Well today is the final day of programs, we are all tired and ready for the next leg of the journey to Varanasi but we completed our visit here in Chennai with a visit to two of the slums on the Northside of the city.
Once more we braved the heat of the mid morning sun and headed out with some trepidation. We really wanted to see how people lived but had to seriously also question our motives because we knew we were doing nothing but walking through the slum to see for ourselves the conditions in which people live and endure life, as we walked we had to do so with feelings of being intrusive.
We visited a church in the first slum as our introduction and Cornelius shared with us the background of the church and its interaction with the community. It was explained that when the rains came many of the houses where washed away and needed to be re-built, electricity was scarce and the people in the area basically did it tough.
We wandered through the street and witnessed first hand conditions that many of us had seen only on the TV. Makeshift homes out of leaves and branches, there were some concrete homes, but these were people’s homes, homes of families and lone people. As we wandered through people greeted us, some invited us into their home. The one experience I had was a women with horrific burn scars who was pregnant, took me by the hand and into her home. It was basically a single concrete room with a half wall dividing the living/sleeping room from the kitchen, it was hot and muggy with the strong smell of kerosene in the kitchen. There were no windows so the room was dark, she had a tv, but at the last election the government handed out TV’s to all slum dwellers, perhaps a bid to win votes? She offered me lunch and it was then I was faced with the question what do I say to this woman? I had no words, not a single word, I was faced with the reality of life for another that I had never experience or ever faced before – this was a woman’s home, a woman’s way of life, she was pregnant and single, this was her life, I was speechless, I could do nothing but continue to hold her hand. And look her in the eyes, her deep eyes full of sadness but yet there was life in there too.
After I left I came across 3 children, they knew no English so I simply sat in the street with them and played round and round the garden. They giggled and laughed, one kept hiding behind her mum as she laughed, again no words exchanged, this time simply because of language.
Both experiences were silent yet powerful experiences of human beings from different worlds coming together in a dark place of humanity, the slums of Chennai. I have seen it all on the tv but nothing will ever touch me like this experience, I will never be able to watch this on the tv again and be untouched or unmoved – this is real life for so many people in India, and as I struggle with the motives of visiting the slums, I also give thanks for the fact that I have been able to experience walking through the slums, while I can never truly empathise, i have seen with my own eyes and i have walked on their paths and sat on the streets and now, more than ever, I can never ignore the plight of people living in poverty.