My Road Trip/Hanging Out With the Women of Hope

All the years I lived in Sierra Leone, I was a spoilt city boy who rarely ventured out of Freetown. We had an uncle who worked as an air traffic controller at Lungi Airport, whose family we visited frequently, and my mum worked at the hospital there for a while, so we would always go and see her. But that was about sum total of my trips “upline” (Sierra Leoneans’ technical term for just about anywhere outside Freetown).

I probably wouldn’t have ventured out of Freetown this time round either, were it not for an email from a friend in the USA. I’ve known Paul Neeley for a few years now; we met initially via World Beat (the world music show I used to present on UCB). Paul emailed me to ask if I’d take some time out of my trip to go and visit the headquarters of Women of Hope International – a charity he’s involved with, based in Makeni.

Sierra Leone is divided into four provinces, although it’s only the northern, southern and eastern ones that are called provinces. The western one (where Freetown is located) is known simply as the ‘Western Area’ – but then it is tiny compared to the other three. Makeni is situated about 110 miles east of Freetown (well, most of Sierra Leone is east of Freetown. It’s that ‘Western Area’ thing). It’s Sierra Leone’s fifth largest city, and the capital of Bombali District in the Northern Province.

My old flatmate was the first to reassure me that the trip was easily doable. “You can do it in a day. It’s just three hours’ drive there and three hours back.” Another friend, Valerie (see next blog post), also egged me on to go when I was wavering. Finally, I emailed Kelsey Martin (Women of Hope’s US Programme Assistant, whom Paul had linked me up with) and said I’d try to come up to Makeni on Wednesday, the only free day I had left. The crucial thing for me was that I had to be there and back in a day. However, the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation only runs one bus there a day – at 6.00am. I could get there, but would have to wait until the following morning before I could come back. I did have an invitation to stay the night at Women of Hope’s guesthouse, so that wasn’t a problem. But nobody could tell me what time the bus back to Freetown was.

I left home just before five on Wednesday morning, and walked to the SLRTC’s bus station. It was still dark, and rather disconcerting to see the streets of Freetown so empty. Still, empty streets meant that this ‘JC’ could walk without being stopped every 10 seconds and asked if he had any £ or $ he wanted to change, so I made the most of it.

Getting a bus proved to be a total fiasco. According to signs posted all over the bus station, a ticket to Makeni costs 13,000 Leones. None of the buses terminate there, so you have to get the Kabala bus and get off at Makeni. Cool – but when I went to buy a ticket, I was told I had to pay the full Kabala fare (27,000 Leones)! Then when I tried to do that, I was told that there were no tickets and the bus was full. All this after waiting over an hour for the thing to arrive!

While waiting for the bus, I’d been talking to a couple of fellow travellers – in particular this one old man with two white plastic buckets in his hand, who was also waiting for the Kabala bus. After failing to get on the bus, I was ready to pack it in and go back home. The old man wasn’t having it. “Don’t worry,” he said encouragingly. “There are loads of vehicles we can get a ride with; we just need to go to Shell. Come on!” So I walked with him, having completely forgotten where “Shell” was! The old man was a brisk walker; before I knew it, we were at the East End Police station, where we hopped onto a poda-poda headed for Wellington.

We got off the poda-poda at the Shell petrol station in Kissy where, true to the old man’s word, minibus drivers were packing in passengers for journeys out to the provinces. I thanked the old man and signalled to the first person I heard calling for passengers to Makeni. A tall guy in a T-shirt came along and ushered me towards the front seat of a gold Chrysler Voyager.

We set off for Makeni at around 7.30am; me in the front seat with a lady and a little toddler on her lap seated between the driver and myself, an assortment of men, women and children in the back, and Beyonce, Rihanna and several random generic ‘urban’ acts repeated endlessly on the Voyager’s auto-reverse cassette player. The journey was smooth for the most part. However, our driver had seen fit to take more passengers than the number he was legally allowed to, and so he was stopped (and subsequently relieved of a few thousand Leones) at every single Police checkpoint we came to. Shortly after we reached Lunsar (the halfway point of the trip), my Comium mobile rang. It was Kelsey, asking if I had decided to come to Makeni. I told her I was on my way, and we arranged for her to collect me when I arrived.

