Day 6 – A visit to Pratham

The visit to the Delhi slums on Friday morning was an amazing experience. I went to meet up with a Pratham employee at a nearby metro station. It was located along a crazy busy street; there must have been 6 lanes of cars and other vehicles driving fast in either direction. I gave her a call because I was standing outside this busy metro station, getting looks from every direction and I couldn’t find her. We finally came to the conclusion that we were both at different entrances to the metro. “Just cross the street,” she says to me over the phone. I stared at the busy highway in front of me. “How do I do that?” I ask, I’m sure sounding ridiculous to the Delhi native. “Never mind,” she quickly replies, “just wait right there.”

Madhura bounds toward me in what seems like only seconds – she’s a young, beautiful woman with so much energy and excitement about her work. Turns out I was the one on the right side of the street after all – who knew? We enter and buy our metro tokens and walk through the required security check. The metro, despite being overcrowded, is very clean, cool and efficient. We ride for over an hour before getting off at nearly the last stop.  Madhura informs me that this journey, if taken by car, could take nearly 3 hours in traffic.

The metro station is elevated above ground and as we exit, I notice that a large slum community surrounds us. Right down the steps from the metro the mud, brick and cardboard structures make up homes and businesses, young children play in their bare feet with no parents to be seen, vendors are selling fruit and goods, rickshaws propelled by bike lines the sides of the road, mud, trash and other debris cover the ground. We make our way out of the metro, nearly trapped by 3 young children playing a game with string that they’ve tied to either side of the metro exit to capture unknowing victims into their trap. They laugh at us as we narrowly escape and scatter off to find their next targets.

Madhura’s tall and stunning colleague Kriti greets us near the metro exit. I blindly follow these two women as we wind our way through the streets of the slums, dodging constant obstacles and trying to converse about the programs we are going to visit over the horns and sounds of traffic. Finally, we divert away from the main road and turn down a narrow alley that eventually leads us to a school. It’s lunchtime, and when the girls see us enter they immediately flock to us, laughing, squealing and giggling. They are scolded by the principal and return to their games.

Pratham works directly with the government to supplement its programs. We visited the library program, where one Pratham teacher is given supplies and works in the government school to teach 40 children per class for eight classes each day. Wow! I’m exhausted just thinking about that! After spending some time with the young girls, we headed back out.

After spending a good 10 minutes negotiating with a group of rickshaw drivers, we finally find out that agrees to take all four of us to our next stop. We squeeze into the tiny vehicle and we are on our way. After a short ride on the main road, the driver takes a sharp turn down one of the narrow alleyways…hardly large enough to fit between the stands on either side of us, we ride on as pedestrians, animals and other autos dodge out of our way. We hop off and walk down a few more narrow streets where life in these slums is very much alive. Children play cricket, women cook, bright laundry hangs from ropes above us.

We are headed to visit a Pratham primary program that supplements literacy for children that would otherwise fall behind. Women are found and trained to be teachers and then paid a small stipend. Materials are provided, but space is not. We enter into a small building that is dark and narrow. It’s the site of this program – it’s also the home of the teacher. We climb up the narrow cement steps for two flights until we reach a small room (maybe 10 feet by 8 feet) where 15 little boys are sitting cross legged with chalkboards in their laps, all facing a beautiful women dressed in a stunning pink sari who sits in front of them. There is a huge hole in the floor right in front of her feet. The boys look up – completely overwhelmed by our presence in this tiny space – and they say hello. I sit with them for about 10 minutes before they start to loosen up and are excited to show me their drawings. Some of them are incredible artists!  They also teach me some of the Hindi words they are learning. I am awed by the intensity in their eyes and the joy in their smiles.

After a while, we took off onto the sweltering street, made it back to the metro and collapsed into the seat for the ride back to the heart of the city. I have so much unfaltering respect for the men and women working hard in the field each day – it’s quite a daunting and exhausting task.

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