Imagine that you just had a baby. Your baby has five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, nothing physically visible that warrants your attention and the baby entered the world crying. The doctor comes in and gently tells you that your baby is malnourished. You look at your baby and can’t understand what the doctor is talking about. The doctor continues to say that because the baby is malnourished, the baby may have some long term development problems and the baby has a poor immune system. The doctor goes on to say that you will need to make sure that you take nutritional supplements, and to make sure that you and the baby eat nutritiously and eat sufficient food.
“What is this doctor talking about? Doesn’t the doctor know that I am a woman who eats last and eats the least in the family household because that’s been the rule since before I was born? How can I possibly tell my husband that I will need more food so that I and the baby can be more healthy? The baby looks fine. I also live in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the world.“
In the early days, SNEHA saw expectant mothers giving birth to babies that were born malnourished. SNEHA tried their best to relay the prenatal and postnatal information to the expectant and new mothers but they found it difficult to get their message across or even to be listened to. These women were often children themselves and not educated. SNEHA believed that if they could inform the expectant mothers to get a check up from the doctor in the early stages of pregnancy, take nutritional supplements, educate the mother on recipes that would add more nutrition to her diet, then her baby would have a better chance at starting life healthy. The problem was that SNEHA didn’t know the mothers personally, SNEHA didn’t live in their community, and SNEHA wanted to tell the mothers what to do.
Community Organizers (CO) of SNEHA and volunteers are the bridge that helps educate impoverished neighborhoods in Mumbai to live healthier lives. On one of our volunteering days, we split into two groups so we wouldn’t be a group of seven crowding the narrow lanes of Dharavi. Under the bright light of the sky, no rain in sight, we began our walk. After a couple of minutes, we turned left and entered a narrow lane. It became much darker, like being under shade. The sky view above went from limitless to less than a narrow 6 feet. As we walked, I noticed a white, brown and black little cat on a step against a colorful blue wall and an even more colorful curtain hiding the front door. I saw a whole wagon load of ripe yellow mangoes, students walking fast in crisp ironed uniforms, butchers, food stalls, bakeries, clothes shops, people working and living.
I also saw little children running naked and playing in the puddles. Our walk was mostly straight, but when we did turn a right or a left, the lane was even narrower and darker. Finally, we came to a big open space, where motorcycles were parked. The Community Organizer saw some children from the program and they came to talk to her and she introduced us. They were friendly and curious. They didn’t say much to us until I asked one boy, “Do you speak English?” He said, “Yes.” From then on the boys spoke freely and they asked us questions and we asked them questions. Our meeting with them was 15 minutes at the most. The community organizer reminded them to attend the SNEHA program. After we said bye to the boys, we walked to a big high rise building, walked some flights of stairs and knocked on the door to remind another child to attend the SNEHA program. The Community Organizer goes daily, door to door, reminding children to go to SNEHA’s youth program. We went to about 4 homes. Thinking to myself, I thought that this walking door to door took an hour at the least. I was wondering why the (CO) chose to go door to door rather than calling or texting.
The next day, Bhuva and I were walking from SNEHA’s Colour Box Center to another volunteering site, which was about a ten minute walk. Maybe longer depending on how long it took us to cross the heavily used road. As we were concentrating on walking and watching the ground for obstructions but also looking up as people, cars, and scooters passing at any time, we heard someone shouting, “Hi teacher, hi teacher.” I ignore it because I just started volunteering 3 days ago and it didn’t seem likely that I would know anyone. Bhuva suddenly says, “Hey, it’s that boy we met yesterday.” He’s riding on the back of a motorcycle with his dad in front. The boy says, “Hi teacher. What are you doing? Where are you going?” We are out on a crazy busy 3 way intersection, there are people, scooters cars and motorcycles inches away from me. And we are having a conversation. We tell him that we’re walking to A Girls Home to volunteer. We say hi to his dad, and remind him to go to the program which was starting soon. He says, “ Yes, Yes” and nods with a smile. We say bye.
I thought about our meeting with the boy on the motorcycle. We had just met him the day before and today he was shouting, “Hi teacher.” In the Dharavi neighborhood of one million people, he felt comfortable saying hi, and asking me where I was going. The same words I would be asking my own neighbor in my hometown. I was part of his community and it felt good. Because of my connection with SNEHA’s community organizer, I was not a stranger to him.
Establishing a relationship with the neighborhood is the reason why the (CO) goes door to door rather than make phone calls or send text messages to remind the children about the upcoming programs. The CO is their neighbor and friend. The bridge that connects SNEHA and the Dharavi community are the Community Organizers and volunteers. They live in the same community, they know the issues and problems in the community and they know each other. It’s easier to listen and consider the advice of a neighbor or friend than a stranger. From the blue coats that the Community Organizers wear, to the office space they have in the neighborhood, to the fliers, home visits and information available to anyone in the neighborhood, the CO’s and volunteers succeed in starting the relationships so that communities like Dharavi have the knowledge to make their communities healthier.