Shortly after 10.00am, we arrived in Makeni. The vehicles that do this trip use the first NP petrol station as their terminal point, but our driver continued past it, further into town. I was looking for a suitable landmark at which to disembark when a white van with the Women of Hope logo drove in the opposite direction and stopped. I got off and took out my mobile to tell Kelsey she’d just driven past me. We had one of those “Hey! I can see you; I’m over here! I’m the one waving!” conversations; she drove up to where I was; I got into the van and she explained that one of their employees had also just arrived from Freetown and she’d come to collect her. Turns out the lady who’d been sitting next to me in the Chrysler Voyager worked for the very people I was going to meet! Her name was Rebecca and she had been in Freetown with her grandchildren for a few days, attending a family wedding. She does general housekeeping at the guest house, and wasted no time getting lunch ready whilst Kelsey told me all about herself and Women of Hope’s work.

Kelsey is originally from Seattle but recently relocated to Memphis (Women of Hope’s base back in the US is in the South). She’s spent quite some time in Sierra Leone getting things off the ground, and says she’s started to think of Makeni as home. Women of Hope was started by a group of American women who had links to Sierra Leone in one form or other, led by Kim Kargbo, a missionary kid who’s now a missionary herself and married to a Sierra Leonean. Kim had set up three NGOs in Sierra Leone prior to Women of Hope; the idea for Women of Hope came about out of the realisation that most of the NGO/charity work catering for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone tended to focus on men.

“Our goal is to support women with disabilities – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and economically,” Kelsey says. “We try to do that in the most grassroots way possible.” They had a period of consultation with local women, at which the women said their three biggest needs were shelter, education for their children, and money for food and business.

Women of Hope act more as facilitators, gathering women together and training them in health & sanitation and income generation. They also give women grants to start small businesses, and run support groups for mothers of disabled children. Right at the heart of their work are a team of local women who have been trained as ‘community health evangelists’ – basically social workers who pass on the training they’ve received to others around them.

Some of Women of Hope’s staff have disabilities themselves. Adama Conteh (their Logistics Officer) is blind, and one of Kelsey’s reasons for wanting to be involved in disability-related work stems from the fact that she was born with one arm. “I do this job to show others that disability doesn’t have to stop you getting on in life,” says Fatmata, Programme Assistant and Field Officer, who has walking difficulties.

Field Workers Fatmata (left) and Melvina (right) at work.

After lunch, Kelsey and I went out on the road with Fatmata and Melvina, the two Field Officers, as they visited women in one of the areas the charity covers. For logistics purposes, Women of Hope have split Makeni up into three geographical areas. The area we went to visit today covered Stocco Road and ‘Oslo’ – a residential area for amputees and disabled people, funded by the Norwegian Government.

'The Chief' holds court.

It was evident from the reception Fatmata and Melvina got that the local women appreciate the work Women of Hope do. They took me to meet Fatu (sorry, I mean ‘Mammy Fatu’), the matriarch of a compound just outside Stocco Road. Mammy Fatu is a larger-than-life bundle of laughs who everyone calls ‘the Chief’. As she joked about with Kelsey and I, little children mucked about and Sama (another older lady) sat making gari.

Field trip over, we headed for the office where I met Ruth Kamara, Women of Hope’s Programme Manager. Ruth used to work for another NGO committed to fighting human trafficking (another area Women of Hope is involved in). She decided to join Women of Hope because of its faith-based ethos, being a Christian herself. Also in the office was Adama, the Logistics Officer. I’d been in Freetown over a week and not had the “So why haven’t you found a wife and fathered a tribe of your own yet?” interrogation from some uncle or aunt. That lucky streak ended in Makeni, thanks to Adama…

After a nice dinner back at the guesthouse, Kelsey dropped me off at the NP station to find a ride home. The back seat of the minivan that took me back to Freetown was nowhere near as comfortable as the Chrysler Voyager had been. But not even that could put a damper on what had been a great day out.

