I’m feeling that the days are slow but the weeks zoom by rather quickly. And here we are at the end of week seven of living in rural Buldana and we have just two weeks left of living here. We have said goodbye to family, friends and pets this week – firstly we said goodbye to my parents who caught a taxi to Aurangabad (a 4-hour drive from Buldana) to catch their afternoon flight to Delhi for some sightseeing in and around Delhi and the Golden Triangle, on Sunday we hand street pup Roadie over to his new Indian family and home (but that didn’t happen – will explain in next week’s wrap up), and on Monday (start of week 8) we say farewell and good luck to all the Indian volunteers who head back to their homes in Mizoram (north eastern tribal states of India) and to further work with another NGO in Uttar Pradesh.
The girls decided to see their grandparents off at Aurangabad and stop off at the mall. It’s a long way to travel to get a KFC Zinger Burger meal deal but I hear it’s totally worth it. There is nothing like this in rural Buldana, and the girls have been going a little stir crazy with the traditional and repetitive food options available here. They left in two cars with my parents at 11.30am and returned home to Buldana at 9pm – a little wrecked.
Week number seven commenced with a public holiday – both in Australia (Labour Day) and in India (Holi Festival) which is interchangeably known as the Festival of Colours and the Festival of Love. The night before the Holi Festival, as we returned home late from our day visiting Lonar Crater, Hindu families built and lit bonfires in their yards or on the side of the road and to perform religious ceremonies and to celebrate the end of winter and the commencement of spring but as well to remove the evil spirits. The following day Holi Festival is celebrated as a playful display of vibrant colours. And here in rural Buldana the Hindu Holi Festival did not disappoint. As early as 7:30am we heard children’s high pitched voices outside our bedroom window laughing and talking. They were enjoying the process of throwing and applying colourful (and toxic) powder onto their faces and bodies. These packet of powder colours are mixed with water and filled into hand-held water cannons, or smeared all over the face and body. The local paper even featured a special article warning dog owners not to put the toxic powders all over their pet dogs as the paints cause blocked sweat glands.
Cautionary pet messages aside, it didn’t stop the children and adults applying colourful powders mixed together to form a rainbow all over their bodies and clothing for the majority of the public holiday. Shops were closed. And I mean everything was closed. Buldana was more like an evacuated ghost town in the afternoon where people retreat to spend time with families and friends. There were holi celebrations in homes, on the street and more organised public holi events. Steve took Roadie for a walk up Chikhali Road and returned with pink smudges on his forehead and cheeks; Roadie had the pink chalk like substance applied to his middle eye region and a decorative pattern on his back. They both looked cute! Everyone is fair game – friend or stranger and when Steve saw the pink paint coming, he alerted the people to not ruin the camera hanging around his neck! They obliged.
But the next day shops were reopened for business, the people were for the most part cleaned up, except for the colourful stains left in and around the ear and neck area. The cars and trucks were back on the road, moving up and down as they normally always do with horn honking loudly and consistently. It’s a weird feeling here when the town stands still for a while, like something’s gone wrong. It must be a sign that we are getting accustomed to the constant noise and movement of Buldana.
Malgi Village and Brick Making facility visit
This week we also had the privilege of driving out to see another village about an hour outside of Buldana. It was quite a hot day and the sun really beat down on us as we walked around the village with Dr Moses and his sister Varsha as well as the young nurse Rachana. We have now been to four villages and each one has its own unique feel to it. It was lovely to see some of the people I had met there two years back.
Malgi village has a large cohort of adolescent girls who meet with the nurses Varsha and Rachana to talk about feminine hygiene, education, equality, rights, and customary Indian practices such as marriage and dowry. It’s a good thing to start having the conversation of pulling the rural village female population out of the dark ages and giving them the impetus to start wanting to live with more choices and opportunities. It’s going to take time, like all change, and it will be up to the women to enact that change if they really want it.
