Chugga-Wugga-Wugga-Choo-Choo! I stepped off the train (using the door) and entered a world of water scarcity, dance, and… children.
It wasn’t until I arrived in India did I realize my appreciation for children. As I walked down the streets of Bangalore, I was nervous to look at people, but it was so comfortable and fun to wave to children, smile at them and watch a big grin grow on their innocent face. I saw the beauty of India through the children I passed.
Then, a couple nights before I left for Koppal, I went to a theatrical performance of Asia Meet Asia. Abstract, disturbing, and beautiful, the actors used their surroundings and audience to interpret their deep despairs and curiosities. At one point, an actor had children from the audience come up to freely paint on a piece of plywood all while the performance continued in the background. Nothing was planned, but the children crafted art with their presence in a way that made their contribution necessary. Watching them peacefully paint and explore amidst the busyness of the world was such a new and soothing experience for me. I had no idea that two days later I would be able to amplify this experience with hundreds of children.
For my group’s first field visit, we stayed at Visthar’s campus in Koppal. This campus is home of the Bandhavi program, Visthar Community College, and the Children’s Rights, Education, and Advocacy program. All programs are used to create educational alternatives for children born into India’s lower class who would usually be forced to labor or be put into sex work as children. Around 150 students, with an estimated age range of 5-23 years, live on this small campus and eat, sleep, and worship together.
Upon our arrival (and for the rest of the week), we consistently exchanged names with each little person we met, saying either “Nimma hesaru enu?” or “What is your name?” Who knew “Courtney” would be such a challenging name… The children’s first language is Kannada. So if you haven’t sensed the complexities yet to unravel in this upcoming week, just meander on the thought of communicating with hundreds of energetic children of a different tongue.
First on our agenda was a Child Rights Panel. We sat down with nine Dalit (India’s lower class) children to hear their lived experiences of child labor, poverty, and education. As each child spoke, my heart filled with love and despair. It became clear to me the global connection between two different worlds. I understood, at that very moment, my privilege that spurred from their hard work. While they are picking and pollenating cotton for maybe $10.00 a day, I am buying a cheap shirt in a US mall. While they are forced to dedicate their lives to underprivileged work, I am going to college to “move up” in the world. While they are telling me their stories, I am sitting there helpless. Frustrated by their trapped lives and disgusted by Americans’ free lives—the lives, hopes, and dreams that we have stolen from billions of children and adults around the world. And the futures we continue to take.
Each eye glaze I tried to tell them I am sorry. As soon as the panel ended, I hugged each child individually and committed to giving every inch of my body and mind to the children I would meet in the upcoming week. There is so much they deserve.
Later that night, the rain covered the earth of Visthar. We splashed, played, and sang together. Careless of soaked clothing, language barriers, and muddy feet, we danced to a poetic night of an early monsoon season. And when the electricity left our outlets, a room full of 60 children remained completely calm, unmoved, and peaceful. When the lights would go out for three minutes at a time, the girls would begin singing. Nothing to see but darkness and a calmness that filled the air.
As Tuesday crept up, my emotions began to evolve. My children-high subsided, and I went from a curious explorer to an encaged zoo animal.
We started the day with a panel of Devadasi women. In short, the Devadasi system allows poor families to “dedicate” their young girls to a man as long as the man agrees to help the family. When the Dalit girl reaches puberty, she is sent to work for this man as a Devadasi. Devadasis are not allowed to marry in India, but they are sexually abused and typically involved in sex trade. Though the system was made illegal in 1982, these practices are still prevalent, and the women involved face extreme stigma. They are seen as whores and prostitutes—titles they were forced into as children.
After the panel with the Devadasi women, we traveled to the Huligi Temple, the site of their worship. It was here where eyes surrounded my every move. Bodies surrounded my social bubble. Frail begging hands extended into my world. I was a creature from a foreign land. And no creature like me would be found where I was. For the rest of the day I was exposed to pure poverty and curiosity. A visit to a poor village came next. Instantly consumed by knowledge-hungry children, I couldn’t even remember who I was or what I was doing. So many people. So many hands to shake, names to exchange, begging to refuse. In a nonsexual notion, I understood an aspect of rape. Of feeling no control of one’s own body. To be pulled from different directions. To be worshiped and oppressed. To feel sorrow and power, helplessness and confusion. To be a white face in a sea of brown. The face of ultimate beauty. The face this village has never seen but has been carved into their advertisements and movies. I was an artifact in a museum that deserved destruction. And when they asked me for writing utensils to practice their ABCs, I said no. But as kids clung to the bars of the bus as we drove away, I slipped a pen into a small hand. I wish I had 500 pens then.
