Mumbai, the most populous city in India, is squeezed into a peninsula on the edge of the Arabian Sea. It’s a hot, muggy, cosmopolitan city, with a polluted always hazy skyline, crammed with high-rise buildings housing the middle class and the wealthy, some with views of the sweep of waterfront along the Arabian Sea. But it’s also riddled with enormous, heart wrenching inequality. Slums, where the working poor reside, contain up to 50% of the population of just over 20 million. That’s around 10 million people living in unsanitary, overcrowded lanes, where extended families live together in single room shanties without adequate water, some without electricity, and no infrastructure. The residents of the slums literally sweep the city, serve as domestic help cooking and cleaning for others, look after the children of the high rise dwellers, pick up garbage, sort through rubbish for recycling, clean municipal and private toilets, drive the buses, the auto rickshaws and the taxis, cut keys, make chai and snacks, dig ditches, and provide the difficult and dangerous day labour to build the high-rises.
In the northern part of the city, near the international airport, in Andheri East, sits the community of Saki Naka. The traffic here is interminable, so much so that most taxi and auto rickshaw drivers refuse rides to the notorious, always clogged, Sakinaka junction. There are hundreds of small manufacturing businesses, clothing factories, and sprawling buildings housing call centres giving shadow to small shops and vegetable carts. Airplanes coming in for a landing fly low over the numerous ramshackle slum communities that are home to thousands of families. Nestled between buildings and along water pipelines, slum communities encroach on every square foot of land available. It's in one of these overcrowded communities that we have been welcomed since 2009.
Kane with some of the community members who helped clean the garden area in 2010. Five people in the photo (Hema, David, Ganesh, Pakia and Bhoomi) have died since then. (photo by darshanphotography.com)
Ten years ago, Kane entered the community for the first time, invited by a member of a charitable trust from Mumbai. The community was informally established about 20 years ago along a water pipeline. He saw a few hundred one room homes roughly assembled in narrow lanes. Gutters flowed with household waste and garbage under a patchwork of thin, mismatched cement slabs. Unsure of what he would do, how he would manage, or if he would be welcome, he chatted with the bewildered residents who poked their heads out of their homes to see the stranger wandering the lanes, curious as to why he was there. Soon they lead the way, literally taking him by the hand, to assist them where, how, and when they needed assistance.
We've received a lot of press in India which has translated into support from Mumbaikars along the way.
What they needed, they said, was a new space for the crowded single-room kindergarten. The Mumbai charitable trust, strapped for cash, wanted to build a room on top of the original room which would allow more children to attend. Over conversation and meals provided by some of the women, Kane agreed to work on the project with the charitable trust. Men from the community were paid a wage to carry bricks, stir cement, connect electricity, weld a staircase, and brush buckets of smelly oil paint on railings and walls. Weeks later, and with many obstacles overcome, the completed space was filled with new desks, art supplies, exercise books and pencils. It was used for early morning kindergarten classes, community events, English classes for moms and anyone else who was interested, and art, theatre, and dance classes taught by local volunteers.
Soon after, Kane initiated the clean-up of a large area overflowing with garbage and weeds. Again, he hired community members to help, led by a group of tenacious mothers, a few good men, and a continuous stream of giggling children. The area was cleared of weeds and four feet of garbage. When truck loads of dirt were brought in to level the ground, residents clung to the fence to watch the former garbage dump take on a new life. Kane reached out to The Wall Project, a group of artists from Mumbai who took on the task of painting murals on the perimeter wall with help from groups of curious children who stirred paint and kicked up dust. At the end of the enormous weeks long task, the community had a large space for auspicious events, pujas, weddings, cricket games, competitions, funerals, and a place for the elderly to sit in the open, out of the lanes. It’s still used every day. The murals have faded and some new ones have been added by the charitable trust. The children spend a lot of time playing in what they refer to fondly as the “Kane Sir garden”.
The garden during the clean-up.
photo by darshanphotography.com
The photos above are the garden before and during the clean-up.
Top and middle bottom photo: the garden after the clean-up. Bottom left and right photos: the kindergarten.