We met a young girl who is 18 and studying 12th Standard. We are told that she is engaged and will be married soon to a 26-year old man who comes from another village. Her parents gave 4 Lakh (40,000 rupees = $800) as dowry to her husband’s family. And although Dr Moses and Varsha try and teach the villages that dowry does not have to occur, and if you keep girls in education longer they can work, years-old traditions stand in the way. The culture in many of these villages is a strangle hold on women’s freedom and choices and is handed down by a patriarchal village council that expects people to follow the status quo and keep society as it is. As I see it there will be an uprising amongst the younger generations of women who find that even if they complete their schooling, marriage changes everything and becoming a wife is part of being owned by a man in rural India. And as a slave with no voice, there is no power to change.
We haven’t really even mentioned the plight of rural villagers who are disabled or mentally ill. We saw a woman who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. She appeared to follow us and watch us as a young child would without comprehension. There is no counselling, psychologist or psychiatric services available here. These people live within the community, mostly discriminated against all their life if they reach adulthood. Leaves you wondering what sort of world we all belong to as a human race.
It’s even harder when you are born into the Indian Aboriginal community, known as the Bhill people. Buldana town itself was originally named after the indigenous Bhill race and was once called Bhillthana, and as we walked up the hill to their allotted area on the outskirts of Malgi village, we notice a change in the look of the homes and of the people. They are unkempt – both homes and people. The homes are basic, made from whatever materials can be pulled together to make four walls and a roof. The people have extremely dark skin, matted hair, and children are either walking around naked or in clothing that is ripped and dirty. As we enter the Bhill area, a young girl is sitting on the dirt track screaming with tears and mucus smearing her face. She’s having a tantrum! Mum with a baby on her hip and carrying a bag walks back to collect her daughter from the dirt track. We hear and watch as the mother talks and then pounds the back of the young child’s back twice, the noise reverberating through us as we walk on up the track. The child is up out of the dirt and walking reluctantly beside her mother who has in her hand her daughter’s thin wrist and is pulling her along back home.
The Bhill people are all given BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards which entitles them to free medical services and medicines in Buldana government hospital and I’m assuming other government support initiatives. Many though would not access this hospital service as it is too far for them to travel and pay for that travel. There are village schools located within the village precinct and some of the Bhill children, we are told, attend but I do not know the exact numbers or if there is a negative caste code practiced by the villagers towards this ‘lower’ race. It’s a lot to absorb on one visit to a village. The ability for us to digest all of this negativity and the cruel situations that these people face on a daily basis is difficult. The more we see it (hardship/poverty etc) though the more we are hardened and protected, almost normalised, against its emotional impact while we are living here in rural Buldana. But I feel that we must keep our minds and our hearts open to our world being a better, safer, more equal and equitable place for all human beings, not just some.
Villages overview at a glance:
- Guiaan Village – Pop: 1000, closest village that Dr Moses helps to Buldana town, less rural than other villages but still rural enough! This village is home to many single mums and their children living here.
- Pimpakhed Village – Pop: 650, poor farming village, well water. 650 villagers living on 2 acres of land, 20 homes build by government plus 10 solar powered street lights installed.
- Manubai Village – Pop: 2000, large village area with caste delineation by homes. The untouchable people are very poor whereas the higher order caste members are more comfortable living in larger and properly built homes.
- Malgi Village – Pop: 1200, spread out, school children lively and boisterous, many toilets erected in homes through government, lots of building works being carried out, home to the native Indians the Bhill people.
Just around the corner from Malgi Village is a brick making facility. We went there to see the bricks being made by a handful of women and their families. It’s something that not many of us from the western world would appreciate unless you’re here on the ground seeing and feeling the work. First it’s a dust pit. Second it’s hot. Third it’s backbreaking work. The women show us how to make the bricks and we then have a go at making one ourselves. There’s obviously an efficient way of making 1,000 bricks per day per person and that’s called repetition! Dacey and I tried our hands at making a couple of the bricks, and surprisingly the wet dirt that is mixed with ash is considerably heavier than I thought it would be especially when trying to turn the steel mould upside down on the ground for the brick to dry in the sun. Then the women shovel pieces of black coal into what looks more like a coloured plastic laundry tub and carry this full tub over to the kiln area and drop the tub’s contents out onto the floor. Again this is repeated over and over until the whole floor area is covered in black pieces of coal. I ask one of the brick making ladies to allow me carry her tub over to the kiln area – she’s not sure why I want to such a thing but I persist and she ends up laughing at me! Again this is heavier than I expected and neck breaking work to perform over and over. Then the women pile bricks onto their heads – in pairs. We watch as 2, 4, 6…and yes 8 bricks are carried vertically on the women’s heads to the kiln area. The women are happy that I want to take photos of them now, and are more than happy to pose together and actually smile.
