Tuesday, 12 March 2013

2 Weeks On - What's been happening

I've been back just over 2 weeks now and life has been a little different since my return, I have had emotional highs and emotional lows, fairly bizarre in the first week back, for example I was driving along, singing to the radio as I often do and suddenly, BANG, I was overwhelmed with emotion when I thought about the kids I had met in India, their innocent faces, the lives they lead (full of joy and yet full of horror),I had to fight back the tears.  I guess it is difficult for any caring person to see what we all saw in such a short period of time not to have some form of emotional hangover and the WaterAid staff had warned us that there is likely to be a period of cultural readjustment when we got back to the UK.

So on with the productivity...  So I am back in the UK for just 4 days and I am off to the BBC Radio Suffolk studio in Ipswich to talk about the trip to India and my learnings whilst out there.  I was on air with the lovely Lesley Dolphin, I arrived and was immediately set at ease with a cup of coffee and a warm smile.  We chatted for around 40 minutes and I managed to cover so much and yet so little all at the same time, I loved it, it was great knowing listeners would be learning about WaterAid and the important work they do...  It's not hard when you have seen the statistics change from numbers to real people to then talk with a passion about the work that needs to the done and is being carried out.

My mind is full of the facts, I recently watched the amazing film "Mary and Matha" on BBC 2 (BBC iplayer - Mary & Martha) about the impact of malaria in Africa commissioned for Comic Relief, the message was powerful and again being in a heightened emotional state I found myself shedding even more tears, must remind myself it's just my body shifting excess salt water.  They talked of how many children die from malaria each year, the numbers were shocking, in-fact more than that, they were devastating, then my brain remembered the statistics I had seen from WaterAid,  more children die each year from preventable water related diseases than malaria, measles and AIDS combined.  I am not raising this because I don't wish for people to support Comic Relief , in fact please do, I have donated my £10 via text, this can buy 2 mosquito nets and save lives! I would encourage others to do the same.   If you're in the UK you can text "FIVE" or “TEN” to 70510 to donate £5 or £10.  The reason I raise my point is that it upsets me that more children die through water related diseases and yet so few people are aware of it, if I asked you about famine, malaria, AIDS, swine flu, bird flu etc, you could probably tell me that you have seen and/or heard stories in the papers, on the tv news or on the radio in the last few years, publicising the issue and yet, if I asked you have you seen an article or watched news footage about children dying from water related diseases? would you be able to say yes with such ease...  Some may, but for the majority I know would say no.

So I am on a mission to raise awareness of this serious issue, to save lives, to give people a chance, I invite you to join me by simply publicising the issues, checking out the WaterAid website (WaterAid.org), donating a few pounds, sharing this blog, tweeting, holding breakfast mornings to raise money and support, or anything else you can think of... No matter how big or small, help me help others to live, grow up and welcome a future!

So what else have I been up to, well I presented to the Essex & Suffolk Water staff about my trip, I enjoyed sharing the story of Ramu, Ramvati, AmarSign & Budh, all of which appear in my blog and I am pleased to say that I feel that people listened, they were moved and they want to do more...  I really feel that I am getting the message out there and for that I feel very proud.

Next I am off to School, I am presenting to over 50, 10 year old children, going to making it very interactive and fun for them... Really looking forward to it.  I am hoping to get a couple of slots on the regional TV stations to share my message and if anyone out there can help take this further I would love to hear from you...  Please email james@jamesdmuir.co.uk

So to wrap up this update; Life has changed for the better for me and as the days go by I accept more and more that I/we can all make a difference, my emotions stabilise more and more but my passion grows and my determination to make a difference becomes stronger... I will also be transferring my blog to a Kindle book over the coming months as I figured it may just make a few pounds for WaterAid.

Take care all

Monday, 4 March 2013

One Week On - My Reflection of India

A village elder, he wanted me to take
his picture in the village of Nayagaon,
he believes WaterAid can
make a difference
This blog is an expression of my own views, they are not in anyway representative of any organisation or individual other than myself.

Way back in October 2012 I applied to take part in a trip to India with WaterAid as a water industry supporter, when I did I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.  In November when I received the call to say that I had been selected I remember being so excited, I was over the moon and again thought I knew what I was getting myself into.  From then until I set off just over two weeks ago for India I prepared myself, I got my head around the facts, I knew things would be tough, I knew children were dying, I knew people suffered and I knew this would be an experience of a lifetime. My heart and brain were ready for an emotional rollercoaster, or so I thought.

