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?

“#09 Memories”

About a week ago, “#09memories” was a ‘trending’ topic on Twitter. I’ve never really done the ‘recap of the year’ thing that much in the past (as much as I do like reading other people’s), but found myself spending the best part of an evening sharing my memories and reading those of others. It seemed a bit of a shame just to let one audience see them in short bursts, so I compiled them into a list to post here – expanding on a few where I felt the 140-character limit didn’t really let me say what I wanted to.

So in no particular order (well, maybe slightly chronological, but only just; actually more emotional than chronological), here are some of my standout memories – both great and not-so-great – from 2009:

• Meeting the adopted little sister I never knew I had for the first time.

• The whole Celebration fam going to Hereford and spending a day with Cynthia, barely three months before she passed away.

• Doing the last DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar at the Greenbelt festival.

• Going to MIDEM for the first time in 14 years, and discovering great music from Sonnyboy, Ndidi Onukwulu, Yom, Monica Giraldo & Charlie Winston. Also seeing Duke Special in concert, and celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration with members of the American Association of Independent Music. MIDEM has a reputation for being all about the business and not so much about the music. But it is possible to find decent music there, if you look hard enough.

• Discovering London’s coolestest venue, the Shunt Lounge… only for it to close 10 months later.

• The Operation Christmas Child trip to Swaziland – and the delighted screams of the kids as they opened their shoeboxes.

• Arriving in Jo’burg airport en route to Swaziland; hearing ‘Viva la Vida’ on the PA system and thinking, “Coldplay? This can’t be Africa.”

• Giving career advice to the Swazi schoolgirl who told me she wanted to be a journalist when she grew up.

• The loud cheer that erupted in our minibus as we drove into Mbabne (the Swazi capital) and saw a branch of Nandos.

• My first lunch in India: Domino’s Pizza!

• Painting and decorating the community centre in a Delhi slum; logging on to the internet and wondering who this Susan Boyle woman was, and why so many of my Facebook friends had become fans of hers.

• Riding an elephant up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

• Visiting the Taj Mahal – and not really believing our tour guide’s story about how he’d told Danny Boyle off because “that scene in Slumdog Millionaire made Indian tour guides look bad.”

• Being mistaken for Ice Cube by some of the kids in the slum where we were working.

• A pimp in Nashville offering me girls an’ ting. That’s the last time I stay in a Motel 6!

• Driving a van in Atlanta with no satnav, and introducing my passenger (my 11-yr-old niece) to the world of Bill & Ted and their “be excellent to each other” philosophy.

• Lou at the Bridge Bar in Beckenham.

• Several trips to Paris, during which the Starbucks on Boulevard St Germain became my office away from home.

• Curling up in bed ready for a good night’s kip, then receiving a txt msg saying Michael Jackson had just died…

• … and then receiving another text from the same person two hours later, informing me that Farrah Fawcett had also died (at which point, I responded with “You’re really the herald of good tidings tonight, aren’t you?”).

• Being asked to talk about MJ on Radio 4…

• … then receiving another phone call from Radio 4 a few hours later (after I’d prepared what I was going to say), saying they’d found someone else to do it.

• Discovering a new way to watch TV: reading your friends’ sarky status updates and/or tweets about the show while it’s on. Sometimes you didn’t even need to watch the show in question; the running commentary told you everything you needed to know!

• Jedward, Kandy Rain, Mr. “I don’t know how to spell Daniel properly”, Afro Boy and La Gordita in Miss Frank.

• Cave Austin Girl.

• One of the deepest films ever (Downfall) being turned into a series of often sick “Hitler reacts to…” jokes on Youtube.

• Dizzee Rascal losing what little respect I had left for him with asinine comments about the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

• The realisation that people actually read my blog!

• My big ‘fanboy’ moment: shaking Nile Rodgers’ hand at Chic’s gig at the Forum (I now use his plectrums to play my guitars – when I can be bothered, that is. I must do more of that – and more seriously – in 2010).

• Watching Baaba Maal, Kano & Bashy soundcheck from side stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daby, the 'vibe man'

• Africa Oyé in Liverpool. Meeting and working with Maya; ‘vibing’ with Daby Touré (pictured) and doing the most hilarious interview I’ve ever done (with an extremely well-dressed artist who will remain nameless).

• The last ever Delirious? gig – and meeting Mr. Tommy Sims at the after-party.

• “What would we do? Usually drink; usually dance; usually bubble.” (Yeah, I know; I discovered it in ’09).

• Seeing people’s nastier sides come out after certain celebrity deaths. Not nice at all.

• Vampires. Vampires everywhere.

