BY KERRY BOWLER
When we first arrived at the slum, I was surprised to find the school right there in the middle of it, distinguishable not by gates or logos but the sound of children singing coming from a small, rudimentary looking building.
Although there were small rooms opposite and to the right of the school, we later found out that these had previously been used as the school buildings but that they had been damaged in the monsoon rains and so were no longer safe. The response was to construct a new school building.
I was in Delhi with a university friend, Sarina, and, through my links with Banbury Community Church, we were fortunate enough to meet with Viva’s Senior Network Consultant in India, Gary Kamaal, and to see some of the work in action.
The school in Vasant Kunj district we visited for two days was set up by Pastor Angam Vashi, who saw a need for education and went about finding a way to meet it.
It intends to be a learning centre that acts as a bridge between living in a slum with no formal education to attending an established primary school. The school day lasts from 9am-12noon.
We discovered how difficult it was to persuade parents to send their children to school. While poverty and overcrowding both play their roles in the existence of slums in Delhi, the situation is not helped by discriminating cultural attitudes relating to the country’s caste system.
Delhi’s slums are often populated by those of the lowest caste, sometimes referred to by higher castes as ‘untouchables.’ With the caste system already making social mobility difficult, the attitude of parents within slums seem to be fatalistic and they are resigned to the fact that their children will not be able to progress any further than they themselves have.
We were told that Pastor Vashi had even offered money to one family so that they would let their child attend school and they still refused.
For the first day at the school, we introduced ourselves telling the children briefly what we studied (English and Medicine) and what we wanted to do in the future. We read them a caterpillar story we had made about transformation and self-worth. Gary very helpfully translated from English to Hindi as we read and showed the children the pictures. We then helped them with numeracy and handwriting.
The boy I helped was very sharp and chatty – his letters were already quite well-formed and he concentrated on writing until the very end of school. At snack time, one of the children I had noticed not being very responsive during the class time, was struggling to eat his biscuits.
Sarina helped him, but just looking at him it was clear that he was malnourished. One of the teaching assistants told us that his mum had the three who were in class and had also recently given birth to another baby. The little boy’s name was Amit.
After we left the slum it was quite jarring because we went straight to ‘Select City Walk’ (a large shopping centre) for lunch and to look for stationery shops and a pharmacy to buy things for the children. Being surrounded by such economic development and infrastructure, after having witnessed the living conditions of people in the slums that we’d been in not an hour before, was a shock to the system.
On our second day at the school we felt as though we were actually offering something useful to the children and teachers.
We used the materials we’d bought to do counting and colour activities with the kids in English. We also practiced handwriting on the whiteboard (writing the alphabet and getting the children to copy). Some of them were really eager to learn and knew the alphabet in capitals almost perfectly.
After we handed out the crisps for snack time, we went to take Amit the protein bars we had bought. He was living in a room opposite the school with his mum and siblings. Their dad had left. Amit had a one-week old little sister, who we met. Leaving soon after this, it was hard not to dwell on the desperate situation of this young mother and her children.
Despite the circumstances of the children, the work of Pastor Vashi partnering with Viva is bringing hope and a chance of education to them right where they are. Projects like this, running throughout Delhi, joined together by the network, are a sign to these children that they are not forgotten, but rather valued, loved and worth investing in.
Kerry Bowler is a student at Bristol University who visited Delhi last year with her friend Sarina
Watch the short video below as Pastor Vashi explains why being a part of CYM, Viva’s partner network in the city, is of great importance to his work.