If poverty has a colour, it’s blue –

If poverty has a colour, it’s blue –

– and if poverty is a fabric, it’s plastic.

I’ve had a lot of emails and texts over the last few weeks,  asking for more details of what I’ve been doing in Goa with the good folk from the charity Educators’ Trust India (ETI).  The short answer about their work can be found via this link to my freelance writing site at Collaborative Lines,  where I share some of the copy that I’ve written for the charity’s soon to be launched website.

And here’s the long answer … part one of my report on the wonderful work done by this tiny yet passionate charity.

If you’ve ever been to Goa,  or perhaps to any beach resort in Asia,  you will probably have been approached by beggars and/or beach sellers – usually women and children (I’ve blogged about it before).  They sell all manner of things (here’s a list which I made last year) and are extremely persistent in getting you to buy their jewellery, sarongs, peanuts and pedicures.  What had never ever occurred to me was where these people actually … lived. I knew that in many cases they travelled to Goa each autumn for the start of the tourist season in October and that they arrived there from other Indian states such as Karnataka. But where do they live when in Goa?

It was only when I met the ETI team and they invited me to join them on one of their regular visits to a slum settlement that I really started to give thought as to housing.  Take a look at my photo – it shows an idyllic rural scene, doesn’t it?  This field,  a currently dry rice paddy,  is located about 1.5 miles inland from the popular tourist resort of Calangute.  But,  as the camera pans back a bit,  you can see a woman doing laundry in a muddy stream.  Zoom back a bit more and you can see that the field is actually full of shacks made from blue plastic; basically, tents,  improvised with plastic and using tree trunks as supports. 

This field is home to around 100 adults and children ( a figure which will increase as the season progresses) from the eastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh,  who travel by train (it takes three days) each October to work and beg in the Goan beach resorts.  I have visited urban slums before but have never seen anything like this; this field is where you live when you have nothing other than what you can carry or wear.   There’s no electricity.  No running water.  Certainly no sanitation.  No way of cooking other than in a pot over an open fire.

(Some of the Goans complain about this influx of economic migrants and say that,  well,  it serves them right that they live like this – perhaps they should stay put in their home states? To which my reply is – I think it’s safe to assume that they’re not leaving comfortable and luxurious home behind in order to travel across the sub-continent and then camp in this field;  this is an act of the impoverished and desperate …)

The first thing that hit me when we arrived at the field was the smell.  Without labouring the point, when the weather is 30-something Celsius and you’ve got humans, cows, dogs, chickens and pigs all using the great outdoors as their al-fresco bathroom … yeah.  The field does have a fresh water spring and the residents use that for drinking water and the muddy stream on the other side of the field for bathing, laundry and everything else.  However,  this obviously doesn’t work all the time and dirty water does get into the kids,  as we witnessed with the poor child who I visited in the hospital in Panjim a few weeks ago.  She is now suffering from severe kidney failure,  brought about by drinking unclean water.  ETI are paying for her treatment,  visiting her every day and giving her parents money for food so that they can stay with her in the hospital.

This next photo shows the rather clever use of sari fabric as improvised baby slings; each harness contains a six month old baby.  They are twins,  born to a 15 year old girl,  who leaves them in the care of the older women while she works on the beach,  undertaking manicures and pedicures (in reality,  a nail shape and paint,  for which she charges c. £2).  She told me all this in really excellent English,  which she has learned from tourists – and yet she can neither read nor write.

So,  what do the ETI team do to help these field dwellers?  Well,  firstly,  they set up an impromptu school a few times a week,  where the children sit down and have a very basic “lesson” with picture books,  crayons and paper.  They are taught to write their names in English and to count to 10,  to say please and thank you.   This is the most basic of educational approaches but,  for some children,  the simple discipline of learning to sit quietly,  to not fight or play but to listen,  is in itself a learning opportunity.  These are kids who would otherwise be working on a beach,  selling peanuts or doing a little dance to the beat of a drum and then asking for money,  so in some respects,  just having them available to sit down and mess about with paper and crayons feels like an achievement.  The ETI team also work hard to get the parents involved;  they arrived with a basic medical kit and will treat,  where possible,  small injuries – usually foot related,  like Jyoti from last month’s blog entry – but only with permission from the parents.  This photo shows Jacob,  one of ETI’s wonderful volunteers,  showing a few of the men how to write their names – the team really encourages participation and involvement from anyone,  not just the kids.

At the end of each hour long lesson, ETI hand out fresh fruit to the children;  I paid for this one week and for £7 we bought enough fruit for each child at the settlement to get an apple and a banana each.  Diego,  the charity’s Goan founder, insists that each child washes their hands prior to receiving the fruit and so we saw a line set up whereby the children queued up to wash their hands and then queued again to receive the fruit – all administered by the mums.

The gender divide is so marked at this settlement.  It’s really not overstating the case to suggest that the women work (on the beach,  at the camp – cooking,  washing, sweeping up,  taking care of the children) and the men drink and gamble.  The local Goan hooch is a spirit called feni, made from distilled cashew nuts,  and a 60 ml shot of it costs about 10p.  When we arrived at the camp at 9.30am,  there were men lying on the ground in a drunken stupor,  or lurching around, shouting and fighting with each other.  And they absolutely reeked of booze;  the smell oozed from every pore.  Diego told me that many of the men are addicted to feni and that any money earned by the women and children goes straight into the coffers of the local bars or is gambled away in complicated card games played between a group of the men in one corner of the field.

One of the charity’s key aims is to get the children out of the cycle of working,  not being educated, and thus marrying young (the average woman at the camp is aged 25 and usually has five children by this stage; I certainly observed that the amount of alcohol consumed by the men in no way seemed to either impede sexual performance or affect fertility …).  It seemed clear that the responsibility for bringing money into the family coffers lies very much with the women and children,  and that’s why getting the buy-in from the mums is so vital to the success of this project;  if we can persuade the women to allow their children to stop working and to instead attend one of the ETI’s two local schools,  then there is hope for the next generation,  who will be both educated and have ambitions for a life of more than selling peanuts and t-shirts on Baga beach.

Last week,  I had this conversation with Jyoti’s mum, Seevarna;  I asked her if she would allow Jyoti to go to one of the schools and she replied that she would love to,  but that because her husband was a brandy drinking alcoholic,  they needed income from both Seevarna and her two daughters in order to buy enough money to live – and so Jyoti could not be spared from her duties at the beach.

These women lead hard, hard lives; yes,  education is the answer in many cases,  but I do now see how tough it must be to decide that when your 11 year old daughter can perhaps earn £1 or so per day for the family coffers – and if that £1 makes the difference between being hungry (or getting a black eye from your husband when you return home with insufficient money for his brandy …) – that allowing her to stop work and go to school may not be an option.

In a future post,  I’ll write about the two schools run by Educators’ Trust India and how they benefit the children who have broken out of the child labour trap.

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4 thoughts on “If poverty has a colour, it’s blue –

    1. Hi Leela – thanks, that would be fabulous. Please contact Geoff at the charity’s UK office, who co-ordinates requests to volunteer and pitch in; his email address is: friendsofeducatorstrust.india@gmail.com and tell him I sent you – thanks!

      (And sorry for the delay in replying – was trying to track down the best point of contact for you).

      Merry Christmas – Cleo

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