This We Went Solo story is written by Angela Haines who took her first solo travel trip at the age of 23. The story is originally published on her inspiring blog Slumdog Spirit.
People have often asked me what was it like working in the slums? – Was it dangerous? Where did you live? How did the people benefit? Would you do it again?
In order to do achieve anything in life you have to love what you do otherwise there is no point. This is something I have wanted to do since my last volunteering stint in 2006. I would not have signed up for it unless I 100% wanted to do it.
I was not living in the slum itself, but flat sharing with the other volunteer about an hours commute away. My flat was basic to say the least. No TV, no wifi, no sofa, no bed and in quite a remote area. I slept for a month on a mattress on the floor, but it was fine. Had it been any longer than 1 month, I think I would have wanted a bed as I later discovered cockroaches under the wardrobe, so towards the end I was sleeping with one eye open!
Baiganwadi slum was an hours commute away door to door. On a normal day I would be up at 6.30am and ready to leave the flat before 8am in order to get to the slum for 9am. I would leave the flat, dressed in a T -shirt, leggings and shoes from Primark that have now been thrown away, – they were disgusting!
Sometimes I would wear a sari or Indian dress; ironically these were the times that I actually attracted more attention, even though I thought it would be the opposite.
From my flat, I would walk underneath the subway to get to the bus stop on the other side of the road. On a few occasions it had become flooded and I had to take off my shoes and plough through the dirty water! On some occasions the water was nearly up to my knees (but I am very short!;)
Through the subway it would get me to the bus stop on the other side of the road where I would take a local bus to the bus depot in the slum. I love travelling on local buses; Watching the world go by in Mumbai is an experience that is enthralling. Mumbai as a city of extremes and the opposite of boring. My journey to work cost me the equivalent of 14 pence per journey – bargain! It’s worth just getting on local buses to see the sights!
Once the bus entered the slum, the smells of dirt and raw sewage were overpowering. I used to put Tiger balm or Olbus oil underneath my nose to disguise the smell of the open sewer you are driving by . (My friend Hayley came up with this genius idea – thanks Hayley!) Looking up you could see the expanse of the rubbish tip wasteland of the Baiganwadi slum. Early in the morning I would watch people collect rubbish on the wasteland, mainly plastic bottles which they deposited into huge canvass bags. Men and boys would be up there collecting rubbish and others crouching down taking a crap!
If you have ever seen the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, it is basically the same as that – that is my best attempt of a description, as I don’t feel my writing can explain it any better, however as descriptive as it can be could do it justice. You have to experience it yourself or watch the film to really understand or feel what life is like in there.
When the bus stopped at the depo in the slum, I would walk through the slum to the school. I can’t even describe the smells and what it was like being a western girl walking through the slum. – Everyone stared at me, it felt like another world completely, but people were generally really nice and helpful. On a few occasions when I was alone and lost, people would direct me to the plot where the school was or the right bus to take home. It felt like a real community atmosphere.
In slums, huts are all divided into plot numbers, the school being at plot number 42. This is the way they address each part of the slum. Walking through each morning and after school were often my favourite times as the experience was something so different to my normal life. There was never a dull moment!
I guess I am a bit odd, but I loved it. The days when the other volunteer was not there and I walked alone through the slum were my favourite. I strangely felt very much at home there. Is that weird to say? I really don’t understand where my India addiction comes from… If anyone has read ‘The Journey Home’, I guess that is the closest comparison I can give.
I am not going to sugar coat it, there were days that you saw things that made you feel heavy and the sanitation is a huge problem.
I think it is important for people to understand the realities of slum life. This cat had just been left, no one helped. It was things like this that did often take me back down to earth and make me realise the harsh realities of what it must be like living in a slum. Baiganwadi has no running water either so most of the families que up at around 10am every morning when a water tank comes to the slum to fill up a bucket.
My classroom was up three flights of stairs which had a rope to help the children up, it felt a little bit like the jungle book getting up there each morning when the rope was down!
My actual classroom was on a concrete floor with some old mattresses to sit on. Previous volunteers had helped paint the walls with the kids interests; like football, cricket and Hip Hop. Loads of the kids love Hip Hop and hip hop dancing- Reminded me of Jonah from Summer Height High when they got up and danced!
The children were generally a delight to teach but the hardest thing was having to teach so many between the ages of 5 and 16 with all different levels of English. I would often have to raise my voice and shout because of the noise from not only the kids, but from outside the building. By the end of the day I would have lost my voice or have a sore throat. It was totally worth it though!
I always try to make my lessons fun and often got told off for not working out of the Indian/ English text books (Which by the way are AWFUL! None of the children understand them, they are way too advanced for them and the grammar is wrong!)