During the building of the garden and the new kindergarten, families approached Kane for help to pay hospital fees for minor and major medical issues, but, most often, he was approached for help to pay school fees for many of the children. Realizing how many girls didn’t go to school because parents would often borrow money to pay a son’s fees, but not a daughter’s, Kane started the quest to pay as many fees as needed to keep children, especially girls, in school. Today we pay as many as 70 school fees for the children of this community and communities nearby. Every year we receive tearful requests to help with school fees. The reasons are as varied and numerous as the amount of people living in crowded homes along stifling lanes. Fathers and mothers get sick and can't work; a family member who contributed wages to the household leaves or dies; they've borrowed money from slum lords or money lenders and can't afford the notorious interest rates to borrow more; an arranged marriage for a daughter requires a large dowry -- the reasons are endless and always difficult to hear and deflect if we can't afford another fee.
We pay school fees at eleven schools scattered throughout Saki Naka and Mohili Village. For every two or three fees paid, we first visit bank machines. Sometimes it takes numerous attempts to extract money (the machines are depleted of money/they simply don't work/they reject our card even though it worked the day before etc). When we manage to find a bank machine that gives us money, we can only take out 20,000 rupees a day ($400), just enough to pay two or three fees. Once we have the cash in hand, we trudge on foot or catch a rickshaw through the traffic, timing the fee payment with fee office opening times. In 2019 we paid 63 school fees - at a rate of 2 or 3 per day. The school fee offices close for numerous holidays, exams, and events, meaning it takes us at 3 - 4 months to complete the fee payments. The total paid in 2019 for 63 school fees is $8312.
A medal ceremony at Nandchhaya Niketan English Medium School.
In 2013, with Indu's suggestion, we set up a tuition centre in her home where 60 plus children come for help with their homework, play, read books, feel safe when their parents aren't home, have access to craft supplies, practice their English, Urdu, Marathi or Hindi, and celebrate their accomplishments and their birthdays. It's also the place where our day starts, where we meet with members of the community who need help, and where we drink hundreds of cups of chai.
We supply the tuition centre with paper, craft supplies, and games - combined with the cost of taking the children out of the community for a movie, a birthday treat, or as a group to a beach or a waterpark, this year we spent $1219. We also subsidize Indu's rent at $50 per month (half her rent) x 12 months ($600). Her home is our headquarters.
The tuition centre (Indu's home)
The problems of a slum community are never-ending, surprising, sometimes not obvious, most times very obvious, and always heart-wrenching. This is why we don’t have quantifying statistics, spread sheets, or board meetings with anyone who isn’t sitting face to face with us and the community members. This is real life, with immediate problems that need to be addressed in real time, with no time for group consultation, except with the family of the person who needs help.
Medical problems always tap us on the shoulder and take us down a path to the end of the issue, no matter how small or how serious the condition of the patient. Hours of our day are spent in clinics and hospitals, at the bedside of patients, talking to doctors, paying hospital fees, and fetching medicine from medical shops. Seeing a patient come home, feeling well again, able to work or go back to school, gives us reason to keep helping families when a member falls sick.
This year, medical fees amounted to $1646. Babies were born, a child suffered with tetanus and remained in the ICU for about 10 days, bodies were bandaged, and clinics were visited for numerous minor and major illnesses.
Waiting at the hospital with a family whose son was admitted.
For some of the children, school fees are just the start. They need books, uniforms and shoes before they can attend a class. Then there is the cost of having fun, which is not quantifiable, and is always defendable. The absolute pure joy the children receive from a day out at a circus, a water-park, a carnival, a movie, or a day at the beach, is priceless to them, and to us.
On a field trip to Elephanta Island with Shobha, Noorsaba, Shaeda and Roshni.
A few photos of the community over the years.
The elderly, who remember what it's like to live in their native villages, come to Mumbai to live with their children and help raise their grandchildren. Their lives are difficult and uncomfortable. Aches, pains and medical issues are neglected because families can't afford to give them the care they deserve. We're rarely approached for help with medical problems related to an elderly relative. They often sit in the lanes sorting grains in the shade of the few trees along the pipeline. Because the single room homes already house too many people some of them sleep outside in the laneways.
