In this field is a banyan tree, pictured, which is regarded as holy and sacred around the world and which here is also on the site of an open air Hindu temple, complete with altar and access to clean running water.
It’s also the place where the Educators’ Trust India team have struck a deal with the local Hindu priest to use the land for a few hours each week (for the payment of 300 RS – about £4) as part of their mobile Morning Light outreach project. I witnessed this last year and wrote about it here – it’s a change of location for the occupants of this particular mobile slum, as the police moved them on earlier this month – in spite of having happily solicited and accepted bribes in order to allow them to stay. As the land is holy, they can’t and won’t camp upon it, but the familiar blue plastic tents, open fires and cooking pots are sited just a few yards away.
We arrived in two cars and on a fleet of scooters and the ETI volunteer team soon spread out in a well practiced routine, taking plastic sheets over to one area to set up two impromptu “schools” for groups of children aged five and over or five and under and carting plastic bowls and buckets over to the cold water tap in order to commence Operation Bath Time. The fact that the children came running over asking to be washed is a huge improvement on only three months ago; with patience and love, Diego and the team have persuaded the parents and children to trust them. Meanwhile, resident doctor Dr. Dhiru Mistry, who truly believes that we are all privileged if we can help the poor, put up a portable tent on the back of his car in order to create a makeshift surgery, thus allowing the children and adults to be treated in privacy. Dhiru explained that, as a doctor, wherever he is, he believes that his patients deserve confidentiality, dignity and respect and this tent device allows him a modicum of this.
During our visit, he treated five children and one adult, mostly for ailments which included the usual coughs and colds, head lice and scabies but also a really nasty foot infection on a child – caused, as described before, by the lack of shoes. One little girl was quite ill, suffering with dehydration and malnutrition; Dhiru treated her with intravenous antibiotics and fluids and left some medicine with her mother, but explained that he was unable to provide his preferred drug in case it reacted badly and caused diarrhoea – a nightmare in an environment with zero sanitation.
Meanwhile, other volunteers were washing the children, using tourist donated shampoos and soaps and then drying the kids off with discarded beach towels. Once clean, we used imported head lice lotion to treat the children’s hair, which bizarrely they seemed to love – perhaps it was the attention, as they are all hugely tactile and love hugs and piggy backs.
Then it was meal time – and we all shared donated bread rolls, samosas, omelettes, milk and fruit – suggested by Dhiru as being both nutritionally sound (protein, fruit, carbohydrates) and portable.
Another big change from December is that when we left, all the mothers (still no sign of the men) came up and shook our hands and thanked us – some had tears in their eyes and hugged us, saying “thankyouthankyouthankyou” over and over. The shift from the hostility we experienced only a few months ago is very marked – and welcome. They now know they can trust the ETI team to turn up, feed and support them, treat them with dignity and respect – and not involve the police, crucial for this particular community.
Some of the volunteers were new and were profoundly shocked by what they saw, but all were keen to stay involved and to do as much as they can to help out over the next month or so.
Dhiru has written me a moving and very beautiful guest blog piece on why he is so involved with India’s poor – coming up next.