The Women of Hope International staff. (L to R): Fatmata, Melvina, Patricia, Adama, Ruth and Kelsey.

Total ‘small ting’ expenditure on trip: Le 15k (actually, make that 5k. I did give the old man 10 grand, but he never asked for anything; I gave it to him because he genuinely helped me and I wanted to thank him).

In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…

 

Shahbaz Bhatti: A Tribute

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my time – both the very famous and the nowhere-near-as-famous-as-they-think. Some of them have been on the receiving end of threats (mostly those involved in campaigning for the human rights of others); some have even been attacked once or twice. But this week was the first time that someone I’ve interviewed has been murdered because of the stance he took. I am still in shock, even though it’s been eight years since I last spoke to him.

I met Shahbaz Bhatti (Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, who was assassinated on Wednesday) in February 2003, when he was Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. He was also Executive Director of Pakistan Council for Human Rights and Democracy and Founder/President of the Christian Liberation Front of Pakistan (CLF). George W Bush and Tony Blair were warming up for their war on Iraq, and Shahbaz was on a tour of Western countries, basically to explain to those in power what sort of nasty backlash Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities would suffer if the war went ahead.

“I’ve met many policy-makers in Europe, and discussed this issue at length with them,” he told me. “People have shown deep concern towards the situation in Pakistan, and I think that at their own levels, they are taking up this issue and showing solidarity with us.”

Shahbaz was a Christian, but his fight wasn’t exclusively on behalf of Pakistan’s Christian population; he also championed the rights of Hindus, Sikhs, Balmeeks, Bheels, Maingwals, Zoarstrians, Kelashes and all the other groups the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance stood for. All he wanted was to see Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities able to live without fear of harassment – and an end to the blasphemy law which is routinely abused by unscrupulous people; often used to persecute minorities and to steal people’s property by accusing them of blasphemy so as to get rid of them.

The CLF’s job, Shahbaz said, was to protect and defend minorities who are persecuted because of their faith, or through discriminatory laws such as the blasphemy law. The organisation had over 50,000 members, and branch offices in 90 of the 106 districts in Pakistan. Its free legal aid cell provided legal aid and assistance to those unjustly imprisoned victims of blasphemy and other discriminatory legislations. They also provided shelter and material support to victims’ families.

To quote an often-used cliché, Shahbaz was a voice for the voiceless in Pakistan. May he rest in peace.

Click here to hear me in conversation with Shahbaz in 2003.

Crimea: Day 1

Oh crap, it’s cold…

When Operation Christmas Child (the charity that mobilises schoolkids across the UK to fill shoeboxes with gifts for kids in poorer countries) asked me to accompany a team of theirs on a trip abroad, I jumped at the chance. Well, why wouldn’t I? The last time they did, I’d ended up spending ten days in Swaziland, so what’s not to like? Well, maybe the fact that this time round, we weren’t going to Africa but somewhere distinctly less sunny: the Ukraine.

Well, at least I got some sunshine on the way here, thanks to the 20-minute change of plane in Istanbul. But as soon as we touched down in Simferopol (in Crimea), it was back to brass monkeys again.

Anyway, that was yesterday. It’s now Monday – the first day of a short trip for which I’m on story-gathering duty. From our base in Simferopol, we headed south to Bahchisaray – the six of us who flew in from London the day before, plus Sergei, Irina (Ira for short) and Marina, our three translators.

It got less snowy (but not necessarily warmer) the further we drove out of Simferopol. The first thing that caught my attention as we neared Bahchisaray was the huge mountain range in front of us: a stunning row of what looked like enormous limestone cliffs, on which several centuries’ worth of erosion had done some awesome sculpting.

Our first stop was Sakalina, a village on the road that leads to Bahchisaray, and further on to Yalta (where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin famously met in 1945 to plan Hitler’s final defeat). ”It’s the last village in this area,” says Igor, the church pastor who’s coordinating the gift distributions we’re observing today. “Many years ago, there were a lot of different nations living here.

