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Garbage To Garden

I'm sitting by the window in my apartment watching a hawk glide by, listening to the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I don't know what is being said, but I find it soothing. The sky is a faded purple and Mumbai's skyline is barely visible through the smog. It's been a long day full of excitement, hope and a long list of worries and frustrations.

Being back in the slum is a harsh reality and I seemingly forgot how difficult life can be for the families that call it home. Each time I come back to India a layer is peeled back and revealed to me. I have been overwhelmed with the needs of the community this time around. There has been 10 deaths in the slum in the last month, and countless emergency medical cases which we have done our best to help with. Over this last month I have led with my heart and not my head and I need to pull back a little and re-evaluate the best way to help this community and sometimes this means saying "no" to those in need. Fresh off the plane from Canada, with DWP's bank account full, it's hard to say "no", but sometimes less is more.

Just before I left Mumbai 5 months ago, Ashley and I had viewed two plots of land along the Saki Naka pipeline. While I was fundraising in Canada, we started to formulate a plan with the hopes of moving into these areas to reclaim and clean, providing a safe green space for the community. Dreaming of slum children playing in a garden, free from garbage, disease, abuse and neglect is easy to do from the relative luxury of my home in Canada.

While continuing to address the daily needs of this community I have started work on this project. Although these two areas are not separated by anything other than air, they are extremely different with a new set of rules and problems. Turning left out of the school, I watch as children play in the garden (built and maintained by Janvi over the last 5 years). It is safe and clean, and the children of this section of the slum are free of the debilitating habits of alcohol and drugs. Walking along the pipeline away from the school, every 10 metres, the conditions become worse. Garbage starts to line the small road, the houses become smaller and less permanent, built with scraps of tin and tarping. Walking barely 100 metres from the school and everything has changed including the demeanor of the people who live in this section of the slum.

To start the reclamation project, I have begun to enter the slum from a different point. I have been walking through this section in the morning and at night, as it is important that the families from this area become comfortable with me before I begin a project in the area. Although I have worked only 200 metres down the pipeline for the majority of this year, I am a newcomer to them and they are wary of my presence. There are a few children from this section who take classes at our school, and a few of DWP's sponsor children live along this section, but to the majority I am unknown.

The dogs of this area are not keen on my presence and have made that abundantly clear. They know I don't belong and have done their best to scare me off. Some mornings I have to turn back and walk the main road as dogs block my path showing their teeth and growling menacingly. Slowly, people of this section have come to my defense and have helped to scare the dogs away and I find this to be a small victory in my quest to become a member of their community.

Several years ago, the BMC (Municipality) built rock walls and metal fencing to stop the encroachment of slum dwellers and illegal building on this plot of land. The slum community countered, and have been using the land as a garbage dump and public toilet. It has become overgrown with shrubs and plants that fight their way through plastic bags and garbage while being fertilized by human feces. The rock walls have been destroyed in places and the fencing torn and knocked down to allow people access to dump their garbage. At one end, garbage overflows the 4 foot wall and fills the lane way making it impassable by foot. The track has become filled with feces and makes walking impossible. With no change in sight, the problem only grows daily, increasing disease and causing severe ailments due to a lack of hygiene for the entire community.

The adults of this community are largely to blame. Alcohol, drugs , gambling and robbery are rampant and done in broad daylight without consequence and the children have become unfortunate products of their enviroment. Sniffing "whitener" is common amongst the children, some as young as 6 years old.

The section of land I'm trying to reclaim is roughly 13 yards wide by over 100 yards long and has been a hotly contested area among the land sharks and slumlords. The project will not be highly valued by these people and they will no doubt make things as difficult as possible for us. But, we are willing and ready to fight for this community.

Ashley and I have made a formal application to the BMC asking for permission to use this land and while they forbid us to build anything permanent, we have reason to believe that our application will be successful. How long the formalities will take is anyones guess and I'm too impatient to wait as I can no longer stand to watch the children and families suffer and live amongst this filth when I have the means to change it.

Just under a week ago I started by purchasing two heavy machete-like knives and gloves, and I wore shoes instead of flip-flops for the first time in a month. I hired Rajev and Subash to help me.

Standing in ankle deep garbage and feces at the edge of the plot looking at 100 metres of unuseable land, I should have been discouraged, but I was oddly excited! I started to chop like a mad man, removing the overgrowth and exposing the garbage underneath, while Rajev and Subash exchanged glances and finally made their way into the mess. For 30 minutes we worked while a crowd gathered on the pipeline, amused by the foreigner standing in human shit and holding a knife. Sweat poured off me while I ripped out plants, pretending not to notice the welts and the rash forming on my forearms. Slowly, I was joined by some curious men who asked me what I was doing. "Building you a garden", I told them. Within an hour I was joined by over 30 men and children. It's been three days of hard labour now and the support is slowly gaining momentum. All 100 yards has now been cleared of overgrowth and the garbage has been put into piles. Yesterday, the dried plants were set on fire and smoke curled and floated between the homes. It's looking more like a war zone than a garden at the moment, and it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

This project is going to take several months to complete and will be filled with more frustrating moments than I care to think about. But, Ashley and my vision for this space has a chance to create positive change for the people who live in this part of the slum. We have and will face criticism and discouragement, but I believe that this project is worthy of my sweat, energy and funds.

Until we get permission in writing we have to tread lightly, but it's very important that the community sees us moving forward steadily without fail.

It is past midnight here in Mumbai and it's time for bed, but I'm already excited to get back into the garbage tomorrow.

"If we build it they will come"

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