It took a while for World Vision Australia’s Kate Rose to find culture shock in the busy city of Delhi, but when she did, it hit hard.
My nephew is 14 months old. He loves bananas and banging saucepans with the wooden spoon and giggling at my attempts to explain the solar system. He doesn’t yet know the difference between a stegosaurus and a triceratops, but one day he will.
One day he’ll learn to stop flinging the dried apple from his sultana and apple mix, just as one day he’ll go to school, get an education, and become whatever he wants. For his mother, that’s a given.
I wonder what the mother of the skinny, nervous boy in front of me, fluff gingerly covering his top lip, wanted for his future. I’d bet the farm it wasn’t this: her boy forced to rummage through a fly-ridden tub of rubbish for food, scooping old noodles into his mouth, washing them down with the remnants of a cup of soft drink.
Up until that moment, Delhi hadn’t managed to deliver a real culture shock. Sure, the drivers seem crazy and it’s hotter and smoggier than Melbourne generally gets – even on her worst days – but otherwise it’s just another big city with its own ways of doing things.
But not for the boy. The boy who saw the white skin and red hair and started pleading for ten rupees – five – until a nearby man hollered at him to leave.
I also have a confession to make – my first impressions of India were made in the centre of Delhi. Amid western shops and green parks it was easy to see why Britain has ceased foreign aid to its former colony. Along the wide, leafy boulevards housing embassies and government departments it is hard to imagine anyone going hungry. But at the end of those streets, where mansions give way to run down buildings, and run down buildings finally give way to slums, seeing this boy would turn out to be just the first piece of culture shock.
Despite the rise of the middle class, much of India is poor. Soul-destroyingly, overwhelmingly, crushingly poor. More than 400 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. More than 800 million live on less than $2 a day. These are not the people turning India into the fifth biggest consumer market in the world. These are the people who can barely afford to eat.
In a rag-picking community of Delhi, where income is based on finding bottles or cans and selling them to recycling plants, and the people live among the detritus, I meet a girl probably not much older than my nephew, but without ever having had the option of pulling apple out of her box of sultanas. There is no way of judging her age – the effects of malnutrition can leave 14 year olds looking like they’re six or seven – and neither of us speak the other’s language. She starts a child’s game of poking her tongue out before her playmates from the community join her. Confident, smiling, playful children who will go to bed tonight among rubbish bags and dogs in makeshift shelters. It’s a world away from the childhood my nephew and other Australian children can expect – in fact, it’s no childhood at all.
I spoke to the manager of the South Delhi Child Restoration Project, who, after a career working with inmates and drug users now works with rag-picking children, and she explained how some of the children she sees don’t even believe it is a possibility for them to go to school. It is worth slowing down and reading that again: The children she sees don’t even believe it is a possibility for them to go to school. I asked her how she begins to change that mindset. “You start with their self-esteem,” she said.
And she does. Her project relies on the ongoing generosity of donors and it has an expiry date, as funding always does.
At the World Vision office I meet two girls, former rag-pickers, who have been at the project for four years. Now aged 10, they are both at school and want to be teachers. From not even thinking of school as a possibility, they now both want to teach in one.
Kate Rose is a Senior Media Officer at World Vision Australia. She’s currently travelling with World Vision Ambassador Tracey Spicer through India to see and share the impact of World Visions work.