I see their beautiful smiling faces amongst the dirt and fine dust that rests on their skin. I feel so sorry for how they carry out this gruelling work and perform it each day. I ask Dr Moses if they have heard of wheelbarrows – which in my practical western mind would make more sense to use as it would benefit not only the women’s physical welfare but also the ability to move more coal/bricks in one walk. Apparently some brick making facilities have implemented innovative ideas like the wheelbarrow but not this one. Just as we are about to pile our weary bodies from the beating sun into an air conditioned car, Dr Moses hands out strips of Panadol to the women who have complained of aches and pains as well as some small tubes of Rapid Gel to rub into their joints. They are very appreciative and walk away with their medication stuffed into their pockets and back to work.
The women make the bricks and move the bricks while their husbands move the dirt. We watch as a baby blue Tata lorry chugs through the brick facility and up towards where we are sitting under the shade of a sprawling tree. Two men release the sides of the lorry and start moving the dirt out of the lorry which cascades down onto the ground. Heavy dust fills the air and they continue working in a constant haze of brown dust particles without even sneezing or coughing. The brick maker’s children simply watch. They do not attend school but all day and every day learn how to become a brick maker, and create games together to pass the time in the dusty environment they know as home. They will become the newest members of India’s illiterate that will keep them poor, hungry and constantly searching for work. I would hate to see the day when machines sweep into Buldana and take away the intensive labour component of the brick making industries. But surely it will.
Snapshot of a brick maker’s work and income:
- Number of brick making families (couples) – 5 couples (plus their children) live on the property in small homes.
- Number of bricks made per person per day – 1,000
- Income per 1,000 bricks – 500 rupees ($10) – they have to dry them, carry to kiln, carry to truck.
- Days worked per week – 5-6
We were driven to the Buldana Slum to walk around it and meet a young 14-year old girl who according to Dr Moses and his sister Varsha showed initiative and potential beyond her poor and desperate circumstances. Nikita lives with grandparents in a slum dwelling made from a patchwork of iron sheets. It’s a large and expansive slum home with a tiny doorway which even Ash bashed her head against when entering. As I entered the narrow building, I saw that not only do human beings live within its walls but a herd of goats and one cow. As I walked through the small room at the front of the house – which acted as a kitchen area – and into another larger room which opened up through a doorway, I found myself stepping over tethered animals in the dark. These animals were lying down in the room out of the hot sun and protected from wandering away. To the right of the door into this room was a large bed with a colourful bedspread over it. I ask Nikita if this is where she slept and she smiled and said, “hao” (yes). There was nothing else in the room except a cow dung floor and a slither of sunlight entering the room through the slits between the outer all iron sheets. The smell was like being on a farm, not like someone’s home, with animals relieving themselves all over the floor.
Looking around the room, there was nothing to distinguish it from an average animal shed. The animals are part of her grandfather’s income generation – he minds other people’s goats in exchange for rupee. The grandfather walks them out in the coolness of morning and afternoons to graze on grass and returns them to their home to milk and tether them. I’m not certain who the cow belonged to, but I’m assuming it was the family’s cow which they milk for their own use. Goat milk is used but more commonly goat meat is enjoyed here by many non-vegetarians in biryani dishes and the like.
Nikita shows us a small top she has hand sewn herself. Her passion is making things with old sari material and designing jewellery. She wears a pair of drop earrings that she made herself. You can tell immediately that young Nikita has a heart of gold and a mind for something much bigger. Unfortunately, she has lived in poverty from a very young age when her mother abandoned her. Her grandparents took her on and look after her in their slum home. Her mother has apparently moved on in her life, married a man and had three children with him. It is highly probable now that her husband would not want Nikita back, even if the mother did. It’s the cruel cultural story told over and over again in India, unwanted children, unknown fathers, desperate mothers.
