Monday, September 29, 2008

Young Girl at Temple
by Michael Scognamiglio

Seven years, blade thin, big clothes, not a sin
Outside the Bombay temple, the markets pulse races
Hindi yelps in the air, quick gasps, blurred faces.
The auspicious day so the temple was spilling
Line winds serpentine, frantically and willing.
But even amidst the throngs of devotees
There was really only one girl I could see
Whispering Hindi to me.

Her hands on her lips, forming a bowl
“Please” she breathes, an arrow to my soul.
The pavement around her, piles of filth
She begged on her tiptoes, up like stilts

Her fragile fingers recite Mozart on my arm
Pressing and tapping and gripping, my alarms
Are blaring in my head, nerves on fire
Cause what I know I should do and what I know I should do are not the same

“Don’t even look at them” that’s what they say
“Shake your head, do not pay, shake your head, walk away”

But the Hindi plea she breathed, was like a sacred prayer
Her wet black eyes framed by untamed hair
As tall as my buckle but her gaze in the skies
Looking straight at me, straight into my eyes

Oh the crowd was a cage
They locked us inside
There was no avoiding this tragic collide
Like a minor note in a major key
She was all that I could see.

We pushed through the crowd, she kept right beside me
Small steps, quick paces, eyes fixed in a hurry
I slipped through the gate, she was stopped by security

But when I looked back through the wire
She was still there, watching me, forlorn eyes on fire.
Cause what I knew I should do and what I knew I should do
I still don’t know
Which one was right

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Niswarth Summer Photos Slideshow

Check out some of the images that we captured while we were in India this summer:

Niswarth Summer Slideshow

Niswarth In the News

The work that students and faculty have done in India as part of Niswarth has been featured in a number of publications. Check out Niswarth in the news:

Daily News and Analysis, "Mumbai - Students Join Hands for Sustainable Change" (August 2008)

India New England "Phillips Academy students learn, serve in Mumbai" (August 2008)

Lokvani “In Conversation with Raj Mundra” (September 2008)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Thank you

As the Director of the Niswarth program, I am grateful for the tremendous support of people in various organizations who helped to make our three weeks in Mumbai a transforming experience.  

Alana Rush, faculty in the Community Service Office at Phillips Academy, has helped to conceptualize this program and understands how service-learning can empower young people to become involved in their communities and learn more about themselves.  

Many sincere thanks to the parents of all of the students involved.  Thank you for sharing your wonderful sons and daughters with our program.  Each of them has learned to combine goodness, knowledge and action in meaningful ways.  As you have read in their blog entries, each student leaves Mumbai with a deeper resolve to become positive changemakers in society. With your guidance, they will create their own paths with passion and courage.    

At Phillips Academy, this program was launched from the Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) and Community Service offices, and this year we partnered with the Global Perspectives Group inviting four PA faculty (Dr. Christopher Shaw - econ and history/social science, Andy Housiaux - philosophy and religious studies, Peg Harrigan - art, and Stephanie Curci - English) to participate in portions of the student program.  

The Head of School's Office helped us to coordinate Barbara and David Chase's schedule so that we could host them in Mumbai for a few days towards the end of our program.  The Dean of Studies and the Global Initiatives offices have been instrumental in helping the Niswarth program consider links to the academic program.  The Communications office have written fantastic press releases and have done a great job to share the central elements of the program with the greater PA community.  The Office of Academic Resources reached out to PA parents and alums to help raise necessary funds for Niswarth and coordinate different presentations in the US and India.  Our Financial Aid office also provided necessary funding for any student on campus to access this incredible opportunity.  The Abbot Academy Association awarded a grant so that Tessa Pompa ('08) could purchase the necessary equipment to make a video documentary and she also received help from the Audio Visual Center.  Finally, the Business Office and Isham Health Center made sure that we covered all bases in terms of safety and health precautions. 

This is the fourth year that PA faculty and students have been involved in a service-learning program in Mumbai.  The first two years were funded by the International Academic Partnership and our gracious hosts have always been the Godrej family (Navroze '01 and parents Pheroza and Jamshyd).

This summer we partnered with different organizations and heard from individuals representing the following groups:
Udayachal School
Save the Children India
Mann Deshi Mahila Bank
American School of Bombay
US Consulate - Mumbai
Government of Maharashtra
Mumbai Police
Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd.
Haath Mein Sahat, Mumbai
Ashoka Youth Venture Program - Mumbai
Tata Consultancy Services

It has been a privilege and an honor work with such smart, creative and determined people from all of these organizations.  Their varied perspectives encouraged us to think about development issues from the government, citizen sector, and corporate points of view.  

Through our service, readings, reflections and discussions our group engaged in difficult topics and had genuine encounters with different communities.  The program was unsettling and challenged many of our preconceived notions about India, ways in which communities function, access to resources, and the role of young people in becoming changemakers.  Out of these experiences emerged a sophisticated empathy, a sincere desire to become involved, and a deep commitment to leave a lasting change for good.

It was an incredible three weeks!  We now look ahead to sharing our work with others, thinking critically about social issues, and becoming changemakers.

We have been invited by the Phillips Academy Summer Session to speak as a part of the annual W.E.B. DuBois Colloquia series.  Our program, "Niswarth:  Empowering Global Citizenship through Youth Empowerment" will take place on July 31st at 6:15pm in Kemper Auditorium on Chapel Avenue on the Phillips Academy campus.  The program is free and open to the public, and we hope to see many of you there.

Best wishes,
Raj Mundra

Friday, July 4, 2008


It’s actually here. There is no turning back from reality now. We are leaving Mumbai in approximately six hours. I cannot quite grasp my emotions yet, however. It is a culmination of sorrow, regret, and apprehensive eagerness. I know that this experience like this will only come once in a lifetime, but I also know that what I take away from NISWARTH in terms of mentality and future action is even more important. I have come away from these three weeks with a burning inspiration to go out into the world, pursue my passion, and make change. I can no longer be content with simply standing on the sideline. Youth are the next generation- that is not going to change- so we have the responsibility to change the world and its vicious cycle.

I have learned so much here, seen so much here- I feel guilty going back to Andover. I wish I could help everyone in the world. I have realized over the past few weeks that the world is truly immense. The man whose eye I catch from the bus window for a split second has a life story, that woman selling mangoes on the street, hidden behind her veil- she has a life story. The ragged children who trotted after me yesterday in the market all have life stories. I am a minuscule part of an infinite phenomenon. But it is my duty as one of the most fortunate- someone with the ability to think for herself, blessed with a thorough education and a caring family- that should be most compelled to make the world a better place for every human to live in.

I have laughed more on this trip than I believe I have during the entire last school year. Of that I am certain. I wish I could condense this trip into an essay or a five-minute speech, but I can’t. It just is not possible. No matter how much we try to explain what we did or saw or felt, no one but us will be able to understand. I wish everyone back home could be a part of NISWARTH. I am beyond grateful to have had this opportunity.

We are coming home soon. And we are coming home changed.

Zahra Bhaiwala.

Last Reflections

As our time in India comes to an end, it's hard for me to believe that it's really been just 3 weeks since we first set foot in Mumbai. In many ways, the time has flown, and in others, I've settled into a pattern here and feel like I've been in the city forever.

The changes I've noticed, both in myself and in our group, are too numerous to list them all. I watch as my fellow PA students step boldly into the chaos of the traffic while crossing the street, when only a few short weeks ago we had to hold hands just to get the courage to begin. I see how we've observed the poverty and hardships around us with everything from shock to sadness, and I am so impressed with and inspired by my peers as they ceaselessly give their all to the overcoming the challenges we have faced. And most of all, I see how we've grown comfortable with experiencing and sharing tough emotions with each other-- everything from anger to confusion to frustration and beyond.

In the end, I don't think this trip was an opportunity for us 14 extremely privileged kids from PA and Udayachal High School to act as "angels of goodwill" in less fortunate communities for three weeks, and then go home to our double shot Starbucks cappuccinos and on-demand cable, patting ourselves on the back for a job well done and writing this experience off as an impressive filler on a college application. To do so would be an insult to the work we've done here and the things we learned. And while I won't deny that the tired, homesick part of me is ready to go home to hot water and my own bed and take-out Chinese food, I know that my enjoyment of these luxuries will be forever tempered with the images I have in my mind of kids sleeping on highway medians and old men sitting for hours on doorsteps in the slums, waiting patiently for something that I, at least, can't identify. These sights have grown no easier for me to see, but during these 3 weeks I have grown a little bit used to them. In some ways, I wish that wasn't the case. No one should become accustomed to seeing the poverty like the kind we have seen here.