Everything I thought I knew was correct, but there was so much more, so much that I was unable to prepare for, so many mixed emotions, tears, laughter and learnings.  Now that I am home and have been for just 8 days, I find myself reflecting back and processing everything I experienced, now I feel it is appropriate to share this reflection with you.....  So here it is:

So remote are some of the villages that roads, electricity,
water and toilets have yet to reach them.
Every now and then life offers up some amazing opportunities and the trip to India was certainly one of the most amazing things I have ever had the chance to take part in.  My journey was small in time but very big in terms of experience.  I laughed, I cried, I felt mental pain, on occasions I was lonely, at other times I felt embraced, I felt anger, embarrassed, confused, joy, happiness, humbled and so much more.  I saw the most beautiful, colourful and visually stunning sights, I also witnessed some horrific, disgusting, unthinkable and shocking sights, on both ends of the scale, good and bad these memories are now with me forever, something I am truly thankful for.  This trip was truly a journey of contrasts, where the extremes live side by side, where life for one person can be a world away from the life lived by another living just 10 feet away. I would not wish to change my experience, but I would change the poverty, the hardship and the basic lack of water & sanitation the people I met have to endure, whilst others live so easily.

Meet Ramu, she walks up to 5 hours a day
to collect water for her family from a potentially
contaminated stream.

At times she carries 30 kilos or 66lb of water
on her head
India is not a poor country, in fact it is a nation of rapid growth, it is a real player in the global market and for this reason it's poorest inhabitant suffer as a consequence of people not looking beyond economics. This is not acceptable and thank you WaterAid for showing me that you and your partners are doing what must be done. The work that needs to take place in India is crucial for the survival of children, adults and the right of all humans to be able to turn on a tap, drink water and not fear death or illness. WaterAid is spending time educating the people of India, influencing the government and raising international awareness that things can be better.

I have talked in my blog about legacies and sustainability, it was very apparent from my time in the slums and villages that when they have been empowered, mobilised and educated, they take ownership, responsibility and action to ensure their lives and that of generations to come are improved. This surely a good thing and something I believe we can all support.

This young boy and his family
will suffer for 4 months
each due to preventable water
related illnesses.
Village of Jonha
Some may say, why doesn't India look after itself, isn't it the Indian governments responsibility to sort out the lack of water and sanitation? The answer is yes, in my opinion it is and they should do more, they should direct money that is wasted on other wasteful projects to the people in need, but whilst I may feel this way I also know that change happens when the right actions are taken, the work of WaterAid is to help the people of India bring about this change, through partners they will immobilise the population to demand their rights to the basics we take for granted, they will teach the people to build toilets, maintain hygiene and how to secure clean water supplies. They will reduce the number of people dying, the number of mothers grieving, the number of school days lost, the amount if pain felt and the stress of living day to day. The work of WaterAid really is this powerful, taps and toilets is just a starting point, with these basic things, the truth is, WaterAid for many, changes the world.

This woman's name is Vidhya
Her story was tragic and one I cried over several times!
She looked at me in the face and told me how
she feels the pain everyday
for her 3 year old child who
died from diarrhoea

She lives in the slums and still finds
a way of looking forward 
I know some people who have said that they will not support a charity that is putting money into a country that has enough finances to sort things out themselves. I challenge this view point for the following reasons, for every 20 seconds these people oppose the support that WaterAid gives, another child dies in this wonderful world of ours due to preventable water and sanitation related diseases. That means in the last 5 minutes 15 children have passed away and 15 families are currently breaking their hearts. In the last hour that's another 180 children dead, their lives extinguished, for what, because they were born into a country that we feel do not deserve WaterAids support. The salvation of these children is not for us to decide based on politics, surely not, how can it be when we are surrounded by luxuries, when our wants are generally material. For the cost of a blu-ray film, tools to build a well can be purchased, that is just £15 and for £25 training can be provided to a village committee to ensure generations to come, reap the benefits of WaterAid interventions. Can we really justify our denial of these fellow humans, because we have an opinion about their government... No is my answer, life is far too precious, no one person deserves to be a victim based on politics.

Ramvati Vishwakarma, a women who'slife
has changed since WaterAid
worked with her local community.
Her quote to me was:
"I dreamed of a home, I now have one
I dreamed of my family not being ill anymore, they are now healthy
I dreamed of having water & a toilet,I now have this
I dream my children would have an eduction,they are now at university
I live in a slum but I will never stop dreaming,
that is the only way I will become more"
One of my wishes for the people of India is that their government invests the money they need to make a difference.  My greatest wish is that in the future women are no longer raped because they need to go to the toilet in the fields and land surrounding their homes, that no mother feels the pain the women I met felt through losing their children, that no single person fears for their health because they are thirsty and the water that quenches their thirst may be poison and that the successes I have seen where WaterAid has intervened continue, with more and more communities receiving the benefits.

India has taken a place in my heart forever, the people that occupy this country are amazing and I am blessed, honoured and thankful to have met so many wonderful souls.

