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!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Day 6 - Part 1, Empowering, Digging & Powerful

Day 6 was a day of two parts, there was such a split between the morning and the afternoon I have divided the blog into part 1 & 2 so that the messages do not get lost.

We arrived at the village of Amrod early morning to a slight chill in the air and the strong scent of incense, this was unlike the previous greetings where the crowds had gathered to greet us, here we were met by just a few people and the community appeared to continue their daily routines around us. We walked a short distance through the village to the Hindu temple, here the crowds gathered to greet us, again a fairly quiet affair in comparison to earlier visit. The village elected representatives and elders gave us a Hindu welcome however this time we were painted with orange Delaks and given small coconuts rather than the flowers we had grown used to.

Santoshi in blue talking through our translator
Once the traditional greeting was over a women named Santoshi welcomed us on behalf of the village, she worked with an organisation called Samartha, a local WaterAid partner who's purpose is to improve the lives of small rural communities, to enhance the infrastructure, education, roads, facilities. She advised that there were 84 households in the village and that in September 2012 WaterAid and local partners had supported the village by showing them they could fit toilets for a small amount of money, the community had thought it would cost at least a years income to construct and for this reason had not taken the steps to install any in the village. 100% of the the village used to go to the toilet in the open, this would cause the women in particular dignity issues, they would hold their need to go until the hours of dark to prevent the men seeing them doing what we all must do. When the women suffered from illness they would have to run into the open spaces to go to the toilet, when seen by men they would have to stop and stand up due to the cultural expectations, as one women described this would mean that she needed to bathe several times a day when really ill, sometimes she would stand but the body would not stop, as she out it.

A young man from a neighbouring village stood up to talk, he was very well dressed and said what others had been holding back. In his village a young girl was recently raped when going to the toilet in the open, his village had said enough is enough and with the help of Samartha, installed toilets close to homes, the women and girls in that village now felt safe. Hearing this motivator gave mixed emotions, I felt saddened that the catalyst for change was sexual assault and I felt comfort in the fact that the men of the village had set about protecting their female family members. So strong was this action they felt they had to share with other villages, they therefore set about informing others of what they had done, the village of Amrod listened and set about making their changes. I did not catch the mans name, but he spoke with such passion, he felt that he needed to share his message, living life the way had was not acceptable and the surrounding communities needed to be empowered.

The people of Amrod created a committee including women and youth members and Samartha and with the support of WaterAid the committee engaged with the local community to educate them of the importance having toilets and how with self building the costs could be low. This community wanted change and they want it fast, they picked up their shovels and they have worked hard, WaterAids work here is very much about guidance, support and education, the village has raised money, they have put in the labour and they have said we are ready to embrace a better way of living.

The government will financially support communities that have created a full plan of action, detailing their goals and key objectives, they must also raise 3% of the overall cost of the entire plan. 3% may not seek like a high percentage however these people are cash poor, recognised as living below the poverty line on many occasions. Together they have raised the 3%, they are ready to propose the plan to the local government, if agreed this will ensure a water pipe is laid to the village where they will have close access to clean and safe drinking water. This is not a community waiting for others to do on their behalf, they know the best route forward is to take action.

So successful have been their actions the village only need to build 9 more toilets before they have 100% households with a toilet. This is an amazing achievement considering the short amount of time they have been working to turn things around, just 5 months. As soon as the village had a sufficient amount of toilets installed that all community members could gain access, the children were given drums, these drums were used each time children witnessed someone openly going to the toilet, they would create such a noise the person would feel embarrassed and stop doing it. This again has been successful and the power of the children has won over the adults. I love that they have done this, it has set these kids up brilliantly for the future, they know now that they have a voice.

Feeling inspired, myself and 3 others were given the opportunity to joined a family who were building a toilet close to their home, we got right in there, digging and scraping out to large holes in the ground to create 2 pits that would capture the waste and filter through the water. I also had the chance to lay some bricks on another one of the toilet constructions, something I have never done before but very much enjoyed. I have to take my hat of to these guys, the sun was beating down on us, we were bent over digging and removing earth by hand and I found it hard work, to think that they have worked tirelessly to get to the point they have, around their needs to work in order to provide an income, in such a short amount of time is outstanding.

