I stepped out of the car and the smell hit me with physical force: cloying, tangy, corrosive.
“We’ll only take a few minutes of their time. Every minute with us is money lost” Kathy said, marching determinedly towards the group of women, gathered in the thick of the miasma, whom we’d come to meet.
I nodded consent, at a loss for words, focused on how to breathe the shimmering air that rose in lazy tendrils from the decay underfoot. I trailed behind Kathy trying to take in my surroundings. None of my time in India had prepared me for this. We were standing on a wasteland. Literally. We were walking on a mountain of trash so tall, so expansive, that we were afforded a scenic vista of the city of Ahmedabad –the largest city in the state of Gujarat.
We stood on the peak of one of many trash mountains. The range, littered with people and dogs, baked under the sun as far as the eye could see. Large yellow trucks drove up and down its face bringing what appeared to be an endless supply of waste and noise. It was hot. And dusty. However, the smell of garbage trumped all. It permeated my every pore in an almost panic-inducing way. I felt nearly forty pairs of eyes belonging to the nearby garbage pickers warily probing our group. White women were not a common sight.
“Now this, this is really sad,” warned Kathy, the five-foot-two ball of fire who had lead me to the summit of this garbage heap. “I just want to take each of these women home with me, and give them a bath and something to eat.”
I stumbled upon a week of traveling with Kathy three months into my year teaching high school economics in Chennai, India. My cousin set us up because she thought the trip would be a learning experience. It turned out to be life changing.
Kathy Sreedhar is 79, and so familiar to a girl who grew up reform Jewish-ish. A native New Yorker: she is tiny, outspoken, loud, loving, and smart as a whip. Kathy’s accolades are impressive. She joined the Peace Corps in 1962 only one year after the program was established. She worked for the Corps in India, fell in love with the country, and has continued working, to this day, in the same vein that she started.
Kathy was Mother Theresa’s U.S. liaison, and coordinated over 600 U.S. adoptions from Mother Theresa’s orphanage. Up until three years ago she was the director of the Unitarian Universalist’s Holdeen Program, which works with organizations that support the struggles of the lowest castes in India. She’s an old time human rights activist, the kind that existed back when standing up for a cause was cool. And at the tender age of 79, she still makes the trip to India from her home in Washington D.C. semi-annually. Kathy had years of experience, and sure footing in a country that had knocked me off my feet.
At the time I was still raw from living in such a foreign culture. India is just different. It’s not the US, and it’s not the West. During my first few months living there I felt like my world had been shattered. I had no applicable reference points to understand the place that had become my home. Kathy came as a relief. I finally had someone who would have the answers to my big questions. Her knowledge and expertise felt like a protective blanket, albeit a scratchy one.
During our week together, Kathy took me to see two of the organizations the Holdeen Program supports in action: The Shramjeevi Sanghatana, and the Self Employed Women’s Association. The Sanghatana is a union of around two hundred and fifty thousand members that frees bonded laborers, and struggles for the rights of adivasis and other marginalized, exploited workers in Maharasthra. The Self Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA, is an international trade union for poor, self-employed women in developing countries with over two million members.
The first day of our trip I tentatively asked Kathy a question that had been bugging me since I’d gotten off the plane–Do you give to beggars?
“Well you can do what you want…but no”
Kathy didn’t exactly make me feel guilty for asking, though she did touch on the ‘feel good’ aspect of that type of donation.
“I mean, if you give to a beggar you’re not changing anything, except maybe the way you feel about the whole situation. And who knows where the money is going anyways.”
This was the first of many times that week that I wouldn’t exactly feel bad about the way I addressed, thought about, or understood poverty and inequity. Later that day, in fact, I made the suggestion that would haunt me for the rest of the week.
I wanted to impress Kathy with my understanding of empowerment. I suggested she look into the Holdeen Program funding an NGO called Speed Trust. Speed Trust loans auto rickshaws — a cheap, three-wheeled version of a taxi- to destitute women. These women eventually pay the vehicle off and own it themselves. Poor, single women are the lowest of the low in India, and owning an auto provides them decent, self-sustainable economic support. Sound convincing? Like a good cause? Empowering?
