In February of this year we were set to travel through Mumbai for the second time to reach the north of India. This time, however, we had been given the chance to see a very different side of Mumbai to that which we had seen the first time in Colaba.
A member of Josh’s family, Ben, runs a charity which works with a group of five schools in Mumbai known collectively as the MOM schools – which stands for Meeting of the Minds. The schools are all based within the area of Malad which holds Malvani; the second biggest slum in Mumbai. To paint a brief picture of Malvani it is currently home to approximately 7-800 thousand people; it has no running water or sanitation system and has only recently gained electricity. The slum continues to grow each year, and even each month, as refugees flee here from India’s bordering countries and people move from the villages into the city in search of a better life and easier access to food. The majority of the children who attend the MOM schools live in the slum and so whilst their background and upbringing may be tough the MOM schools aim is to provide “quality education to all those children in the vicinity of Malvani that belong to the under privileged and marginalised strata of the society”. The charity Zenith works with these schools to help them achieve this mission and their numerous visions.
The MOM schools believe that education is the key to bettering the futures of the children that grow up here – “enabling them to discover their latent talents”. We spent six days in Malvani visiting the schools, meeting with the principals and the teachers, helping out with some classes and visiting the homes of some of the children. Over these six days we were both incredibly humbled and overwhelmed at what we saw. The work going on here is enough to inspire anyone and we certainly left Mumbai with a change in our hearts and minds.
Here’s a bit about our experience…
The schools had never taken volunteers of our nature before so the experience was to be a new one for us both. We had six days in which we could give to visiting the schools, helping out where we could and we were very excited to do so after all we had heard from Josh’s family!
We arrived in Mumbai and were met from the train by Ganesh and his wife who drove us through very busy Mumbai up to the northern suburb of Malad in which the Malvani vicinity lies. They took us to a flat which they had sorted out for us and we were instantly so thankful as it was all kitted out for us and even stocked up with some tea, milk and bread to make us feel at home. Little did we know then but this was an indication of just how welcoming and generous the principals of the schools would be to us!
We had some time to settle in before heading to the Holy Mother English school where we would spend most of our time in the next few days. Here we met Rafiq who is the principal of the Holy Mother English School and one of the most inspirational people we have probably both ever met. On our first day in Mumbai the schools were closed due to it being an Election Day so this gave us time to sit and talk with Rafiq who set up the school in 2005 with the help of Ganesh.
You can tell from the way Rafiq talks just how extraordinarily passionate he is about providing education not only to the children in the area but also to his staff helping them all to continue learning and developing. The majority of staff at the school are women from the area who whilst skilled, without the school and Rafiq being well known and trusted in the community, may not have had the chance to work elsewhere due to concerns about environment and safety. The story of how Rafiq set up the school and his determination to keep it afloat by making huge personal sacrifices is truly inspirational. The school started in two small rooms with 23 students and two teachers and as a result of his dream and determination is now a multi- level structure with an excess of 500 students.
His passion was infectious and we couldn’t wait to meet the children, look around the schools and figure out some way in which we could help. Before we knew it hours had passed and we’d been sat chatting to Rafiq about his dedication to education and how he set the school up, the difficulties they face and the creation of the MOM group. Being the first time they’d had volunteers they wanted to ensure we had a good time but we told them we were simply happy just to be there, see the schools, the amazing work they do and of course meet some of the kids! In the afternoon we met with the other principals and they gave us a quick tour of part of Malvani on the back of their mopeds. They wanted us to see the slum area and really understand where the children come from and so the difficulties they face. It was obviously a very different world for us to see but made it all the more prevalent what the schools are wanting to achieve for the children who grow up here.
The next two days went so quickly as we were introduced to the teachers, shown around the schools and classes and met the children! On the first day we sat in on some classes; some being taught to as many as 80 children in one class and all being in English despite this being all the children’s second language. We were so impressed at how well behaved all the children were despite the numbers and it likely being doubly as difficult for them to learn new content in an also new language! We agreed that back in England there would be no way the children would be so well behaved, so respectful and all so keen to learn – unfortunately a sign of how education isn’t viewed as such an importance or the luxury it is by many in the U.K.!
In the afternoon we helped out in a class and got to interact more with the kids. It was from this point on we realised just how extraordinary they are! Despite the background they are from the children were some of the most intellectual, bright and sparky kids we’ve met and most of them probably spoke better English than we did! This is a true credit to the schools!
The kids were so intrigued about us too calling us by the affectionate ‘baya’ and ‘didi’ and asking us question after question about our favourite colour, superhero, who our biggest inspiration was and our favourite food! It was so great interacting with them and hearing about their lives, friendships and favourite things too – even being graced with some Bollywood dancing and singing from the girls!