The construction of the toilets is fairly basic, just a simple brick box with a footplate latrine and a bucket of water to wash away the waste. The technique used for capturing the waste is very clever as the use of 2 pits means that they are able to use and fill one, once it is full they seal it off and transfer to the other, after approx 6-12 months they empty the first and use the content as fertiliser, nourishing the arid grounds. It seems that everything they do here has multi-purposes, maximising every opportunity to enhance and improve lives.

Amarsingh Vishwakama (65)
Inspired a village to build toilets
to protect the women and girls!
Whilst amongst the community we talked with one of the elders, Amarsingh Vishwakama and two of his granddaughters, he told us of how he was fearful in past for his female families safety, he was scared that the ones be loves would suffer abuse both verbally and physically. The young girls told of the frequency the attacks occurred, it happens often was their message. We are in 2013, a time when we have so much, the violation of ones body should never be, not ever, to be violated because you need to do a basic human function is beyond comprehension. Whilst they talked to us they had smiles on their faces, they were grateful for what they now had and what was to come in the future, they were not dwelling on the past, instead they were using it as reference and making the changes that were within their powers to make.

I very much support an organisation called Imagine It, I mentioned them in my first blog and their ethos is about living, loving and laughing, this family was demonstrating all of these things to me, I therefore asked if they would like to have their picture taken with the Imagine It bear, Porridge, they were very happy to do so, see the picture below.

The stories told on this visit hit hard for myself and a number of the group, it was tough to hold back the emotions but pity was not what these people wanted, tears from a group of Brits was not what they wanted, what they wanted was support, to know that we were listening to them, to know they were being heard and for us to spread the message that with government support, the right level of eduction, empowerment and direction, they would take action in order to achieve what needs to be achieved.

These people are truly inspiring, loving, caring and so generous to allow us, a group of visitors to their country to spend time with us, tell us their very difficult stories and to answer all our questions.

I left the village around midday feeling so glad I have come on this trip, that I have been able to see for myself the difference a little bit of help can make and that life really is about making the best of what you have and always striving to be all that you can be.

Day 5 - Gwalior to Bhopal - a physical and emotional journey

Today we travel from Gwalior to Bhopal, it's going to be an interesting journey heading from rural areas to the large city. In the evening we shall be meeting WaterAid partners and local official, again this will be interesting to hear from their view point, about the situations in India regarding water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and sharing our view on what we have seen in our few days in India.

So let the day begin, we get a lay-in this morning, I'm up at 6am instead of 5... Whoop, whoop! We meet for breakfast and then transfer to Gwalior station, a busy area of this large town and full of hustle and bustle. We make our way to the train platform and await our departure, we were due to leave at 9:30 but in typical India fashion the train arrives at 9:45. This time we are to be in seated carriages, I was a little concerned as to what the standard would be like however I was very pleasantly surprised, this train was of a high standard and I felt comfortable in my generously sized seat.

The journey took around 5hrs and along the route I managed to view some amazing sights of people going about their daily lives. I watch farmers harvesting their crops, women carry large bundles of rags on their heads and children playing beside the tracks, a view health and safety bods in the UK would have palpitations over.

We arrived in Bhopal around 3pm and were met by hot sunshine, noticeably warmer than where we had been further north and complete gridlock outside the station, they managed to get the bus through the traffic to pick us up and take us to the hotel. I was exhausted from the previous couple of days but did my best to take in the sights, I was also feeling highly emotional about what I had learnt since arriving. I looked out the window and watched as large buildings that were pieced together with dodgy bricks and concrete passed by the window. I was also amazed by the scaffolding constructed of bamboo, held together with rope and stretching 5 stories high, also there appeared to be no ladders (or none that I could see) or platforms and yet the construction workers were clinging on and going about their business.

We arrived at the hotel and were advised of our room numbers and to be back in the reception by 6:30 for our briefing, followed by meet and greet with the local representatives and government officials. I went to my room, found two very small beds, a window with no view and the strong smell of mothballs. I remind myself again that this is not a holiday, I am here with WaterAid to make a difference, to experience and learn about life of the different communities and having seen what I have seen, some of the families would welcome to rest and live in a place like this.

