Over the coming weeks we will be interviewing every woman working for GCB/DWP and bringing you their stories.
Tears roll down Maya's cheek as she brings her orange dupatta to her face and dabs at her eye. Her cheek quivers as she stares down at the tray of fruit sitting on her lap. When she looks up, our eyes connect. I place my hand on her knee and tell her that we don't have to do this. A small smile crosses her face and she gestures for us to continue.
Since DWP opened the newest initiative called "Girls Can Be" we have been able to hire 6 full-time staff from the community. One of these women is Maya. I first met Maya two years ago (http://dirtywallproject.com/blog/?p=1383) in a chance encounter as I was leaving the community for the day. Since that day, I have watched as her two oldest children walked in to a school for the first time and was there for the birth of her youngest daughter, Nandini. Maya has packed a lot into her first 21 years on earth and for the first time in her life someone asked her to tell her story.
Maya was born in a small village in the far western reaches of Nepal in a district called Baitadi. Maya's life was tough from the beginning; her first month marred by tragedy when her parents both died of TB when she was only one month old. Maya's older sister cared for her when the two sisters and brother moved into a relative's home. During our talk we learned very little about her early childhood years except that she remembers spending two days in school and liking it, but it's a fleeting memory. We picked up her story again when she turned 15. A beautiful young girl with no parents and a sister who was now dying from TB, Maya had few options so her sister did what she thought was right and arranged Maya's marriage, hoping that it would ensure Maya's safety and provide for Maya the possibilities she never had.
Living an equally tough life a few villages away was a young man named Pramad. Pramad's father died when he was very young and a relative then sold him to someone else as a labourer . Pramad worked his childhood years until he saved up enough money to run away. As a young man he worked odd jobs before he began his search for a wife. Through family connections he met Maya's older sister who was desperately looking for a husband for her. A deal was made and shortly after Maya turned 15 a small ceremony took place in her village; Maya's beautiful face hidden under a veil looking towards an uncertain future with a man she had just met. A relative of Pramad's urged him not marry Maya stating that she was not good enough for him or pretty enough.
A few months after her marriage Maya became pregnant. Not quite 16 years old and nine months pregnant, she was out collecting cow dung for her cooking fire near her home when she felt severe pain and collapsed. She remained unconscious during the birth and woke to find local village women tending to her newborn daughter. Remarkably, both mother and child were happy and healthy and Maya and Pramad named their first daughter "Sumitra" which means "good friend".
A year after Sumitra's (Suman) birth, Pramad's relatives kicked the young family out of the shared home. Pramad (24 years old) and Maya (16 years old) packed their meagre possessions on their backs, including their curious one year old Suman, her head covered in a small Nepalese toque, and set out towards a new beginning. They walked for one full night and one full day before they reached a larger town where Pramad purchased two one way train tickets to Mumbai, India.
A few days later the tired young family arrived in the "Mega City" seemingly worlds away from the tiny village where they had spent their young lives. Their only connection in Mumbai was a distant relative living in a slum community in Saki Naka where they lived until they found a place of their own. Over the last few years they have moved several times, twice since I have met them. With a small tin shack to call their own, Pramad set off to find work leaving a newly pregnant wife and young daughter Suman at home. He found work in a factory and over the last few years learned the trade of powder coating and continues to work there today, earning around 5000 INR - $104.16 CDN per month.
With Suman nearly 2 years old, Maya was due to give birth any day with their second child. Throughout her pregnancy Maya didn't receive pre-natal care even though hospitals and clinics were within walking distance of the slum. Her second birthing experience was no less dramatic than Suman's birth in Nepal. Home alone once again, she felt a sharp pain and realized quickly that the baby was getting close. She climbed down the rickety wooden ladder to the tap below and began washing her face and was about to call her husband. (During this part of our conversation Maya became very animated and laughed as she told the story). Still standing over the tap, she heard the small cry of a child and looked down. Without so much of a warning or much pain at all, the newest addition to her family was poking his head out of the bottom of her loose pants. She let out a small scream to alert her neighbours and sat below her tap with her newborn son wrapped in her clothing. (Maya laughed loudly as she explained the story and said she literally felt no pain when he was born.) Neighbours arrived and helped cut the cord freeing her son. The birth of a son is a joyous occasion for most Indian/Nepalese families and they decided to name their new son "Prem" which means "love". Prem's interesting birth experience may explain his fear of heights and swings.