• My first ever purchase of a Hed Kandi CD… oh, wait – that was in ’08. In a Zavvi shop, just before they all closed. My last ever purchase from a Woolworth’s, and my last ever visit to a Border’s bookshop.

• Shelley Ryan.

Greenbelt ’09: Day 3


Seriously beginning to wonder if I’m not overworking myself. This is a festival, after all. A man needs to have a little fun…

During the night, I’d discovered that my tent is on a bit of a slope. Didn’t do anything about it then because I was trying to sleep, but once I got out of bed I re-positioned the airbed/sleeping bag combo so I won’t keep rolling off the thing at night.

IDMC had an early slot in Centaur venue with Christian Aid. I went along to that, then got to hang out some with John Fisher, ClauDieon and the rest of the gang before they had to dash off to the second of three gigs they’ve got on today (not to mention a ferry ride to France afterwards – and I thought I was overdoing it!).

Having alternated between “Yeah, go for it!” and “What have I let myself in for?” nearly every day last week, I did my first presenter’s slot this afternoon, introducing four members of the Apples to a laid-back crowd in the YMCA tent. In half an hour we talked about how the band got together, the cultural scene in Israel and the underground music scene that’s grown off the back of it. A couple of guys in the audience asked some questions, and then the band used the remaining half-hour to play tracks from some CDs they’d brought; recordings by other Israeli underground acts, including a side project of the soundman and one of the DJs, a reggae artist, a couple of other jazz things, and a very Rai-like party tune which went down really well with the audience. “The Israeli underground scene is like a big community,” they said. “We’re all friends, so we support each other.” I love that indie family vibe and camaraderie… and there was a bit more of it on show in the evening when Jahaziel and Karl Nova turned up for their slots on the Mainstage and Underground. Jahaziel played both. I saw all of his Mainstage set and a little bit of his Underground gig (I caught him teaching the audience the ‘Ben’ Yu Knee’ Reggae dance).

I finally caught up with Carl. My DJ slot is in the Blue Nun from 9pm to 10pm tomorrow. Hold on – isn’t that when Athlete are playing?

India: last week’s news

Media junkie that I am, I couldn’t spend ten days in a media-heavy country like India and not sample the local press, telly and radio. Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye while I was out there.

On the day we arrived, the Hindustan Times had a story on its front page which seemed to disprove the old saying that beggars can’t be choosers. “Playing God in caste-crazy Bihar” said the headline to a piece telling how many childless couples in Bihar are demanding to know what caste their potential sperm donors come from. Sad…

The story that dominated the week’s news agenda happened on Wednesday, when Jarnail Singh (a Sikh journalist) threw a shoe at India’s Home Minister during a press conference.

The incident was another chapter in a story that goes back all the way to 1984 when Indira Gandhi’s assassination sparked off anti-Sikh riots which left over 3,000 Sikhs dead. Jagdish Tytler – a former minister and member of India’s Congress Party – had been accused of being involved in those riots, but had been cleared in 2007… and again last week. But this was all too much for Jarnail Singh, who decided on hurling footwear at the Home Minister as an effective means of protest.

Tytler had been running as a candidate in the elections currently taking place in India. But by the end of the week, he’d announced his decision to withdraw from the race. He said he didn’t think he should fight as “a lot of embarrassment has been caused to the (Congress) party.” I’m thinking the Congress top brass figured it was more expedient to lose one troublesome candidate, rather than millions of Sikh voters…

Bollywood shuffle #1. An almighty row is brewing between India’s filmmakers and the owners of the multiplexes that screen their films, over how big a share of the takings the film producers should receive.

The producers asked for 50% of all ticket sales from multiplexes. Predictably, the multiplex owners told them to get lost. The producers responded to that by refusing to release any new films after the 4th of April. And so Bollywood is now locked in its own equivalent of the writers’ strike that hit Hollywood last year. Two top Bollywood stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have tried to mediate between the two sides – so far with not much success.

Bollywood shuffle #2. Meanwhile, there’s been a less-than-warm response to a new reality TV show featuring Bollywood actress Rakhi Sawant. Rakhi ka Swayamvar follows Ms. Sawant as she searches for a husband.

As you may guess, this hasn’t gone down too well in a society which still values the institution of marriage very highly. But I have another reason for not liking it. Anyone who’s seen a few Bollywood movies knows that they occasionally “borrow” ideas from Western films, telly shows, etc. (just go to Youtube and type the words “Indian thriller” into the search engine. You’ll soon see what I mean). We know that and accept it as part of the charm of Bollywood. However, you have to be seriously desperate to nick programme ideas from Jodie Marsh!