Onto the evening, we met with around 20 reps and officials, all were very open to conversation. I had a discussion with one guy who was from the Mahatma Gandhi centre we visited on Monday, he told of horrific stories of women and girls being raped in villages across the region, due to their need to go to the toilet at night. He told of how the women would not go to the toilet during the day, they would wait until night to preserve their dignity, due to this men would be waiting in the darkness and attack. I felt physical sick when I heard this, to hear that someone's basic need to go to then toilet meant that they would be sexually abused was too much, I felt so useless at this point, here was I, an English guy who has so much and takes so much for granted, hearing about such horrors, there was no way I could compute this, other than to think about my mother, sister, nieces and other female family members and friends, what if life was like this for them, I just would not be able to cope.

He did give me hope, he told me that where WaterAid and partners have intervened and gain government support to install toilets in the villages, the need to publicly go to the toilet had reduced to zero, the women were no longer scared and their dignity had been restored. I left the evening feeling that there was hope and that I could play a small part in bringing about the change needed, I could write my blog to raise awareness, I can campaign when I return to the UK and I can promise to never forget the things I have seen, the stories I have heard and the successes I have witnessed.

Life is precious and all of us deserve to have a chance to be the very best we can, if it cost just a few pounds to save someone from rape, disease, indignity or death then surely it's worth the sharing of my message, gaining support and always having hope.

My mind is spinning therefore I am going to call it a day, I could write a lot more but I believe that I have said enough and you will understand that whilst I am out here witnessing the things I describe it is very tough for me to detach my emotions.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Day 4 - Khamhar. More success and the legacy lives on

Traditional Datia Building - Prior to 1950's
We arrived at the village Kamhar around 2:30pm, the streets were clean and dotted between plain fronted building were brightly coloured decorative traditional homes. We were greeted again in the traditional Hindu manner by a large number of villagers. The village has a population of 624 people living in 86 homes, that's an average of 7 people per house, bearing in mind these houses are often just two or three rooms, families are tightly squeezed and sharing small cots to sleep in.

Khamar is a post intervention village therefore the work of WaterAid has been completed, we were told how life used to be, when the streets were full of rubbish and people openly went to the toilet in the land surrounding their homes, how the wells would contaminate with stagnant and polluted waters and how sickness would visit families frequently.

There was pride in the people as they explained that since 2008 they have worked with WaterAid to improve lives and secure better futures for their children. They started by educating the village people of the dangers of using their streets and surrounding land to go to the toilet, they worked hard to express that the sickness that visited them was due to these actions and keeping the streets clean would improve the situation. The village took action and began to clear the streets, dig holes to contain the waste and carve drains to remove the domestic and flood waters.

The infrastructure was then put in place to support the villages enthusiasm for a better life, WaterAid, local partners and villagers built dams to harvest rain water, toilets in homes, installed water pumps and eventually connected 80% of the village to home water supplies. The supply operates for just 2 hours in the morning however this is such a vast enhancement on life prior to WaterAid and local partners, the village people are able to fill containers in their own homes without walking to wells or hand pumps, they gain more family time or more time to work then land in order to financial support their families.

The supply of water and decent sanitation goes far beyond the basics, it really does open so many doors, enhance a very basic standard of living and provide dignity, something I am sure we have a level of empathy for.

Wall art, outlining the benefits of WASH
in the village school
After we had a discussion with the villagers I was given the chance to operate one of the hand pumps, it was a basic metal structure and was fairly easy to use, it still felt strange knowing that after the 2 hours of supply each day was turned off any water required would need to collected in steel containers and brought back to the home. I can only relate things to how we live in the UK and that is life would be so inconvenient if I had to spend time each day collecting water, or limiting my usage to no more than 10-15 litre per household member.

This was just a short visit and one I walked away from feeling really good about the work that had been completed. I felt a relief that the intervention of WaterAid had left a legacy, one where people take ownership and responsibility, one where pride and dignity had been restored and one where any UK money donated was clearly worth every single penny and more.