She sticks to my side, notices my LUMIX mirrorless camera and takes an interest. She’s definitely curious in an art inspired way. Later after touring and visiting more homes and families in the slum, I place the camera strap around her neck and invite her to take some photos with it. I quickly show her the buttons and the zoom. She’s delighted and captures some photos of her neighbourhood – people, babies, foreigners. This girl is definitely artistically minded and I imagine teaching her the basics of photography, and scanning pages of glossy magazines of art and fashion. But we are in rural India, in a slum. And this is Nikita’s issue – how to get out of the poverty trap that so many in India cannot get out of. She is lucky that she attends school and is currently in 8th Standard at a local Marathi girls’ school. Across my social media page are my eldest daughter’s teenage friends back home in Australia participating in a Debutante Ball. It’s hard to see the purpose of participating all the way over here,when you meet teenagers here in this situation.
Nikita is both lucky and unlucky – lucky as she has grandparents who are good people and willing to look after and educate her; unlucky compared to say Master A (the 12-year old orphan we have befriended in Buldana town) who can easily wander the Indian streets and make good money shining shoes, yet he doesn’t attend school and doesn’t have someone in his corner supporting him ongoingly. On the other hand women and orphan girls do not easily have access to these street jobs or even normal jobs in Buldana. The only jobs that are easily accessible to them seems to be marriage, prostitution and making chapattis (flat bread) over a fire beside the road at night. It is the Indian men who occupy and dominate public space and jobs including shopkeeping, café and restaurant, driving and auto rickshaw, fruit and vegetable shops, construction. Poor women in rural India really rely on husbands to survive not because they want to but because there are no real alternatives for many of them.
After walking around the Buldana slum stepping over dirty drains and meeting more people of the neighbourhood, we end our visit with a thank you and goodbye. I chat to Varsha who acts as both advisor and translator when I ask her what we can do to assist young Nikita – could I take her out to the Sunday market (today is Thursday) and purchase some cloth material so she can continue to hand sew outfits. Can we look at buying the tools required to make pieces of jewellery? It is all possible, and Nikita comes up to me on three occasions before departing asking if I would come back to her slum home, “Do you promise? Do you promise?” I wobble my head Indian style from side to side (which means yes) and she grabs my hand and wants me to shake on it. Of course I would return and I feel a pang in my heart as it breaks slightly from the desperate reality of her situation. I know what happens to young girls in the slums and villages who find themselves alone and trapped with no viable life options – an early arranged marriage to usually unfriendly and often violent husbands.
Three days later at the Sunday market…
Varsha, Billie, Dacey and I meet Nikita and her grandfather (who is her legal guardian) on the road outside the preschool. Varsha has a little giggle with me as she informs me that Nikita has called four times already this morning to make sure we are indeed going to the market today to pick up some materials for sewing.
We walk down together into the crowded marketplace. It’s activity central on Sundays in Buldana where people display their produce and wares for sale. I had previously walked past the bundles of scrap materials that women searched through, pulling long pieces of cloth out from the pile and admiring its colour or quality. Many women in rural India buy their own cloth materials and either make blouses or saris themselves if they have access to a sewing machine or hand their materials to a person who can and pay for it. I tell Nikita to pick out material she really likes. I have to ensure she knows that I want her to buy the things she really wants, and not about what would make me happy. It’s an unfortunate Indian culture where girls and women are brought up to be shy and obedient – to make others happy. We stand at one material market stall and she rummages through the multi-coloured pile and pulls out four she likes the look of. They cost 10 rupee each. We walk further down the street and look for a bag for Nikita to use for school. Her favourite colour is pink and there is not much on offer other than black, blue, and toddler-like bags. It needs to be sturdy as she carries large school books to and from school, a one way walk of 2km.