The key to affecting change is to never lose that shock and fury that hits you when you are first exposed to unimaginable injustices. With those emotions as the motor that continues to power your desire to act, and tempered with a "sophisticated empathy" (a phrase Mr. Mundra has used), any change you can imagine is yours for the making. I hope I never lose that vulnerability that has allowed me to get so much out of this trip, and I hope that this is only the first of many experiences I will have that leave me changed for the better in more ways than I could have possibly imagined.


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Last Thoughts

I cannot believe we have less then twelve hours left here in Vikhroli. These past three weeks have gone incredibly fast. Every day I am more and ready to go home, but less and less ready to leave. Still, now that the end is in sight, I’m leaning towards the less and less ready to leave.
Today we presented at the Udyachal school and I started to realize just how lucky we were to have had this experience. Sure, there were days that we were sick and tired, emotionally overloaded, scared of what we were experiencing. But I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Many students approached us at the school and asked if we enjoyed Niswarth, if it was worth the trip. Instantly, I answered yes.
Last night, no one wanted to sleep, due to the fact that we knew the end was closing in. Not to be too cliché, but I just keep remembering that, yes, this is the end, but it’s the beginning of a new mindset for each one of us. Between Michael, Dr. Shaw, Mr. Housiaux, and Ms. Curci leaving last night, Aditya going to Delhi tomorrow, Alana embarking on an Ethiopian excursion, Tessa splitting off at Heathrow, and the final few returning to Andover, there will be tears. This experience has been incredible and I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done for the world.
I am changed. How I will apply this new self, I am still not sure. I can’t even completely put my finger on exactly what inside of me is different. I anticipate being temperamental on my return home. I am sure my eyes will see things differently and my heart will undoubtedly be confused at the way this world works, but I know good will come from it.
Today one girl at Udayachal asked if I would come back someday. I told her that I would love to—be it a gap year, a summer internship, or Taranjeet’s wedding. She asked if I would come back and visit the school, if I would see Neha and Ashwaryia, Kartik, Aditya, Soloni, and Piyush (I’m sorry guys, I know I spelled your names wrong!!). I told them that I would definitely see them.
“Do you promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” I replied. “I don’t know when, but I promise I’ll come back.”
And I plan on keeping that promise.

I'll Be Back

Here we are, 12 hours from departing on a long journey--for me a 26-hour journey, to be exact-- back to the beds and families and homes and friends we have missed dearly over the past three weeks. To be perfectly honest, I never ever thought I would be experiencing the emotions that are rushing through me right now. A week ago, not having seen my family for over three months, I was itching to go home. I thought that, despite the incredible experiences I've had here, I'd be more than ready to go home; I sit here, however, on the verge of tears, already planning my next trip back. I had always wanted to do service-work in a Spanish speaking country after or during college, but I have abandoned that desire since coming here. I truly find it hard to believe that there are people more hospitable, inspiring, hopeful and compassionate than those I have met here. Today is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

This morning, to be rather frank, I was dreading the day before me. After staying up until 4 am to ensure our ability to pass the long flights by sleeping through their entirety, Lily and I woke up groggy and grumpy, unprepared to give the scheduled presentation at the high school of our Indian roommates. On the bus ride over, Mr. Mundra prepared us for the worst. He said that in past years the 8th graders and potential future Niswarth participants to whom they presented were reserved and that we should expect to hear crickets. Great, I thought, Just great. To make matters worse, we were unable to utilize the greatest piece of our presentation, a photo slideshow showcasing the past three weeks, due to technical difficulties. So, a little unsure but certain on selling the school on the impact that Niswarth has had on us, the fourteen of us ambled to the front of a packed hall and began to share our experiences. They were indeed quiet at first, but the more we spoke, the larger that flame of curiosity in their eyes grew and by the time we asked if there were any questions, hands darted up into the air. One of the questions asked was, "What is your favorite part of our culture?" I had magnitudes to speak about in regards to his question, so I made my way to the rickety microphone and said, "Well.. the music is incredible. I'm a singer so I really appreciate Hindi music..." I continued with a few other favorite aspects of Indian culture--food, hospitality, fashion. Later, when all questions had ceased, the principal asked, "Any last questions?" The students looked around at each other and finally, at the back of the room, a tall girl with long, braided pig tails stood up and made her way to the microphone. As she passed me, she asked, "Your name is Tessa, right?" I nodded and she proceeded fearlessly to the front of the room.

"I want to know if Tessa would mind singing a song for us."

My heart started pounding and I immediately thought, who in the Niswarth group told her to ask me this? So flustered it felt as if all the heat in India was rushing to my face, I moved to the mic and asked through an awkard chuckle, "How did you know? Who told you I--" Before I could finish my question, the whole room of students shouted back at me, "YOU TOLD US!!" I was so tired, I didn't even realize that I had mentioned just thirty minutes before that I was a singer and at that moment I was beginning to regret my habit of babbling when I'm exhausted.

"I...uhh.. you put me on the spot." I looked at my roommates and their faces screamed, C'mon, Tessa, just do it, and the kids rattled in their seats, swinging their feet beneath them, waiting anxiously for me to begin. "Do you guys want to hear the American National Anthem?" A roar of approval filled the room and some brought themselves to their feet. I never get stage fright, but something about this audience--their eagerness and purity and my desperate longing to please them--made my stomach so uneasy it felt as if I hadn't eaten in months. "Okay, well I haven't sung in weeks so please forgive me if I butcher it," I said apologetically and took a deep breath.

"O say can you see.." It started off rocky, my voice struggling to grab hold of the slippery notes, but after a couple seconds, I got my bearings and realized how lucky I was to share just a little bit of my culture with these incredible students. After I finished my song, they stood, clapped and proceeded to share with us their school song. It was a delightful song and a wonderful exchange of tiny pieces of our worlds.

Finally, the presentation had ended and the kids were given five minutes to confront the Niswarth participants with any questions or comments. Every single one of them made their way in a swarm, each choosing one of us to introduce themselves to, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by several smiling students. We complemented each other on our songs and they continued to ask questions. From, "What didn't you like about India?" to "Do you shop as much in America as you did here?" the students were incredibly eager to learn about me and one of them even asked me if she could have my autograph. In a damp notebook she pulled from a pink bag, I wrote:

To Supriya,
Thanks for having us. I will be back soon.
Love, Tessa

I have every intention of keeping my promise. I am counting the days until I return to India and if I'm grateful for anything from this trip--and it's impossible to choose just one thing--I am grateful for the ability to experience a culture I would have never fathomed visiting otherwise and falling head over heels in love with it. Other than the cockroaches and the rare spells of dreadful heat, I will miss everything about this place and will constantly find myself reliving my experiences through my daydreams until I can get myself back here. My first visit back will probably be for the marriage festivities of Ms. Taranjeet, a teacher from the Udayachal school who has been Alana and Mr. Mundra's Indian counterpart on the trip, which are projected to be in a few years. After that, I hope to come back after college to work with one of the NGO's we visited.

I find it impossible to summarize my experience or feelings in words, so I won't try to. I will say that this has truly been the most amazing experience of my entire life and now, more than ever, I believe in my ability to be a change-maker. I have an overwhelming sense of faith and hope now that I could not have acquired anywhere else but here, with these people, with this program, with these experiences. The past three weeks have been the greatest, most challenging, most rewarding, most insightful, sweatiest, happiest, most wonderful weeks of my life, and to everyone who has been involved--thank you. I am a different person because of you, a person I like a lot better than the person who stepped on a plane almost a month ago, and for that I am forever thankful.

See you soon, India,


To be up this morning and realize how soon we would all go our own ways was depressing and not such a good note to begin a day which had in store things much more interesting. We started with a discussion on PRIVILEGES we all have. I found it so difficult to give up each one of them and when I was asked which one privilege I was left with, I realized the importance of my family. I chose to have a supportive family which attended to my basic needs and kept me happy and secure.

Todays dinner at my fellow udayachalite aditya was a really good experience.The bollywood movie we watched there was soooooo muchhh fun. But departing with scogs and the faculty members was a tearful farewell. That's when we realized how attatched we had got in just a matter of three weeks.