On the second day Josh had agreed to do a sports morning for some of the children. Unfortunately not having much outdoor space or equipment sports is not a regular activity at the school and so of course the children were all super eager to participate. He started off teaching them football; doing some drills and playing small games. Of course, this being India the kids were far more cricket mad and so Josh created a new game “Footit” basically playing cricket but kicking the ball. It’s fair to say the children went absolutely mad for it and they jumped, rolled, kicked and screamed outside all morning long. I on the other hand tried my hand at teaching a class and helping them with their English revision. They were a lively bunch to say the least but I hope by the end of the few hours they had at least learnt something, or written something down! Teaching really isn’t as easy as it looks (that ones for our parents!)
We were also lucky enough to visit the Oxford School and Holy Star Schools which are also part of the MOM group. Each were all very different in terms of building and location, with the Oxford School being right in the heart of the slum but each with the same incredible philosophy and drive. At the Holy Star school we were humbled to be asked to present some awards to a group of children who had won a competition. The projects they had worked on and the solutions they had come up with at the ages of just 9-12 were incredible and showed just how forward thinking the students were and what global citizens they are being taught and encouraged to be. The winning group had chosen to look at the water system in the area; they had tested it and on finding that it wasn’t at the right rate of purity that it should be contacted the waterboard and made them come out to test it themselves. After agreeing that the children were right they fixed this and the children thus improved the water quality for around 60 people in the area. An amazing achievement!
On one evening we were asked if we would like to go on some community visits with one of the teachers where she regularly goes out into the community and talks with and visits the children and their parents at home. We said we would love to only if it was alright with the families which they said it would be. We went with one of the teachers and a few of the girls in her class who said we could visit their homes. We went to four homes in total and each were so overwhelmingly welcoming and generous feeding us pakoras, samosas and biscuits and making us copious amounts of delicious chai. We finished the evening pretty speechless.
The homes ranged from small one room houses to larger areas with a separate kitchen but they were all equal in terms of the generosity we were shown and the community values we saw and talked about! The families here may have a lot less than we do growing up in the UK but the sense of community here is one which should be observed. They do everything they can to make sure everyone is looked after and one lady could not believe it when we told her that you can go 20 years in London and not even know your neighbour. This sense of community clearly extends to the children and in school. One girl sat with us and her family – who were clearly very very proud of her English skills – and told us in perfect English how she had started a lunch system at school. She had noticed one day that some children either didn’t have enough lunch or didn’t have any at all whereas some children had too much to finish. So, she went to the principals and asked if they could start a system whereby they would all share. Each person would eat as much of their lunch as they could and then once they’d all finished they would pass it along to the next person – this way every child would have enough to eat. Sitting there, in her house with her family whilst she told this was a moment we probably won’t ever forget! What an incredibly thoughtful thing for a girl of her age (8 or 9) to have devised!
We felt so humbled to have been greeted into the homes and had the chance to meet these families – we can’t imagine by any means what their lives are like and the struggles they may have had to face or are currently facing but their spirits and kindness are things we will always remember.
On our very last day in Mumbai the school had an outing organised to mark the end of the term for the children – to a water park! We were invited to go and of course being big kids jumped at the chance! It was so much fun splashing around with the kids in the water – most of whom were more interested in Bollywood dancing (and teaching us their moves!) in the wave pool than trying out any of the slides! We encouraged them on eventually and took it in turns to rubber ring down with the children! It was so much fun and great to interact with the children outside of the school setting. A great way to end an all round amazing experience!
Overall the six days we spent here were easily some of the best days of our trip. We had already come to love India as a country but it is always clear that behind its world famous structures, beautiful beaches and historic religious cities that it is a country that still has a lot to overcome. I guess it is easy for tourists to overlook this but staying in Mumbai allowed us to see some of the real and very current things still going on in India. But, what we saw didn’t leave us feeling shocked or upset but inspired and with hope that there are still some truly extraordinary people in this world who dedicate everything they have to bettering the piece of world around them. We left the school feeling so overwhelmed by this and determined to find even a small way in which we can possibly help and spread the word at what a fantastic place this really is. We will be keeping in touch with the principals and hope to meet with Ben back in London to see what we can do – watch this space.
Throughout our stay Rafiq graced us with many wise words and quotes which I think is an apt way in which to end this. Here is one he shares on their website – please do take a look.
“A candle doesn’t lose anything by lighting another candle. And its always nice to light a candle rather than curse a darkness.”
We can honestly say we have made lifelong friends in Malvani after only 6 days and we hope to return the generosity and the kindness that was shown to two complete strangers in any way we can!
Do check out the short video we made of our time here too…!
C & J