Sunday, January 19, 2014

Taking school to an urban slum in rising India -- my newest volunteer gig

Cause Kitchen contact information:,, Saumi Mitra at 91+8860771545
Since September 2013 I began volunteering a couple of hours each week for a non-profit organization that takes school to an urban slum, close to my home in Gurgaon, India. The organization is named Cause Kitchen.  To build awareness on this wonderful team, I will describe my experiences thus far as a volunteer teacher and the reactions of some critics. I will describe my own longer-standing history of volunteering to perhaps encourage others who have are curious about some incentives behind voluntarism, and rewards. 

Posters by children of Cause Kitchen on India's Annual Children's Day, November 14, 2013

What is Cause Kitchen?

I pulled this description from their blog, Their email is :

“Cause Kitchen is a learning center in the Chakkarpur village of the satellite city to New Delhi, India – Gurgaon – with about 60 students, at present. Chakkarpur is a village with Haryanvi landlords and migrant tenants, primarily from Eastern India. The latter community makes a living, mostly, by working in the neighborhood posh communities as housemaids, cleaners, auto and hand rickshaw pullers, and office/mall peons or housekeeping staff.

The one-room pigeon hole that they live out of, in a building that roughly accommodates 90 tenants (which would be about 450+ people living in 1 building), comes with steep rents, tough landlords and tougher Estate Managers and alarming house rules, such as having to buy all ration from the in-house grocery store. For example, tenants cannot go to the nearby grocer like Reliance to pick up a pouch of Mahakosh-branded refined cooking oil. They are instead forced to buy Sundrop-branded oil with a stamp 135 Indian Rupees from the grocery store of the landlord aka Thekedar.

Many of these residents of Chakkarpur are thus oppressed, rather than outright poor.”

My experience

For the children of Cause Kitchen, I design and deliver lessons on Indian history and geography in a global context.  One of my recent lessons introduced the children to other emerging economies in continents of the Global South, such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  As an aspiring Political Scientist whose budding focus is on India and other emerging economies, this volunteer position is most awesome – awesome sauce, to be more precise :) 

My initial visits to the learning centre were overwhelming, mostly in a physical sense since the closest I had encountered a slum was while passing by in auto rickshaw or from reading, such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.   Did I find myself surrounded by a lot of litter and dust? Yes. Did I smell decay and other rot? Not in most areas, no. Did I feel unsafe? Not for a moment of my time, no.  Such anxieties were quickly allayed by affection from the children as they greeted me with 'Namaste, Sir!', and by the hospitality of their parents and head nods from some landlords. 
Beyond the physical experience, it has been an exciting and unexpected opportunity for professional development with learning how I might package one of my most well-developed and intensely-invested assets: my knowledge.  This is knowledge in the formal sense from schooling, and also the informal variety from living in various world regions, using various languages.  Particularly as a social scientist, it can seem more challenging to understand how to transfer our knowledge as compared with practitioners in harder natural and physical sciences, such as medicine and engineering.  For this realization and experience, I particularly credit the founder and head of Cause Kitchen, Saumi Mitra, who told me to teach what I am passionate about just as soon as she asked me what exactly my passion is.
The children of Cause Kitchen learn about the British Raj period, from the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 to the Quit India Movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi culminating in Independence in 1947.

The children meet kids from other emerging economies – What do others eat for breakfast? Enjoy studying in school? Play for sport?
I designed this lesson in which the children of Cause Kitchen met Maria who lives in Rio of Brazil, Kapano in Johannesburg of South Africa, and Wei in Shanghai of China


Family and friends have been very supportive of this volunteer work, since after all many of them are involved in some form of community service.  Though, I had at least two critics whose comments are worth sharing.

A foreign national and a truly lovely friend who was in India working at a nonprofit in Chandigarh, was surprisingly smug about how legitimately destitute these children were, and their families. Upon reflecting on his own well-meaning [yet, token?] experience in India and a previous month of work in Malawi, he commented the following:

Him: Oh my god, you work in a slum? God, is there [human] shit everywhere?

Me: No, there is not shit ever where. Slums can have organization. I think they shit in one corner, pee in another corner – and so on – just as they sleep in the same spot each day, and cook in another.

Him: Okay, because if there isn't shit everywhere then maybe it’s not a slum. I went to a slum in Chandigarh, and there was shit every where.

Rahul: Okay. The people in the particular slum I visit do not seem to shit every where. It’s nonetheless a slum. Their housing in constructed from scraps of sheet metal and other deteriorated materials, they create ovens from burning scrap wood in a hole in the earth, and the space itself is not legally zoned for residence.

Him: But, if there isn’t shit everywhere, then it sounds pretty decent. Maybe it’s not a slum.

Rahul: Okay. I am not sure if the formal classification of a slum includes human shit every where, and I doubt it. The slum I visit doesn’t have shit everywhere, like I said. Beyond a certain lack of security and infrastructure for public health, I think all slums are equally tragic and places that neither of us would choose to live in.

Him: Okay. I’m just saying, it’s sounds pretty decent.

Me to myself, in my own head: Please leave India, you NGO tourist.  Though before you exit, check out the Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children.  So you can subsequently Transform Your Facebook Profile Picture.

A local Indian who is a loyal friend and a former member of one of India’s largest political parties, commented “You teach world geography to poor children? Haha. What is the point for them to learn about world geography when they will never reach beyond their own slum?”  Despite being very infuriated from hearing this, I managed to keep a lid on on my anger and said not much more than "knowledge is power, my friend". And my lower lip must have been leaking a bucket-full of blood, since I could not have been biting down any harder.

Why do I volunteer?

I have been volunteering a few hours each week since I was 14 years old. My volunteering began at a hospital for children with disabilities in Toronto, Canada, the Bloorview Hospital. Throughout high school and my undergraduate career, I volunteered in the geriatrics and emergency wards of North York General Hospital, and at the community wellness centre of the Scarborough Grace Hospital -- also in Toronto. When I shifted to the UK for graduate study, I volunteered at Oxfam. And at present amidst my more advanced graduate study in the USA, I am volunteering while on fieldwork in India at the Cause Kitchen.

I volunteer for many reasons.  One of my motivations is philosophical, and a second is professional.

Philosophically, voluntarism is core to my guru’s philosophy of séva aka social service. Voluntarism has also been core with at least two other informal mentors, most notably my godmother and my sister. My godmother, Cynthia Nambudiri, recently retired from her position with one of Canada’s longest standing and important nonprofit organizations, the Canadian Blood Services. My godmother always preaches the importance of duty to one’s country, and especially to one’s community and family. My sister, Shelly Mediratta, was recently promoted to a Vice Principal in the Toronto District School Board after many years as a teacher in the city’s most underprivileged and minority-rich areas.  

Professionally, I began volunteering to acquire initial field experience in the absence of having professional experience requisite for obtaining a paying job. My initial volunteer placements in hospitals was a reflection of my earlier interest for a career in medicine, which has been described in an interview with my undergraduate alma mater, York University, here. My volunteer experience helped me to secure my first paid position in my field, which was with the Government of Ontario in the Ministry of Health as a Junior Analyst. The hiring Director told me specifically that volunteer experience distinguished my CV and prompted her to invite me for an interview. Volunteer experience during a gap year in India enabled me to reposition my career path from a focus on the developed world to new projects on the developing world, specifically on emerging economies. 

Why should you volunteer?

That is for you to figure out. And I promise that a few hours each week will help you and others a lot more than it can ever hurt. 

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