This blog has taken me a while to write. I began it towards the end of last year. And I have been struggling to write. The people I met in Mumbai India, particularly in the Govandi community, are warm. They are very respectful and they share—including their food! If you know me, and my friends can attest to this, I don’t part ways with my food. Ok, unless it is under pressure or due to very special circumstances. So, I kept having shock upon shock, when people kept offering to share their food. Maybe, like I initially thought, you might think it was because I was a foreigner. But they did not just share with me, they also shared with each other. Although I must admit, I was quite famous in India. I was so up there with the top celebrities, I even got to give out my autograph 😊
But the tides that blew me while I was in India, were ones that pushed me to extreme ends:
On one end:
I was one with the rickshaws*
As we breezed against winds
Which unflinchingly permeated my Fro;
Soaked in a choir of un-needed horns,
All cacophonous and chaotic sounding,
But, with a touch of order,
And through it all
Utilizing the sharp directions of the drivers’ hippocampus
Navigating through unwarranted areas,
including side pavements;
We landed, upon which any and all change--
Even 1 Rupee was returned.
And on the other end:
My chest clogs up, and my eyes heats up
Because my mind can’t quite wrap around
The fact that I saw two children playing
In a gutter full of bodily waste—about 7 to 8 times the size of autos
Which connects to one of the biggest waste dumps in Mumbai
And borders with a community that has
Gardens of trash, right at their doorstep
Where I am told:
“the garbage trucks don’t come to collect”
“some autos don’t drive into”
Into a place of courage and hard work:
Of women who work every day,
To produce sanitary pads and sell to other women
While working to educate on feminine hygiene
And break taboos that hinder and restrict…
(* rickshaw- small automated vehicles)
I was mad. And I am still mad at this gap, the difference I saw among the extravagance of the airport and some of the places people were sleeping. And I should not be surprised, and yet this somehow hits me hard—especially when I saw those two kids playing in the gutter. I am ill-equipped to talk about the history, politics and economic…interplays in India, and how they have led to this. So I am not going to. But this is not just in India, I have seen it in one form or another in every single country I have visited. And what I am beginning to understand, is the power that lies within politics. People in political positions hold power, connections, authority, resources, the say-so that can really change things. For someone, with little background in politics (did not even take a course in college, which I am severely regretting), I want to understand. I want to understand the dynamics, the links, the responsibilities, the arguments, and the reasons for such heavy inequality—everywhere I have been. Maybe it is both physiological and psychological. Maybe it is just being human. And no matter what, it might be such that we can only exist and thrive on inequality. I am beginning to really believe that I am stupidly naïve to think that people are innately good. Maybe not; maybe we can become corrupted by our need for money, to be on top, to have more than what we need—that we don’t care about others.
If you are reading this. And you have more money than even your grandkids can spend, what are you really doing with it? When there are people starving and dying, and sleeping seconds away from garbage dumps.
But then there is Shabnam, who is a part of a program(Sponsor a Girl) that empowers young girls at Myna Mahila Foundation; the organization I interned with, which works with women and girls from the slums of Govandi and beyond, to educate about feminine health and hygiene, and offer resources and opportunities.
And stories such as Shabnam’s, when I hear, brings me hope.
Here is the story of Shabnam:
“I am Shabnam, the eldest child in my family of eight. I have four sisters and one brother. My mom is a housemaid and my dad washes cars. I've never been to school, although my younger siblings do. I've been a part of Myna for a month now and it's already been a journey of metamorphosis: from a lost afraid 12-year-old girl to an informed young woman.
Menstruation is a monthly recurring reality of every girl's life. Yet, it is the “issue” that is talked in “hush- hush” voices at home and in my community—a conversation that is brushed under the carpet. These visible yet living constructed walls around periods, perpetuate an ignorance and culture that hinders women’s health. When I got my first period at 12, I was given a cloth, in silence. So, using a cloth is natural; it is something that was handed down to me by my mother. Despite the rashes and irritation, I used cloth.
Myna has been a pillar that has guided me, from first hearing about them from my neighbours to enrolling as a community leader, for Sponsor a Girl. When I first got to Myna, I was both intrigued and impressed by the free and open language used by the women, which is also infused with mutual respect. It was like being in an alternate universe, where I have the space to talk about things not talked about, that were affecting me and my health. We talked about menstruation, sanitary pads, feminine hygiene techniques, and about “good touch-bad touch”—to know when someone’s touch to my body poses a risk to me.
I consider this space the heart of our Govandi community; it has morphed our daily struggles, as women, into empowering tools to reach more women. I wasn't born a chatty Myna Bird, but Myna Mahila Foundation sure has transformed me into one. I previously didn't even know the meaning of my name (Shabnam). Now, like the fresh drops of Shabnam, the new beginnings Myna has inspired me to go for things, to try things I never thought I would ever do, including being a community leader and running for the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020. I plan on paying it forward to empower more women. Thus, in the spirit of Christmas, I would like to ask if you could give to help us reach more Myna’s like myself.”
(Interviewed and written Akanksha Mishra & Ella)
Myna Mahila Foundation’s work is changing lives. They don’t only employ women (18) who have produced over 864,000 + pads, and are so excited to learn English that I had to teach a weekly mini-English class. Under the guidance of a very energetic “Gudda”—who also got to meet Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle—their pads have been sold beyond Govandi to other slums, and to hospitals. They also have numerous on-ground programs including “Sponsor A Girl”, which links girls with sponsors, so that they can come in to learn about feminine health and hygiene and receive sanitary products (pads, underwear, soap and shampoos) as well as discounts they can use to purchase more products. In addition, their “Teach Menses” program is able to work with youth (both girls and boys) and help them better understand and feel comfortable about menstruation. Additionally, they hold other activities through the year such a Myna Health Camp (for general consultation, dental and eye check-up, vaccination and de-worming, healthy food kits, and medicine), the “#PADPARADE” (which encourages and pushes the women to confidently speak about feminine health and hygiene) and the Tata Mumbai Marathon, will offer some of the young girls from “Sponsor a Girl” a chance to run in the 2020 marathon.
These programs are all run by a team of nine very passionate people. And one might ask how can they do so much? And the answer I observed is their “why”—their reason. They are really passionate about the work they are doing. And that is what drives them.
I was impressed and touched by what the Myna Team is doing. And I hope they expand and get to reach more girls. So that they can tell them not to fear going to school during menstruation and to eat a “pickle” too. If interested in helping, you can consider sponsoring a girl.