Danny Sweeney is volunteering with the Salesians in Bangalore. Read all about it…
Working in India
Volunteering abroad is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a few years now, so when I applied to Bosco Volunteer Action (BOVA) it was the first step towards fulfilling that ambition. With BOVA, I was, along with other volunteers were given training about living in a different culture, working with young people and some of what to expect while we were out. I found out I was going to India – to work in the city of Bangalore with a project that rescues street kids.
BOSCO – Bangalore Oniyvara Seva Coota (Those on the streets with the young of Bangalore) was established 28 years ago by a few Salesians and has grown to include 8 centres for young people, and offer services like a Childline, drug rehabilitation, formal and informal education and many others. The main centre is called BOSCO Mane (pronounced ‘money’ meaning ‘house’) this acts as the hub for most activities and houses the boys who arrive under the age of 15. I spent my first night here – the children are instantly friendly and curious about who this new ‘uncle’ is. I spent the day with the boys, along with two German volunteers who are staying at Mane for their volunteer placements. I was shown round and helped with putting the boys to bed. Afterwards I had my first experience of what is called ‘rescue’. BOSCO maintains two 24 hour booths; one at the coach station and one at the railway as these are the places where most children arrive in the city. The hope is to make contact with them and offer them support before the street becomes a de-humanising experience. A ‘rescue’ is to collect a child from one of these centres and see them safely at a home for the night. This day was a harvest festival for the neighbouring state; Kerala , but many in Bangalore also celebrate it – so I had seen many people in more traditional dress than normal and my first experience of proper Indian food was a traditional vegetarian meal served on a banana leaf. Our girl had been missed by family getting on a train, so we took her to a house run by the Salesian sisters to stay the night and contact them.
My task for the first few days was to be with the children when they play and keep them happy; when I’ve previously worked with young people I disliked a ‘keep them happy’ attitude; but for these children it is a necessity, many of them have been damaged; physically and mentally by their time before or on the streets, many children on the streets use Tippex as a drug, inhaling the fumes. During a game or class it is not uncommon for a child to start crying – a boy came up to me; inconsolable and I was told that he wanted to go home to his parents; his parents died some days ago. All I could do was try and use the few words of Kannada (the local language) I’d learned to try and comfort him – I don’t think I’ve ever felt so useless in all my life.
I then moved to BOSCO Yuvakendra, – which houses boys over 15. Some are staying here while they attend school or college, and have come from other BOSCO centres. Yuvakendra also offers vocational training, driving lessons and encourages the boys to make contact with their families- to start rebuilding a relationship; if they want to. There are always new people dropping in – old boys from the centre who have been helped to find rooms and live independently in the city, and at the weekend a lot of children from the area come to watch T.V and play games. We are in one of the poorest parts of the city where the majority of people are Hindus, my second day here there was a festival and we watched as a tent was put up blocking the street, then during the day there was music and celebrations going on – in the evening I could see fireworks going off across the city.
I’ve been here a week now, and I’m starting to feel settled – both the climate and food are fantastic and I’ve started being able to speak a little in Kannadan. The boys all play a game which I see as a cross between checkers, air hockey and pool – I’m still getting the hang of it (it isn’t much comfort to think that if I put them on a X-Box I’d be winning!) but I can hold my own at Chess. Being on the roads is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done – Indian roads have exactly the same layout as British ones, but cars, bikes, auto-rickshaws, handcarts, cows and pedestrians all just cross blindly in front of each other – but I’m starting to learn. I’ve started on a task for the project – looking at the facilities and systems in place and seeing how they could be improved to help the young people more.
More from Bangalore
I’ve been here for nearly two months now and have had the chance to experience more of the work that is done by Bangalore Oniyvara Seva Coota (BOSCO). BOSCO and other NGOs like them work in a similar way to Social Services in the UK – except they get no funding from the state or national governments and do their work as otherwise there would be no one to care for these children. One of the unique things about BOSCO is the Special Juvenile Police Unit that they have established in the city. Along with educating and trying to ensure the police treat young people well it has been arranged that whenever the police come into contact with young people they contact BOSCO so we can make sure that they are treated fairly and where needed released to us rather than being placed in jail.
