It was a big surprise, but it was also something that was going to change the destiny of her life. It’s never really about the money, but the time and care in locating and understanding what people need to make a difference in their own lives is what makes travelling and living in other cultures so great. Our aim is to enable and empower individuals so that they are in charge of their future; empowered to do what they want. Isn’t that what we all want in life ultimately? Why would it be any different for someone who lives below the poverty line. What I see in 14-year old Nikita is the same thing I see in my own girls’ eyes – to live their lives fully and freely with choices and opportunities.
We drove to Nikita’s slum home in the white car carrying a bright pink bike on the roof – it was tied down but nonetheless sparkling newness on top of the car roof. I sat in the back seat on the drive there, and could see her surprised face as we approached. Just seeing that face was worth a million dollars and a quizzical look of is that really for me? She walked up to the car as it stopped, and through the back window I smiled and waved at her, pointing my index finger in an upwards motion and then directly at her mouthing out, “that is for you!” Her body gave a slight wriggle on the spot almost bursting with excitement.
All of us finally crawl out from the car and a decent crowd of slum onlookers congregates around us fairly quickly, as it does everywhere when there’s something going on out of the ordinary. I greet Nikita with a hug and start informing her that the bike and the sewing machine that is sitting on the ground is all for her. Beside Nikita is her grandfather and I shake his hand glad to see his happy content face once again. Nikita’s grandfather assisted the driver in getting the bicycle down from the car roof, along with Steve and Moses. He was first to move the sewing machine stand out of the back of the auto rickshaw that we hired for 50 rupee to get it to the slum. He was keen to place the sewing machine sitting on the dirt near the car into its frame and stand. I like her grandfather. He seems to know his granddaughter. And I especially like that he knows she is smart and he wants to provide more for her. He is truly an amazingly supportive and caring man. Nikita is lucky.
I prompt Nikita to jump onto the bicycle and she does and takes it for a short ride. It’s working fine and is a perfect size for her and she returns to where we are all standing with a smile from ear to ear. She is saying to me “thank you” and all I can muster out of my overheated brain is “it is our pleasure”.
Now most Indians don’t mind a photo or two being taken, so there are plenty of photos taken with us standing altogether in front of the sewing machine and the bicycle outside their little tin slum home. I notice Nikita has been decorating the outside of the slum wall with bright water paintings of small flowers and a rose. It makes the place look nicer and friendlier. She is so artistically wired.
I ask where she will put the sewing machine in her slum home. So I go inside and they point to an area just inside the main entrance. It’s the only place that has a small light bulb for her to see what she is actually doing. Tin slum homes do not have anything fancy like windows. It is just a tin shed with an opening. I peer down the darkness into the other rooms and notice the herd of goats are tethered inside the room. I’m assuming the one cow is there too. I can’t see it because it’s too dark but there is a strong brew of barn smell coming from the farthest room. The sewing machine is picked up and placed on the internal wall near the doorway, and I ask her how her hand sewing has been going since I last saw her on our market day out last Sunday. She motions for me to wait here while she scurries to the other room and skips over the goats lying in the dark room of the slum home to her bedroom. She comes back with a shimmering green dress that she has cut out and hand sewn. She’s very proud of it, and it is a great start. She tells me it is being made for me.
Today the temperature reached over 40 degrees Celsius in Buldana, and with the sting of the sun’s rays finally and thankfully subsided, I start to try and imagine what it must have been like for Nikita and her grandparents inside their iron walled and roofed home today. I ask all four of our daughters to come inside Nikita’s home as I want them to vividly remember the reality of how she lives every day in this slum. Of course they reluctantly enter, and absorb the animal smells and the darkness. It’s so hard for them to digest and make sense of all of this poverty right here and right now. But it will come with time as they grow older and wiser.
I walk out of the slum home, with sweat beads forming on my skin, and relish the fresh breeze that cools the sweat and I am instantly relieved. I mention a few times that she should always use the locks on the bike, and Varsha happily translates for me. We purchased two locks for the bikes – one on the wheels and another chain lock – just in case. The bright pink bike looks completely out of place here in the dusty slum area. Charlie and Nikita start removing the extra packaging placed on the bike frame and we discuss while watching them pull off the packaging when Nikita will ride to school for the first time. It seems there is another public holiday of some sort on Monday, so Nikita will ride to and from school on Tuesday.
