She was so determined. So persistent. The way she pushed through the swathes of other kids. Her presence cutting through the noise, the dust and the general chaos that is a railway station in central Jaipur, Rajasthan. Vying to be part of a moment with an Australian teenager … in a photo she would never see.
She was clearly living in real poverty. And she was alone. One of India’s 30 million orphans. A beautiful little girl aged around five, whose name I’ve long forgotten but whose eyes I never will. I’m still drawn to that face, fifteen years later. She usually comes to me in those final moments before sleep, when the mind is set free to wonder in rooms of still frames and motion.
I was just 19 when my comfortable middle-class life in suburban Sydney was irrevocably changed. Looking back, for the better. I was one of six young Australians selected to travel to India as a Youth Ambassador for World Vision. We were tasked with bringing the realities of life on the sub-continent to a generation of young, self obsessed tweens and teens back home. This was a tough ask in the pre-Facebook early noughties. Advocacy was limited to school talks and media interviews; and selling poverty alleviation is no easy feat.
One of the first things you notice about India is the smell. A lively mix of cooking fuels, pollution, and sewerage, combined with burning camphor, sandalwood, and the mouth warming aroma of smoking tadka. India is a place of immense beauty and mystique. But in many ways, it’s also a cruel melting pot. A country where opportunity is still largely dependent on a centuries old — but long abolished — caste system. The statistics are sobering: income and asset ownership rates in rural India are alarmingly low, as are literacy rates. The Indian Government’s own data paints a stark picture of widespread rural poverty and deprivation — only four percent of students in rural areas graduate from school, and around 36 percent will never read or write. But World Vision is working to change that. I travelled around much of northern India, touring Australian funded aid projects. We met local villagers and dignitaries, along with child labourers who worked and lived in rubbish dumps. We visited large scale agriculture and education projects, and saw firsthand the way World Vision works to improve gender and social equality across all facets of Indian society. I can say unequivocally that the work World Vision is doing in India changes lives.
Which brings me to #RunIndia.
Ultra marathon runner Samantha Gash also travelled to India as a World Vision Ambassador. She too was inspired by what she saw. The former lawyer turned endurance athlete is currently midway through her challenge to run an incredible 3800km across India. Sam has partnered with World Vision India to visit community projects along the way. Hundreds of people here at home have pledged to run virtually beside her.
When I first heard about Sam’s journey I was inspired. But to be perfectly honest, I was hesitant to take part in the challenge. The timing is wrong, and the task is arduous. I’ve spent the year preparing for two half marathons – progressively stepping up my mileage after the birth of my baby girl last December. I was looking forward to tapering off right about now! Long distance running is a huge commitment. Physically, mentally, and practically. And as a working mum of three young children, it’s hard to find the time to clock up the kilometres. But my excuses were never going to cut it with this one.
I’ve pledged to run 380 kilometres over 12 weeks (including those pesky two half marathons). That’s just under 30 kilometers a week; a mere 1/10th of the mammoth endurance feat being undertaken right now by Samantha Gash.
So why not join us? It’s not too late. Pick a target, run, and fundraise. If running is not your thing, support a participant. Together, we can help improve the lives of children living in poverty in India. Visit the Run India website to learn more.
As for the little girl at the railway station … She would be in her late teens now. World Vision has since set up a school for the railway dwellers of Jaipur. Kids cram into makeshift classrooms in the station’s shanty town to learn basic literacy and numeracy skills. But the gift of education came too late for her. I often wonder if she fell into the clutches of child labour or sex abuse, or was preyed upon by traffickers and sold into slavery like so many other vulnerable Indian orphans. I’ll never know. But I like to think the persistent little girl in the picture bucked the trend; that she’s living a happy, healthy and fulfilled life. Maybe she’s a mum now like me. Wherever you are sweet girl, this one’s because of you.