Sunday, August 26, 2012

Football, girls and hope inside Asia’s most notorious slum


Several days ago, I trudged across the +100 degree asphalt of the Pakistan border, loaded with collages of memories from a short but overwhelming summer in India.  Shining brightest from this kaleidoscope of experiences was Dharavi – India’s largest and most enterprising slum – and the aurora of hope radiating from there.

When I first stepped into this labyrinth, Slumdog Millionaire community, I was mostly curious. Intrigued how an alleged 1 million people packed into a tiny .67 square miles could “decide to be happy, when they had every reason to be miserable.” Intrigued how generations could rise above their circumstances, and make the best life possible for themselves, despite everything holding them back. What I eventually discovered is that hope is central to this phenomenon.

Nicholas Kristof once wrote that development succeeds when it gives people hope that a better outcome is possible. Dharavi is a perfect case study of the effect of hope delivered.

As described in Poor Little Rich Slum, Dharavi is a cauldron bubbling with enterprise. With a never-say-die attitude. With spirit and spunk. A place where people believe that tomorrow can actually look better than today.

And Yuwa is one organization that is helping inculcate that belief at an early age, specifically with the +10 year-old girls who are learning football on a swampy mud lot behind the Mahim train station.

Despite the monsoon rains and the barely-lit lot littered with rocks, rats and restless boys, the girls continue practicing. From 7-830pm, 7 nights a week. Why? Because here the girls are apart of something bigger than themselves. Here they begin to realize that society doesn’t define who they are. Here they have the ability to create their own tomorrow.

And perhaps what’s most exciting is to see this evolution of hope in progress. Without a doubt, Yuwa is making tremendous strides in inspiring a brighter tomorrow, but their program in Dharavi is only 3 months old and there is still a lot of work to do.

For example, my last day at practice, I was walking back with the “human bus” of girls, dropping each one at their house, when I had the chance to ask Mansi* (pictured below) what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Although her parents have humble occupations – her mom cleans houses and her dad drives buses – they've managed to send her to a private school in the Bandra suburbs. Given this, I expected her to claim that she wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or maybe even an engineer. But she actually has “no clue.”

Later that night, her mom told me that she lacks confidence.

If Yuwa is successful in helping inspire hope, however, I suspect Mansi’s answer will have changed by the next time I get to ask her this question. And as I journey to Kenya  to explore start-up development ideas  this simple mission of hope is one I hope to keep central.

*I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but Mansi is mine. Perhaps because of her nearly perfect English, the way she makes sure I don’t get lost, or how she voluntarily shares her last prized piece of Cadbury chocolate.

12 comments:

  1. This is an amazing post Benje. I just met a guy you should really get in touch with, former Fullbright fellow and documentary maker here. Can't wait to catch up in NYC.

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  2. thanks so much Danny! Sending you a note about the documentary maker and can't wait to catch up in NY either!

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  3. Most moments escalate into something good, rarely something great. Your writing are moments of greatness. Keep it going, these diamonds you meet will shine through you.

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    1. thanks yaar - i wish the writing was as great as the moments themselves, but i appreciate the love either way!

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  4. Doing great things Benje! Love the post. Such an intriguing perspective for those who are miserable and have everything....

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    1. good looking out cuzzo! i say you move to kenya and we start a bball program! :)

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  5. Thanks for joining us in Dharavi, Benje. And thanks for telling the girls' story. I think you might be right about Mansi changing her answer if she sticks with us.. that's happened in our older program in Jharkhand. Luckily for Mansi, she's an english speaker in a megacity... that's a good start.

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    1. the pleasure was all mine Franz! Really was infinitely encouraged by the hope and optimism, and can't wait to come back and see how much the girls have grown.

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  6. Also really need to make my way out to Jharkhand!

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  7. A very profound post indeed, Benj. Hope your experience interacting with the girls in Dharavi and, more generally, your time spent over the past 2 months in Bombay has helped you answer your lingering question around how you can make the most impact in communities, whether it is in healthcare or education. I would love to hear about how your time in Pakistan and Kenya, at the conclusion of your summer, further shape up this thought. Looking forward to our rendezvous in Cali, brotha.

    Ps. I am a bit surprised not seeing a “Takla” reference in the post.

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  8. A very profound post indeed, Benj. Hope your experience interacting with the girls in Dharavi and, more generally, your time spent over the past 2 months in Bombay has helped you answer your lingering question around how you can make the most impact in communities, whether it is in healthcare or education. I would love to hear about how your time in Pakistan and Kenya, at the conclusion of your summer, further shape up this thought. Looking forward to our rendezvous in Cali, brotha.

    Ps. I am a bit surprised not seeing a a “Takla” reference in the post.

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    1. Karan! Thanks for the comment bud, and esp for all the inspiration and support over the past 2 months - the summer would have been 100% different without you. Really can't wait to catch up in CA, and am thrilled to see the insight that will come from your remaining 6 months in India! So excited about the journey you are on man.

      Ps. I totally should have included the Takla references, esp since Mansi was the one who eventually came to my defense! :)

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