“People are very poor here. On the way here, you see lots of empty fields, all bare. As far as prospects for young people go, in this village there’s probably tourism – that is, if young people are prepared to stay here and work at it. There’s a great canyon that you can see as you travel on your way here; there’s also a waterfall and other mountains. These are all places we could bring tourists to; young people could earn money that way. For the most part, young people here tend to stay here. Those who have rich parents who can pay for them to be educated in big cities leave and go to either Sevastopol or Simferopol to be educated.”

In Sakalina we visited an ‘internat’ (a sort of cross between a boarding school and an orphanage) which caters for both orphans and children from dysfunctional families. On arrival, we were greeted by Alexandria (the assistant director of the internat) and Sergei, the student president. Alexandria’s been working here 20 years (“We don’t work here,” she informs us. “We live here.”). The school celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The kids are very hands-on in the running of the place.

Out in the playground, David (our photographer) and I are accosted by a handful of young lads aged between 11 and 15. they’re all keen on footy; some support local Crimean teams, a few of them like Dynamo Kiev – but as far as Premiership teams go, there’s a lone Arsenal fan and not much else (in fact, there’s a big thumbs down when Man U is mentioned!). They’re also big fans of hip hop music. Eminem gets quite a few name checks.

The assembly hall resembles a small cinema (folding cinema seats tend to crop up in all the places we visit). We’ve brought 19 big boxes with us – each of which contains 10 shoeboxes. In the assembly hall, Alexandra introduces us, Trevor talks about why we’re here, and then Igor addresses the kids, and they’re shown a puppet show telling the Christmas story. Then the gifts are handed out, to much jubilation. A couple of kids are up for chatting after getting their shoeboxes, so we chat.

Kirill (left) is twelve and loves Dynamo Kiev and Barcelona. He’ll be leaving school in four years time, and ultimately wants to study medicine. “I want to be the man who gives presents like these to other children.” he says.

I then made friends with 14-year-old Gena (pronounced “gee-yana”). He’d opened his shoebox and found a set of juggling balls inside – and, it turns out, was quite a skilled juggler! “My big brother taught me,” he said, then proceeded to help me brush up on my crap juggling skills. “It’s all in the hands. Put two of them in one hand and just start throwing – like this.”

It’s kind of a cliché for people who travel a lot to say “Aw, people in poor countries; they don’t have much, but they’re so giving.” But it’s a cliché because it’s true… and I was about to get a reminder of that from Gena. After spending a few minutes trying unsuccessfully to get me to juggle properly, he handed me the balls and said they were his gift to me. He then disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a notebook. Since he’d already told me earlier that he liked writing poems, I reckoned that it was his poetry notebook and he wanted my autograph. Wrong – he was giving it to me as another gift! Part of me feels like I’m robbing the kid!

After lunch, then set off for the second distribution of the day, in a village called Verhorechye (“the village on the end of the line”). This is one of many places in Eastern Europe that got left behind when Glasnost happened. In the days of the old regime, the village thrived. It was a huge tobacco growing area; it also produced lots of fruit and a thriving bee-keeping industry. All that went into steady decline from 1991 onwards. (“We were okay for about nine years after that, but now there’s nothing here.”) These days, the village’s only employer is a military storage centre. The mum in the last house we visit works there as a book keeper – but, she tells us, the word is that centre is set to close soon.

The apartment buildings we visit resemble a run-down council estate. An extremely manky run-down council estate (that’s “the projects” for any Americans reading this). The apartments have back gardens, but even these look bleak. I see a watering can tree in one of the back gardens; two floors up, I can see an old bathtub abandoned in someone’s veranda. The place looks grim. Later on, I ask Igor why he chooses to stay and work in such a place with no prospects. His answer is simple: “God has called me to be here.”

We visited a couple of homes and met a few of the families whose kids will receive shoeboxes when they’re handed out in the nearby cultural centre later in the afternoon. Yaroslava (“Call me Slava; everyone does”) invited us into her home and introduced us to her three kids: Maxim (14), Natasha (10) and Andrez (12).

