As we walked down the street into the slum, people stared, little children whispered amongst themselves, and then waved to us and grabbed our hands. Turning at the temple and going up the stairs to the library, I was still skeptical. Having no experience teaching a class full of children, I was expected to, through broken English, lead class. When we asked what to teach, they said any subject we wanted, implying we were the most educated here.
The room was full of tiny benches, a chalkboard, and no room to walk. If you wanted to leave, even the children had to jump up on the tables and walk across to get out. Given how packed it was, even with the fan going at full speed, it was boiling.
My study abroad program was based in here, Bangalore, India at Christ College. For our class on Population and Poverty we had a volunteer component, which most of us decided to complete at the slum’s after-school program organized by our college’s Center for Social Action.
While I had hours that needed to be signed for, I was still unsure of what my purpose here was and felt uncomfortable in this foreign setting. As the children warmed up to us, and we to them, we had them reading us stories and poetry from their English books. While I speak only one language fluently, and just bits and pieces of Hebrew and Spanish, in this room alone were at least 4 languages: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, some Telugu, and all of them were working on their English.
Even though their English is good, it is difficult to pronounce their names. So I started having them write their names on the chalkboard in English and then I would write mine. One girl, Akhila, spoke almost no English. When I wrote my name she started to copy it over and over in cursive. Soon my name filled a whole section of the chalkboard. One other supervisor translated for me and said that she was nervous to talk to me. But, once we were past that we worked on writing the English alphabet on the board. Once the other children saw her doing this they all wanted to join in. They helped her when she got stuck and then also came to the board to write any words they knew in English: apple, cat, dog.
We talked and admired each other’s nail polish, played tic-tac-toe on the board, and Pushpa and Akhila had me guessing letters for hangman. The time passed quickly and as we got up to leave, even the one’s we hadn’t talked to as much grabbed our hands and thanked us. Others tricked us and pulled their hand away right before the handshake into a namaste pose, giggling at our confusion.
The students all clung to us as we began to leave and we all got hugs, kisses, and presents. I got a Spiderman card, while my friend got a picture of a flower Laila had drawn that class. One girl held her hand as we left and whispered to her, “We have shared many lives.” To think that halfway across the world, in a tiny classroom in one of the largest slums in Asia, we could still form these types of connections. It must be true. We have shared many lives.
A couple days after I returned to the United States from India, Ejipura Slum was destroyed in order to make room for a mall and an apartment complex, both of which the people living there could never hope to afford. While about half are reserved for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), over 900 families will be on the streets. 30 Dalit groups supported a protest but all that was accomplished was a broken promise that the demolition would stop temporarily until the children could finish exams.
The destruction continued despite attempts to get a written order. Most families have no options in such short a time. Some have family outside the city, but this is far from work and these families, on average, make between three and four dollars a day in the city. Housing for the rest of the families is being organized by the Karnataka Slum Development Board (KSDB), but that will take over a year and some people are skeptical that the project even exists.
While issues of corruption are woven throughout the issue and many resident cases have been brought to court, I find it difficult to believe that any of them will find justice. The Times of India coverage of the demolition consisted of only one sentence, reading: “Ejipura slum in Bangalore was completely bulldozed under police protection on Saturday morning.”
This is only one story from my study abroad experience, but one that resonates deeply. During my time in Bangalore, college was closed multiple times due to political protests from the Indian people. No such protests occurred for the sake of the Ejipura Slum. I will always remember India as a spiritual and religious place filled with beautiful people, colors, and tastes, but the reminder of poverty is inescapable.