“Sounds sexy to me. No, we wouldn’t support them. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving a poor woman a rickshaw, but that’s not what we do here.” This was Kathy’s response when I suggested the organization to her.
Sexy is one of Kathy’s favorite terms –I would learn many as the week progressed. She says that people like to donate to what sounds ‘sexy’ without thinking too much past the ‘sexiness’. Kathy believes in “changing power relations!” –another of her favorite phrases- rather than developing a person’s economic status. For the rest of the trip she took every possible chance she could to point out how her organizations are different from the sexy-auto-rickshaw-giving NGOs of the world.
We traveled, met group after group, and spoke with different members and factions of the Sanghatana and SEWA. Each time Kathy would challenge me to ask interesting and, in her mind, correct questions of the people we were meeting. I stumbled through the first few conversations before getting the hang of what she expected from me. And every time, after we were done speaking with another group of people, she would say, “Do you see how this is different than giving a poor woman a rickshaw?” I would nod, internally embarrassed that I actually kind of didn’t.
The trash heap was the last of our visits.
Still trailing behind Kathy, I took a moment to look out at the view of Ahmedabad. Her many factories hummed below in all their industrial glory, and spewed thick grey smoke into the air. A young boy sorted trash in the distance. A man forty-five degrees to my left sat cross-legged, drinking water from a bright green liter bottle. A dog, covered in black tar, rummaged through different piles of garbage next to him.
The six or so women we’d come to meet stopped picking, sorting, and rummaging. They approached us to say hello and answer our questions. We stood close together and spoke loud over the din of the trucks. I’d shaken hands with every person I’d met from every group. I did not want to shake any of these women’s hands. They didn’t offer.
“What do you want to ask them? What do you want to know?” Kathy challenged me.
I couldn’t think. I looked down to gain time, and saw their feet. Most were wearing cheap flip-flops. One woman had on black socks, no shoes. Her left second toe was poking out.
“How much do you make a day?” I finally said.
Our translator repeated my question to the women in Gujarati.
“50 to 60 rupees a day depending on the day.” She replied to me.
I felt my heart travel up somewhere near my throat. That’s a dollar a day, on a good day.
“Why did you join SEWA?” Kathy nodded approval at that one.
“They say that at first they didn’t want to join SEWA,” our translator started after listening to each of the women speak, “but they say, ‘some women from SEWA kept coming and talking to us and finally we joined.’ They say ‘we used to be hit by the men who trash pick, or not allowed to pick ourselves, but now with SEWA that doesn’t happen anymore. We have our SEWA sisters.’”
It hit me in that moment. I finally understood after a week, why Kathy had eschewed the rickshaws. She supports people who fight for their own rights. Some people are born activists. Kathy is one of them. But most of us are not. Besides these angels, few and far between, the only people who will indefinitely fight for the poor and marginalized are the poor and marginalized. Giving a slum woman a means to support herself is an act with more thought and far greater effect than giving a beggar a coin, but one with the same basic power relationship. What if the women preferred something instead of rickshaws? Were they asked?
At some point during our week together Kathy turned to me and said, “I don’t come in, assume I know what’s best, and try to develop a group of people based on my ideas. I fund people to decide for themselves.” I realized that I don’t think enough about my privilege to choose.
After thanking the women for their time we returned to the jeep and drove back down the mountain. I felt wasted, hollow. I could smell, taste, and feel the trash all over me. Kathy, however, continued on:
“The worst part is that there was a plan to develop waste management in Ahmedabad, but if the government does that then all of these people will lose their jobs. You’d have hundreds of thousands of people out of work if machines take over for them.”
I didn’t know how to respond. But I did remember at that moment that I had hand sanitizer with me. I squeezed a dollop in my hand, and then offered it around. Kathy, and the two women from SEWA management who had joined us gratefully complied. I was about to put the small bottle away when I remembered the woman sitting on the pullout seat in the trunk. She was a SEWA member who used to be a trash picker before she started recruiting for the organization. Not wanting to be rude, I decided to offer her some as well. She looked at me, confused for a second, then, realizing what I was offering, laughed.
I took that as a no thank you.