I would like to give thanks to my fellow WaterAid supporters who came on this journey with me, who I have not mentioned greatly throughout my blog, but would like to make clear that at times I would have found it very difficult to get through if it wasn't for their support, encouragement and understanding.

I encourage you as the reader of this blog to help make a difference in anyway you can; by supporting WaterAid, donating, sharing my blog or spreading my messages by word of mouth, whatever you do is a great deal better than doing nothing.

I am not writing this blog because I believe I can change the entire world, but at the time if writing this update my blog has received nearly 2,800 hits, for me that's making a difference, one reader at a time.

To donate to WaterAid or find out how you can support in other ways please click on the link below:


I struggle with my emotions in the slums
meeting with people that have lost children
suffer regular illness and are forced to use
the streets as sewers.
Whilst I have now completed my blog regarding my time in India, I have decided to carry on for a short while longer, I would like to share what I am doing now and how my trip to India has a legacy of its own, so check back soon to hear about radio interviews, press releases, presentations and whatever else comes my way... You never know their may just be someone reading this that can help me get what I believe is an important message out there and if they do you can be sure I'll write about it.

Take care all and remember to appreciate all you have...

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Day 8 - Bhopal, Delhi & UK

Wow, has it really been 8 days since I started this amazing journey of self discovery and learning about the beautiful people of India!

5am, my day begins, I am now very used to having minimal sleep and starting very early, I am feeling a little extra tired as there was a massive storm in the middle of the night, I heard a lot of it but due to my viewless room I was unable to see a thing. So a quick check around the room, make sure everything is packed and then it's down to the lobby to drop off the bag and grab a bite of food for breakfast, inside I am feeling a sense of loss, I know that I am leaving today and whilst my time here was short the experience was mammoth.
The empty streets of Bhopal early in the morning

It's just a quick breakfast before we head to the coach for our transfer to Bhopal airport, we have a 9:30am flight to Delhi.  As we made our way through the relatively quiet streets of the city we passed lots of modern buildings with the odd slum tucked in gaps here and there, it was such a contrast, the conversation was minimal on my part with others, I was absorbing the city for the last time, I was gathering my thoughts, I was trying to come to terms with the extremes I had seen over the last few days, I was also trying to prepare myself for the UK...  How would it feel to go from the slums of India to the crisp clean city that is London?  I would find out in about 29 hours time (with the time difference).

JetAir Flight Bhopal > Delhi
The flight to Delhi was a pleasant 2.5hours covering 550 miles, time I used to catch up on writing my blog, whilst I had managed to post something everyday I had fallen 2 days behind chronologically.  Our arrival in Delhi was amongst stepped up security, there had been a bomb blast in Hyderabad, killing 15 people just a few days before, whilst it was several hundred miles away from us the capital was understandably on high alert.  With this in mind it was not the best time to test the security....  Something I did!  One of the group mistakenly picked up a bag off the baggage collection belt that did not belong to anyone in our group, this was not discovered until we were loading the bus, therefore I volunteered to walk the bag back to the airport and hand it over to the airline desk...  Simple, WRONG, I got back to the airport, where I was stopped at the entrance by the armed police, I explained what had happened and asked if I could take the bag in, "NO" was the sharp response, "wait there" was the instruction, so I did, who was I to argue this guy was holding a gun...  Time went by so I said can I leave the bad here for someone to collect, "No" was the response again.  An airline representative arrives and I explained again what had happened, his response was "wait here, I'll get someone" I asked if I could leave, the policeman looked at me and said "you stay with the bag".  So I waited and another representative arrived, the same thing happened again so I waited some more, I was very concious that a group of people were waiting for my return to the bus so I said "can I leave and just take the bag with me, I'll leave it in the car part so someone can collect it, I really must get going".  Now looking back that was a bit of a stupid thing to say as the policeman was very clear, "do that and I'll arrest you", so I waited some more...  Finally the third airline rep arrived and I explained again what had happened but this time quickly adding "so here is the bag I must go, okay and thanks" he looked at me and said okay, I quickly walked off, I didn't look back in case the policeman was following, he didn't and I got on to the bus.
Alex (Scottish Water), hanging about
at the WaterAid office in Delhi

Now in Delhi we headed to the WaterAid offices that we had visited the week before, we had dorms available here to take a quick rest if needed, I had decided to stay awake as I wanted to sleep on the flight back to the UK, I figured this would assist me in converting back to UK time.  We had a fair amount of waiting around here as we arrived around 11:30 and we had plans to head out to see the Red Fort around 5pm.  I must confess I was in need of a bit of alone time, I therefore found a secluded area in the sun and just sat for a while, I did a bit more blog writing but mostly I spent time settling with my thoughts.