Going home is going to be so difficult. To say good bye to the PA kids is really tough. I'll miss them all. Anyways internet will be our saviour. All of us have got facebook accounts made and hope to keep in touch. We all have planned our follow up projects and are looking forward to being changemakers. WE ARE THE FUTURE CHANGE MAKERS!


Final Thoughts

It's hard to believe that these three weeks are already finished. With one day left, the Udayachal students are getting ready to catch up on three weeks of school work, and most of the PA students are getting ready to go back to the USA. However, these three weeks have been some of the most exciting, fun, interesting, and powerful weeks of my entire life. We have all changed in many ways, gained perspective on the privileges that we have in life, and are eager to continue service work in the future. Our discussion on privilege this morning was insightful and brought out many new ideas, and we spent a long time discussing the line between rights and privilege, and the freedom to exercise those rights relating to having privilege.

On Wednesday, some of us visited the US consulate in Mumbai, and spoke with an official at the consulate, Michael Newbill. He provided us with the State Department's perspective on India and Mumbai's development. He also spoke with us about his background in the foreign service, and what life is like transferring every two years to a completely new coutnry. That evening, we were able to spend some time buying last-minute gifts for friends and family at home, and we went out to an excellent restaurant in South Mumbai.

It is hard to quantify the how this trip has affected me, and for the next few months, that will be a major goal for all of us. The most tangible effect that the trip has had on me is that it has sparked a desire to continue community service and begin participating in service work at Phillips Academy. However, this trip has also given me the opportunity to meet extremely successful, interesting people, who offer many different perspectives on urban development, as well as experiences that will last a lifetime. The most enjoyable and influential aspects of the trip for me were the visits to the various communities around Mumbai, such as the Dharavi community, the Cuffe Parade community, and the Mankhurd building complex. The fact that we are able to experience some of the aspects of life in two very distinct types of communities, the open air slum communities and the building communities, was amazing, but the fact that we were able to actually make a difference on the final day by cleaning a building and successfully petitioning for access to running clean water for the building really impacted us the most.

I am going to miss living and spending time with this amazing group of faculty and students. I would like to thank everyone who has made this trip possible, especially our two head faculty members, Mr. Mundra and Alana. Thanks for reading the blog, and we are looking forward to sharing our experiences with you first hand once we reach home.

-Aditya Mithal (Phillips Academy '10)

Final blog

It was tough waking up this morning because we knew this was probably the second last day with this program and the wonderful P.A students.We were all really exhausted and the thought of parting with them made it even more worse!!!
It was decided that we all would discuss about the most important topic-PRIVILEGE!
It was then that we understood the true meaning of PRIVELEGE.The activity that we had involved each one of us & made us feel really enthusiastic.Thoughts were just flowing in & out of our minds.Each one of us were told to note down the 8 top privileges we as students had in our lives.Then we were asked to eliminate one by one the things we could afford to lose in our lives which was quite tough by the end.We then had to chose one prime privilege.Aishwarya chose 'A supportive family'& saloni chose 'Living a healthy life'.We were really surprised as this activity was an eye-opener & made us more aware of our comforts.
We then also had a group discussion about the activities in all the three weeks which actually created an impact on each one of us.
In the evening we went to Aditya Bajaj's(an Udayachal student)place & had a wonderful time there.We watched a bollywood movie 'JAB WE MET'& enjoyed every bit of it.We then had a lovely home-made dinner(after 3 weeeks)& relished it to the fullest.
It was then that the toughest part came because Micahel,Mr.Housiaux,Miss Cursy,Dr.Shaw were leaving for Boston.It was an emotional moment for each one of us & some of us broke into tears.But we finally realized the truth that we had to depart.Today was a fun-filled day as well as an emotional evening!!!
-We'll miss u NISWARTH & ALL THE P.A KIDS!!!
............SALONI SHARMA & AISHWARYA NAIR(Udayachal students)!!!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Almost done

Wow!!!! We never actually realized how quickly these three weeks flew by. The 2nd of July has already come to an end. Anyways, talking about today, all of us had two options: either meeta diplomat the U.S. Consulate or have a creative writing workshop. I chose to go the U.S. Consolate because I have never had such an oppurtunity to meet a personality of this kind. So, we went up to him this afternoon. We arrived early and we had some gelato at a store near the Consulate. Soon we were at his high security office. Mr. Michael Newbill, the Consul for Political and Economic Affairs, shared the responsibilities of the U.S. embassies and consolates in different countries and what he was doing in Mumbai. He was a very open and impressive personality because he was very hospitable towards us and felt free to answer all sorts of questions that we had. We had an awesome experience with him today.

Talking about an impressive personality, I also met this really catchy person at a dinner at the Godrej's residence on June 30th. Ms. Farzana Haque, who simply got my attention through her jaw-dropping success stories. She is currently in a great position with TATA CONSULTANCY SERVICES at such a young age!! For me she has now become an inspiration as I also want to have the same qualities of an entrepreneur which she possesess.

Moving on with today, we had a quick bite at Swati Snacks- a restaurant which was suggested by the Consul himself. Later, we went to FabIndia where we had been previously in our program. I shopped a bit for my mum and my friends and hung out with everyone for two hours. Later, we again had dinner at this great restaurant called KHYBER. Vipin and Teressa from Ashoka Youth Venture also joined in with us for dinner. The food and dessert were great. By the end of the day all of us were quite tired and headed back to our appartments.

I can't actually believe that this thrilling programme has come to its closing moments. It was a brillliant chance for all of us to not only learn and experience new things but also groom the potential that sits somewhere deep inside our hearts and minds........ It's definitely going to be tough to say good bye to all these folks because we have become such good friends that we almost feel like family now. I wish all the best to all my friends of PA and hope they have a bright future and I hope they will never forget us. I will surely miss them.

I also want the next groups for the coming year to have more fun and try to learn as much as they can. My best wishes to all of them. Thank you Phillips Academy and Udayachal. I owe a lot to you!!!!!!!

-Aditya Bajaj from Udayachal

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


So you remember the petition that we passed around at Mankhurd, asking the government to provide water running daily for one building in that community? 

Well, we heard yesterday that because of that petition, EVERY SINGLE BUILDING in that community now has running water for 8 minutes a day, which may not seem like a long time, but is more than enough when you consider that before, each apartment only had running water for 20 minutes every three days.

This is sustainable change, and it's amazing that we can actually make such a big impact with only 30 minutes of work. Just imagine how much we all can do with just a little effort. This is an accomplishment that we'll never forget. 


Satara and beyond

On June 26, my 16th birthday, we made our way to Satara. The trip was awesome, staying in a hotel with beautiful views, visiting a plateau that overlooked the sweeping beautiful landscape, and visited local farms with livestock much tougher-looking than the cute American cows and pigs. While everything was an experience much different than what I've encountered, the drive from Satara to Mhaswad was incredible. While most of my busmates preferred the view of the back of their eyelids, I could not pull my eyes away from the window. On the two hour ride, the sun was the brightest it had been this whole trip, necessitating the use of my sweet new shades to fix my gaze outward.
The view was beautiful. Plains stretched endlessly, interspersed with fields full of exotic crops. Most of the time however, the land was bumpy and sloping, rocks scattered everywhere across the dry, tattered land. Mammoth mountains reigned impressively around us, blending into the horizons as if we were ants in a giant empty pool. The bus rocked and bounced on the difficult terrain that was not built for tourbuses. In fact, every vehicle that passed us was a motorcycle, roaring by muffler-free. Far and few between rested mosques and clusters of houses, specks on the endless terrain. The most amazing part was driving by inhabitants, leading a herd (flock?) of goats across the dusty street, two young sisters crossing a long stretch of abandoned land, an elderly man bathing naked in the stream.
I was possessed by a strong urge to run barefoot across the hills and explore all of its crevices, abandon the comfortable life I live for the fierce and beautiful landscape. Never having been to the countryside before, everything was so new and exciting. Those we passed, walking in solitude with their few possessions, seemed at such peace, almost enlightened, the whole scene had a religious tone. I wanted that experience also, an intense solitude surrounded by unexplored and uncharted terrain.
Listening to music on the bus ride increased the overwhelming experience, giving new meaning to some of the more cryptic lyrics (if traveling, I recommend Fleet Foxes). The experience will live with me forever.
Few more days!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Catching Up

Hi everyone!

Sorry for the hiatus-- we've been incredibly busy/out of town for the past 5 days and are only now beginning to wind down.

