Christmas means different things to different people. For me, it’s a time to take stock on how I’m doing with sharing what I have with others. It’s easy to give to our own family and share the spirit of Christmas with our own community. They are part of our daily lives. I’m blessed that I also have the opportunity to think of and give to people half a world away.
Every year when I lead my cuisine and culture journey to India, I choose at least one empowerment project to visit and support. This year it was a group called Reality Gives operated by Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai’s largest slum – Dharavi. Truth be told, I am absolutely sure that I get more out of this annual quest than I ever give.
My awareness and compassion expand. I am humbled and I am deeply happy to connect with human beings whom I believe live with more dignity and humour than some of us that are far more fortunate.
Some people think I’m crazy. If you looked at the outside of a slum, like in the photos above, would you want to get down on the ground and find out how life ticks there? Well, I did and I took my 20 guests along with me. They knew this was part of the itinerary I had designed and I give them credit for being open to this experience – along with all the fun cooking, eating and exploring we enjoyed on the rest of the trip.
The thing is, reality is never as scary as we might anticipate. And that’s the whole point of the Reality Gives organization. Founders Krishna Pujari and Chris Way started their work with Reality Gives’ sister company Reality Tours in 2005. They felt tours would show the positive side of slums and break down negative stereotypes about its residents, and Dharavi (made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire) in particular.
Since 2006, Reality Gives, their NGO, has provided English and computer skills education to over 400 students. They’ve created jobs for over a dozen local women. They also promote play and sports programs for children and create desirable jobs for youth. The video below tells their story far better than I ever could.
It’s one thing to watch a video. It’s another thing to be getting off a tour bus in the blistering midday heat and humidity of Mumbai, being divided into groups of eight and being led into the narrow aisles that weave like snakes through the slum.
Dharavi is about two square kilometres and is home to approximately 700,000 people. It is divided into an industrial district and a residential area and I believe we covered most of it on our almost three hour walking tour.
The industries here produce about 650 million U.S. dollars in products each year while the average worker makes between two to five dollars U.S. per day. They do a lot of work that nobody else wants to do. Often that work is quite hazardous to their health.
Plastics recycling comes here from Mumbai’s 17 million (official count) residents and from all over the globe to be sorted and turned into new products. Cardboard, glass and paint are also recycled here. Migrant workers come from all over India to find jobs in Dharavi. They sleep in the factories where they work and send as much of their money home as possible. Many of the workers have lung problems and are exposed to toxic fumes.
We climbed through factories and onto rooftops to get a view from above. This is a place to wear sturdy shoes. Safety is not “job one.” After about an hour, we made our way to a wide canal filled with raw sewage side-by-side with a busy street separating the industrial zone and the more residential area. The migrant workers of the industrial zone are not welcome in the residential area of Dharavi, we learned as we waited for the traffic light to stop the constant stream of cars so we could cross. Our guides were all born on the right side of the canal.
Getting to stand a few minutes beside a 20 metre wide cesspool stirred the former nurse in me to do a little research after the tour. Turns out, there is only one latrine for each 1500 people in the slum so open defecation is a fact of life here and perhaps that explains the tolerance of these conditions. Still, I hope this will change as health problems abound and are directly linked to the horrid sanitation. Typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera and asthma are rampant. Water must be fetched from shared water pipes and wells throughout the district.
Because Reality Gives contributes to making life in the slums better and because our guides are youth born and raised there, we were able to wonder through the streets without anyone really noticing or at least being bothered by our presence. We were not allowed to bring cameras or take photos with phones. That policy goes a long way to helping people keep their privacy and dignity. It is a key differentiation between gawking versus being present to learn.
On the residential side of Dharavi, nearest the canal, the lanes were wide enough for a car to squeeze down. We walked by a multitude of merchants and stopped to speak to some shoe makers. We visited a leather works who proudly use “Dharavi” as their brand. There are over 15,000 one room factories here.
Dharavi began in 1883. Mumbai was once just a small group of mangrove swamps and islands. The British built the city with landfilling and this slum was where their servants and city workers lived. Slums were illegal and could be torn down without notice until the government made all existing slums in Mumbai legal in the year 2000. Any slums that pop up since then can still be torn down without notice but those that existed previous to that date are legal and can now be taxed!
As we meandered further and further into its depths, the “streets” were sometimes just spaces between buildings with room for us to walk single file. Wires hung low from above. We stepped on and over slippery pipes and walked past woman washing both clothes and toddlers out of basins on their doorsteps. The conditions were clean. There was no garbage and homes looked cared for.
There were a couple of hospitals and a number schools – even two privates ones. There were market streets and in the oldest section there were clay works and leather factories.
At a small clearing cum playground, we learned that the government is trying to convince the slum dwellers to let them take their land and build high-rises with proper plumbing and facilities for them to live in. We looked up at a few of those buildings from the dusty earth in this precious clearing but we learned that the resistance is too great for this work to progress quickly.
Most the residents would rather live side by side in the slums with the support and community of their neighbours. They hear stories of people who move into the towers only to have a long hallway of closed doors as their fate. The elderly especially are too lonely and miss their old ways.
We toured a school run by Reality Gives before heading to their headquarters. We had a chance to buy leather goods, bags made of recycled saris and photography cards and to talk to our young guides in greater depth.
They have dreams and hopes. They’ve grown up here but dream of leading tours to cities across India and the world. They have excellent English and are kind and respectful. Having had the chance to see their reality, to see this place where they live as it really is, left me hopeful for them.
The canal was disgusting and the health problems are immense but as we walked through their community, a diverse group of people were working and living side-by-side in the hardest of conditions, we never heard a raised voice unless it was in laughter. Shelter, clean water, sanitation, nutrition, health care and safety – these things come far more quickly when women and children are educated. Reality Gives is doing their part to improve the situation in Dharavi when most of us wouldn’t even know where to start.
I was proud of the donation made by our group and more importantly, the compassion for others that they shared. If you too would like to help change a child’s reality in Dharavi, you can donate here. I appreciate the chance to share this story with you and wish you a Merry Christmas and many occasions to savour it all in the New Year.