Around mid afternoon I recorded a brief interview with the WaterAid media crew ready to send out to UK regional news when we returned, the questions I answered stirred up a lot of emotion and I felt my throat tightening, I had seen so much happiness in this country but the one image of the two women telling me that they felt so much pain losing their children haunted me, as soon as the interview was over I went back to my quiet spot and sobbed uncontrollably for 10-15 minutes, after this time Izzy, the WaterAid group leader walked around the corner and asked if I was okay, I said I was just having a moment and that I was glad she arrived, time to kick myself forward and shake it off, Izzy was great throughout the entire trip and I felt a connection there from day one.  Eventually around 3:30pm I rejoined the group, I felt I had the alone time I needed and I wanted to spend a bit more time with this great group of people, people that understood the feelings that I was feeling because they had also see what I had seen.
Red Fort - Delhi

5pm arrived and we were heading on a bus towards Old Delhi and the Red Fort, an historical building built between 1648 and 1658, a structure of true magnificence.  We enjoyed a short time here, an opportunity to switch to sight seeing mode, no more interviews, no stories to hear, no more lessons to be learnt, just time to stand, wander and watch...  After the week we had, this was most welcome.

Well if you can, why not?
See you can do anything you want
even when you're close to 38!
There was a short moment of embarrassment for me, my gorgeous mum had created a photo album for me to take to India, it contained some great family shots and one particular picture of me doing the splits in the air...  Now as soon as this was seen several people asked for me to do it, I held back but on the last day, outside of one India's famous landmarks and after the week we had experienced, it just seemed right to do it, so I did.  Not sure who was most shocked, the onlookers wondering what the hell I was doing or me by the fact I could still do it.

After the short sightseeing visit and tour of the city it was back the office for a light bite for dinner and then to Delhi airport.  Our flight back to the UK was due to leave at 3:30am however we eventually left around 4:30am, I must admint being awake for almost 24hours got the better of me and an hour in to the flight I was fast asleep...  This was great, I woke an hour away from London, the quickest long-haul flight I'd ever done!
Traffic Outside The Red Fort - Delhi

We landed at Heathrow around 7:30am, collected our bags and said a tearful goodbye to one another.  I had made some real friends, people I know I will always stay in touch with, they know who they are so I need not mention all by name.  Following the airport I made my way through the tube system and then on to trains and buses to get back home, I was in a bit of daze, I felt out of place, so much was familiar however everything felt disconnected.  I eventually arrived home around 3pm and enjoyed the comforts that had seemed so far away just 24 hours before.

My trip was over, my brain was full but my body just wanted to sleep... So I respected my body and drifted off with the trip very much in the forefront of my mind.
Enjoying the bus sightseeing in Delhi

My next blog will be an overall reflection of my trip, my highs, my lows and how I now view the one of the biggest journeys of my life.

Street Traders - Dehli

Temple Near The Red Fort - Delhi

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Day 7 - Pt 2 - "I Dared To Dream, My Dreams Came True"

A group of women sing
and welcome us
After what was a very emotional morning we took a break for a couple of hours, we went back to the hotel, collected our thoughts, had a spot of lunch and then headed back out for a visit to the Arjun Nagar slum in Bhopal.

This afternoons visit was to be a very different experience in comparison to this morning, we travelled just 20 minutes from the hotel to Arjun, upon arrival the tight streets were full of people awaiting our arrival, there were lots of smiles and we were most definitely made to feel welcome.

Matt Kirk
introduces us to the community
Again like in the villages, seats had been laid out and sheets on the floor for the community.  A large group of women sang us a welcoming song and daleks were painted on our foreheads.   Matt offered the community a thank you on behalf of WaterAid and the water company supporters for allowing us to visit and for giving us their time.

We were then taken to meet the families we would be spending time with in the slum.  Our group of 4 was introduced (via Liddy, our interpretor and WaterAid partner who we had met this morning) to Ramvati Vishwakarma and her son Manish, they lived in a small blue metal building, amongst the 400 households in this slum.  They were a family of 5 in a slum with a population of 2,000, when you consider that slums take up no more space than a half a football pitch and have a population of 2,000, it gives you an impression of how compact the area is. Imagine the houses where you live, would you fit 400 of them in to such a small space?  Ramvati and Manish were exceptionally welcoming, we took a seat on the ground outside their house in the burning afternoon sun, they were full of smiles and took pleasure telling us their story.

Ramvati Vishwakarma
Ramvati told us that before WaterAid arrived in the slums there were problems with going to the toilet, women avoided going in the day and would go at night, they were afraid due to the personal risks as seen in the villages and earlier in the day at the Shiv Nagar slum.  A lot of the time and particularly in the summer months people would suffer from diarrhoea, aching bones, sickness and fever.  The water points were a long distance from the house and often there would be long queues waiting to collect their daily supply.  Ramvati told us that she could not send the children to school on some days as the queue would be hours long, she would need to take the children with her, leave them there to hold the place in the queue whilst she returned to the slum to do her daily duties/work and then return again to collect the water and children later in the day.

