Sunday, 3 March 2013

"I dreamed of having water and a toilet, I now have this"

The  pre intervention communities had always been the harder ones to leave. It is a difficult prospect to meet people with so very little, discuss the problems they face day-to-day and then file back on our mini-buses.  Leaving the slum that morning filled me with mixed emotions as we had seen first-hand how impoverished this community was, yet had also witnessed how powerful our message could be in sparking into action the Municipal Corporation.

With time for a brief pit-stop at the hotel, we were on our way to a second slum - Arjun Nagar. With the community having been assisted by WaterAid since 2008, I was unsure what to expect given the sights of this morning - after all, the word 'slum' very much conjures the images in your mind which were now a lot easier to picture. Arjun Nagar has 400 households and a total population of >2200. Having been in existence for some 30 years, the community were identified through situational analysis of WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) with an objective of improving the communities' access to sustainable, safe and adequate water supply and sanitation. In 2008, the slum only had a single bore well which supplied water for 2 hours every day. In the summers, the slum used to face an extreme water crisis and would need to access water through tankers provided by the Municipal Corporation. At times, the community would need to collect water from as far as 2km away. In terms of sanitation, only some 180 of the 400 households had toilets, most of which were connected to sceptic tanks which would overflow into the outside drains. The remaining households would be forced to openly defecate. Once again, some similar themes emerged in so far as; people had a perception toilets cost a lot of money which they simply could not afford; it was difficult to build toilets and there was insufficient space; most people did not see anything wrong with open defecation and could not relate any health, safety or dignity issues with it.

 Since 2008, WaterAid had helped by:
- setting up awareness campaigns on Water and Sanitation;
- constructed demonstration toilets to show how these could be built using a low cost model     for design;
- facilitated constructing toilets with community contribution;
- motivated 135 households to construct their own toilets;
- facilitated the community to access municipal resources for 3 bore wells and 13 community standpipes;
- assisting with the formation of a slum level Water and Sanitation Committee and a Operation and Maintenance Committee for water supply;
- promoting and motivating the entire slum to become open defecation free.

Murals were painted on the walls around the slum, re-inforcing
the education the community had received as part of the WASH
Entering the slum, a stark difference could immediately be felt. As our party walked down the road towards a congregation of people from the community, a long wall ran parallel to us with murals of WaterAid paintings promoting things such as using a latrine and  how to wash your hands. As the slum opened out before us, the same celebratory welcome we had received in other villages during our week was once again provided in a small square just on the edge of the slum. Seated on some chairs around the edge of this square, people of the community sat with us, with a small group of women sitting in a circle in the middle. It was explained to us that these women would like to play some music for us which meant for the next 5 minutes we could sit back and enjoy the enchanting sound of a drum being played whilst the rest of the women in their beautifully vibrant saris sang to us.

Women of the community singing to welcome
our party
Throughout the week, people in our party were offered the chance to provide the address at the beginning of the visit, or thanks at the end. With this being our very last visit, I felt this too big an opportunity to pass up. Having briefly scribbled something on my notepad on the bus, I waited whilst the head of the community gave his address. I talk to people a lot at work, often having to provide presentations and such. Yet I felt nervous for probably the first time all week. Standing up and speaking didn't really bother me, it was more a case of wanting to 'get it right' given the warm and humbling welcome we had received. By the time I stood up though, I realised there was no need to be nervous. Though we hadn't fully witnessed it yet, this slum was not like the Shiv Nagar; the roads were clean, there was no rubbish or open drains around us, the people were nourished and happy and there was a community here. This had only been achieved with the help of WaterAid. With that thought in my mind, I felt it didn't really matter what I said too much, like at Shiv Nagar, our white t-shirts with WATERAID written on them symbolised a change in all their lives for the better...

Hello, my name is Matt Kirk and on behalf of all of us I'd like to say thank you for sharing your beautiful song with us and your warm welcome. We are humbled to be here with you all;
We are a group of friends who support WaterAid to raise awareness and support in the United Kingdom, so that interventions in communities such as yours can continue elsewhere.
We are delighted to be here with you all today and look forward to meeting with you and spending time with your families to discuss how the WASH initiative and other work has benefitted your lives.....    Thank You.

After the address once again we split off into our groups to go and spend time with the families we had been arranged to visit. Walking just a few hundred yards down a clean track, we stopped at a small house on our left. The house was blue with corrugated iron sheets across the front. Removing my shoes, I sat with the others opposite a lady named Ramvati Vishwakarma, the mother of this household and someone who two hours later, I would remember for a lifetime as an inspirational person. Ramvati lived with her husband and three children - Manish (22 yr old son), Dharmendra (20 yr old daughter) and Anuradha (15 yr old daughter). 

We asked Ramvati to describe life before WaterAid had intervened. She described how before the intervention women had to defecate in the night time as they felt embarrassed otherwise and that with illnesses such as diarrhoea this made it all the more embarrassing. The water pump was also very far from her house so she would most often travel to the pump with her children and leave their buckets there with their children waiting in the queue so she could return home to cook and work and they could wait until it was their turn to collect water. Ramvati explained how this often meant her children were either late for or missed school and how fights would break out between the father and the mother as food would not be ready. 