Slava and her family only moved into their two-bedroom flat a month ago. Her husband Nikolai made all their furniture (he works as a security guard, and was at work during our visit). In the kitchen, one burner on the gas cooker had been left on to help warm the flat up a bit. An accordion and a balalaika took pride of place in the front room – along with Kesha, a beautiful karella (a bird similar to a cockatoo) with a yellow head, a grey back, and a little orange blob on either side of her little face. Kesha sat quietly in her cage, not saying a word. I wasn’t sure whether that was because she doesn’t talk to strangers, or if there was some beef between her and Murchik, the family’s rather enormous grey cat.

The second distribution of the day takes place in the cultural centre, which was built in 1984 and is used for a variety of community events. Nikolai (the director of the centre) gives me a guided tour of the centre, which kind of symbolises the village’s decline. On the wall there are pictures of what it was like in the old days, and of the orchards, tobacco plantations and bee-keepers who once lived and worked here. When I visit the gents’, I find that they’re using old books as loo paper. I can’t read Russian, so I don’t know how important the books are. But all the same, something about that level of desperation just feels wrong.

The guys give out 240 shoeboxes this visit. After they’re done, I chat with a couple of young mums, including Marina (one of about 500 Marinas I encounter on this trip – including the Marina who’s been translating for me). She’s married to a fireman and brought her 18-month-old baby girl along (“She’s always hungry, my little girl. She’s the first child in our family.”)

“You know,” Marina says with a smile, “it’s very important for our village that you people came, because our children here don’t get to meet many people, and don’t get much from people round here. This is a big support for us. It’s a big help. It shows our kids that there’s something more than what they have here.”

Photographs here were taken by David Lund. Check out his art an’ ting here.

Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of my interview with Dr Kiran Martin, founder of Delhi’s Asha project.

 

One of Asha’s big success stories last year was persuading India’s banks to give loans to slum dwellers. How did it come about?

Being a paediatrician, my first effort was in the area of healthcare. But I realised very early on that unless and until the socio-economic status of families improves, they’re not going to be able to pay for healthcare.

As far as India’s banks were concerned, there was no relationship between them and the slum dwellers. They had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers only had access to money from loan sharks – and those guys know how to extract money by muscle power. Their interest rates were 10 percent a month: 120% per annum! Slum dwellers took loans from them only for emergencies; not to improve their lives. It would be cases such as there being an illness in the family, for which you immediately need money for hospital expenses. Or your daughter’s getting married; in India, parents have to spend a lot on a girl’s wedding.

I had the good pleasure of inviting India’s finance minister to Asha in 2007. He was amazed to find that not a single slum dweller had a bank account. He asked me how come there was such a big gap, and I said that was because banks are so far removed from the lives of slum dwellers. Not physically, because geographically they were only a few yards away from a lot of the slums. But they had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers wouldn’t ever enter banks.

We said to the finance minister, ‘Look – these slum dwellers have been trained by Asha. They’re honourable people. So many years of relationship exist, and what we should do is give them direct access to banks. Get rid of all the middlemen in between, and let them enjoy the banking services that you and I enjoy.’  We then tailored a scheme for provision of credit and other banking services to the urban poor. The rates of interest were a little lower because they were so poor. We did a pilot and  had a 99% repayment rate – much higher than the normal average, which is 93%. So many loans go bad. People don’t give money because they think that the banks will stop bothering them after some time. And big companies are the biggest defaulters! If there’s a recession in the market, they just say, ‘my company’s doing really badly. We have no money.’

The banks were earning money just by people opening accounts, and the slum dwellers paid back so well and so honourably. It was a commercial proposition for banks. The scheme became so popular that it then got expanded to the whole city. There were big announcements made nationally that banks would be willing to lend to the urban poor through mechanisms that would ensure that these people would return the money back.

What sort of things have these loans financed?

Some very, very interesting businesses. Expansion of existing business too. For example, if you were working for a courier company, you’d decide you wanted your own goods carrier and run your own courier business instead of working for someone else. That suddenly enhanced the that person’s income by seven or eight times, because he was no longer working for a company.

There were people who expanded barbershops; people who have grocery stores, and people who had home improvement loans; people whom I’d initially helped to get land to build their own houses.

