Finding Philanthropy

khirkee ext 1Delhi is a city of extremes and contradictions. For me, the issue of giving to the poor, perhaps, is a combination of the two. I have found the begging children, elderly, and disabled to have generated – in me – emotions that are in extreme contradiction to my nature. I admit that I am repulsed, not by the poor, but by the business of being poor. It’s one thing to see “Slumdog Millionaire” and to sigh at how sad those people over there are living. It’s an altogether different thing to see those people every day. Every single day, with their hands outstretched in the same conditions – after you gave them food, after you have seen others give them money. Every single day, those people are on the same street corner, sometimes holding different drugged and drowsy babies each day.

It’s a pathetic scene. It’s sad to hear that most of these people are part of a racket. A racket that pays them a minimal salary of chapati and a few rupees so that they won’t dare starve, but survive to beg another day. The money those of us passersbys fork over goes, instead, to gangs who collude with police to ‘own’ street corners like drug dealers in inner city America. It’s hard to see the value of giving, when there’s such a senseless market of taking.

I can say that I have been deeply affected by this situation. For all the community service I’ve done in my life time, the food banks I’ve donated to, the Salvation Armies I’ve frequented, I have been very reluctant to engage India’s poor. For, while this poverty seems so abject, it also seems so self-induced. While it seems so self-induced, it also seems so inexplicably, dramatically exaggerated in the direction of downtrodden. It is not poverty that causes children to beg in the streets for a pittance, when government schools are free. It is not poverty that causes women to re-open gash marks on their bodies to produce more gore with which to guilt givers. The poverty itself is not pretend, but these theatrical advances are all too frequent and all too irresponsible on the part of the actor. The whole scene has turned me off.

Delhi has left me with a bitter and miserly taste. I find myself despising street children, because I know it’s just a matter of time before they come begging and whining incessantly for something I will never give – money. They’ll touch you. They’ll poke you. They’ll touch your feet as a sign of respect and also as a nuisance – hoping that you’ll be so annoyed that you’ll give them money to go away. And, I must admit, I do want them to go away. Not because I don’t want their poverty in my face, but simply because I know there’s nothing I can do to help them. Their extremes can’t be helped by money, and this sick theatre won’t be abolished by my guilt. Yet, as I am gearing up to leave a city that has – despite all my complaints – allowed me to make significant progress personally and professionally, I have decided that I will learn to trust.

Finding a charity that one can trust in Delhi is like differentiating melted chocolate from fresh cow dung – not using your sense of smell. It’s a dirty and involved business. It requires research and personal investment. Or else the consequences are grave. Word has it that there are over 3 million non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India, hundreds of thousands of which are New Delhi based. Corruption is commonplace and an ever-present crime of opportunity. Yet, in my quest to accomplish #24 of my 30 before 30, I found 3 charities that I’m willing to support.

While at a work organized volunteer day I finally got a chance to engage with the children of Salaam Balaak Trust. I’d heard for years that these street children gave city tours (dare I say, slum tours), but I never could actually find time in my schedule to go on one. Over an art project with children of all ages, I came to find out that the organization takes in children who are found in and around Delhi’s train station. Many are runaways who left abuse, prostitution, and/or child labor in their local villages and towns. Also, they work to serve children who are not orphaned, but whose parents are otherwise slum residents or homeless. So, this art project outing rekindled my interest in the organization and has compelled me to again revisit the sore subject of street children.

While browsing the web for some academic research I was working on, I came across Deepalaya – a non-religious, NGO focused on eradicating urban and rural poverty. With options to sponsor a child or support specific projects of health, sheltering, or girls’ education, it seems this almost thirty year old organization is doing good work. My contact with this organization is new and, for lack of time, mainly financial. Yet, I suspect it will be sustained. As the communication between the organization and sponsors is really detailed and steady – understand that this is not usually the case with other organizations I’ve been in touch with – I can believe that I will continue to build confidence in the organization and a relationship with the child I sponsor.

Kamalini Village Walk, 2013Kamalini came to me in the mail. I received an ad about a women’s vocational school that was not only accepting volunteers, but also in-kind donations of any kind. I had long grown tired of donating my old clothes to the same organization and wanted to build a relationship with a new organization. I found the organizers at Kamalini to be a dedicated and concentrated group of both foreign and Indian women working together to provide vocational skills to women in urban villages in and around Delhi. While some chose to use these educational opportunities to get better at their professions, others were just starting out and seeking the financial independence needed for traditional Indian women to make tough personal choices. Kamalini has teamed up with a local tour guide to give a guided tour of the Shahpur Jat Village neighborhood and then a tour of the Kamalini facility. See below photos of my tour, which has effectively changed my relationship with this city and my feelings about philanthropy.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day…”

My ‘Literature of the Middle Passage’ professor Caryl Phillips (Caz) said that “Graham Greene once said that most writers are fully formed by the age of 14.” I’m not sure if Caz understood the relevance of that statement for me personally, and – looking back – I’m not sure how it possibly could have been relevant to any classroom discussions from that semester, but it’s one of the few tidbits of writers’ identity reinforcement that I continue to carry with me into adulthood.