Throughout our trip illnesses such as Diarrhoea had been brought up as being abundant throughout communities with unsafe drinking water or sanitation. The World Health Organisation in 2009 estimated "diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of death among children under five globally. More than one in ten child deaths – about 800 000 each year – is due to diarrhoea". This was not the only way people in this community were getting sick. Ramvati explained how people used to suffer from viral fever and skin allergies causing them to have to spend lots of money on medicine and doctors. She explained how if they did not have enough money then they would have to stay at home and be ill, causing them to be unable to work and earn, or in the case of children, attend school. Ramvati described how before the toilet facilities were constructed, they (women) would travel in groups to cross the roads ad to keep safe. Faced with re-ocurring stomach upsets she simply said "we were afraid to go to the toilet".

Ramvati explained how before the WaterAid intervention, the water pump was a 1km walk away. One day, her son had fallen in the water tank whilst trying to collect water. It was 10ft deep and took many people from the community to get him out. Ramvati described with unease how unwell Manish became from falling in the tank and how from there on out she would always escort her children when collecting water. With having to travel very far to collect water, Ramvati was afraid for her family as there was not enough water to be able to collect. In the summer, due to the water shortage, she would collect water all morning and afternoon stating how "it had become instinct not to waste any". In the rainy season, the track to the water pump would become water logged and extremely muddy. 

Ramvati Viswakarma
The great thing about post-intervention communities I found during my time in India is getting to ask the question "what has changed since the intervention?". It's the best question to ask and I always looked forward to it for the simple reason that you knew the answer would be a positive and happy one. And it was. Ramvati relaxed, sat back with her head up and smiled as she explained just how her and her families' lives had ben changed;

New standpipe immediately outside Ramvati's
"There is no more waiting for water (pointing to the new standpipe immediately outside her house with bright orange taps on it). Since the intervention we are living a better standard of life with access to water and toilets and it means children can go to school". Manish at this point added in English "it is a better society for living, we spend less time collecting water and more time going to school". As with any proud mother, Ramvati's smile was beaming when she explained how Manish was studying a degree to become and Engineer. She re-iterated how if children were waiting with buckets to collect water, this was time they could not be in school. She firmly believed, as i think we all did, that without this intervention, Manish would not have been admitted into study his degree. Anuradha had been awarded a scholarship to a private school which amounted to 400R a year which she could spend on books and materials. The school itself was 350R a month however, which despite being a lot of money to this household, I sensed would be something Ramvati would always ensure she could pay. 

Manish stood with newly constructed
latrine behind him
Ramvati invited us into her home. As we walked in to the largest room, a bed with a big red cover was up against the wall with a religious shrine on the wall adjacent. Walking through this room we entered the tiny kitchen within which Ramvati cooks for 5 people, it was clean and tidy. Turning right was Anuradha's room, she proudly showed me her brother's books on Mechanical Engineering. Straight through the kitchen led to a small garden with a newly built latrine. Manish explained to James and I how much of a difference this had made to his family. This house, not much bigger than the average sized living room, was Ramvati's pride an joy. As we came back out into her front yard, another girl introduced herself as Neelu Vishwakarma (though no relation to the family we were with). Her English was fantastic and we chatted about how she had managed to get a job in a call centre which helps her pay for her tuition at college - she was currently in her second year studying commerce. Neelu clearly knew the family well and joined our discussion in the front yard. 

Before long a great number of people had gathered. I think on reflection the time spent in Ramvati's company was one of my fondest moments of the trip. We were talking and laughing with Ramvati and her family as well as the other people from the community who had come to meet us. Manish had disappeared a few moments earlier, but suddenly re-appeared with the silver tray we had seen many a time before. Whilst we were warmly welcomed into this community we had not had our heads marked or been given the flowers which we had received in the other communities. Ramvati had sent Manish to buy some in order to personally welcome her guests. The next few minutes were truly humbling. We were each given a garland of flowers and had our foreheads marked as a sign of respect. After speaking with Neelu, James approached me  with a big smile, he had spoken with Ramvati who had very simply, but so poignantly said to him;

"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"

I will never forget my time with Ramvati and her family. we visited a number of other households briefly during this visit, with the resounding feeling being that everyone was proud to live in this slum and be a part of the community who had transformed their lives since WaterAid had provided the much needed WASH awareness and support required. With their new found confidence, we were told how the community regularly 'pester' the Municipal Corporation to enforce laws which they now know about are there to protect them. WaterAid had educated this community, and they now had a strong voice.

Me with Aarambh Sahay, yet another inspirational empowered
woman I met in India.
Before I left there was one more person I wanted to meet, Aarambh Sahay. Dressed in a beautiful green Sari, a nice handbag over her arm and big sunglasses covering her eyes, the initial impression given was this was an empowered woman. She was... she had set up and was now  Director of Childline Bhopal. Every day Childline Bhopal help 60-80 children in danger, providing them with food, water, safe refuge, love and support. I didn't have very long to speak with Aarambh and though I wanted to, it wasn't needed. She had left a lasting impression in the same way Amarsingh, Ramvati and so many other had this week, she was a role model, an inspiration.

I hope this blog has given an insight into the communities we have visited across the week. I will only write one more blog as a summary and reflection on our visit as well as a brief bit about our return home.

If anyone has been inspired by this, please visit water for more information,



  1. Thank you for such wonderful Graphic and from the heart blogs Matt like my sons I have read and enjoyed everyone Such a trip for you all and a wake up week for you all ,Lets hope your appeals to the people of India and the way wateraid is showing them life is for living and familys. and will make a difference to all the children It can make such a difference to know someone cares about them and you .Good luck with all you do in the future x

  2. Thank you Gloria for your kind words, it was a pleasure to spend it in the company of James and the others. Take care x

  3. I know I've said it before Matt but what an incredible blog, well done and thank you for sharing your experiences and advocating the necessity of the work of WaterAid. Caroline