And of course, Asha’s big success story last year was seeing over 100 slum kids going to university…

Kiran having a chat with some children from on eof the slums

It’s just amazing, because up until two years ago we never even thought something like this would even be possible.

We worked very hard with these kids. We taught them how to tackle A Level exams; how to complete their papers on time; we gave them lots of extra books and resources… we motivated them a lot. We told them, ‘You might be the very first child going to university from your whole slum. Just think about it – if you got there, you would really have a passport out of poverty and become something in life. It would be a dream fulfilled in your lifetime; it would be so amazing.’ All of this motivation meant that these kids then faced the A Level exams with a lot more confidence. When we looked at the results, we saw that they were good enough for them to find places at Delhi University – and it’s not easy to find a place in Delhi University; it’s very competitive!

We faced lots of obstacles. Parents weren’t willing; they thought it would be very expensive, and I had to do a lot of fund raising to ensure that we could pay for their college tuition, their clothes and everything else they’d need in order to be able to live life in college. It was a very big challenge.

Not only was it a celebration for this group, but the celebration of those tall ivory towers having fallen. And for so many doors of opportunity having been opened for these children and many many hundreds and thousands of children to follow. Now there’s nothing stopping the youngsters. There’s a very big knowledge pool in the slums now, that exists to guide and mentor the kids who are following.

An Asha staff member teaches basic hygiene to children

Asha’s very big on women being empowered. Why is that important?

In India, it’s basically a male-dominated society. It’s a feudal, patriarchal society. And that is very old Indian tradition, coming down through hundreds and hundreds of years.

You find that same expression in a slum, where the woman has no voice of any sort. They’re always in trouble – right from even before they’re born. Abortions are very common so the sex ratio is skewed; in Delhi you have 875 girls to 1,000 boys because the moment they find out that it’s a girl, they get the foetus aborted. If they escape that, then there’s the possibility of female infanticide. And then later on in life you find that girls are always given worse treatment than boys.

A slum dweller trained by Asha gives first aid to another slum dweller.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be the woman doing all this work and suffering the most. And so we felt it was very important to help the women to understand that they could be a force to be reckoned with if we began to train them. We formed these women’s groups in all the slums. It was very hard at first, because they were all so inhibited – so shy, lacking in confidence. But with the passage of time, we trained them; we helped them to see a little bit of success that got them excited, and they understood the power of their unity, and what they could achieve.

By and by, they began to lobby politicians. They realised that the politicians were responding, and they started getting clean water; they started getting drains; they started getting electricity (legally); they started getting roads paved, toilets constructed… and they were just thrilled! They realised they had so much power. The  local politicians had to listen to them, because with all this knowledge and power they had, the politicians would not be welcome in the slums if they didn’t respond.

Where does does Asha get its financial support from?

As far as money goes, most of ours comes from outside India. That’s a choice we’ve made because we want to be watchdogs. We don’t want to become a stooge or an arm of the Government; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Neither would we be able to hold them accountable, nor would we be able to create democratic structures in a slum, or gently challenge the authorities if slum dwellers were being exploited.

In terms of the breakdown, the UK is our biggest funder. Then we have the Netherlands; we also have Ireland, the USA… in all these countries and others, we have generous supporters who believe in what we do, who share our vision, who stand in solidarity with us, support us and help us in our work.

You mentioned your faith earlier on. What part does it play in all this?

Well, it’s the reason why I do what I do. I feel that as a Christian, my faith drives me to want to help people who live in so much poverty. And in fact, because I come from a Hindu background, it would make no sense for me to be a disciple of Christ and then completely have a dichotomous life where what I did with my life had nothing to do with my faith.

I do feel very strongly that the Bible has a lot to say on social justice. It has a lot to say about systemic poverty and how we as Christians should be at the forefront of social change. That is what I feel I’ve been called to do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability.

Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 1)

In April last year, a group of ten of us spent a week in Zakhira, a slum area on the outskirts of Delhi.

Kiran Martin is a paediatrician by profession and founder of Asha, an Indian charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of Delhi’s slum dwellers. Asha has worked tirelessly on behalf of slum residents – primarily in the areas of healthcare, women’s rights, and children’s education. Zakhira is just one of the many slum areas the charity operates in.