Ramvati told how times were very hard before WaterAid came along, that a lot of money needed to be spent going to the doctors when they were ill and for medication that was not always available on the national health scheme.  When her husband or Ramvati had not managed to find casual work and either they or their children had fallen ill, they had to suffer, they could not afford  the medical fees, this was hard for Ramvati to watch those she loves suffer.

Ramvati told us that she could remember one day when collecting water, a 19 year old boy fell down the well where she used to get her supply, the community managed to get him out but the realisation that it could have been one of her children terrified Ramvati, she had no choice when her children were young to take them with her to the well, she could not leave them in the home alone.

Manish shows us
the families outside toilet
We asked Ramvati how have things changed since WaterAid introduced the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme in 2008? I could see a change in Ramvati's posture as she began to talk about the difference, she became light and full of smiles.  Her answer started with 'we now have a better life, there is a tap just outside the home, this means the children can go to school, they can get an education and they can dream of a better life.  Manish is currently studying an engineering degree, this would not have been possible, my daughter Anuradha has won a scholarship to a private school and is studying well, she is 15 and now can dream of university, this would not have been possible.  We are no longer ill like we were before, we don't lose working days so the money is better, although we are still poor and below the poverty line, we have more than we did before.  The streets are not full of rubbish, the waste no longer flows through lanes and through our house when it rains, life is better. I would need to wait for other women to want to go to the toilet before I could go and this would be at night, now I can go in my toilet that has been built at the back of my house, I no longer lose my dignity every day.'

Ramvati, then gave us the following quote which summed up so much for me and will stay with me for the rest of my life:

"I dreamed of a home, I now have one
I dreamed of my family not being ill anymore,
they are now healthy
I dreamed of having water & a toilet,
I now have this
I dream my children would have an education,
they are now at university
I live in a slum but I will never stop dreaming,
that is the only way I will become more"

Ramvati Vishwakarma wearing
the Imagine It band
Ramvati, was clearly embracing life, I was inspired by her outlook, she was simply amazing.  I said to Ramvati that she embraced an ethos that I stood by which is to Live, Love & Laugh, this is an ethos that is promoted by Imagine It an organisation I supported along with WaterAid.  I gave Ramvati a blue bracelet which represented this ethos and she very quickly placed it on her arm.

We chatted some more with the family and they said that they wished to give us a blessing, we were honoured that they presented us with flowers and daleks, this time Manish painted my forehead from hairline to nose.  I smiled and said that I wished them well, that I found them deeply inspiring and to never stop chasing the dream as they were right, this is the only way they come true.  A young neighbouring girl said that they thought I had a sugar mouth, I laughed and asked what she meant, and she replied that the things I said were sweet.   I think the rest of the group found this funny as there were a few laughs.
We said a very fond goodbye to Ramvati and her family and headed off with Liddy to take a look around the slum.  I was amazed with the contrast between the morning and the afternoon, this place was so clean, there was no rubbish, no sign of animal or human waste and no open sewers or drains.  Liddy explained that with the local authority they had made arrangements for monthly collections of the waste, the drains no longer ran through the lanes as they had the correct level of drainage taking waste away from homes and the slum was now 100% free of people going to the toilet openly.

As we walked through the lanes people came over and chatted, we were invited in to peoples houses to see their toilets, to see how clean things were, to see how proud they were.  Everyone here had benefited from the intervention of WaterAid and they wanted us to know about it.  It was such a pleasure to see this.
WaterAid wall art designed to encourage and
educate WASH in the community

After the upsetting morning I could now see that things can change, Ramvati and the rest of the community had turned things around, the support of WaterAid and local partners was completely worthwhile and over the coming years this legacy would continue to produce rewards.

This was our last visit on this rollercoaster ride of a trip to India before we would head back to Delhi and then on to the UK.  This was a very special trip that left me feeling that things will get better, I felt optimistic, I felt happy and I felt honoured.

A quick pose with the community before my final goodbye
I will add just 2 more blogs related to my trip to India, one to give you an account of my journey home, including a short stop in Delhi and the other to give an overall reflection on my time in this wonderfully colourful and diverse country.  Please check back and take a look.