On Thursday (which was also Michael's 16th birthday) we packed up and took a 6 hour bus ride to Satara, a part of rural Maharashtra. We spent 3 days there, learning about the Mann Deshi microcredit bank. The bank was run "by women, for women", and was a cutting edge example of the enormous impact that microcredit programs have on rural communities. In addition to meeting and speaking with Chetna Sinha, the founder of the bank, we visited the homes of several women in the community who were clients of the bank. One woman, Veneeta, had actually won an award from the Prime Minister of India, distinguishing her as one of many women who had benefitted from micro-finance institutions like Mann Deshi.

It was really nice to get out of the city for a few days to breathe some fresh air and see a different side of India. About 70% of India's population lives in rural areas like Satara, so we were actually seeing the lifestyle of the majority of the population. The bank funded each and every need of its clients, ranging from vaccination of goats to paper cup making, with the ultimate goal being women's empowerment and rise out of poverty. The women we met were incredibly self-assured and motivated to succeed in their endeavors, and we were inspired by their determination.

We also visited a fort built in the 17th century, and several ancient temples in the area. We even saw the filming of a Bollywood movie at one of the temples!

On Sunday we relaxed a bit back in Mumbai, went to see the Gateway of India and the world famous Taj hotel, and did some pretty intense shopping in the area. All of us are getting pretty good at bargaining, thanks to the instruction and example of Taranjeet and the Udayachal students, and all of us were able to score some pretty good buys.

Mr. and Mrs. Chase are also in town, visiting our program and attending a series of Andover-related events. They arrived on Sunday, and all of us were eager to see them. It's really nice to have a taste of home right here in Mumbai, and we were all excited to show them the work we've been doing and share our experiences with them.

Today we returned to STCI with Mr. and Mrs. Chase and showed them some of the work we'd been doing with the kids during our first week here. We were all so excited to be back at the school again, and we had a great time catching up with the kids (and enjoying the superior cafeteria cuisine of the wonderful STCI cooks). Mr. and Mrs. Chase went into the community with a few PA and Udayachal students, and visited the home of a STCI student, just as we had done earlier in the program.

Finally, we capped off today with a wonderful dinner hosted by the Godrej family, who are major sponsors of the Niswarth program. The dinner was attended by Andover alumni/ae, parents, current students, and various partners of the Niswarth program. We were able to meet successful executives such as Farzana Haque, Business Head for Retail and Consumer Products Group at Tata Consultancy Services, a billion-dollar industry. Her story was especially inspiring. Although she was extremely successful in the corporate world, her passion was development work, and she has continued to pursue this passion throughout her career. The event was a great way to recap our experiences on the trip and share them with others.

Tomorrow we're having the inaugural Niswarth conference, which we're all very excited about. We'll post again when we're done!

The A-Team
(Aditya M., PA '10 and Anabel, PA '09)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NIswarth in the News: India New England

"Andover students to take field trip to Mumbai"

Check it out!


Buckets of Love

The driven, focused woman sitting across from me on the floor, in her bubblegum-and-lime-colored floral tunic, told us to put our yellow hats on. Silence. Suddenly jerked out of my polite, jaded attention, my mind flew to images of bright hard hats and my stomach dropped with the uncertainty of activities that could require said hard hats. Someone scraped up the courage to ask what she meant, bravely going against the Andover grain of looking in-the-know. A trained teacher, she tried to get us to answer our own questions.

"Does anyone know about yellow hats?"

Yeah, not so much.

"There are different kinds of hats, white hats, blue hats, yellow hats. Yellow hats are for positivity."

She beamed and offered to send us a write-up she had read using colored hats . Okay, a visualisation exercise. I feel that. A flutter of weird, yellow hats zipped through my imagination before I selected mine. A sunny leather cowboy hat. I would have to be in some good mood to wear a hat like that.

Her name was Mansi, and she was our friendly and fun Akanksha liaison for the past three days. She cheerfully explained that we would need our new imaginary hats to stay positive in the face of changed plans and expectations. It was a worrying statement, but I stayed hopeful.

Our first task was simple: clean the corridors. We fretted about sustainable service and cleaning supplies, standing up in the building's Akanksha centre. A cozy blue and yellow room with barred windows and seemingly mosaic flooring, covered in typical elementary school fare. ABC's, coloring, and sharing. What we wouldn't give...

Some of us dragged ourselves skeptically into the hallway, others were more optimistic. We followed the Hindi and Marathi speakers (the state language) among us and asked residents for buckets and brooms while a few went to a nearby store to pickup some soap.

After a generous and warm response from the families of the complex in Mankhurd which housed people displaced from slum communities, we armed ourselves with umbrellas, raincoats, and pails to collect water down the street. Running water indoors comes for just minutes, with a few days between.

We took advantage of the wet weather by collecting water from the rain gutters of adjacent buildings. Some visited the source down the road that provided drinking water. There was none.

A taste of life in a seven floor building with poor access to water and a non-functional elevator was had by all. The previous day we were told the elevator was shut down after a child lost his life in a fall down the shaft. When it did run, those living in building 21B were charged outside their means whether they used the lift or not. A rock and a hard place.

The cleaning began. Floors slicked with the foamy water, light and dark hands scoured the halls with modern scrub brushes and traditional brooms made from thin branches bound at one end with a strip of leather. Small children came from their homes to help their mothers wash away the grime. On the second floor, those who live there completely took over the effort. People living in a similar building across the way took notice and were observed starting to clean their halls as well.

Now the water was coming from the building's reserve (kept in two big, blue plastic drums) at the residents' request. A small spat broke out between two women, one unwilling to help, the other telling her she should take advantage of the extra help.

Smiles were all over once-apprehensive faces, both ours' and theirs'. We smiled and laughed and talked, together. Two hours later, the fruits of our labor manifested as mushy clumps of refuse on the lower floors, a result of a trickle down system of cleaning from the upper floors.

We returned to our starting point, the blue and yellow room. Sweaty, clothes soaked in rain and soap water. Grinning widely. Surely the high-traffic staircases and corridors would soon be dirty again, but perhaps we started something else. Perhaps we unexpectedly found the sustainable, successful impact for which we were aiming.

The people of 21B worshipped Allah and Ganesha, spoke Hindi and Marathi. Different backgrounds, different lives lead in different slums. They were civil to their neighbors, but yesterday they worked together. Community-building catalysts disguised as one-time volunteer housekeepers? I hope so.

---Dominic DeJesus

June 25

It's our last night for a few days at the Vikhroli colony, tomorrow we're packing up the 24 seater and shipping off to rural Satara! For the next three days, our trip will take a completely different path, looking at a microfinance bank and the amazing results it's produced for those living in poverty in Satara. The night's dinner brought an unexpected early birthday surprise, and a delicious cake was brought out for me at the end of the meal!

Leaving the colony makes me think about the experience here thusfar. I remember the hazy first night, two in the morning carrying all of our luggage. We met all the Udayachal students, and their names all blurred together in my sleepy stupor. My native roommate, Karthik, and I got to a slow start, and with small talk dwindling, I assumed it would be an awkward three weeks. The next morning, I knew I had jumped to conclusions, as we had all begun to warm up to each other. Now, a little more than a week later, I feel like I've known my pals forever. The conversations have moved far beyond the, "Do they eat Reeses Pieces in India?" or "Do you have a Crosswords in America?" to sincere topics. Discussions of american school dances, the emerging popularity of love marriages in India, the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood, and more have taken up hours at night. Topics as serious as politics and terrorism also come up, and it is fascinating to hear the perspectives of those with very different problems. For my birthday present, they all signed a huge card, and presented me with a neatly wrapped box. Inside was a joking mug, but my favorite was the inscription on the bottom in pen: "Don't Forget Us"! No quesiton about it, I definitely will not.

On a different note, today was one of the most inspirational days of my life. We returned to Mankhurd, a relocation community that houses families from the slum areas. Our plan was to simply pass around a petition to increase the amount of water flowing through the pipes (as of now, it's once every three days, for 20 minutes). We all felt quite passionately about this, so it came as a shock when Mansi, our Akansha host, informed us that we would be cleaning all 7 floors. The majority of us seemed bummed, not because we felt we were too good to clean, but because it seemed impossible. While the accommodations are comparatively nicer than the slum areas, the halls are caked in dirt, flies swarm furiously around, and trash was piled haphazardly in corners. We had two hours, it seemed like an impossible job. "We can get help from the community!" she encouraged. "What an idealistic thought!" I assumed, I felt that we were already invading these peoples spaces, now we're going to ask them to do hard labor and tell them what to do! When we set out to ask for supplies, I cringed thinking of their hurt and indignant reactions.