It is estimated that there are around 40,000 unaccompanied children living in Bangalore with at least 50 new arrivals each day, most of them through the railway station. BOSCO maintains a 24 hour presence there to meet the children but it is not always supported by the authorities; the station considers all the platform area as retail space so want us to pay for it like a shop – ignoring the fact we are solving their problem of the children hanging around and not making any profit! But out presence at the station can prove to be invaluable to children. A few weeks ago our people saw several children under the control of a woman who was a known trafficker. The SJPU and police arrived and the children were rescued. We were able to find out they were originally from a village in Orissa and were being taken to Goa, their family had sent them for work. The children were sleepy and disorientated and we found sedatives in their blood – some of them remembered being fed “candy” for their trip.
Trafficking is a huge problem in the city – the railways bring children in from the countryside and other cities in India and beyond – at the moment we have 4 children who came from Tibet, through Nepal then down into India. On the streets children become easy targets, I’ve seen myself that some children will come up begging with no regard for dangers of approaching strangers, and it is too easy for people with promises of money or food to get these children following them. Once recruited these children can be taken to Goa and other ports and smuggled abroad.
But this is not to say that the work is not valued by many in the city. It is quite common for families to sponsor a meal for the boys and provide the food and sweets for them. For each of the 4 BOSCO centres in the city Mane (under 15 years old), Yuvakendra (over 15), Vikas (school going) and Sumanahalli (rehabilitation) there are between 30-50 boys at a time and costs between £20 – £35 to provide a decent meal for them – and every sponsor means that that money can go to somewhere else, and there are a lot of expenses, clothes, school fees and materials, and all the usual bills and costs of running a house. In the last few days one boy, Krishna – who I met on my first day here, had to be taken for open heart surgery – a very risky operation which would have cost thousands, but a specialist doctor agreed to do the operation for free, and in the end even the costs of the materials and operating theatre were provided by a sponsor.
We celebrated Diwali (festival of light) which coincided with the birthday of our Rector, Fr. Edward so we had a special meal and then fireworks. That was a new experience; imagine every advert you’ve ever seen about safety with fireworks and then ignore them, the young people here think nothing of throwing and trying to jump over fireworks. It was kind of scary to see – but all the kids survived!! Although I did have an interesting trying to explain Guy Fawkes night to Indians; “You celebrate that someone didn’t manage to blow something up?!?”
While writing this we’ve just suffered another power-cut. Next to where we live some big posh apartment blocks are being built and are causing shortages in this area. I’m told that in the past there would be a couple of power-cuts a week but now it is common for us to have 2 or 3 a day, so I’m signing off in the dark!
Christmas in India
The last months has been even busier than normal – along with all that is needed to run BOSCO – the charity for street children in Bangalore and keep 7 shelters, 8 street presence projects and 2 contact booths going we have also had Christmas to get ready for.
Earlier in the month I got a chance to spend 5 days outside the city at our rehabilitation and vocational training centre at Sumanahalli, getting to know the boys there a bit better – and also teach them a couple of carols (Jingle Bells counts as a carol??). Sumanahalli – literally ‘village of lepers’ is an area of land given to the Arch-diocese who invited different religious orders and charities to come and work there. Along with our centre there is a HIV/AIDS centre, a girls’ orphanage and the leprosy hospital the area is named for along with training centres in different crafts and trades. On the Sunday we went to Mass which included 5 different languages and people from all the centres come together. The community at Sumanahalli was really encouraging to see – people move between the different places to visit and help out wherever they can. But sadly the future of the project is threatened. The land was given on a 30 year lease – which expired last year. Already a section of motorway that will help complete the outer-ring road of Bangalore has been built through it – admittedly the road is not connected to anything so it is just standing there empty. And while the attacks on Christians a few months ago seem to have silenced the issue of clearing the land nothing has been decided yet – so technically we’re all squatters; the fact the projects here are doing work that the Government neglects doesn’t figure in their plans for the area.