If you would like to read more about the work of WaterAid in India please follow the link below:

If you would like to donate and support the fantastic work of WaterAid please follow the link below:

A few more pictures taken at Arjun

Monday, 25 February 2013

Day 7 - Part 1 - Slums, Dogs But No Millionaires

My time in India has been full of highs and lows, messages of hope and stories of desperation, however all the way through I have felt deeply honoured that the people I have met have been so open, honest and giving.  This journey for me has been massive so as I write about my last full day of visiting people in their homes, I do so with a heart that feels like bursting with emotion, a mind so full of memories that struggle to piece them all together and feeling that I am ready to get back to the UK to spread a positive message and give these people hope that others are listening.

Today I visited two slums in the city of Bhopal, each of the slums were so vastly different, so I am again going to split it in to two parts and post one today and the second tomorrow.  I know that when you read this blog update you will find some of it disturbing and difficult to deal with, but it is my main hope that you will be inspired and as hopeful as I am and see that at the end of the day, just like you and I the people of the slums are just looking for a better way of life, they just come from a very different place.

View across the wasteland of the Shiv Nagar slum in Bhopal
So on with the first part: Our first stop of the day was at the Shiv Nagar slum in the city of Bhopal, this is a large slum with around 3,000 households and a population of 15,000 people. We arrived around 9am, the bus drove across a large area of wasteland, littered with rubbish, people walking, pigs, cattle and dogs wandering and animal/human faeces.  I could see alongside this wasteland, stood rows of small buildings, some made of corrugated metal and others of bricks, a number of the roofs were covered with tarpaulin, bamboo, straw and scattered bricks, this is a very different place.

Vidhya, kind hearted and
welcoming, sadness is her eyes
We exited the bus and were immediately introduced to the local WaterAid partners working in the slums, I along with my group of 3 others (Matt from Anglian Water, Celine from Northern Ireland Water & Richard from South East Water) were introduced to Liddy, she was to be our translator and guide for the day.  There was no community welcome, no presentation of gifts and no speeches, we were here to learn today and make minimal impact on our surroundings.  We were then quickly taken off to meet the household where we would spend time learning about life in the slum and the issues around having poor water quality and sanitation.  We met with a women called Vidhya, she lived in one of the small slum dwellings, along with her husband and 3 children. her home was close to the edge of the slum, therefore it took just a minute or so to get to.

Collecting water amongst the waste!
Alongside is an open drain stacked high either side
with household waste.
I struggled here to hold my emotions
Before we got comfortable we were asked if we wanted to join Vidhya in collecting some water from her nearest supply, of course was our response.  We followed Vidhya to a small open clearing, amongst open drains and rubbish to where a flow of water was available.  It really was awful, can you imagine getting your drinking, cooking and cleaning water from a place where you needed to practically crouch amongst years of waste to collect it?  I didn't need to imagine, I did it.

I have repeated this so many times in my blog but it doesn't stop me being aware of how much I have taken for granted.  Often when we think of such conditions we link back to the 17th century, however this is happening today, as I sit here writing this with my cup of coffee, using safe hygienic water, this is happening.

Once the water container was full we headed back to Vidhya's home, I carried the 30 litre stainless steel pot and was surprised again by just how heavy these things are.  Once back at the house we took seats on a ridge outside and began to have a chat with Vidhya and some of her neighbours.
The single cot where all 5
family members sleep
just 4 foot by 6 foot in size

Vidhya had been without electricity for the last 5 days and was finding things tough, she has 2 girls at school and 1 son who does casual labour when he can find it, she was expressing that the lack of electricity meant that she was not able to feed her family properly due to not being able to grind wheat in order to make flour for bread, she had been living on a diet of rice.  She also said that the school exams were coming up in March and with no lighting at night her daughters were not able to study, this worried her as she wants her children to gain an education, this may give them the chance at a better life.

We asked Vidhya how long had she lived in the slum...  She told us that she and her husband Pappu had moved from a village 20 years ago in search of work in the city, there were no jobs outside the city and they needed an income.  Vidhya explained that life here is tough but there really isn't much choice, 'in order to go to the toilet we have to walk out into an open communal area and go, this is embarrassing and unsafe, our only other option is to use the communal toilets but they charge 5 rupees per day per person and with a family of 5 we are not able to afford this (this is around 40 pence), the toilets are also dirty and smell.'

We were told of how truck drivers parked up at night alongside the wasteland next to the slums, they would drink and take drugs, the women would be threatened by these men who would verbally abuse them as they tried to discreetly go to the toilet.  Sometimes the women would be physically attacked but because of the darkness they would not know if it was one of the people living in the slum that had done it or someone from the outside.  Vidhya worried for her daughters safety and for their health.