Real Girl Power. My favourite story of the week appeared in the Hindustan Times on Sunday; the story of Rekha Kalindi. 12-year-old Rekha lives in a small village in West Bengal – a village with the lowest female literacy rate in India. Amongst her tribe, girls traditionally get married at the age of 12. However, when Rekha turned 12 last November, she put her foot down and refused to be hitched – standing firm even when her dad cut off her supply of food, water and soap.

Rekha’s act of rebellion inspired other girls in her village to do the same, and there haven’t been any child marriages there ever since – something the Indian Government had been trying to achieve for years without much success.

According to Rekha, she decided not to get married so young because she wanted to go to school and get an education. Seeing her older sister Jyotsna must have helped too. Jyotsna did get married at 12; by the time she’d turned 15, she’d already lost four babies.

Rekha was in the papers again yesterday. The president of India heard her story and has now invited her over to visit the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential palace). Not bad for a young bidi-roller…

Sadly, the expression “You go, girl!” hasn’t been translated in my English-to-Hindi phrasebook. Neither have “Gwaan!”, “Respect!”, “Brap brap!”, “Way to go!” or “Booyaka!” So I guess I’ll just have to settle for “Congratulations!” and throw in a “Namaste” for good measure. Here’s to Rekha – proof that it just takes one individual to start a revolution.

Delhi: It’s All About the Boom-boom

Well, I’ve now been in Delhi four days. And I’m pleased to report that I’ve had no tummy problems at all so far – despite the fact that I’ve been deliberately eating the spiciest food on offer in an attempt to shift the cold symptoms that have bugged me since I landed here.

It’s an interesting time to be in India – and especially in Delhi. The country goes to the polls on the 7th of May, so there’s a lot of electioneering going on. Meanwhile, Delhi is preparing to host the Commonwealth games next year, and so huge chunks of the city are under construction. It’s kind of disconcerting when you can see the massive amount of work being done to extend the Delhi Metro, just across from the squalid slum you’re standing in the middle of. That aside, Delhi is a vibrant, lovely place, full of zindagi (life).

On Tuesday, we started painting Asha’s community centre in Zakhira – under the watchful eye of Claire, who works in an art gallery back home. We did a little more painting on Wednesday, but in the morning I had my first up-close look at slum life when five of us visited Zakhira. Ranee (the lady who runs things in the centre) showed five of us round.

One of Ranee’s many jobs is training up CHV’s (community health volunteers) who then pass on their knowledge of hygiene and basic health care on to the slum dwellers. Asha’s achievements here have been amazing. For example, the number of TB sufferers in Zakhira is now just three, as opposed to 35 when they set up shop here. Asha also does a lot of advocacy on behalf of slum dwellers, and on many occasions have prevented them from losing their homes.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a prayer meeting at the community centre. After it finished, I got to have a go at Indian drumming. I think I handled the drum okay; I was channelling every bhangra track or Bollywood tune I’ve ever heard! In Indian drumming, it’s all about the “Boom-boom”. That’s the base. Boom-boom. A-boom-boom. Boom-boom, taka-taka, boom-boom. Acha!

Well, we’re busy painting the centre’s IT Room today – which means I’ll have to unplug this computer in a minute so we can get to the walls. So I’ll sign off for now – and will most likely be back at some point during our Easter break.

Delhi: first thoughts

Landed at Indira Gandhi Airport just after 11pm on Sunday night. By the time we’d negotiated Immigration and Baggage reclaim, it was midnight. But even on a Sunday night/early Monday morning, the area outside the airport was buzzing with activity.

We’re here (a team of 10 from my church in Peckham) to do a bit o work with Asha – a community health project which operates in some of the slums in the city. The driver from Asha was waiting to pick us up, and the drive to the Blue Triangle YWCA on Ashoka Road just about prepared us for the madness that is the India driving experience. Don’t think bumper-to-bumper as much as side mirror to side mirror, nose-on-tail (yes, I know the phrase is nose-to-tail. Well I’m talking closer than that!), and so much continuous beeping of horns, you’d think you were at a Carnival (the “use horn” message plastered on the back of large lorries obviously carries more weight than the “no honking” signs the Government have put up on the roadside).

There’s a nice vibe to the Y where we’re staying. From my room window I can see the Gurdwara situated a few blocks away, which we’re planning to visit at some point. I’m still working out what switch powers what appliance in my room (apart from the telly), and how best to squeeze in time writing and posting stuff on the internet around time I’m meant to spend painting walls and playing with kids. Tough call…

Acha, I have to run off now and have a proper look at Zakhira, the slum we’re working in. Be back when I can…