Mumbai, the city of dreams, draws thousands of rural Nepali villagers every year to the already overcrowded streets with rumours of well paying jobs, hospitals and schools. These rumours travel on the backs of distant relatives and friends who send back stories of their success, whether true or not, luring families with bright hopes and dreams. Mumbai has an altogether different reality and the dreams are available for the relatively lucky ones. With a population of nearly 20 million people, over half of the city live in slum communities made up of rural villagers from India and Nepal.
Pramad and Maya soon realized that life in the big city was never going to be easy with two mouths to feed, rent and bills to pay. Tension grew in the small home spilling over into physical and emotional abuse with the blows landing hard on a frightened Maya. As tensions grew, so did the violence in the home with the realization that Maya was pregnant once again. Suman and Prem were also very sick, weak from malnutrition, worms and overall bad health. Maya attempted to borrow money from neighbours but with no luck. The children were taken to small clinics but when the prescriptions came Maya's husband ripped them up because they didn't have the money to fill them.
This first time I met Maya, she was five months pregnant with two very sick children in her arms. She barely looked me in the eyes as Ashley and I asked her questions about her children and their health. The next day we took Maya and her children to a hospital and found out just how sick they were. We also learned that Maya had ingested a small amount of poison in an attempt to abort her third child. The doctor prescribed supplements, de-worming medications and a new diet for the children which DWP supports financially. An ultra sound gave us the good news that Maya's unborn baby appeared healthy. Maya was given a choice by the doctor to abort this 5 month old fetus and she quietly refused. Over the next few months, my mom, Ashley and I visited with the family daily and started to see signs of improvement in the children. Their eyes became less glazed over and even brimmed with excitement from time to time and we were excited to see them slightly rambunctious. Just under a year ago, Maya gave birth to the worlds most precious and beautiful baby girl. (Those of you who have had the opportunity to visit DWP here in Mumbai, can back me up on this.) Little Nandini was born in a hospital and is the first person in the family to have a birth record. The last year has seen tremendous change in the kids. Both Suman and Prem are now enrolled in our free Kindergarten School and while Suman is attentive and eager to learn, Prem, although bright and energetic, is more interested in his toes, but he likes his uniform. The kids laugh easily, their good health allowing them excess energy to burn. All about mischief, they are adept at hiding, playing and initiating a chase. Suman is often seen lugging a smiling, teething, Nandini on her hip searching the laneway for someone to play with.
Dirty Wall Project has been involved with this family for almost two years, supporting them financially and emotionally. Keeping them in this community where the kids are safe, doing well in school and loved by many has resulted in DWP paying the rent on their slum home when they were about to be evicted and continuing to support them by paying milk bill. Maya is now employed by DWP to buy, cut and serve fruit to the children in the community and spends part of her day with the women in the GCB centre where she is valued as a contributing member of the community as well as taking part in the chatter of many exuberant women. She provides an example to her children when she attends the English literacy class, notebook and pencil in hand. While it is her nature to be shy, Maya laughs easily when with people she knows and we have noticed she has a 'voice' and uses it to protect her children or make a point. Maya has come a long way and just like her children she has found some reasons to smile.
When our conversation turned to her future, Maya looked down and away and with barely an expression, she told us her fears include her husband's wish to take her and the children back to the village in Nepal where he will leave them and return to Mumbai to work. With a voice neither shrill or sad, she said her husband wishes she was beautiful, that he finds her ugly and he deserves better. He slaps her face to make his point. She worries his future plan may include a marriage to someone else whereupon he will return to Nepal to take the children from her. DWP will endeavour to remain a part of Maya's life, to do our best to help her keep the family healthy and safe, but this will take educating Maya about how to contact us by mail or telephone. We discussed how we would need to be able to contact her and she seemed both overjoyed and overwhelmed by the task and the instructions we would have to give her. This will be a daunting task for her, but one we hope she will conquer so that we can continue to support her and her children. It may take (literally) climbing mountains in Nepal to find them. Maya and the children feel like family and not a day goes by without us spending a huge chunk of time with all of them. Moving mountains will seem like a small task to keep them safe. Maya may have lost one part of her family in Nepal but she has gained one more in all of us.
As we wound down the conversation, we asked Maya what she would like for her children's future. She replied, "I want them to go to school." When asked what would make her happy, Maya replied, "To be loved".