2009 was quite an eventful year for Asha. For a start, it celebrated its 21st birthday. 200 young people from the slums it operates in started their first year in University – the first time in India’s history that slum residents have entered higher education in such large numbers. In September, Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Ekta Vihar, another of the slums Asha operates in.

Around the time of my visit (and in the midst of the credit crunch), India’s major banks started giving loans to slum dwellers after Asha campaigned on their behalf. Several slum dwellers have since been given loans to expand businesses they started with Asha’s help.

During our brief spell in Zakhira, we helped decorate the building Asha had turned into a community centre for the area. The only thing I didn’t get to do was interview Kiran properly (we never managed to get some free time together, busy woman that she is). I did get to do an in-depth interview with her later in the year, when she made a brief visit to London. We talked about the history of Asha, what motivates and inspires her, and shared a few success stories from the slums of Delhi.

Asha’s been going just over 20 years. How did it start?

Dr Kiran Martin (right) at a women's meeting in one of the slums Asha operates in

I qualified from the University of Delhi as a paediatrician, and in 1986 I completed my residency and had enough experience to launch out. I’d already been working in hospitals for a while.

You have slums in every big city in India. You see them all over the place. I come from a middle-income family, and I’d see them all over Delhi. But you take them in your stride; nobody from a middle-class family ever sets foot in one. I certainly hadn’t! But the hospital I worked in was a public hospital, and so there were poor patients coming in all the time. I suspected that they came from the slums.

I was driven by a very very strong spiritual desire to reach out to these communities and use my services and skills, my gifts and talents for people who really needed me. Most of my batch mates – 180 of them – were either in private practice or had left for the UK, the US or the Middle East to make lots of money. I wanted to see what it was like in the slums. In fact, I used to go and volunteer there while I was a student. My desire kept getting firmed up with the passage of time.

What were your early slum experiences like?

Well, it was a shock! First of all, it was so dirty, so filthy. It was unimaginable – as I said, I’d never been in one! There were mountains of garbage. You couldn’t even see beyond them. There was slush everywhere; the roads were so dirty – in fact, there were no roads, just muddy paths!

People had these shallow hand pumps that they’d dug – 40 or 50 feet into the ground – because there was no clean water. This particular slum had 7,000 people living in it. The water was brown and contaminated with sewage – in fact, there was a cholera epidemic. Children were getting cholera; people were getting all kinds of gastro-intestinal diseases and diarrhoea, and they were dying of dehydration. I used to have to jump the fence at the back, just because I couldn’t get access through the main entrance!

Back then, I didn’t know you had slum lords. These slum lords are self-styled leaders, because there’s no democratic institution in a slum; no organised community or a cohesive body that gets together to discuss development issues or solve poverty problems; there’s nothing. They are the only leaders there. They’re very, very powerful; they are basically linked with the powerful political parties. In fact, they are grassroots level politicians and it’s their job to protect their party’s interests; to ensure that during election time all the slum dwellers are herded to the polling booths to vote in favour of whatever party the slum lord represents.

The slum lords also exploit slum dwellers for every little thing. So the average slum person was thrilled that I was there. I had this tiny little space where I would see patients; it was all out in the open. I didn’t even have a building! I would see 200-300 patients. But the slum lords felt very threatened by my presence. I had no axe to grind; I didn’t want anything from the slum dwellers. I wasn’t a politician; I wasn’t there for votes; I was just there genuinely to help. And so people started forgetting about the slum lords and started coming to me instead. My being there was a direct threat to the slum lord’s popularity – to his existence, even. And so I faced a lot of opposition from them.

So now – have you won the slum lords over, or have they learnt to live with you?

I realised quite early on that unless you have them on your side, slum development is not going to be possible. If you just want to do something cosmetic, it’s different. If you want to have a little clinic and just be this good doctor who sits there very day and examines 100 or 200 patients and then go home at the end of the day, that’s a different story. But if you really want to tackle the systemic causes of poverty; if you wasn’t to tackle poverty by going to the roots of it; if you want to work with politicians and with Government; if you want to address areas such as women’s rights, or water and sanitation, or slum housing, or any other radical areas, you cannot do it without the slum lords’ cooperation. They’ll just throw you out! So it was really necessary for me to have good relationships with them. I realised that early on.