Back in the city everyone was getting ready for Christmas, lights going up everywhere and people getting cribs ready. Here a Christmas crib is not a little set of figure on a windowsill – people build huge structures and fill them with not only the nativity characters but model towns and mountains. The siege in Mumbai last month is still very fresh in everyone’s memory and everywhere increased security, scanners and bag checks are happening. I went to one of the shopping malls to see a film and was checked going into the mall, going into the cinema foyer and again going into the screen. Also around crowd and big events the police presence is very obvious – there were armed guards outside our church again for midnight mass, something we hadn’t seen since the attacks in September.
This year organising the Christmas celebrations for BOSCO fell to us at Yuvakendra. We hold an open event at our main centre BOSCO Mane for any street children who wish to attend. So we were preparing food and gifts for nearly 1,500 people – the printing press that we have to train some of the boys here went into over drive making t-shirts so every child (and volunteers who asked nicely!) could be given one. On the day itself we had a short programme of dance, songs and our school boys from BOSCO Vikas performed a version of the Nativity story, and we had a visit from Santa – who in India lives on the moon and has a helper to translate for him as he can’t speak in any of our languages. After helping give out the food and gifts I sat down with my boys from Yuvakendra and we had Christmas dinner of chicken curry sitting on the floor of a classroom. In the evening we had a celebration just for the community; it was also the birthday of two of the novice brothers who are with us so we had mass and a meal to celebrate that, Christmas and a successful event earlier in the day.
Back home Christmas drags on for a few days – but here it was back to normal on Boxing Day and only a couple days later a Hindu festival was taking place. Asking some of the boys I was told it was for the goddess ‘Anama’, a favourite among the Tamil peoples and the celebration is the give thanks and ask for blessings, especially from those who have had or are trying for children. The highlight was when a goat was sacrificed on the street right outside our house – so we had a good view. Our neighbourhood is the place to see authentic Hindu celebrations – as I was told some of the larger temples which attract tourists will shy away from some of the more ‘shocking’ elements.
So with Christmas over we get a few days before January comes which is ‘Personal Cultural Development Month’ –commonly known as BOSCO Fest! Where we have competitions in drawing, dancing, sports and various other events – more on that next time.
As I come into the last few weeks of my time out here in India volunteering with Bangalore Oniyavara Seva Coota (BOSCO) I’m starting to look back at my time and evaluate everything I’ve seen, done and experienced.
January is set aside as ‘Personal Cultural Development Month’ – commonly known as BOSCO FEST! Throughout the month we have competitions in sports, drawing, speaking, dancing, games and singing. The idea behind it is to show the boys that they can achieve things, and are capable of doing well – something many of them have never been told or never experienced. One of the competitions is a quiz – half the questions are general knowledge and the other half are about the Salesians, Don Bosco and BOSCO as an organisation. The enthusiasm the boys show is almost unbelievable – TV was turned off, papers were studied after lights-out and morning literacy class was put on hold so they could study more. Those who benefit most are the boys who have dropped out of education and lost interest in it; this experience tells them that if they can learn one topic very well they can learn others and get back into education. Wilson – a boy who came to the city in November wanting to work having dropped out of his first year at pre-university college (equivalent to our 6th form) has now decided to get back into education, and with out help is going to start in June. For me it has been great to see boys who arrived after me that I first knew as timid, scared, and scarred from their time on the streets become confident enough to stand up and sing, dance, take part in dramas and everything else that the competitions offer.