You’ll find that this week threw me on a Kansas tornado of emotions and experiences. As soon as one village’s children overwhelmed me, the next day’s village children inspired me. We visited a public school in a village called Heerebidinal and sat in on a CREA meeting (Children’s Rights, Education, and Advocacy). Passionate and energetic poor children aged 11-13 years made a list of their demands to be written in a letter they would send to the local government. They knew their rights, political leaders, and personal agency (or lack thereof), and they understood the importance of participating in the decisions that affect their lives. Concerned with the physical health of teachers, separation of girls and boys, and the need for toilets, water, and food in the school, the students planned to bring in more students and then demand for more teachers, especially a teacher who can speak English and Kannada. Their maturity sobered my reality of life. As young activists who can navigate a powerful evil, they were completely amazing.
Leaving the village, we prepared for a visit to a wig “sweatshop.” In order to be granted access to this factory, we told the owner we are American students interested in furthering globalization. We were not at all concerned with social justice or human rights… We were told to smile and be respectful. At first I laughed at this irony. I’ve been acting for years, I can impress this owner. As the cheerful owner sat behind his desk bloating on his presidential awards and international selling, I smiled and nodded my head to the beating of a corrupt system. I could feel my heart becoming heavier as the illusion began to chip away. Seeing this man’s heavenly white outfit, thick gold chains, explosive diamond rings, and jolly personality made me want to vomit. I could no longer act. My forced smiled taunted me and confused his workers. On the tour of the factory, I walked past sleeping babies on the ground and mothers working monotonous 12 hour shifts for $10.00 a day. I was conflicted on whether to smile as the actor who wants to further exploit these workers in globalization or to apologize with my eyes for their slavery. I decided not to look. No “Namaste” could clear this confusion. My bitterness engulfed me as I watched young women repetitively use the same muscles that have aged their bodies by forty years. And I sit here confused on the advantages and disadvantages of the men, women, and children who work in this factory because though they have no protection as workers, they are still able to make an income that they maybe wouldn’t be able to otherwise. But then again, who knows.
And then there was laughter. If you’ve never acted completely shocked and surprised by the plot of a story you’ve already heard, you’ve never been to a Bollywood movie theater. The opening scene of “Chennai Express” evoked cat calls, clapping, and cheering. Anytime a babe, fighting, or sexual action entered the scene, the audience went crazy. Indians take their movie outings very seriously! Men ruptured the theater with their reactions and sounds. I wasn’t sure to laugh, fret, or join. The commotion was at first off-putting, but as the movie progressed I let this culture shock embrace me. Whether their cat calls justified violence against women or were purely for entertainment, I’ll always remember the rollercoaster ride of a Bollywood movie theater.
As the week came to a close, we finished some projects with the Visthar students. We partnered with students from Visthar’s community college to create a photo essay. My partners, Lakshmi and Jyoti, and I presented on mud in India. We bonded through short English sentences, technology, and pictures. Before I left, they asked for pictures of me, so Lakshmi chose a picture of me with my friend Addison and Jyoti chose a picture of me with my boyfriend Stephen. I felt silly giving them my picture, but they felt so grateful and happy. When they saw pictures of me with long hair, they fell in love and were so confused where my hair went. This would be a good time to add in that all the children were confused on my gender. They told me my face looked girl but my style looked boy. I laughed. And on the last night, we presented our projects to the Visthar community and showed off our dances and songs with all the other children. We ended our journey with drawings of a future world with equality, education, and love for nature.
Telling these beautiful children goodbye was an exercise in itself. Despite my lack of bathing for a week (once you go one week without bathing, three days…like I’m on right now…is nothing!), these children hung tight to every inch of dirt and love I could share with them. When I wasn’t bonding with the toilet, I was dedicating my time to letting go of stress and pain and catching hold of abstract fun. I learned so much about the Earth and myself through these children. And as soon as I realized the language of love, pain and friendship is universal, I was back on a train to Bangalore.