Nikita’s grandfather is asking us if we would like a chai or a watermelon, and we politely decline. He doesn’t give up though and asks us if we’d like to have a Thumbs Up (India’s cola equivalent to a Pepsi). But we don’t want him to make, buy or give us anything. Varsha informs me he is having trouble expressing his appreciation for what we have provided for Nikita. Moses and Varsha talk to the grandfather more in local Marathi saying we are all okay just being here with them. And as we stand in the Buldana slum and I just take everything in around me, I ask Varsha to make sure Nikita knows that we have family and friends in Australia who assisted by giving money to purchase the bicycle and the sewing machine. I also mention that she has a bike and sewing machine because she wants to do something with her life and she shows great courage and resilience and initiative to overcome her current barriers and limitations. Then my eyes start to well up with tears when I say to her that she has a voice and that she should always use it and ask for what she wants and to never ever give up even when she thinks no one is listening.
I find that I can’t get anything more out as emotions take over.
At this point my well of tears are now streaming down my face. I move a couple of steps over to be near Steve and he puts his arm around me and kisses me on top of my head. I notice that Nikita and her grandparents are looking at me very worried, and we get Varsha to explain that I’m overwhelmed and happy that we could help. Poor young Nikita bows her head and she too starts crying. It’s an emotional roller coaster seeing day after day human beings in rural India struggle with the bare necessities, understanding their hardship and the limitations imposed on them for their futures. I know I go to bed most nights thinking that we have no say in it really – the life card we’re dealt. No one gets to choose what country or family or situation they’re born into. No one. And as such, we either make the most or the worst of what we have.
We broaden our attention off the slum star, Nikita and her shiny new bike feeling a sense of joy that we have in fact helped one girl. But as we look out into the crowd, we see all the other young beautiful faces of the slum who also need something. One boy who I had met on the first visit to the slum who wore a vivid green t-shirt and had a huge smile across his face. Dr Moses told me later that he had a major health problem with his kidneys. And today at the slum he approached me again, wearing a different coloured t-shirt this time but I quickly recognised his smile and he murmured “wow!” as his response to the sewing machine and bicycle that stood out the front of Nikita’s slum home. It’s a bittersweet visit – we help one but there are so many other children and teenagers here right in front of us who also need assistance. As Steve shared his feelings about the moment – you feel really good with helping a person and then you look around at the rest of the people, the never ending queue of people who need their bike, their sewing machine or possibly a new kidney and you’re back to feeling helpless, sad and deflated. It’s a very emotionally charged time, but in a way to do this kind of work you have to be somewhat detached from all the injustices that keep flooding in in order to make a difference to just one. It makes you really appreciate the people who are committed on the ground to making the difference such as Dr Moses and Varsha.
I hope in some small way we have helped Nikita and her grandparents see that the world does care and can act and will do something to help. I notice Nikita’s grandmother is looking into my eyes and she looks right through me. I place my palms together in a thank you Hindu Namaste-way and bow my head to her. She reciprocates with the same.
By now the tears are still streaming down my pale face, and I must be more Indian these days as I wipe my tears with the end of my scarf. It is time to depart, it’s getting dark and there are no lights in the slum area. My daughters have been watching my tears roll down my face and are also emotionally moved by the significance of what one person can do to help another. I’m more concerned about Nikita though, and I go up to her and we embrace each other with a big hug. She holds onto me tightly and I tell her I am so happy that we could get her what she needed and wanted.
I walk over to Nikita’s grandfather and we shake hands and then embrace, and I do the same with grandma. I look back as I walk towards the white car, and my daughters are also each giving Nikita a hug – they have been moved to wish her all the best. It was a poignant sight.
We jump into the car and we are off, waving our hands out of the windows until the pink bike standing outside the slum home vanishes from our view. The lump at the back of my throat lingers; I’m choking up just thinking about all the young people in the world just like Nikita who are needing a someone or something to help their journey. The driver stops the white car at an intersection as we wait for Moses and his sister Varsha to catch up in the other car, while my girls tell me that there is a street dog crossing the road without straight legs; they are curved and broken and dilapidated. I can’t look this time. I can’t keep the unshed tears at the back of my throat contained if I see another living creature of this world in need right now.
We left Nikita and her grandparents outside their slum home saying we would return with my sister in law Andrea and nephews Luke and Harry later this week. Anyway, I have to come back to collect my shimmering green dress made by Nikita!
I would like to express my thanks to all the people who follow us on our journey who are inspired to help others in need around the world. You are amazing. Thanks for following and reaching out to my invitation to support Nikita so promptly. Without your willingness to support our efforts, we could not have made this a possibility in Nikita’s life.
It always amazes me to think that we don’t have to be overtly rich to make a difference in our world. In this instance for example an invitation to contribute any amount of money to buy a sewing machine came from nine people who donated anything from A$20 – A$50. We raised a total of $270.00 which then allowed us to purchase both sewing machine and bicycle for Nikita plus another sewing machine for the sewing training program in one of Dr Moses’ health care village of Guiaan. If only we were all brought up to be more philanthropic at times we could start making the world a better place.