There are many different stories to tell from our three weeks here in India. Thanks to our leader, Allison Cleary and St. Michael’s long-time engagement with this part of the world we have met and participated directly with many different groups, from an organization finding alternative work for women who formerly worked in the sex industry (FreeSet Global); to a man who has developed a boarding school for more than 300 street children. Along the way we have played with children, cared for the dying and worked side by side with women who have changed their futures. And the nine of us all got to know each other better--students and teachers, fellow travelers and caring human beings. This is an amazing country, big and beautiful with a vibrancy and activity, along with the human suffering, that strikes you every day. And, as deep as the poverty is, there are people striving to change it. Here is the story of the Brickfields.
On a street in Kolkata today I passed a pile of bricks being carried on workers' heads into a building. The bricks were stamped with the word FRIEND. Bricks are used everywhere here, for houses, buildings, roads and walls. In the state of West Bengal the bricks are made by hand, south of the city in encampments called brick fields. A brick field consists of an owner, some managers and the workers—very poor people from small villages in northern India. These migrant laborers spend 8 months living on the brick field site before returning home during the monsoon. Crowded into low-slung buildings, the families work all day under baking sun to dig the mud, compress, stamp, fire and stack the bricks. The bricks are fired in tall kilns, their cylinder smoke stacks dotted eerily across the vast empty landscape . A family is paid by the number of bricks produced. Children work with their parents in the raging heat, carrying bricks and digging mud. Although child labor is against the law, the the owners explain that they pay the family, not the children.
Into this world steps the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre with a program to provide three hours of educational instruction for the children of the families – children that would never attend school. In the early morning, teachers from the area, found, chosen and trained by the Social Centre, instruct students. The goal is to give these kids enough “joyous education” that they can continue somewhere else as the families can rarely return by choice to the same place.
The children meet with their teachers on a blanket under a tree or in a piece of shade. For our visit the kids were crowded into a small room to escape an early morning rainstorm. Parents joined the children in watching and clapping as children presented interactive songs. One young girl recited a poem, with her teachers beaming next to her. We sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider Climbed up the Water Spout,” and led the packed and mixed group of students in a rousing session of Hokey Pokey – “you stick your right arm in and you shake it all about….”
As we stuffed into this crowded room, sitting knee to knee with students, feeling the sweat of humidity and humanity, the hope that this glimpse of education can bring to these children was shining bright.
It’s been a great joy to be on this trip and witness this and other special moments with a fabulous group of students. Thanks to my fellow travelers, Saint Michael’s and Allison for the trip!
Staff assistant, Richard Watts
June 7, 2016