Life here is different, I am seeing places that others simply never get the chance to due to there remoteness, and yet I am conscious at all times that these are people, just like you and I, they breath, they eat, they drink and they deserve the basic rights that we all take for granted. Next time you turn on the tap have a thought for those that cannot or those that treat water like gold, they are just an 8 1/2 hour flight away from you.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Day 4 - Bounce, Collecting Water From Wells & Childplay

So first things first... Good news, I got up on time, bad news, I've had about 3 hours sleep. Got to bed fairly late due to the delays throughout yesterday's visit and restlessness. I got to sleep just after 12:30am, after about an hour and a half I was woken by a tickling feeling on my leg, I laid there for a while and then lifted the duvet, initially I saw a small black thing moving across my right leg, not knowing what it was i startled and kicked, when I looked again I realised I had a cockroach in my bed, I quickly ensured I removed my little friend and watched him scurry across the floor. By this time I was wide awake, as much as I tried I was unable to get back to sleep for around 90 minutes, them my alarm went off at 5am, did I really sleep or just blink I thought to myself.

So the day has begun, we are off to Jonhar in the morning and Kamhar in the afternoon, in order to get there we needed to travel around 1:30hrs, this was Indian time, therefore I'm guessing this will be approx 2:30hrs, something I have discovered in just a few days is that when they say 1km they mean 5 and they say 1 hour they mean 1.5 to 2. We would be travelling along what I was told would be a bumpy road, having been off road yesterday I thought that's no big deal, we can handle it. After 20 minutes we arrived on a national highway, a nice wide dual carriageway, it looked good quality and I thought, this looks good, I can catch up on some sleep.... WRONG! We moved down the road for no more than 10 minutes and suddenly the smooth hard surface was replaced with rocks, mud and dust, the bus was bouncing up, down, left and right, I was being thrown around and my spine was taking a real bashing. This was meant to be a national highway but apparently there was a falling out between the government and the construction contractors a few years back, they had removed the surface of the existing road and now it just lays there like a dirt track. This was to remain for the next 2hrs, I reached points that I just wanted to scream, stop, give me just a 2 minutes break, but reality check again, this is what the local people deal with all the time, who was I to complain.

We did have a short stop off for a toilet break at a roadside hotel that looked across to a palace in the distance, it was a beautiful sight to be seen and very much a welcome break from the constant pounding of the road. Following a 10minute break we were off again, more bouncing and being thrown around, this time it was just for a further hour and then we arrived at Jonhar at 10:30, now bearing in mind we were told it would take us 1:30hr and it took us over 3, you can now see just how Indian time works.

Jonhar is a large village in population and small in scale, it has 1,157 village members in 170 houses and sits in Datia district. Most village people earn their income through farming wheat, mustard and rice, along with milk production from the cattle that are kept in their courtyards or in the streets. This is a very vulnerable group of people due to their low standing on the caste rating (a hierarchy of classes that is now illegal in India however still in fact well established throughout), they receive little government support, and during the wet season (summer months) much of the village suffers ill health due to the poor standard of water and sanitation.

When we arrived at the village we were again greeted by a large crowd, we walked past a number of houses to a small clearing amongst the tight streets, the buildings were mainly brick/concrete and tightly squeezed in to a small area. The local representative advised us that the village was very honoured to have us as guests. I then gave a short speech to the group to introduce us (WaterAid and the UK water company representatives), I have given many presentations in the past however this was something else, to have all those faces looking at me, I'm unable to speak their language and am therefore I was speaking through an interpreter, it was hugely unnerving and outside of my comfort zone. I said that we were honoured to be there, thanked them for allowing us in to their villages and homes, and that this was huge privilege for us to be able to be here. I received a large round of applause from the crowd, again as with so many other experiences on this trip I felt so overwhelmed.