See, our camel driver was fourteen years old and he seemed to be the youngest on the strip from the East street entrance to the East gate of the Taj Mahal. I got the impression that he too was fully formed. He was only 3 years senior to the camel he whipped forward, and both were visibly weather beaten. His is the face of India’s laborers – young, unregulated, untrained, and in service to another person who could be described in the same way. This ten-year old to the eye, fourteen year old by his own admission, triggers images of the boy from KaviLatika from Slumdog Millionaire and Sarita, begging for money and food outside Saket mall, who told me she was 4, then 5, but looked 8, and then admitted she didn’t know how old she was.

When I think of a childhood I don’t remember, I have to admit that it’s categorically different from a childhood they never had.  While I’ve found many Indian families to be an onion of rules, impositions, superstitions, responsibilities, joint families – my impression of most middle class families is that these layers offer children shelter from the larger unpleasantries experienced by India’s lower class children. For every Amir, there must be a Hassan, who does the grunt work so the former doesn’t have to and who takes the fall because the former wouldn’t know how to get back up.

From my vantage point, this is the way this society is built; often in direct contradiction to a more familiar idea of self-reliance and independence. Surely, India isn’t the only place on earth where this rings true. Needless to say, these layers of family and work order prop up the top echelons of society, and more importantly make it possible for the middle echelons to believe themselves to be on their way to the top.  These accepted labor inequities can lead to unconscionable extremes of blatant child labor and abuse; the more common impression I have as a resident outsider is that this methodology leaves gaps of accepted inefficiencies and predatory behaviors that are deeply imbedded in the fabric of this saffron life.

This country has no dearth of young labor. But, what it could use, in my mind, is a more visionary ideal of how best to use it. Carry overs from the caste system may have worked for the British of the 1900s, but they simply don’t translate well in the service & outsourced industries of today’s American standard.

As a child, I learned early that if you want something done right – you have to do it yourself. As an adult, I’m learning that in some stretches of the earth, while the belief rings universal, the division of labor isn’t organized to see its fulfillment. The fact that I have a full-time household staff of three, is absurd to me. The fact that I actually need them at all is even more mind-blowing, especially when I spend more time talking to them about how to appropriately interact with each other than they actually spend doing their jobs.

But, Delhi is built on having layers and layers of unskilled, often young, workers around to do the things you can’t, don’t want or think you shouldn’t have to do. Yesterday, something clicked when I heard tell of how Arjumand Banu Begum come Mumtaz Mahal had 14 children in her 19 years of marriage to Shah Jehan; she died at age 38. The Shah had over 350 concubines who lived in the palace in rooms flanking their marriage bed chamber. When he played parchessi, he used women of the harem as human game pieces. When Mumtaz died giving birth the 14th of their brood, she was remembered as the perfect wife because she traveled behind him wherever he went and had no political aspirations. I hate to be the jerk that can’t translate joy from this love story, but this is relevant to this conversation because it not only shows that being dicked around (pun intended) is par for the course of both work and home, but it also illustrates the historic foundations of the re-fashioning and over-glorifying antiquities’ disregard for human value as a concept of valor to be revered. #offmysoapbox

On the journey to Agra, my Ugandan friend and I discussed for hours how she and her West African sunshine dumpling were going to raise African children of two nations while living in a suburb of the U.S. She frets over identity; I posit that a healthy relationship between parents seals those gaps. She frets over schooling; I suggest home schooling and mixed Montessori education. She worries that they won’t settle comfortably into the title of African-American, when it is what they will be called, but not precisely what they are made of.  I found myself reminding her that in the world beyond today, the children we think we’ll own will be born into the world that we make for ourselves.

Lest we forget, though, that their identities will be formed in constant flux and relative to the identities of the children of others, those who we allow to wash our clothes, clean our cars, buy our books, install our cable, DJ on the radio, make millions off of us, do our dirty work, make us go get butterscotch lady finger cookies while walking barefoot across the Brooklyn bridge on stilts, whip a camel so that we don’t have to walk 30 yards. How we treat those around us, whether they work with us, for us, near us, across the seas or not at all, will have a great bearing on the character of the generations to follow.

This week’s lesson from North India is one that has rocked the foundations of my core, causing me to wonder if I can be formed anew to adjust appropriately. Since I don’t want to undo the Caz & Graham mystique, it’s an idea I’ll continue to mull over. Maybe with time, I can disbelieve it. But, I’ll share now for your thoughts. Forgive me my resignation and maybe an offense to the higher being of your choosing, but while we are all God’s children, the meek will not inherit the earth… perhaps the after life but, from where I sit, the selfish opportunists start young and they got the earth on smash for generations and generations to come.