Vidhya and neighbours
How bad does it get at times we asked Vidhya, 'it's terrible' she explained, 'in the rainy season the waste water runs through my home, we get sickness and we get diarrhoea frequently and have to run to the open wasteland to go to the toilet.'  Vidhya then told us that she had lost a 3 year old child due to diarrhoea caused from the poor standards in the slum, my heart sank when I heard this, I knew this happened, of course I did, but to be sat face to face with someone that had watched a child die due to an illness that could have been prevented is very different than just being aware this happens.  I held back my shock and offered up our sorrow for her loss.  Another woman, one of the neighbours spoke up to tell us that her 3 day old baby had died due to the diarrhoea, it is happening all the time they explained.  This was so hard to deal with, we had heard the statistics that 2,000 children a day were dying but now I was seeing for myself what the reality looked liked.   In just a few minutes we talked about sexual abuse, child deaths, sewers flowing through homes, loss of dignity, restricted food supplies and difficulties with education, most of which could be dramatically improved with simple water and waste management.

We felt that we had asked enough of Vidhya and she had been kind enough to tell us a lot, we invited Vidhya and neighbours to ask us some questions.  The question that came back was powerful:  "people come here all the time, especially around election time, they make promises and they never keep them! So what are you promising us?"  I could see where this question had come from, time and time again these people had been let down, they had suffered greatly and now they had a bunch of foreign people sat in front of them asking questions about their water etc...  I answered on behalf of our group "we are not making any promises, we are here to learn from you, to take your stories back to the UK and to raise awareness of what life is like in the slums.  It is our hope but not our promise that people will listen and that we can raise international pressure on your government to spend money where it is needed"  (I write this blog for this reason, so that I can raise awareness, so can I ask that you share this blog, help me raise awareness and give others the chance to improve their quality of life).  The answer I gave pleased all, we were told by a neighbour that they thought we were like Krishna, sent by gods to help, I very quickly responded "we are just people from the UK, here to learn and do what we can". The thought that they could possibly liken us to their gods makes me feel really upset, I am really just someone that wants to help, I am a selfish person in many ways, I am full of imperfections and I do stupid things from time to time.  Being linked to any god was too much for me.

Water being collected from
small holes in the water pipes
We asked Liddy if we could be taken for a look around the slums so that we could get a better feel for the environment...  We were led down small walkways, through open drains, piles of dirt, dogs running freely, along with boar, people collecting water from small holes made in pipes and past home after home in a very tightly squeezed area.  We reached the area where the people went to the toilet to find the local council had sent in the heavy machinery to clean up....  Strange isn't it, that the place has been left for years, no rubbish collections, no waste clearance and then today as a group of British people arrive, so does the clean up team.  There were even people sweeping the paths!

With the sudden activity the crowds began to grow, therefore it was felt that is would be better to cut the visit short and leave 30 minutes earlier.

The small lanes between
I left this place feeling drained, they were so hopeful for their future and so sad for the past and current living conditions.  I am not ashamed to say that I broke down in the evening after this visit, I cried uncontrollably for the losses of these people and the fact that I felt I just could not do enough, in fact as I write this I am fighting back the tears again.  I am far from being a god, I am far from being the best person I can be, but for these people, I along with the others in my group represented hope.  This suddenly felt like a massive personal burden to bear, but I must remember my part is to do what I can, to honour these people by not forgetting their story and ensuring I raise the awareness, in order to make the changes needed.

To find out how you could help, or find out more about WaterAid or even donate please click on the link below:

WaterAid International
WaterAid UK

Please come back to follow my remaining journey in India.

People wash their clothes on the streets
Open sewers surrounding the slums
The timely arrival of the clean up team!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Day 6 - Part 2, Back to School

Following on from a very full morning we arrive in the village of Padli, this visit is one of the most magical, inspiring amazing experiences of my life and one that I will never forget.

We arrived in the village via a dirt track and pulled in to a gravelled area surrounded by just a few pink buildings, standing around waiting our arrival were lots of children, they had smiles on their faces and clearly excited to see us. We exited the bus and took seats around an area that had been laid out with sheets on the floor. The children took their places on the mats and the adults followed, this was a very warm welcome from a lot of happy people.

Once everyone had taken their places the children greeted us, one by one the came over, placed a dalek on our foreheads and handed us the most fragrant rose, they welcomed us individually, some even welcomed us in English. Their ages ranged from 5-13 they all had smart clothes on and clearly wished to impress their guest, they certainly did that.

After the greetings, Santoshi, who we had met earlier in Amrod welcomed us on behalf of all the village and began to tell their story. Padli is a small village in a rural area, people have been used to their way of living for many years, they believed that having a toilet in the house was unsanitary, to go for a toilet in your home has got to be dirty, I guess was their mentality at the time, lets face it, if you were not used to the way a toilet works then the concept might appear to be pretty disgusting.

