Hello and welcome to Smiles from India! This blog is about my gap year (between high school and college) as I live in Guwahati, Assam, India. I am working for Operation Smile (www.operationsmile.org), which is a non-profit organization that repairs cleft lips and cleft palates. I am also helping the rest of the community working with the Pratyasha Foundation (http://www.facebook.com/pratyashafoundation). Enjoy and keep smiling!
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
On Wednesday, I ventured down to the Lakhtokia slum to learn more about their lives. I took along a translator to help me conduct some interviews with the kids and mothers who I constantly think about from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. This was the only way I could think of learning more about the atmosphere there without living there for a week.
Thanks to Trideep, my translator/friend, I had around 10 conversations with the people who piqued my curiosity. There's definitely a "process" to doing this. In order to really understand what they're saying, I must hear their answers to my question in the voice they said it in. The translator has to really express their meaning to me so I can hear their "voice" and the "way" they said something. Trideep got that.
So I grabbed a notebook and a pen, met Trideep and drove the scooter to the slum. We walked in and I just decided I would interview the first person that I saw. It was not weird for me to be in the slum, I go two times a day, most people know who I am. However, this time people were curious as to why we were sitting and talking to people. So it was a challenge to keep the the interviewees focused on the task at hand. The slum is a hard place to sit down and just have a conversation, but we tried our best. We conducted several of the first interviews sitting on a log, outside of the temple and then moved on to going to people's homes.
The small temple in Lakhtokia. Photo by Operation Smile - Peter Stuckings
The interviews were all really great, and one that really sticks in my mind is Omit’s story. Before I begin, Omit is someone whom we all really respect and love. I like to call him my “boyfriend.” Kristin, Rosie, Olivia and I all notice something different about Omit. He willingly runs up to us and gives us hugs, always looking forward to our limited Assamese conversation. But if we run into him on the street while he's picking up trash, he is so embarrassed and ashamed. If we try to say hello to him, he runs away and never looks us in the eye.
Omit has lived in the Lakhtokia slum his entire life. He is an 8 to 9-year-old boy (he does not know his exact age), he has an older brother, and his other two siblings have died of unknown causes. His dad was a victim of human trafficking one year ago. He has no idea where his dad is or what his dad is doing. He does know one thing: “I will never see my Dad again.”
Most of Omit’s time is spent picking up trash. The money he collects each day supports his older brother, his mom, and himself for the day. He said in an average day he can collect anywhere from 20 Rs (37 cents) to 100 Rs (2 dollars), and, “if I am lucky, 200 Rs (4 dollars).”
Unlike most boys, Omit does not sniff dendrites. He did not explain why but I assume it is because he spends most, if not all, of his day wandering around Guwahati with a massive bag on his back sifting through the dumpsters and does not have time to get high. Like most other people in the slum, Omit is very scared of the police. But he continues to work hard to support he and his family.
Every interview that I did, I asked people, “What is your biggest dream in life?” When Trideep asked this question to Omit, he sort of sat there for a little while thinking. After ten seconds of what looked like intense thoughts running through his head, Omit said, “I want to be a good person. I want to be different from everybody else.” Trideep then asked him, “And how will you do that?” He sat there again, thinking very hard about how he was going to be different. “Hmm… hmm…” and then his Assamese poured out. Trideep turned to me and said, “Be prepared: He said, ‘I haven’t quite figured that part out yet.’”
And so it goes.
Pratyasha is here for this: to help those who are stuck in this cycle and cannot get out, to help Omit learn how he can become different from everybody else, to provide opportunities that can help kids accomplish their far fetched dreams. Now you understand why Omit is so shy and ashamed when we run into him on the streets as he throws cardboard into his trash bag. He wants to be different, he is not proud of where he comes from, or how much trash he collects during the day. Omit wants something totally outside of this. Instead of being graded on the quality and quantity of trash he collects, Omit wants to be graded on the knowledge that is inside his churning brain.
I collected a ton of stories. And after this day, I realized that every single person has an amazing story to tell in the Lakhtokia slum. Girl, boy, woman, man, young, old, jobless, student, shack owner, tea stall worker, and trash picker: they all have some sort of story. They all have something to relate. And they were all so happy to tell someone.
Just the fact that someone was interested in what they do on a day-to- day basis meant a lot. They do not care what I do with these stories. But they care that I want to know about their life, where every day is a constant battle.
Sending smiles from India,
Photo courtesy of Operation Smile- Peter Stuckings