We look at purchasing new material too that she can use once she has trialled her pattern and sewing skills on the old 10 rupee cloth materials. She does not have a sewing machine, and wishes that she did. She buys some stud earrings along with Billie and Dacey for 10 rupee each and we then walk to another more formal bag shop in the heart of Buldana and ask the shop assistants to pull down a number of pink display bags hanging from the hooks near the ceiling. We finally purchase a bag that she likes and is suitable for her school books and it costs 400 rupee ($8). I suggest to Nikita that she place her carry bags of materials into the new pink backpack bag and we walk off with the it proudly strapped to her back. We buy a tape measure (15 rupee) and scissors (70 rupee) at the variety shop next door and she’s all set to start more hand sewing back at her Buldana slum home.
There is a reserved excitement in her eyes, as well as her grandfathers, as we sit and enjoy a lassi at my favourite lassi café and talk about her new purchases. I think we spent just $10 on all the bits and bobs required. I watch as her kind and committed grandfather sits there with a couple of stains marking the front of his shirt and he wears his broken shoes without socks. But he seems happy. Content almost. I suppose there is no other way to be here when life is so tough and when he doesn’t know what life is like any other way. Again I feel pangs of guilt accumulate like an army marching into the pit of my stomach as my thoughts drift to what I spend fervently, almost frivolously, each and every day here, and when I’m also back home in Australia. It’s feels almost criminal thinking about it as I sit in front of these beautiful human beings who struggle with day to day life in a rural slum of India. It’s part of the grime that stays under my skin forever, and I just can’t wash it away or pretend that I can’t contribute something at least to make a difference. They are both appreciative of the lassi, me for getting out from under the hot afternoon sun, and we walk back to where Varsha and grandpa parked their motorbikes and head off to a sewing machine shop to take a look at models and prices.
The machines are the old style machines, nothing like our modern day computerised versions. But it is what they use here in rural India and the showroom sewing machines sparkle in the shop. The entry level for a new sewing machine costs 4,200 rupees ($84) and the owner of the shop, who has sold machines previously to Dr Moses for the CBHP sewing classes, mentions that he will give a discount too (not sure how much yet). We leave saying we will discuss the options. Nikita talks to Varsha who translates for me, “If you can’t buy a sewing machine, maybe a bicycle?” It’s a good sign that she shows such determination to get what she wants here in rural India, especially when the other option for most abandoned youth is giving up on their dreams and begging on the streets. I like it. You go girl. Keep that voice being heard!
I ask all the necessary questions – how will she learn how to use the machine in her slum home, how will she get supplies for the machine like cotton and needles etc. In my experience here in rural India the more basic the question the more pertinent to a successful outcome. Nikita can attend the CBHP sewing classes that are held three times a week to learn which completely suits as it is a free program overseen by Varsha and some of the skilled Indian women who train others in the proper use of sewing machine use. For just a measly $100 – I keep thinking the price of a dinner out in Australia for Steve and I, this young 14-year old girl could have her dreams of owning her own sewing machine come true.
That’s my weekly wrap up of this week, number 7. It’s been another great one with a couple of family misadventures along the way – some family fighting and disagreements – but nothing out of the ordinary for a family of six.
If you would like to contribute to health and/or education programs here on the ground in rural Buldana, like that of Nikita or Master A (see previous blog post), then please get in touch with me. Dr Moses Kharat and his nurse sister Varsha are truly committed souls who are always looking for people who are happy and able to assist with donations (big and small) to help alleviate the never-ending cycle of poverty in Buldana and the nearby villages. They are dedicated to make small and lasting changes to an individual’s life and change the direction of desperation in Buldana.
Whether it be supporting the running of an English speaking pre-school or below the poverty line families, mobile health clinic visits out to village areas, sewing classes for women, English speaking tuition for youngsters keen to learn, or more. Trust me there are a multitude of needs with many viable projects requiring financial support. If you came here you would see it for yourselves, but it’s most likely you won’t make it to Buldana on your next OS trip and that’s why I love sharing my photos and the stories about ordinary people and their circumstances. It’s a way I can help make a difference too. Get in touch with me and have a chat if you’d like to be involved in some way or just to make a simple donation.
PS all donations are tax deductible if making donations through the website at www.cbhp.org.au