Grandmothers help with childcare.
In 2017, a large part of the community was demolished. Many of the families hoisted their salvaged belongings on their heads and scattered to live in nearby slum communities. Some of the families received free Slum Rehabilitation (government) housing located in Mahul, an area south of Saki Naka. The seventeen, seven-story buildings, sit adjacent to refineries and chemical plants. Named the Eversmile Complex, the area was recently declared not habitable for humans by the Indian Institute of Technology. The buildings, built less than ten years ago, are already crumbling, with leaking sewage pipes, rationed water supply, if any, and spotty electricity. The elevators to reach the 7th floor in each building work erratically, if at all. The air tastes sour. Since moving to the apartments in Mahul, many residents suffer with serious health conditions.
Back in Saki Naka, hundreds of children whose homes remained untouched by the demolition, play among the dust and bricks, still finding treasures that were left behind when the bulldozers made dust out of their neighbour’s homes two years ago. Some of the displaced families have returned to build tarp homes on flattened areas, accessing water from pipes leaking out of the dust and debris. They possess an astounding resilience and the ability to adjust to the myriad of problems brought on by living in a slum community, not least of all is the daily grind to attain the most basic needs for their families.
Hundreds of homes were demolished in 2017
Slum Rehabilitation Building in Mahul. Move-in day for Ranjana and her family.
So, we get asked all the time, “What’s changed for the community? “What have you accomplished by being there, by paying school fees, by taking people to the doctor?” “Why do you bother?” “Are you going back?”
The answer we give most often, and believe with our whole being, is that we’re painfully aware that we can’t help everyone, but we can help someone -- the person standing in front of us asking for help. The biggest challenge has been to convince parents to enrol and keep their daughters in school. Sometimes we fail. Observing a young girl, (whose parents don’t believe their daughter is worth an education), stand in the doorway of a slum home, watching her friend prepare for school, put on her uniform, braid her hair, and leave her home with a backpack heavy with books for the long walk to school, is the saddest of moments for the girl left behind. The biggest win for us and for the family, is when a girl attends school, becomes confident, feels accomplished, and then helps her parents navigate the world outside the slum. In a culture that doesn’t put much value on a girl child, where women are mistreated without penalty, education is the only road available to change this mindset and offer opportunity to millions of girls.
Ten years of being welcome here.
Indu is a respected, well-loved resident of the community. We couldn't do what we do without her. She's our guide to the cultural do's and don'ts. We rarely make a decision regarding the welfare of a community member without her input. We spend many hours sitting cross-legged in her home, her children playing on our laps, listening to people who come to discuss issues that affect their family or the community as a whole. She is the one we look to, and listen to, when we make a decision to help anyone. She's a modern-thinking mother to two daughters, in a love marriage (not arranged) with a supportive husband. Her one-room home, located near the entrance to the community, is a haven for children, for women who need someone to listen to them, for anyone who needs forms translated to English, and for those who come to her on special occasions to have their hair styled, their mehndi applied, and their clothing stitched. Her door is never closed. Smart, industrious, talented, and kind, she speaks Hindi, Marathi, English and the native dialect of her father's village in Uttar Pradesh.
We value Indu's time and efforts on behalf of the community and our donors. In addition to paying half the rent on her single room home ($50 per month), she also accepts a small wage from DWP of $200 per month. She brings in extra money for her family by charging a fee ($4 per month) to parents who can afford to pay for their child to attend tuition and receive help with their homework. She graciously allows numerous children whose parents can't afford the small fee to attend any time free of charge.
Indu, Indu and her friend Shashi, Indu
Middle photos: Indu at the tuition centre, Indu helping Karishma get dressed for a celebration, waiting for chai at Shoba's home, attending a home visit for a family who required help.
Bottom photo: Indu and her family (oldest daughter Aagya, her husband Akhilesh and youngest daughter Aayra)
The warm embrace we experience in homes, in schools, and on the streets of Saki Naka is something we don't take for granted. The gracious invitations we receive to enter a home to share stories, celebrate birthdays, take part in festivals, receive plenty of advice, eat meals, and drink many cups of milky, sweet, spicy chai is a beautiful way to spend a few hours a day in what we think is the beating heart in this city of millions.