Instead, I would make up games to play like ‘Directions’ and ‘Doctor’s Surgery’. One kid would be the doctor and the others the patients who would que up at the door (we used a cupboard door) The patients would have to knock on the door and wait for the doctor to summon them in. They would then describe their symptoms in English and the doctor would ask questions and prescribe them some medicine. You should have seen my acting skills when I was the patient and had broken my leg! – ( I finally put my Drama degree into use! Not a complete waste ) They loved this game!
Another game I made up was hide and seek with different colour pens. They would have to write in their books.. ‘Where is the purple pen?’ Then, one kid would hide it whilst the others kept their eyes shut and then they would have to find it. Once found they would write in their books after speaking – ‘ I found the purple pen. It was under the mattress.’ ….You get the gist…
It’s simple games like this that get ALL the children involved regardless of their English ability and they have loads of fun playing them! At the same time they are still learning English, but in a fun way. Conversational English is much more important for their careers and a life out of the slum, rather than reading from a boring text book that none of them understand or are interested in. – This is my humble opinion anyway!
My unconventional ways were very popular amongst the kids but the Indian teachers were curious. They would stare at me and look puzzled but then laugh and see that the kids were learning and enjoying themselves. The main teacher did come up to me at the end of one day and said ‘You – very good teacher.’ ** whilst doing the Indian head wobble** Which made me smile.
I was lucky that I had lunch cooked for me by someone in the slum each day. This mainly consisted of rice and dahl with chipatis which I would eat with my hands on the floor with the other teachers. At first I was dreading the food, especially eating in a slum after being so ill last time.
As much as I love India, I always had issues with the food. This time round though I think I really got used to it. When.in.Rome…. (By the way, I am not one to post pictures of food, but I will let myself off, only this once!)
The chai in the slum was the best chai I have ever had. EVER. Serious! Again, I was dubious when they made it for me at first and nervously took the metal glass thinking, ‘One sip of this and you will be ill again, you will be throwing up and have to go home, it’s so dirty what the hell are you doing … blah blah’, but actually it was amazing and my chai breaks at 11am and 4pm were a god send. I have not been able to find chai that nice anywhere else in India. No chai compares to the chai I drank in the slum!
The older children 14 and over were a pleasure to teach and we often had interesting conversations. However, I sometimes wondered though if I was really helping the older girls or if my efforts were wasted. We often talked about career and ambitions. One of the older girls expressed to me how she wanted to be a police woman when she grew up. Thinking that my English lessons should help her with her career, she later told me how she would be married by the age of 18 or 19.
Once married, the women are expected to stay at home and look after the children whilst the husband goes out to work. It made me feel sad to think that this girl really wants to become a police woman but will probably never get the opportunity because of an arranged marriage at 18. I could not imagine how different my life would have turned out if that was me. I am no where near ready at the age of nearly 33, let alone 18! Was there any point for these girls learning English if society forces them to be married and a housewife by 18 or 19? It was an interesting concept…
There were students who I really hoped made it out of the slums to have the opportunities that I have had, mainly to travel and see the world. One of those students was Sameer. He was one of my top students, 13 years old and so bright. He lives in Baiganwadi with his grandparents, mother, sisters and brother – they all share a room. Unfortunately his father died from drugs five years ago.
He really wants to go to America. I really hope he gets a good job out of the slum and is able to fulfil his dream. Teaching him and the older girls was an absolute joy. I loved every minute and they also got a lot out of my lessons (or so they told me!)
I would set them homework which was fun. The last one was ‘Message in a Bottle’. They would have to make a piece of paper old by rubbing tea leaves on it and tearing / burning the edges and once dry write a message to someone who may find it years later, including their address and a bit about themselves. Once complete, they would roll up the piece of paper and put it in an empty plastic or glass bottle. My aim was to take them down to the beach in South Mumbai and throw them into the sea but I was not allowed, so they kept the ‘messages in the bottles’ instead.
Other written work I set was letter writing and creative writing about days at school.
By the time I got home after school it was around 6pm. I was always exhausted, dirty, sweaty and felt gross! I would go for a week without washing my hair, as sometimes there was no water in the flat, but I got used to it. I think if i were to do it again I would sort my own accommodation so that I could at least watch films in the evening after work to switch off.
I hope this gives an insight to life working in the slum and will help others looking to volunteer in India.
So, in answer to the questions…
Did the children benefit? – I hope so. I tried the best I could and put everything I had into teaching them English in the most fun way possible. Even getting them to write the correct tenses was an achievement, however small that may seem.
What was it like? – Being honest – Smelly, dirty, sweaty, hard work and tiring but so rewarding.
Was it dangerous? – I personally never felt unsafe in the slum.
Would you do it again? – In a heartbeat. It was one of the best things I have ever done.
Angela Haines is a British citizen who feels more at home in India. She took her first solo trip there at 23 years old and the country has called her back ever since. Her website Slumdogspirit , written from a spiritual angle, inspires others to travel solo and volunteer in India. Her blog name, inspired by the film, Slumdogmillionaire, encourages others to help slum children in India whilst developing themselves.