I was wrong, completely wrong! It pains me to recall my attitudes and unfair preconceived notions. Not only did many supply us with brooms for sweeping, detergent for scrubbing, brushes, and buckets, but almost all of them helped! 7 floors of people, all EAGER to help! Out of nowhere, the halls are flooded with people, scrubbing and washing! Even the monsoon rains, which had contributed to my pessimistic attitude that morning, were more useful than we could imagine, supplying us with a steady flow of fresh water from the drain pipes outside the building! Halls were flooded with water, women and children swishing suds into dirty corners, men hustling up stairs with extra supplies and water. As water was used up quickly, I spent most of the time filling up buckets and bringing them up the stairs, a task that I could manage and that I knew would be of great help. All of the residents were joking and laughing, young boys trying to impress me by carrying as many buckets as they could.

After an hour of filling the bukets from the streets and hauling them up the flights, I passed a man standing by the rail on the fourth floor. His boy grabbed my pants leg and starting speaking at me in Hindi. I looked up apoligitically, and prepared to keep walking with my buckets, when he said, "Come!". Startled, I approached the rail and saw him working a pully system. He had tied a bucket to a rope from the ledge and was lowering it to a nearby drainpipe! "Smart!" I pointed to his brain and we both smiled, what an amazing idea! Even the men of the community, who we presumed would stay away from our work were doing all they could! Young children used the newly slippery floors, caked in suds, to their advantage as a makeshift slip-n-slide. As toddlers flew past me on their tummies at speeds previously unknown to man, it hit me how wrong my initial impression was. In addition to passing around the petition, we got the entire community to have fun with this job, and while it may not have been as sustainable as we were pushing for, it surpassed social barriers and led to change in, I think, everyone! This one boy, I called my "detergent sidekick" because he always insisted on spreading the detergent when I doused the floors (sometimes he sprinkled too liberally, I had to teach him the correct pouring amount). He palled around with me for the majority of the 2 hours, and even though I don't think we exchanged more than five words, he was giggling the whole time, begging to help with everything! That was an experience I will never forget.

Mr. Shaw gave a fascinating talk on economics, jampacked with huge words and crucial world topics. I am looking forward to Satara tomorrow, but for now, time to spend the first 9 hours of my birthday partying it up with the crew!

-Michael Scognamiglio

Off to Satara

After ten days in Mumbai, students and faculty will leave tomorrow for a three day excursion to Satara, a town approximately six hours by bus outside of Mumbai. During our stay, we will spend time exploring the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank (MDMSB), a cooperative bank run by and for women in rural Mahastra.  We will also have the chance to meet the founder-president of the bank, Chetna Gala Sinha. An Ashoka fellow, Sinha and her work with the Mann Deshi Bank, is recognized as one of the world's leading micro-finance initiatives.

A BBC News article about the bank can be found here.

As of right now we are uncertain about the status of our internet connection during our brief adventure. We will do our best to keep you all informed.

Peace to all,

Letter from Save the Children India

Dear Mr. Mundra,

I am glad you had a great time visiting the homes of the students of our Special Care Center. We hope the students of Phillips Academy as well as the students of Udayachal High School had a great experience.

Our students of Special Care Center, Save The Children India had a very enriching experience interacting with the students of Phillips Academy and the Udayachal High School. At the end of the workshop it was very interesting to see the four groups perform, whether it was dance, art, computers, or theatre. For the first time I saw them [STCI students] so confident. The way the students connected, it was hard to believe they had only spent 8 hours teaching them. It was a very emotional moment when each student as a part of the group came up to say a few words to thank the students of Phillips Academy and the Udyachal High School. What really touched them was the way the students made them feel a part of them like any other normal child and they knew they had found a new friend. Words are not enough to express the joy and happiness the students felt.

Our Director, Dr. Anand, was amazed at the concern shown by the students of Phillips Academy and the Udayachal High School towards knowing the background of our Special Care Center. We are extremely happy that the greater Phillips Academy Community has dedicated time and effort for community services. I am sure all the students graduating from your
Academy will always be concerned about the less fortunate people around them and would make a difference to make this world a better place to live.

Thank You.

With Warm Regards, Natasha

Natasha Sehgal
Resource Mobilization Officer
Save The Children India

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Settling into a Pattern

June 23, 2008

Today was our second venture into the community here in Mumbai. I felt much more prepared for the experience, having already been exposed to similar environments on Friday during our STCI home visits.

It has not gotten easier for me to see the living conditions in the slums here in India, but I do feel that I have become accustomed to it. On our first day here, Mr. Mundra drew a distinction between observation and judgment. Over the past week here, I think that one of my personal achievements has been developing the ability to look at something without drawing premature conclusions about it. That has definitely served me well as we have ventured into the community, where we are usually greeted with friendliness, but where we also have to be prepared for animosity and wariness on the part of community members who see us as outsiders. It helps to go in without assumptions, as Mr. Mundra said: observing, but not judging.

Our assignment this afternoon, given to us by Akanksha, was to take two hours in the community to complete a kind of scavenger hunt in small groups. Our goals were experiences, not tangible objects-- things like finding the cheapest oranges in the community, faking an ailment and visiting a doctor, using a public toilet, and finding the oldest person in the community. My group was able to complete most of the tasks fairly quickly, so we spent the remainder of our time interacting with community members, even visiting some of their houses.

I never cease to be surprised by the generosity of these people. When we visited the homes of STCI students last Friday, their parents were very welcoming to us, but part of me wondered if they only were so open and inviting because they had already known we were coming. I now know that this is not the case; on many occasions today, I was invited with open arms into a stranger’s house (a stranger who did not expect me), where I was offered food, told stories, and allowed to play with the family’s kids. This kindness always surprises and touches me. That I should be shown such patience and consideration, when it would be easier (and completely justifiable) to greet me with anger or disdain, is a rare and meaningful thing.

On a side note, I think it is getting hard for a lot of us PA kids—many of us are battling sicknesses, allergies, sleep deprivation, and the difficulties of dietary adjustment. On top of it all, we are 8,000 miles away from home and are no longer running off adrenaline. We’ve settled into a pattern here and are slowly but surely beginning to realize how very over our heads much of this experience is. I think it will take a lot of perseverance for us to continue to get as much out of this trip as we possibly can, but I have no doubts that we all have it in us. We’ve proven it again and again already, and I can only believe it will get better. Our willingness to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into yet another challenging and nervewracking experience today was again an example of the drive and strong character of each and every person on this trip that makes me honored to share this experience with them.


Niswarth Conference: Empowering Changemakers in Mumbai

This inaugural Niswarth conference engages students and teachers from Mumbai and America to discuss community service, leadership, and how young people can take initiatives to impact the development of a city. The featured speakers represent leadership from the Indian government, American government, a prominent education NGO, and a graduate student from the United States.  

Their remarks and ensuing discussions will focus on three central questions: 
  1. What are the main challenges Mumbai will confront in the next 20 years? 
  2. What roles do young people in Mumbai and from outside India play in the development of Mumbai? 
  3. How are young people empowered to be Changemakers?

Chief Guest and Keynote Speaker:
Sanjay Ubale, Minister for Urban Development, State of Maharashtra

Michael Newbill, Chief of Economic and Political Affairs, US Consulate in Mumbai
Shaheen Mistri, Founder and CEO of the Akanksha Foundation
Navroze Godrej, Special Projects, Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd. (PA ’01)
Emily Kumpel, graduate student at Berkley and volunteer for Haath Mein Sehat Project in Mumbai (PA ’02)

Participating schools and organizations include:
• Phillips Academy, Andover, MA USA
• Udayachal School, Vikhroli, Mumbai
• American School of Bombay
• Bombay International School
• Akanksha – Social Leadership Programme
• Save the Children India
• PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research)
• Haath Mein Sehat, Mumbai
• Ashoka Youth Venture

American School of Bombay
July 1, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

Reflections on Week One.