January 31st is the Feast of Don Bosco – so a big celebration is called for in Salesian houses. We hosted the ‘16th Don Bosco Inter-Agency Cultural Fest’ – a conclusion to our own month and a competition we host for about 9 other agencies from around the city to compete in and bring together young people for a celebration. I’m told that our boys used to compete – but the competitiveness of both staff and boys meant that we would be giving over large amounts of time to preparation and as a result were winning our competition more than anyone else. So now we host the celebrations and provide the entertainments and let the other groups win prizes, and distribute the prizes from our contests too.
While I’ve been out here I’ve got a lot of question from people back home about the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ – if it is still showing in the UK I would say go and see it. In India there has been a lot of commentary – some of it good some of it bad about the film – slating that if it had been made by an Indian director it would have been laughed out of the cinemas, or that it advocates a Western view of India as ‘poor and backwards’ and is part of ‘slum-tourism’.
My personal view – having lived out here for nearly 6 months is that parts of the film are very accurate in their portrayal of life and attitudes towards the poor in India. The streets that the boys run through at the beginning of the film could have been filmed less than 30 seconds from our house, the experience of Jamal, Saleem and Latika on the streets with attacks by mobs, police standing by doing nothing and slavers are those told to us by boys who come here. Following the attacks on Christians in Orissa and here in Karnataka, we saw an increase in boys from those areas, and I saw first-hand that the police did nothing to prevent or punish the mobs. On the streets we are in constant competition with the slavers who trick children into going with them and force them to beg on the streets. It doesn’t need a camp outside the city like in the film – houses and abandoned buildings around the city are bases for this abuse of children that unfortunately many of those who come to Bangalore fall pray to. While I waited for the cinema release there have been pirate copies of the film floating round for several weeks – and many of my boys have seen it – a lot of them identify with the film, especially the character of Saleem; who more than his brother gets caught up and trapped in the gang culture of the streets. Our boys are the ones who have been able to escape this – but it can feel like an impossible task when every time I go out I see more children out begging and working illegally for cruel masters.
The attitude from some people towards our boys still can shock me; after the finals of the quiz competition a couple of weeks ago I was walking back home with my boys (we’d just won, by the way) when someone came up to me – obviously wanting to ‘rescue the Westerner’ and telling me that I “shouldn’t be with these boys, they are street boys, they have no families”. He showed no regard that nearly every boy with me speaks English so understood him perfectly and didn’t care about the hurt that these comments caused them. So I enjoyed a moment of telling him that ‘these boys must have families – since I’m their uncle’, – (‘uncle’ the title they use for volunteers like me) which was met with cheers from the boys and, I won’t deny it, a look of disgust from the man.
But for all they have been though the boys I meet seem capable or acts of forgiveness that I find outstanding and doubt many of us would be able to show. One boy who I met and helped counsel had come to us after running away from home; his mother had died when he was young and his father had remarried. His stepmother tortured him (and in a culture where physical discipline is normal it takes a serious level of harm for it to be classed as torture, and I saw the medical report from when we first found him) so he ran away. He spent time with BOSCO both working and later training in tailoring, after some time his father died and the boy asked to be allowed to go visit his stepmother. He wanted to go visit her and take some money to make sure that she would be looked after now that his father had died. It got me thinking about if I’d ever be able to do something like that – I’m almost certain that my response would be very different than his was.
Attitudes are hard things to change; many people see our boys and look down on them as if they are still begging and starving on the streets. Any one who knows them, knows that they are all in education – some are working towards Batchelor Degrees, are apprenticed to learn trades, or are working in jobs – getting a good wage and in many cases supporting families back home. For myself, all I’ve ever experienced from these so called ‘slumdogs’ is kindness, a desire to learn about the wider world and fierce determination to work their way out of poverty. So far none of our boys have won ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ – but many are slowly but surely working their way out of the slums. Manja; a boy who was here when I arrived and left a couple of months back to live in the city has got his auto-rickshaw license and been working as a driver came yesterday and wanted to give 250 rupees (about £3-£4) to the house. He said he’d had a good week and wanted to support the other boys in the house in some way. Personally I keep hoping to run into him when I’m out in town since he’s already said I get free rides if he sees me!!