Thriving in a Slum?

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Sometimes, we can have an experience that just smashes our stereotypes, perceptions and expectations.

On our trip travelling around India over Christmas, my husband Ross and I decided to do a ‘slum tour’ on our last day.  Before the tour I admit to being a bit worried that it was “poverty tourism”, and I’d feel uncomfortable gawking at the less privileged.

Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia. It is estimated that just over one million live in Dharavi, which spans just 535 acres, has a population density of an incredible 869,565 people per square mile.

There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi. The slum is the most literate in the country, with a literacy rate of 69%.

I was expecting abject poverty, crime, filth and despair.

In fact, I came away completely inspired.

Our wonderful guide, Razak, had been born in the ‘neighbourhood’ (he refuses to call it a slum).  He is incredibly well-educated, charming and personable and a brilliant teacher. We learned so much about the “slums”, the history, and their resistance to being re-housed.  This video gives you a taste – and was created by the two guys who created the business, called “BeTheLocal”.

The people living there work incredibly hard.  Razak himself holds down three jobs – he teaches the local kids in maths and English, he’s a tour guide, and he works part-time for an international bank.  All this whilst completing a masters degree in business.

A large percentage of the workshops inside the neighbourhood are concerned with re-cycling.  It is believed that if they stopped working for just one day, the entire city of Mumbai would come to a complete standstill under a vast mountain of rubbish and waste.

There is almost no crime, and nearly everybody is employed.

We felt completely safe throughout our time there.  Unlike the rest of Mumbai, we weren’t approached by a single ‘beggar’ the whole day.

There’s a real sense of community.  All the profits from these tours goes towards educating the children of Dharavi.

I was left feeling hopeful, inspired and impressed by the resourcefulness of these people.

By way of contrast, the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, has just moved into his new home nearby in Mumbai which is 27 storeys high and worth £630m.  Each floor is actually double-height, so it’s really over 50 floors.  It’s for him, his wife and their three children.  Five people.  (Oh, and the house has dedicated six entire floors to car parking, accommodating 168 cars, as well as three helicopter pads).  I can’t say whether Mr Ambani is thriving or not, as I haven’t met him – but I do feel curious.  Is he compensating for something, I wonder? If you’re curious to take a look, check this out:

Why am I telling you all this in a blog about thriving?

Well, the people I met in Dharavi ARE thriving.

(I’m not so naïve as to think all one million inhabitants are entirely happy all the time – I’m sure there are people really suffering and struggling – as in any community)

But on the whole what I picked up from the people I met was a pervading sense of joy, love, peace, respect, entrepreneurial spirit, curiosity and an incredibly deep sense of community, connection and support.  Dharavi is their home, and they’re incredibly proud of it.

Could we all say the same about our neighbourhoods here in the privileged West?

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