“We have no toilet. Due to open defecation, my children often get sick. There is not even a hospital nearby to send my children to at such times.”
“Many children get kidnapped by the roadside so I don’t send my children to school. If only the schools where nearby, I would have sent them then.”
“We have to fetch water daily. A water tank was setup by our sarpanch but its pump stopped working a few months ago.”
Just as I was contemplating on how to end this conversation with the 30 year old women, I felt a tug on my pants. Startled, I looked down to find a 6 year old child gesturing with his hands for money. It is then that it struck me what the slum dwellers perceived me as. I understood that I was seen as a part of a lineage of social workers who had come before me and instilled them with hope. I came to represent in their eyes as a Robin-hood figure who could make all the luxuries enjoyed by me and others around me available to their community.
But I was not there to change things for the slum dwellers. Instead, I saw my task as being to support them whenever they themselves took the initiative and began to organise themselves in matters that affected their situation as a community. The intention was for me to experience for myself exactly what it felt like to stand there empty handed. Instead of dissociating myself by giving charity I had to simply be there, observe and communicate. However, I came to realise that the slums have an identity far more complex and far less self-pitying than the impression non-slum dwellers attach to tin-roof houses. The people of the slums have come to define a way of life and a culture that doesn’t necessarily see them jumping at the opportunity to leave it all behind to pay rent and maintenance for a city-centre condominium, while their communities, generations-old, have built their own society and set of laws.
I could still remember the woman ramble on about how she feared she could get evicted from the slum she had lived in for the past 30 years. She talked as though I had pushed her into this pit of poverty. I wondered whether her 30 years of life in this pit had made her blind to recognise any hand of support to pull herself out.
As I looked down upon that child I felt sad of being nothing more than a cog in this cycle of hope and fear that had brought his life to a standstill. Maybe my penny could have brought a smile to his face. But for me that penny was one of many tokens of empty hope that had kept him arrested in the life he was living.