I cannot believe we've been here for a whole week! On one hand, it feels like it's been so much longer than a week; on the other, it's been one of the fastest weeks of my life. This incredible group has experienced so much together. From visiting slum communities to teaching deaf children dances, crossing the hectic Mumbai streets to surviving open-air markets, participating in NGO youth leadership programs to finding ourselves on the outskirts of a riot, we have bonded, changed and grown in great strides during these short seven days.
Undeniably, our journey continuously presents struggles none of the students can be fully prepared for. With three new faculty members joining us today, I experienced a rush of emotions I felt (and am still feeling) during my first Mumbai bus ride. The poverty is incredible. Visiting the crammed homes of so many people rips at our hearts and placing a starburst or milky way into the hand of a begging child doesn't make me feel any less guilty for stepping into a beautiful restaurant to fill my "empty" stomach. The heat hasn't been too bad, but 2 1/2 hour drives in the strenuous Mumbai traffic with shrill horns (and trust me, the drivers are not afraid to use them) in a bus with no air can cause tempers to run high. Nonetheless, I think we've all experienced many things that are making this trip so much more than worth while.
While there are certainly huge impacts India is making on us, for me, the most memorable moments thus far have been the tiny things. While working at Save the Children India, an NGO that works with mentally challenged and hearing impaired slum children, four groups of PA and Udayachal were challenged in different areas-computers, art, dance, and theatre-to help the kids put on a presentation for the group. Not only was there a language barrier, but many of the STCI students hardly spoke at all. Despite this and the fact that we only spent about six hours with the children, I feel at ease saying that the bonds we made were like none other we've ever experienced. At one point, Kartik (Udayachal) was trying to teach Swati, a deaf 13 year old girl from STCI how to say "I am a bird," an intro to our theatre performance. Swati was having a great deal of trouble pronouncing, and, by chance, I caught a glimpse of Kartik taking Swati's hand and putting it on his lips so she could feel the way the mouth moves when pronouncing. I can't put my finger on exactly what I was experiencing, but in that second, something inside of me turned over.
Today, Akanksha, another NGO that works with educating students in slum communities, challenged us to go into a community with a sort of scavenger hunt. The list revolved around things that many of these people would do frequently. We needed to fill a water bottle from the local water supply, get a handkerchief made for each person in our group, find the oldest woman in the community and hear about a childhood story, use the public toilet, and fake an ailment so the doctor would give us a prescription. One thing that really struck me was how communal the slums we've visited are. Everyone knows each other and works together. They get their water from the same place and share the same bathrooms. It is very much a small world with food vendors, a doctor, a chemist, tailors, children, a football field, neighbors, and clotheslines hanging from building to building; everyone appears to rely on each other.
It is not only our on-sight work that has caused this group to bond and grow so much, but also the time we spend together. Last night, many of us pushed beds together and lay there "dropping beats" and raps about our India experiences. We can joke about home life and we are finding out so much about each other, despite the fact that few of us were friends before coming across the world. Still, we also get super philosophical. After staying up too late as a group playing Mafia and Spoons, hiding from cockroaches and sharing American and Indian candy, Neha, Anabel, and I (we're roommates) went back to our room and discussed slum life for a good hour and a half. All the students have been brutally honest and open about our feelings. Alana and Mr. Mundra are doing an amazing job getting us to write and share, and one-on-one check-ins allowed each student to get more in touch with their emotions, as well as opening up to ones we didn't want to feel as much. The bonding in Vikhroli is amazing, and this seamless bond is what allows us to make our on-sight work even more effective.
Our service is absolutely incredible. Already, friends and family have questioned why I would want to take three weeks out of my summer to travel half way around the world and do projects that I could seemingly achieve in the greater Boston area. Mr. Mundra has often asked us to question if we're really making a difference in the lives of these people, especially if we only get to spend a few hours out of a few days with them. Well, hands down the answer is yes. The smiles on the faces of children when we work with them is fulfilling beyond measures. Explaining to slum-dwellers that we are not here to take their homes or collect taxes, but merely to learn about their lives and to help, and then having them ask us to describe our lives in the US is equally fulfilling.
I think the most amazing feeling was during the closing ceremony at STCI. The head of the school, Dr. Anand, asked if any of the children would get up and say anything to the volunteers. One brave soul got up and thanked us, and after him, at least 10 more kids got up. They told us how we were their brothers and sisters and teachers, how much fun they had, how they learned, how welcoming we were and how they loved having us; we all had tears in our eyes. Just kidding, there was another really fulfilling moment. While waiting to get up the stairs to the home of one of the STIC children, a completely random family appeared from the shadows of her home and brought over a cup of water to me due to the heat. Water is precious in the slums, and anywhere, and this woman didn't even know me or have any relationship to our group. Still, she was possibly the most hospitable woman I've ever met. We don't always get this incredible hospitality from people in India, but overall, the country has been welcoming and we have been learning nonstop.
Well, we have an early day tomorrow and I need to get rest. Until next time, shanti (peace)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Niswarth in The Eagle Tribune

Thanks to some of our attentive readers back at home, we have learned that Niswarth is in the news! Be sure to take a look at the article.

Best wishes to all,

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Yesterday (Friday the 20th), we visited the Dharavi slums and experienced firsthand the living conditions in the slums of Mumbai. Afterwards, both mentally and physically exhausted, we ventured to a mall in a northern suburb of Mumbai, Muland (5km from Vikroli), only to find the mall shut and a mob forming over the killing of a protester by the private security forces of the leader of the outcast Sikh group, Dera Sacha Sauda. Today, the morning news showed video of violent protests at the Muland railway station and on the streets of the suburb, less than 100 meters from the mall. These two events proved to be very hectic and exhausting for the entire group. However, for many, both events were very new, overwhelming, and interesting.
Visiting the Dharavi slums was an eye-opening experience. The first of two homes that the group visited was in a packed, cramped alley. The houses were so closely linked that the roofs blocked out most of the light. The resident of the home said that she and her family have to move around every fifteen days, since they do not own a home. Two of her four children were hearing impaired, and another had polio. She and her family had left their village to provide a better life for her children. One of her hearing impaired children attends the STCI Special Care Center. The second home that we visited was located off of a main thoroughfare inside the slum. The house had three floors, fans, lights, a television, and a Nintendo game system. Three brothers and their families lived there. The structure was entirely legal, and the family had to pay Rs. 100 (Approximately $2.50) per month as rent. A highlight of this visit was the hospitality shown by the residents. Soon after we arrived, one of the members of the community went to purchase a large bottle of the popular soft drink, Thumbs Up. We were complete outsiders in an extremely poor community, and yet we were still made to feel extremely welcome.
The protests at the Muland Mall gave a true depiction of the role religion plays in India. It showed how religion can change relatively small events into a state or even a nation-wide affair. The news stated that the police in the entire state of Maharashtra were put on high alert, and extra officers were sent to the Sikh communities across the state to prevent more protests and violence.
Today (June 21st), we saw another side of India. We shopped at the brand new, state-of-the-art, Oberoi Shopping Mall. The mall gave us an excellent example of India's recent rapid economic development. Inside the mall were countless stores selling all brands one might find in any mall across the globe, an arcade, a multiplex cinema, and an extensive food court. We were in the mall for over three hours, and the entire group had a lot of fun. One of my peers even said that "this is the nicest mall I've ever visited."
We also visited the popular destination for Mumbaikars and Tourists alike, Juhu Beach. The beach was filled with people enjoying the view and the breeze. However, the entire beach, and the water was littered with trash. We explored the beach for over thirty minutes. For dinner, we enjoyed an excellent meal at the Hotel Sea Princess, within walking distance of the beach.
These past two days have been overwhelming, thought-provoking, and have given me much more perspective on my own life. I have experienced mobs, slums, malls, and beaches, and each event has given me new information on the development of both Mumbai and India as a whole. India is a country of stark contrasts; office buildings housing international corporations and brand new international schools neighbor Asia's second largest slum. However I believe that for in order for India to continue to sustain the relative economic prosperity and development of the past decade, something must be done to diminish the discrepancies that currently exist within India. Although India has come a long way since its independence sixty-one years ago, there is still much more work to be done. As the trip progresses, I hope to find out what tactics are being implemented currently and what else can be done to decrease these discrepancies.