After the introduction it was time to meet with a family to discuss their lives in the village, the WaterAid media team joined us to do some filming for UK press converge upon our return. We walked a short distance to a small collection of building and were led through a small doorway into a courtyard, here we met Dharmandra a 26 year old man, his 22 year old wife Sonam & their 1 year old child Ayush, they lived in the small house with 10 other members of the family (Dharmandra's 5 brothers, 3 sister-in-laws, father, mother and 3 nieces/nephews). The village has no clean direct water supply or sanitation, people use the streets and fields as toilets, again not through choice but due to not having the money to construct the required infrastructure. We asked the family who collected the water, we were advised this was the responsibility of Sonam, we clarified that this on behalf of all 13 people, yes was the response. "In a village where there is no direct water supply, where do you go to collect the water?" I asked of Sonam, she told us that the water came from a deep well approximately 1 kilometre from the house. Sonam advised us that it takes her around am hour a day to collect the water. I asked does anyone in the house get ill from drinking the water, her response was poignant, "yes, for 4 months of every year the water gets bad and we get diseases", "when you say diseases, what illness due you suffer" I asked. "We put chlorine in the water but still we vomit, our body aches, our stomach hurts and we get fevers, every member of the household suffers, every year" Sonam responded. We continued to chat for a while longer where Sonam revealed that she was fearful of giving her family the water, she worried for her 1 year old child Ayush and that she knew when she gave him the water he could get ill, can you imagine giving a small child something you knew could make them ill, not just ill, the water here at times has the ability to kill, this really did bring home the fact that 2,000 children die each year due to poor drinking water and sanitation, in this village I was hearing it first hand.

When we finished talking Sonam and Dharmandra took us on the 1km walk to the well where the water is collected. The well was approx 12ft wide and about 25-30ft deep, women and young girls were dropping 15 litre containers down and skilfully filling them and then pulling them up again, these pots weigh 15kg+ when full, no easy task when you consider they are pulling them up 10, 20 or 30 times a day. I was invited to fill a container and I must say it was not easy, initially I struggled to fill it, it rolled around on the surface, after a few lifts and drops I managed to get a small amount in, then a quick lift and drop again and success, it filled, then there was the task of pulling it back up, this was not such an easy task, the weight was not the issue, trying not to bash it against the side of the rocky well and spill the water out was the difficulty, when the 30 litre container reached the top I then had to lean over the edge to lift the water out and over the lip of the well, this was fairly scary as it was a long way down. I asked has anyone fallen in the well and I received the answer I did not want to hear, "yes", a women had fallen in, they had managed to pull her out and she was okay, but the thought of it was horrible. I was being filmed for some publicity therefore I was asked to fill another container, I did it but the thought of the women falling in was in my mind... Life here is so different, I was pulling untreated water from a well so that it could be consumed by the villagers, makes turning on your tap seem so distant and taken for granted, we just don't understand how easy life is for us.

After the well I then had a go of balancing 2 full containers on my head in the same way the women do, I can tell you these women have some strength and an amazing balancing ability, I found it uncomfortably heavy and exceptionally uneasy. I only managed to take a couple of steps and I wanted to take them off, I seriously do not know how they do it. I did manage to create a large audience, it felt like half the male population of the village had come to take a look at the crazy English man try to do what their wives do every day.

Once the well experience was over I stood and watched the women work at the well, whilst I did this a man walked over to the edge of the crowd and squatted to the ground, he then proceeded to go to the toilet in public, I quickly turned away in shock and then again realised that this is why I have come to India, to see life as it is, not as a tourist on a holiday. I did not turn back to look again as I had seen enough but I did get a grip of my emotional response.

I left the well area and took a walk back to the village, here I had a magical experience, I was taking pictures of the children and then showing them to the kids on the camera display screen, they loved it. I them pulled out the ipad and took some pics and showed them on the big screen, they got really excited, they were all asking for their picture to be taken and the crowd grew at a rapid rate. I squatted down to the ground and put the front camera view on, so the the kids could look at themselves in the screen, this was where the magic happened, before I knew it they were climbing over me, leaning to the camera all trying to get a view, I must have had a circle of 15 children, two to three deep, laughing, jumping and cheering to let me show them their image on the screen. I did not speak their language however we communicate with the universal language of fun and laughter... I continued to take pictures and play with the kids for around 30 minutes, I will treasure and hold this memory for the rest of my life.

We left the village shortly after this and as we did the kids followed us through the streets, they waved and gave me the thumbs up as we departed. In my heart I was saddened to leave them as knowing all of these children would suffer, would become ill due to the sanitary conditions and wet season water conditions, I only hope the work of WaterAid and partners in this village comes soon enough so that they need not suffer anything worse than sickness, stomach pains, fever and aching bones. It is hard to walk away when you know the risks and even harder when we have a life so privileged in comparison.

I will end this blog entry here as I find it fairly emotional writing right now and post a brief blog about my second visit later.