In 2009, I asked a few women if I could learn to cook Indian food with them. We spent the mornings shopping the streets for ingredients, hydrating with a stop for cane juice, and then lugging the grocery back to their homes. Other women always joined in to chop and stir while I crouched in a corner, trying to take up as little space as possible, scribbling notes and eating samples generously passed to me. It was the beginning of the monsoon season. The humidity and the heat in the small spaces kept me busy wiping the sweat from my face, while breathing in the spice laden aromas that filled the room. We spent weeks together, shopping, cooking, and eating. You'll find their personal recipes, translated from my notes, stained with drops of perspiration and infused with the smell of cumin, in the Kerosene Curry cookbook (available on the website).
We've taken thousands of photos in the community since 2009 and had the camera lens turned toward us by many of the children. We feel the emotion in every photo, in every sound, and smell, and touch, that a photo can’t convey. Capturing the celebrations help us to keep the inevitable waves of emotion on a somewhat even keel. Singing the birthday song, celebrating Hindu and Muslim festivals, sharing meals and chai with families in their stiflingly small rooms, wiping rivers of sweat out of our eyes while playing badminton in the Kane Sir garden, and enjoying every giggle that emanates from the dark rooms of the community, is the elixir to the madness, chaos, excitement, and struggles that grip the community every day.
Waiting to take Sneha to Annual Day at her school. Because her mother works, the neighbour helps her get ready for the event.
Many times we've experienced the joy of a new, healthy, baby. We've attended baby naming ceremonies, and watched new mothers cope with the help of attentive neighbours and family. Too often, we witness the devastation and tragedy of early death. We've lost many community members, some very young, with most not old enough to have their lives end prematurely. The life expectancy for children under five years old is a grim statistic in India. Malaria, typhoid, tetanus, malnutrition and problems giving birth is the cause of death for small children here. Household accidents, injuries caused by laneway debris, and pedestrian accidents in the congested traffic, contribute to many hospital trips to mend broken bodies, young and old.
The birth of a healthy baby is what we all hope for.
Kane gathered with the community in the garden for the funeral of Ganesh.
Some of the community members we've lost - from left to right: David, Pakia, Suresh, Riya, Latifa, Shakuntala, Radha, Hema, Shalu, Bhoomi, Keshore, Bhima, Ganesh, Sheela's husband
The nearby streets of Saki Naka (Mohili village). These are the streets where we shop, eat, pay school fees, and attend events.
This is the apartment building we called home in 2019. Our apartment is the first floor, above the window with the clothesline. Every year we search for a new place to live.
Some of the children - then and now
Nirmala and her daughter Suman.
Indu's oldest daughter, Aagya
We couldn’t do this without the support of donors. For 10 years, with your assistance, we’ve helped hundreds of people send their children (especially girls) to school, witnessed the health of many people improve because we could pay their hospital or medical fees, and brought some collective and singular joy through birthday celebrations, field trips, and financial aid. Because of the continued support from donors we're able continue to help the children and their parents. We will always be lead by the community, who guide us how and where to help, as we head into the eleventh year of the Dirty Wall Project.
To those who support the project with donations, time, empathy, and big hearts, thank you for being part of the solution, for believing you can help someone, and for believing in us.
Over the years many people have traveled near and far to visit us in Saki Naka. There's always a surge of excitement and curiosity when foreign or local guests arrive and genuinely interact with the community. It's an opportunity for everyone to learn what makes us different and the same. The endless cups of chai the women love to serve to guests is a sure sign you're welcome. In India, guests are god.
In 2019 we spent a total of $14,177 for school fees, medical needs, tuition centre supplies, Indu's wages/rent subsidy and the cost of a few hundred auto rickshaw rides to get us all where we need to go. This amount is the average we spend every year to continue what we do.
(The donations we receive go directly to serve the needs of the community. We don't take a wage or a stipend. Our flights, rent, food, and daily expenses, have always been and will always be our personal responsibility. We volunteer our time, money and energy to the cause.)