-Aditya (Phillips Academy '10)


I simply cannot believe that we are already nearing the end of our first week in Mumbai. During reflection a couple of days ago, Alana Rush, one of the faculty advisors for the trip, challenged all of the Niswarth participants to sum up their experience thus far into one word. Amongst myriad other words, "changed" best defined my experience so far. Everything I see, taste, experience infinitely exceeds my expectations, both positively and negatively, and my emotions are exploding from a place so deep in my heart--they're extreme and strong and can't be harnessed.
I would have to say that the most pivotal moment for me thus far was our visit to one of the Pratham shelters in Mumbai. After slithering our way through a crammed market, the group made it to the steps of an old mosque. After climbing five stories, gaining entrance into a hidden, more beautiful and rich India at every level, we reached the doors to Pratham. Pratham is an non-government orginazation that plucks young boys out of factories where they worked as child laborers, normally in tedious fields such as embroidering, and works to ensure them an education and future. After a brief presentation on the history and mission of the organization, we were lead into a giant, grey room where 48 boys with curious eyes and brightly colored t-shirts sat quietly in perfect rows. The director asked one of the boys with an especially wonderful voice to sing for us and he made his way to the front of the room. As he wrapped his velvet voice around a beautiful hindi melody and the music blossomed throughout the room, I couldn't help but think where this boy of maybe ten or twelve years had been. As I had been informed earlier, it was likely that his parents basically sold him to a factory owner, under whom he would work so tirelessly and under such atrocious conditions that he would use his thirty-minute lunch break to rest. Or maybe things were so terrible at home, maybe he was so neglected, that he voluntarily left his home, surrendering everything to an owner who would trade him like a baseball card. I wasn't sure which saddened me more, the thought of the horrors this child had endured or our utter inability to fathom, despite our sincerest attempts, the flames through which he had walked.
Three other boys joined him for the next song which they crooned so passionately I saw the veins bulging out of their necks. As it was another Hindi song, I didn't understand the meaning of it until one of our Indian roommates from the Udayachal school in Vikhroli informed me later. "You would have really been crying," Aditya remarked,"if you had known what they were singing about." He then told me that the song was about a child begging his mother not to sell him, reminding her that he is worth more than 2000 rupees (approximately five US dollars), pleading to remain in the arms of his mother and no where else. It was haunting realizing that this song was the war cry of these children, that most of them had been nothing but a price.
Just when I begin to believe that hope was just a four-letter word in this country, one of the boys popped up like a jack-in-the-box from his spot in line and introduced himself. In broken English, he announced his name, his grade, and, with a huge smile, proclaimed, "And.. and I want to be doctor." 47 boys eagerly followed, jumping up and declaring their dreams for the future, from becoming a computer engineer to a pilot to a social worker. I had never been so moved. I couldn't believe any of it--that boys with their background could have enough hope to build a future upon, that an organization could make their dreams tangible, that we were there watching all of it unfold.
It has been experiences like my visit to Pratham, all of which have been equally impacting and amazing, that I can say that I have been changed. I have travelled almost 24 hours to get here. I have eaten more Indian food than I ever anticipated (trust me, I'm not complaining). I have seen cockroaches bigger than I thought existed. I have taken freezing showers every morning and brushed my teeth using bottled water. I have worked with disabled children from the slums of India so incredible they brought tears to my eyes. I have had a conversation with a girl who, with the help of Save the Children India, is no longer a child prostitute but an artist or jewelry maker. I have learned, amongst many other phrases which drift from my memory just seconds after learning them, how to say "goodnight" and "my name is" in Hindi. I have made 6 friends from a high school half-way around the world and become even better friends with those who originally embarked on this journey with me. I have felt the warm salty water of the Arabian sea between my toes. I have been indefinitely changed and there's just no other way to say it.
To my friends and family, I can't wait to tell you all of my adventures in Mumbai. I am sorry I cannot be at the birthday party tonight, don't let my dad spend all my birthday money! If you don't get my wishes in time, Happy Birthday, Jenni, and Staci, I'm so sorry I couldn't get a card to you in time. I hope you had the most wonderful 20th birthday and we will surely celebrate once I get home. I love you and all I promise to keep you updated!


Friday, June 20, 2008

36 Hours in Mumbai: the Niswarth version

Since I am an avid reader of the New York Times (and I know there are a good number of readers out there who may feel the same way), I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the Times' recent article in the Travel section, 36 Hours in Mumbai. The lead, "it's the Jazz Age again in Mumbai," paints a picture of this city that can only be understood by New York Times readers in their comfortable Manhattan apartments. For those who decide to venture out of the luxurious bubble this article creates, a trip to Mumbai can be an eye opener, to say the least.

Juxtaposition abounds in a city that is challenged in many ways. Exquisite high rises and malls dot the skyline as slums cluster around their perimeters. Americans live like kings, eating extravagant meals at the price of a meal from Subway. But outside of these oasises lies a completely different world- of hunger, strife, and hope. For those foreign to a developing land, both the comforts of home and adventures of an unfamiliar culture will be a memorable experience.

As Americans traveling to a foreign nation- essentially tourists, as much as I hate that word, we are constantly trying to find a happy medium between both our tourist tendencies and our service learning. While the New York Times article highlights some of the wonderful tourist options in Mumbai, we all know that you can not always read a book by its cover.

In the past few days, I feel that we have made an admirable attempt to read our book, yet also admire its cover. At some point, however, I have come to question whether or not we can really do both. Can we, as American tourists, completely remove the book jacket? Should we doing this? My perspective is as follows- sometimes I will pick a book by its cover, sometimes I will read a book and frequently refer to the cover, and other times I will simply throw away the cover. Right now, however, the cover still exists on my book.


Visiting Dharavi

Being residents of Mumbai, the visit to the Dharavi slums (Asia’s largest slum) was an eye-opener for us . We had just heard about the low standard of living of the slum dwellers but this was the first time we really saw it with our own eyes. This is the very moment when we realized the intensity of the problem. The sanitary conditions were really bad and the surroundings were really unclean. Some of the residents were living in those houses for as long as 50 years. They had to encounter a number of hardships and had a tough fight for survival. They all had really meager incomes.

Though they were very poor, their nature was quite warm and hospitable and they felt free to share their problems. The basic challenges that they faced daily were that the electricity supply was not regular, it was really hot, & the water supply was not regular. There was a garbage dump close to the house we visited and so the place kept stinking. The area was very crowded with houses leaving a really narrow path to walk. The circulation of air in the houses was not good and may be that was the reason I observed an exhaust fan in every house. The houses were basically a small room on op of which another room was illegally made. The stairs to the room on top were steep and narrow.

We all were really eager to know the comments that the onlookers were passing. It was really depressing to see the poverty in which our STCI friends were living in. This was when we started realizing how much we have & we began to appreciate the pleasures of life. This visit had a huge role in changing our outlook towards life.

- Kartik and Neha (Udayachal)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thank You Letter From Pratham

Dear Raj

On behalf of all the children and the staff members at the shelter I want to thank you for the donation, that your organisation has made to support the activities being run at the shelter.

With your support we will be able to arrange many more educational and recreational outings for the children, and give them a fun-filled childhood they deserve. The children are really excited and are looking forward to this.

It was also touching to see all the young students, eager to give their time to reach out and interact with the children. I do hope that the experience was as meaningful for them as it was for our children

We are sure that with the support of committed people and organisations such as yours we will be able to achieve our mission of "No Child Working, Every Child in School and Learning Well"

