Mahal Hotel, also a famous backdrop for many postcards. To Casper’s joy we have a good pancake lunch here.

Then there is the old Price of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum). This somewhat run down museum has a good collection of Indian antiques and some remnants of the European colonial history. More special is the Mani Bhavan, the house where Mahatma Gandhi used to stay in the 20s and 30s. The house didn’t change much since that era and still has Gandhi’s room in its ‘original’ state. It also provides an emotional overview of the life of the great father of India.

Heart for Mumbai

In the northern parts of Mumbai there is a 104 square kilometer city park, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This park is known to house wild leopards, and there is a scruffy lion and tiger safari. The park’s main attractions however are the Kanheri caves. These are no real caves, but rather a complete village cut out of the rock face. Between 2000 and 600 years ago it housed 650 Buddhist monks that lived, worked, prayed and taught Buddhism here. Among the caves are a few beautifully kept Buddhist temples, with gorgeously carved out sculptures depicting the life of Buddha. And everywhere are monkeys begging for food.

But the biggest attraction to us remains the city’s street life: the hustle and bustle, the colorful and friendly people, the chaotic masses, the noise, the animals in the streets, and the fantastic Indian food. But also the ingenuity of the people in trying to make a living. People use the simplest objects and build entire businesses around them. With a typewriter you can open a correspondence and translation service. With a wrench you can start a rickshaw repair shop. With a bunch of bananas you can start a fruit stall. With flowers you can make beautiful flower ornaments for cars.

The Prateeksha Nagar BMC School

After having gotten some rest on Sunday we will be visiting ‘our’ school for the first time on Monday. In the company of Lee Bolding, the Australian director of Atma Mumbai in India, and Kiran, the social worker at the school, we drive to the school. The school is situated on a busy road in the Jogeshwari neighborhood in northern Mumbai. There are several slums in the immediate area around the school, where people live in small self-built shacks, without running water or electricity.

Kiran guides us through the school. The school has about 850 students, covering the 4 lowest grades, or ‘standards’ as they are called here. There are about 8 classrooms. In order to allow all students to attend daily classes the school operates in two shifts: one in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Heart for Mumbai

The Prateeksha Nagar School is a so-called BMC (Bombay Municipal Council) public school. In total there are about 1,125 BMC schools, offering education to the poorer population of the city. Less poor children attend private schools. Despite these numbers there are still too many children that do not go to school at all.

Until 2004 this was one of the worst BMC schools in Mumbai. The percentage of children dropping out before making it to 4th standard was over 50% and the school suffered from theft from the bad quality classrooms.

In 2004 things changed when the Indian NGO CHIP adopted the school. First a fence was put up around the property and 24-hour security was installed. Then the building itself was largely rebuilt. New hygienic facilities were installed and all classrooms were repainted. CHIP also hired a social worker, our guide Kiran. Once hired, Kiran set himself the goal to make the Prateeksha Nagar School one of the top BMC schools in Mumbai, and has since dedicated 100% of his life to meet this goal. One of the first things he did was visiting all parents in the surrounding slums, convincing them to allow their children to go to school. By doing all this he increased the number of students from 600 in 2004 to 850 now. On top of that he decreased the dropout rate from over 50% then to less than 5% now. Truly a remarkable achievement.

Heart for Mumbai

In all classes we receive a warm welcome from the students and teachers. Apparently it is a great honor for them to receive visitors from the Netherlands, especially the two blond children their own age. Emma and Casper are a clearly overwhelmed by the experience, trying to hide behind our legs while they are introduced to all classes. In every classroom Kiran explains the purpose of our visit in Hindi. First we visit a 4th standard group, and Kiran picks two girls about Emma’s age to further guide us along the other classrooms and help him to tell the kids about us. They are clearly enjoying their special treatment that morning and have many pictures taken of them with Emma.

Heart for Mumbai

Despite the recent restoration the classrooms look rather worn down. Kiran explains that the school suffered from almost 5 feet of water during the 2005 monsoon flooding and that they have not had the funds to repaint the rooms since. Nevertheless the school makes a very clean impression, a result of the special attention to personal hygiene introduced by CHIP. Twice a week all children help keep the buildings and surrounding grounds clean.

All classrooms have open windows, concrete walls and tiled floors. Only 5 of the 8 classrooms have benches and tables. In the other classes children sit on the floor. In front of each classroom there is a blackboard and a table for the teacher. The walls are decorated with self-drawn educational posters on discipline, hygiene and the India.

