Monday, February 20, 2012

Between gutters and oxen: that sleeping human

I’ve published about poverty before. I’ve slept on the outskirts of slums, worked with some amazing NGOs in Kibera, watched family members negotiate the welfare system, food stamps and the prison-industrial complex. I’ve slept next to homeless people in London. When people said, prepare yourself for the poverty of India, I raised my eyebrows. I thought I knew something about poverty.

Three weeks in, and we’re in a new location – on the outskirts of a massive cricket stadium, the local muslim neighborhood and some large overgrown areas that are fenced off - and we are fending for ourselves more than before. Last night after one of the best meals I’ve had recently (though I say that almost every day) we took a stroll around 10pm. The city was alive and hopping, shopping, eating, biking and talking. People - everywhere. In between shish kebabs and tea-stands where men practiced the art of pouring tea (and now that I finally realized what a significant influence Islamic culture had on India pre-colonialism, I’m seeing traces of Morocco in many of the customs here) and Muslim women in the full hajib – here, they tend towards styles with elaborate sparkles, gold and glittery designs chit-chatting with their girlfriends. There’s laughter and dust and piles of concrete and, of course, cows. (3 weeks in and I’m still amazed at the ubiquitous cows). And somewhere between the broken sidewalks are people sleeping, some without so much as a blanket. Hands, sometimes without all the fingers, are curled around heads of thick, unbrushed hair. I soon lost count – how many sleeping figures on the side of the road, under archways, next to doorways, in the open, on the seat of a rickshaw, the back of a vegetable cart, in the gutter? Sometimes families – children standing awkwardly behind mothers. I looked at one particularly strong-willed and beautiful woman who was probably my age with three small children around her. Chennai is known for its grittiness and congestion –and the friendliness of its people. I meet that friendliness everywhere in this city. I smiled at this woman. She did not smile back.

I found myself trying to search my vast amounts of reading for explanations. I remembered colleagues talking about slums and participatory action research and urban poverty. Something about corrupt politicians, entrenched interests, unequal resource distribution, the fallacy of trickle down economics, profit before people, people leaving the rural areas for the urban areas and then finding nothing. Something about the lack of social welfare policy. I recalled the graphs we created about the transmission mechanisms of poverty. Looking at the dark hands, fingernails bitten and fingertips worn and dusty, I did not recall how we came up with those numbers. I’m sure we did a good job. But face to face with this human being, all I can think is, ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’

Day after day, I go from hotels to rickshaws to office buildings to beaches to my computer to dinners to meetings…. And in every movement, I am surrounded by what we loosely call ‘poverty’. Not the poverty of a healthy village but of homeless men, women and children whose sleep looks like the sleep of the exhausted, the drugged, those in denial, the depressed. The cows look far, far healthier.

I know that I actually, have very little sense of what their lives are ‘really’ like.

This morning we ate outside of the hotel – masala dosa, fresh fruit and lassi. A delicious, healthy breakfast for 2 people for under $2.

This morning, the homeless were still there.

I’m here to try a new form of evaluation to measure a new type of program that is designed to enable the government to better serve the poor. By and large, I’ve been motivated by the chance to engage with a new and potentially significant way of measuring results (value: innovation) and the incredible people I’m working with (value: belonging, team/collaboration). This morning, I’m reminded of another motivation: anything that I can do to address anything that resembles the root causes of poverty. Value: Service.

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