Warm Regards

Christine Charles

June 19, 2008

It is hard to believe that we have only been here for for four days. The amount we have learned, seen, and absorbed is more than surreal. Today was a day of reflection and pondering of our first impressions and experiences here in Mumbai.
Rising "early" for a change, and leaving for STCI from the colony at 9 AM, we arrived with an hour or so before our scheduled time with the children. We used this time for individual check-ins, written response, and reading "What Sort of Mother Are You?"- a moving and inspiring article on one mother's dedicated and driven work towards improving the lives of disabled individuals. Mr. Mundra asked us to consider several difficult questions: What are we really doing? Are we making a difference? Is our experience worth the time and money spent to come here? Can you see tangible results of our presence here? We had to look inside ourselves and ask- What can we do? What are our strengths and weaknesses? He went on to describe how the NISWARTH program has a unique approach, which should be focused on more than a harried search for a sweeping outcome. We were reminded that we are working with types of organizations and types of children whom we would not interact with any other way. We have met disabled children, child laborers, and girls as young as ten years old who were ruthlessly trafficked. Our reactions to these meetings and the manner in which we conduct ourselves and combat these issues is what is most important. To be able to overcome this obstacle is a different task than what we face academically in school.
All of the teachers expressed how proud they were that we were throwing ourselves in, simultaneously meshing and collaborating with each other in our mutual quest here in Mumbai. The more one puts into his endeavor, the more one gets out of it. "Bombay is a city where the issues are always in your face," as Mr. Mundra succinctly stated. While attempting to piece together my thoughts and emotions of the last few days, I kept coming to a realization that life truly is short. Each time I see a beggar tapping on the car window, or a child sleeping in the dirt path, I remember that there are so many things we want to do, and there are so many people we want to help- but it is impossible to do everything. While this was depressing in some factors, I was reminded that we must do our best with the time that is given to us, but not compromise our own happiness. I found that what I have love most about this trip so far is not so much experiencing the political, cultural, or logistical aspects of India- but simply the moments we have been able to spend with the children. Seeing them smile, seeing them laugh, being in constant awe of their continued success at any challenge we present to them- is truly priceless. I hope to be a doctor, a profession I believe provides the most direct connection with humans. I believe I benefit most from this connection, this bond that is formed on both ends of the spectrum. In my own eyes, we have all accomplished what I set out here to do. We have all brightened at least one child's day. We are in the process of gaining a thorough understanding of the reality. We are getting the exposure, we are opening the door to an otherwise unimaginable world. I am only looking forward to our time to come.
At about 11:30, we assembled into our four project groups (Art, Theater, Dance, and Computers) to make our final preparations for our exhibitions. Although my Art group had finished the main component of our product (which was a large paper consisting of the child's two handprints, their name in Hindi and English, and any decoration they so chose), Neha, Mr. Mundra, and I decided to add to their portfolios. Mr. Mundra donated a plethora of supplies to the Art Program at STCI, and we gave them a special black-scratch paper to create rainbow designs. Two of the girls, Sana and Rukhsana, produced flower designs that could rival any of my classroom sketches. We also used this time to assist the children in their actual presentation of their work, slowly working them through "My name is _____" and "Mera nam _____ hain." I have noticed a dramatic change in the confidence of all the children over the past few days.
After a lunch reminiscent of my own traditional home-cooked meals (palak paneer, toor daal, aloo, and roti), many of us arrived early at the Conference Room before the exhibition to spend extra time with the children. Photos were snapped left and right, and I was engaged in an unyielding game of chase with a boy who had just turned five. I honestly do not even think about the childrens' situations when I am with them. I play and talk and feel as if they are my own family. I have laughed more during this trip than I believe I have during the entirety of the last school year.
The final exhibition truly baffled the board members of STCI. The dance group performed two classical Hindi songs with grace and enthusiasm, and was asked for a repeat performance. The theater troupe put on a short but clever skit that utilized a scenario of a bear and animal, ending with one child's concluding lesson that one should always keep good company. The computer group displayed a completely child-produced power point presentation consisting of pictures they took themselves, as well as created manually using WordTools. Many children also came up in front of everyone to give their thanks at the end of the event, a first step for almost all of them- according to the board. We were informed, to our utmost joy, that we truly have made a positive difference. The feeling that overcame me is inexplicable. It was simply proof that we must be doing something right here. We are on the right path.
After the presentation, we had a few hours to pass until the dinner scheduled with Police Chief Kamble. I truly observed the bonding of our own NISWARTH group during these short moments. I have noticed that we are no longer segregated in Udayachal and Andover clusters, but are interspersed, sharing our cultures, language, and memories. The notebooks of my American classmates are dotted with newly-learned Hindi vocabulary, and more than one Udayachal ear harbors the white earpiece of an IPod at all times. Just last night, nearly all of us stayed up past midnight- despite the long day, we were not exhausted enough to play infinite rounds of "Spoons," presumably creating enough of a racket as to prevent any poor resident from sleeping at all. I am honestly baffled by the closeness I feel to everyone in our group, which at first seemed random and divided. I know it can only get better.
All of us, including the boys, got Mehndhi (Henna) done on our hands by a few of the STCI students. Hopefully, visual proof will be up on the internet soon so that all can see how professional these girls are capable of being. I have not seen such elaborate and skilled work done at some of the largest Indian weddings. This just goes to show how we have been surprised by our underestimation over the course of the trip. Instead of passing all the time at the STCI center, we voted on spending an hour shopping at a string of local clothing and item shops. With the help of Udayachal teacher Taranjeet, many a bargain was made.
On the bus rides, I have found myself staring out the window to see the streets of Mumbai, while may always seem the same- soiled and crowded- there are many small instances that I have noticed. In the dusk, I was drawn to the light of a small wood fire which a child and his father were huddled over, roasting a dead chicken. Another father was propped up against the side of his slum with his child in his lap, reading to him from a tattered book. In the heat of the day, while humming the Bollywood tunes of the radio under my breath, I tend to see harsher realities. Yet another one-limbed man migrates from vehicle to vehicle, another insect-ridden infant is bathing in the puddles of poverty. Why has God created suffering? Why has he created poverty? Why has he allowed hunger?
I could write endlessly about the rest of the day, and the rest of my own thoughts. Yet time is always a constraint. Until next time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Day Three: A Personal Reflection

With extremities in the van, the distance between Tessa and the woman was unnerving. With her gaunt eyes, ratty hair, and dirty clothes, her persistent begging made the surrounding students squirm in their seats. After a wrong turn or two, we arrived at Save the Children India for our second day working with students. Having met with a few girls from Save Our Sisters, I was incredibly moved and intrigued by their pasts and current lives. By chance, Aditya (from Andover), Piyush, Mr. Mundra, and I were able to go visit the girls for a second time.

A stern woman in uniform greeted us at the top of the staircase leading up to the floor, which had been devoted specifically to SOS. After she opened an incredibly ominous gate, we passed by a few barred windows, removed our shoes, and were greeted by an enthusiastic group of girls who were interested in continuing our conversations from the previous day.

Amidst the colorful walls and bright saris, I connected with the girls through Piyush, who was an excellent translator. When we began, only one girl answered his questions. While some of the girls whispered questions to her, spoke amongst themselves, or simply sat to enjoy the experience, the group became more and more relaxed as the girls became more comfortable with our presence.

In our hour-long meeting, we shared photos, songs and candy. As a side note, Aditya, Mr. Mundra and I were asked to sing an American song. To be quite blunt, I do not sing. Despite having a long relationship with music, my vocal chords have never benefited from those years of lessons. Thus, upon their request to sing an American song, I simply did not know what to do.

“This is a once in a life time opportunity,” Mr. Mundra said (of course there was no pressure here). So, after a good few minutes of mumbling, reddening cheeks, and changes in keys, with the help of Mr. Mundra and Aditya’s humming, we finised the American national anthem.

This post has come to be more of a summary rather than my opinions on the event simply because I find it incredibly difficult to put into words what I have been seeing. To talk with these girls, see their reactions to our questions, and hear their lives, one would not see that they are survivors of years of trafficking, egregious sex crimes, and for me, incomprehensible lives.

For the readers, here is what I am trying to comprehend-
• How a girl who is more or less my age can have a four-year old child.
• How she can only see that child once every two weeks.
• How these girls have no freedom- they are in the possession of the government are refined to the government sites. Any desires to leave this compound (to see a movie, buys clothes etc.) must be down under strict supervision.
• How distressed one girl became when we talked about our age, birthdays, birthday parties and astrological signs- she did not know any of that information.
• Although all the girls looked quite different, due to the fact that they are not only from various rural villages from all over India, but also the surrounding countries, one girl looked part Caucasian. She completely understood English.
• How one girl, who was incredibly confident, said she would have liked to become a phone caller. She will not be able to because of her current situation.
• How the girls described that they really wanted to be able to travel. The listed London, Germany, Italy and America as their top destinations. All of those locations are prominently featured in Bollywood films, they described.
• What they do when they are in their government compound- talk about their pasts, as one girl said.
• How much I connect with these girls, how similar I feel to them, yet how incredibly different our lives have been.
• How privileged I am.

After finishing off our day at one of the nicest restaurants in Mumbai, (which, per person, came to cost less than our sandwiches in Logan airport) we walked a few blocks to a ritzy, chic gelato place, much like ones we would see in any major city in the U.S. Yet, being Mumbai, surrounding the small entry way were children begging for food, money, anything. As the first overweight Indian teenager I have seen left the gelato place, a malnourished child approached our group, tugging on our sleeves, pointing to his mouth. Whether or not it was the fact that I am lactose intolerant, was bloated, or had just seen a child dying from hunger, for some reasons, which I still cannot identify, I never ordered a dessert.

I encourage all readers to learn more about the SOS program via the STCI website (which you can find on the side bar under links). Questions and comments are, of course, welcome.

Best wishes to all,
Celia Lewis