My philosophy has always been that I must never reject a person. This is what the Bible has taught me; this is what my faith has taught me. I can reject their deeds, but I cannot reject them. They’ve all been created in God’s image, and I believe that they’re a product of their past circumstances and their past life. And therefore, whatever they are today is because of that. And therefore I have always had the approach that even if I confront them or challenge them for something wrong that they’re doing, it must be in the context of a relationship that exists. Because if there’s no relationship, then their defences will go up. And then they’re never going to listen to you.

And so I thought, first things first. First thing is acceptance; they must realise that I’m not here to reject them or pass judgement on their actions. So I’d eat, drink, have tea with them, talk to them, sit down with them, befriend them… whenever meetings were held for the benefit of the community I would invite them over.

Gradually I began to win over many of these slum lords and we became good friends. They began to realise that I wasn’t really directly a threat to them, and I was willing to work alongside them. 21 years down the line I have many, many friends among the slum lords… and a lot of them have actually lost their power completely!

The reason for that is that the women have been empowered by my work. Just with the passage of time, I don’t think the slum lords realised what was happening. But the erosion of their powers has happened because of the empowerment of the women. The balance has tilted in the other direction. Nowadays, the slum lord is really no longer that much of a necessity because the people themselves are so empowered. He’s basically out of business!

How many slum areas in Delhi does Asha operate in?

We work in 50 slums. There are roughly 3.5 million slum dwellers in the city, and we work with about 350,000 – 10% of Delhi’s slum population. The slums we work in are scattered all over the city.

“India on my mind…”

I’ve been thinking about India a lot lately.

It started with an invite to the premiere of the new documentary India’s Forgotten Women, just a day before hopping on a plane to Singapore for a week. Then last Friday, I spent much of the evening in Secondo (a trendy bar/clothes shop situated under a railway arch in Clapham), at a fund raising event called Tamasha, organised by a couple of young women I go to church with.

Last year, ten of us spent two weeks in Delhi, with a project we support out there called Asha (the Hindi word for “hope”). Asha operates in 35 slum areas in Delhi, providing healthcare, educating children, helping people set up businesses, and a lot of work empowering women in various aspects of life – to the point that whereas in the old days, slum dwellers were completely at the mercy of slumlords, these days it’s the women who ‘run tings’ in the slums where Asha operates. Anj (one of the two ladies who organised the event) works in London as a teacher. She’s about to head off to India to work with the Asha project again – for a year this time.

The event itself was a lot of fun. I ate some extremely sticky Indian confectionery and saw a couple of very promising new singers perform live (with real bands; none of that karaoke business). I even bought a Levi’s denim jacket really cheap! All in all, a good night – and it started me thinking about a few things.

One of the reasons I started a blog was that I was getting fed up of having stories which I felt ought to be heard, but not being able to share them because they weren’t “what editors are looking for right now.” If your work involves dealing with a gatekeeper of some sort – an editor, an interview board, Simon Cowell – you can probably relate to that feeling of your destiny being in someone else’s hands. Not nice. Well, this blog was meant to be the place where those stories found an outlet, so it’s about time I used it for that a bit more.

As I’ve already mentioned, I went to India last year and spent some time with the Asha project. I’ve got an in-depth interview with the leader of the project, which I’ve hawked around various newspapers to no avail. The commissioning editor of one very big magazine was interested in the story; we swapped emails back and forth discussing the possibility of them running it… and then the emails stopped (I discovered a while later that the mag had gone bust).

Anyway, the point of all this is to announce a mini “India Season” of blog posts. I’ll be putting up part of that interview with Dr. Kiran Martin (founder of the Asha project) soon, followed by an interview with Michael Lawson, the director of India’s Forgotten Women. In the meantime, why not recap by having a look at my blog posts from last year’s India trip?

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…