In order to change the mindset of the village Samartha (WaterAid's implementing partner) started by educating the children, they taught them that the diseases suffered in the village would lessoned if using the school play area and the land surrounding their homes ceased, they taught them how to correctly wash their hands and they taught them how to change the views of the adults in the village. They armed the children with whistles and in groups of 3 or 4 they would look out for adults going to the toilet and blow their whistles, much like the children of Amrod, they used the power of humiliation to reeducate the adults, this brings a whole new meaning to whistle blowing!

The children were also asked to attend school in the early hours of the morning, prime time for when people used the school area as a toilet, the kids would be ready and waiting with smiling faces to pleasantly remind adults that the school is for educating and play only. I thought this was amazing, empowering and inspirational, to give the youth the opportunity to secure a better future for themselves is genius!

The children were not alone in the effort to turn things around, people here as with the other villages are poor, many work long hours for very little pay and spend most of the daylight hours away from their homes, in order to truly get the message across Santoshi and the Samartha team would travel to the villages at night and hold public session to express the need for change, these sessions worked, people started to listen and things have changed. I could see that the hard work had paid off, I was sitting in the playground and it was clean, the children looked proud as did the adult population.

The community is now working on gaining government funding so that they are able to provide the infrastructure of mains water, a secure boundary around the school and decent roads to and from the village... None of this seems to much to ask for in my opinion.

Pinki Mewade, School Health Minister
After the general discussions we were invited to sit down in small groups with the children to talk about their experiences and what they were each doing to help stay healthy and how they felt about the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes that had been introduced.

Pinki Mewade, a 13 year old girl introduced herself as health minister of the school, intrigued, I wanted to find out what ministerial structure they had in place. The teachers had empowered the children by setting a ministry, there were 10 members responsible for various different areas, there was the minister for health, minister of education, minister of environment etc, how brilliant I thought, these kids are really taking control and being allowed to make a difference. Each minister was answerable to the other children as they had a complaint and feedback box, one of the children told me it was always empty!

Pinki explained her role to us, she would randomly check the pupils hands to see if they had cleaned them correctly, she checked their palms and fingernails, disease is spread all too often by hand to mouth contact, this simple approach can and does make such a difference. We asked the other children what they did when Pinki told them their hand were not clean enough, one of the boys said we clean them again. The children all seem to embrace the approach being taken and understand the benefits this has to them and their families.

The conversation continued with the kids telling us that since they have been involved in WASH they are able to use their playground for games, they can play at lunch, they are not sick as often and they are not taking so many days off school. These children see the benefit of an education, it may well be their passport to a better future and they do not wish to miss out.

We gave the kids a chance to ask us questions, this was very humbling as the questions were very different to the ones we would expect from a UK child. They asked: In England do the women have to wear sari's? What crops do you grow at home? Are your fields green? Do you have clean water? We of course answered them and could see them listening through our translator. We showed them pictures of our homes, our families and of our holidays. I got my ipad out and let them look through pictures of snow, Christmas, Devon, Croatia, they loved them and were so interested.

Following the sharing of pictures I asked if the children knew any songs they could sing to us, the answer was yes, first a few began to sing and then more and more until the sound of their singing was all around us, truly amazing!

When we finished being totally inspired by the children it was time for a bit of fun, as the ipad had been out the kids wanted to play and who was I to stop them. I filmed them and played it back, they were so amazed they started climbing over me to get a glimpse, I don't know how many I had on climbing on me at one point but their weight caused me to collapse on the floor, but this they found even more fun. All I could hear was the sound of laughter in my ears.

After a bit of play they asked if we wanted to see the school, 4 of us went for a guided tour with Pinki and friends. We were shown each class room one by one, they were very basic, just single room buildings, walls with painted numbers and alphabets. I asked if they had a song to learn the alphabet like we do, they said no, Alex, one if the group WaterAid supporters from Scottish Water decided to ask the kids if they would like to hear me sing the alphabet, I responded maybe they would like hear Alex, they responded, BOTH! Not wanting to let them down the two of us stood in a class room singing the alphabet, something I've not done for over 30 years.
Whilst we were walking around the school a game of cricket started with UK and the kids, along side this another game stared where the children ran around the playground and when the teacher called stop they had to cling in groups, not really sure what the purpose was but it was great fun, there was smiles from all.

One thing I have learnt on the journey is the children love their picture being taken, as soon as I pulled out the camera they swarmed, "sir just one picture", I would take one and they would say just one picture, this would repeat time and time again. It made me smile as often I would be taking a picture of one child and by the time I pressed the shutter 4 children would in front of me, all jumping around to get the shot... I must have taken about 300 pictures of smiling faces.

The time came for us to leave, the vide was electric, we were on such a high, what a difference empowerment makes! WaterAid goes beyond water and toilets, it's about life, when you feel your life us brighter, safer, healthier, many things become possible.

A truly magical experience!