Spending our donations

Closing off our initial visit to the school we have a brief meeting about how we could spend the 110,000 rupee that we raised. Lee and Kiran are very happy with that large amount and are eager to discuss spending. Obviously we gladly leave that decision to Kiran, who after all knows exactly what the school needs most. We decide to purchase the following items:

  • 1,000 library books. The school has a dedicated library room, but only very few books to put in it. We get bilingual books in Hindi, Urdu and English.
  • 450 pairs of pants for the girls, to become part of their school uniform. With winter coming up this is a highly desired item that most girls cannot afford. Kiran has done some pre-work for this and shows us a few fabric samples, of which we pick the better quality.
  • 850 cotton handkerchiefs, an important part of the CHIP philosophy around personal hygiene.
    Sports equipment. The school has no sports equipment at all, although sports are another important part of the CHIP educational philosophy. We get a few dozen cricket, badminton, football and basketball sets, including nets and cones.
  • In order to protect the books and sports equipment the school will have secure bookshelves and sports equipment cabinets made.
  • 850 filled pencil cases. This is the part that Emma and Casper work on themselves. We purchase 850 empty pencil cases, and the same number of pens, pencils, rulers, sharpeners and erasers that we personally assemble into complete kits for all 850 students.
  • Finally the school organizes a party for around 400 children on the Saturday of our stay. People from another charity ‘Magic Bus’ will attend to play games and music with the children and we will provide a drink and some snacks for all students present that day.

Isn’t it amazing what such a relatively small amount can buy?

The party

On Saturday afternoon October 27th, our last day in Mumbai, the school has organized a party. During this party we officially hand over the sports equipment and the pencil cases. Magic Bus is present to play games and music, in which we all participate. It is very busy, with 65 children in the schoolyard and another 400 or so in the classrooms, attending the afternoon school session.

Our Dutch friends and their three children are present, as well as Lee, Kiran and a few other volunteers from Atma Mumbai and CHIP. To our pleasant surprise also the president of CHIP Mumbai, Dr. Sunita Banerji, honors us with her presence.

This is the moment that Emma had been looking forward too. She is eager to start handing out the pencil cases and snacks to all 500 children, as well as the friendship bracelets that she and her classmates made at school a week earlier. Fortunately she gets lots of help from all volunteers, although she would have preferred to do all the work herself. Casper also happily assists in the work.

Heart for Mumbai

Halfway through the party we show pictures of Emma and Casper’s school. Emma and Casper get a big round of applause. Then the children want to have picture with Emma, themselves and their new sports equipment. Squeezed in between 65 screaming and touchy children that all want to sit next to her in the picture makes her a bit uncomfortable, and she quickly gets out of the way. All is clearly a bit overwhelming for her, although both Casper and Emma happily participate in some of the games.

To close off the party the children are allowed to dance to loud Bollywood movie themes on the big outdoor stage in front of the school. Everybody seems very happy, and Emma and Casper perfectly blend in and participate. Ultimately, around 6 o’clock, the children are let out of the gates where many parents had already been waiting and watching.

That same evening we pack our bags and make our way to the airport. About 20 hours later we arrive back home tired, and still overwhelmed by our adventure.

Reflection

Looking back it feels as if we have been away for over a month. The impressions of this trip will stay with us forever. India is a fascinating country. In a week you can really only scratch the surface of its complex culture. It is difficult to comprehend the enormous gap between extravagantly rich and very poor. One of our key questions is how it is possible for these two extremes to co-exist so peacefully?

Perhaps it is related to the clearly noticeable optimism in the Indian people. Everyone in the chaotic masses seems to believe in a better India in the future. And every individual seems to be very dedicated and working hard to indeed help create that better India. It feels like India’s current economic improvement is not just the product of a more progressive and positive government, but is coming directly from the people themselves.

Above all however we saw this better future in the eyes of the children at the Prateeksha Nagar School. In every classroom we were looking into the eyes of a better India. We are convinced that our little drop in the ocean will mean a lot to at least these few hundred children.

From a personal point of view this trip has once again confronted us with the reality of life. We now have experienced from first hand what poverty looks like. We have also experienced how individuals like ourselves can contribute to solving this poverty, no matter how insignificant it may look on the grander scale of humanity. We will definitely stay in touch with the great people behind Atma Mumbai and CHIP, and will certainly revisit ‘our’ school at some point in the future to see how things have progressed and do yet another project. Hopefully we will then also see how our small effort has led towards a better future for these children.

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