Life in an Indian slum opens EVHS geography teacher’s eyes

Wendy Sierra stood among the poverty-stricken settlements of Dharavi, struggling to process what she was seeing, yet knowing it would take months before she’d truly comprehend her surroundings. Though she’d had a year to prepare for her six-week trip to India, she realized that none of her research, guidebooks, or conversations had truly prepared her for the sights, sounds, and smells of Dharavi, Mumbai, the second largest slum in Asia.

Everywhere she turned, she saw handmade homes cobbled together like puzzles out of found materials such as corrugated tin, tarps, odd-shaped pieces of wood, chunks of concrete, and bricks. Here, with an estimated million inhabitants per square mile, privacy is an alien concept. Whether washing, playing, working, or even tending to bodily needs like going to the bathroom, people lived in public view.

“It’s very dense,” Wendy recalls. A new snapshot of human life in subhuman conditions presented itself at every turn: families crowded inside tiny rooms, children running barefoot through the littered maze of passageways, and adults bathing themselves in the streets using public water spigots. “But it wasn’t a sad thing. Even though they didn’t have a private shower or a water heater,” Wendy says, they seemed to have “the dignity and pride of keeping themselves the best way they could.”

Wendy continued her guided tour, making mental notes to remember the details of her surroundings. As one of only 13 American teachers selected to participate in the 2013 Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad scholarship—a government program designed to help deepen our nation’s knowledge of other countries—it was her duty to bring back to the United States as much knowledge about Indian culture and activities as possible so that she could educate her community and her high school geography classes at East View High School.

Rounding a corner, she caught a glimpse of an Indian father in a winding alleyway, playing cricket with his son. “The boy looked about five or six years old,” says Wendy. “Of course, he’s not teaching the kid baseball or football like here, but you could transfer that scene to anyplace in Georgetown and see that same father-son relationship—that same caring. To see that universality was incredibly powerful.”

One-hundred-and-eighty degrees from Georgetown’s well-thought-out neighborhoods, however, were Dharavi’s distinct sectors. Though the slum was constructed bit by bit, with no thought for urban planning, Wendy recognized that the vastly different customs, places of worship, and styles of dress were clearly segregated into distinct parts of the slum, each with a particular purpose.

“Many of the people moving to Dharavi are coming from the countryside into the city to make better lives for themselves,” explains Wendy, who has been teaching professionally since 1998. “And since India has a caste system, which means that each person—and their children, and their children’s children—is born into a set occupation and social hierarchy, they’ll keep the same customs, religion, and dress from their village when they move to Dharavi. Everyone from a village will all come and live in the same area.”

She continues, “It’s apparent because the style of dress would be different from one portion of Dharavi to the next. You could definitely see, ‘Oh, now we’re in the Muslim section.’ Or ‘now we’re in the Tamil section.’ There was a potters’ workshop and kiln and everything, and that whole section was together.”

Before this trip, Wendy had traveled to Japan, Southern Africa, South America, and Europe, but in none had she witnessed the intense poverty of Dharavi. “The infrastructure and the things we take for granted in the United States were certainly not there,” says Wendy, who admits she missed certain creature comforts, like brushing her teeth with the aid of a running faucet. “They don’t have a sewer system, and there’s estimated to be about one toilet for every 1,500 people. . . . My tour was really lucky, because we went a few days after the rain, so it wasn’t flooded and the waste had been washed away.”

Festival at Golconda Fort in Hyderabad

Despite the impoverished circumstances of Dharavi’s inhabitants, one main idea presented itself throughout Wendy’s three-hour tour of the slum: Though the residents lived in squalid habitations, many carried with them a sense of hope and determination. Their current circumstances were the first step toward procuring a better life for their families and for themselves.

Several areas she walked through had workshops where people were working purposefully and in harsh humidity—it was monsoon season at the time—to make pottery, piece together textiles, and recycle metals.

“A lot of people there are hardworking; their poverty is not for lack of hard work,” she says. “There’s a really intense dignity in that. . . . I thought it would be a place of intense misery and sorrow. And, of course, that’s there. But at the same time, it’s also a place with a lot of hard work and dignity and optimism. I really didn’t expect that aspect of it.”

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