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Posts Tagged ‘NGO’s’

I have finally begun what I hope will be a long-term effort during my time here in Bombay.

Everyone has been asking me since I arrived: What are you hoping to do here? And the answer to that question ranges from vague to very specific. It’s either: “I’m hoping to take a step back from my hectic life and do something valuable.” or, the more honest and blunt, “I have no actual plan.”

I knew one thing: I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned over the last few years to be truly valuable somewhere in a way others couldn’t. The only question was, what on earth would that entail?

Luckily I was put in contact with a woman who certainly understood my vantage point. She is a former journalist who tired of the profession and started her own non-profit that aims to give underprivileged women a voice through the use of media and communications.  After listening to my story and hearing what I was hoping to do, she suggested a seemingly great solution: I could go to the various NGO’s her organization partnered with and document their stories. They could use it for their websites, or presentations or fund-raising — wherever it would be helpful.

We decided to start with an organization that works with domestic violence victims in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It’s hard for me to explain Dharavi in any knowledgeable context, since my first visit was very short and contained. But just the statistics alone can bring some perspective. It’s estimated that at least a million people live in Dharavi — an area that’s less than one square mile. Or, to use a National Geographic estimate, there’s 18,000 people living on every acre. Rents can be as low as $4 a month. And you won’t have trouble finding it – Dharavi is a 15-minute drive across the highway from Bandra. This prime real estate has led to some controversial re-development proposals in recent years (although none seem to be quite able to get off the ground, from what I have been told).  Most people in the West became familiar with Dharavi (even if they don’t know it) because the childhood scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire were shot there.

With all that in mind I drove into Dharavi to discuss the work that I would be doing.

I didn’t see a lot – the organization is based in a public hospital on one of the main roads, so I have yet to experience the teeming mazelike interior of the slum. But even just driving down the road you can understand why there are two very different mindsets about this place.

The obvious negative descriptions are apparent – Most of the structures appeared to be built with sheets of materials cobbled together, often rusting and filled with holes. One building’s owners had tied ladders horizontally in-between wall materials in order to create an open window. Dirt was everywhere, casting a dark pall on the haphazard structures. The bright bursts of color that exist everywhere else in Mumbai were only visible on the saris of women walking through the street.

But it was clear from the outset why this place is also known for a sense of community. Those sari-clad women chatted animatedly as they walked together down the street.  Down the road, a man tried to lift something into a truck and another man crossed over the street and offered to help. The main road was lined with every kind of shop imaginable – grocery markets, restaurants, clothing stores. You can understand why residents have been so vocally against development — they have created a life here and their neighbors and families own businesses. It is a city unto itself.

I went into the hospital, up to the small area cordoned off for the domestic violence center. The woman accompanying me told me that the public hospitals are often empty because the doctors who are appointed to work there just don’t show up. Since they are political appointees, no one higher up notices (or chooses to notice) the absences that take place throughout the system.

But the center itself was full of life – the women who worked there were in full motion — holding meetings, typing away at computers, and discussing work over chai.

I took a glass of chai when it was offered and began speaking with the center’s director about what might be useful. What she wanted was to be able to tell the story of their work to the outside world as well as to the organizations that give them funding.  We agreed that I should begin by spending a few days with the women before filming in order to gain a bit of trust and goodwill before jumping in. I could then start filming the women’s daily life in Dharavi as well as the work of the center.

We shook hands and agreed to touch base next week after she’d run the plan by her board. As I got up to leave she announced to the office, “This is Ali. She’s going to do some work with us.” I was immediately inundated with various women coming over to shake my hand and welcome me.

Even in that first meeting, I got the sense that this was a place where I could bring some value. And I hope in the next weeks and months I will be able to.

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