My afternoon in the Annawadi slum

24 Apr

Yesterday, I sat apprehensive in the car. We were on our way to the Annawadi slum near Mumbai airport.

Rewind a few months, and I was next to a fireplace in Norway, reading about the hopes of upward mobility of Abdul, Asha and the other residents of this slum. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, the boy Mirchi explains how the slum huts are circled in by extravagant hotels and a new international airport: “Everything around is roses. And we’re the shit inbetween”.

So yes, I was excited. I had soaked up the pages within days. But now, as we were coming closer to the real thing, my body language revealed an increasing anxiety. Hands clenched in my lap, I had stopped talking. We were on our way to the slum dwellers. The home of the garbage pickers, the alcoholics, and the stink of sewage. We had already had a quick stop at a nearby mall. Though we had followed the advice of avoiding water melon for breakfast and not drinking too much, we needed to make sure. Neither of us had any intention of being in need of an open-air toilet.

The car inevitably came to a halt at the slum entrance, where two beaming social workers stood waiting for my cousin Eli from Bergen, Norway, and her two visitors. “They always come to collect me. It’s safer”. Seeing our stunned faces, Eli added with a laugh, “I also have an agreement with the driver that he will come looking for me and call my husband if I’m not out by the agreed time.” “And you’re telling us this now?!” The concern was exaggerated, but my boyfriend wasn’t entirely joking.

Because here we were. On a street lined with garbage. Next to a small lane that would take us into slum huts and away from the air-conditioned car. I felt India strongly in my nose. A few metres away, two boys were picking at the trash. Splashes of colours appeared, as women in bright red and yellow saris crossed the street. Eli looked at us, “shall we go?”

We were entering Annawadi to help with two rounds of afternoon English classes. An expat in Mumbai since last year, Eli runs weekly English classes for children whose low-income parents apply and qualify for support from the non-governmental organisation Children’s Future India. “One mother told me that if it had not been for the financial support, they would have taken their daughter out of school after the eleventh grade. They would have needed her income”. But, thanks to their child’s sponsor from Norway, Eli said, the family could keep the girl in school. To sponsor a child costs 200 kroner (26 euro) each month. That equals education, food and medicine for a child in Annawadi. Or four coffees at a cafe back home.

I followed Eli, the two social workers and my boyfriend through slumlanes and past my own fears. It was simply difficult to hold on to my anxiety when people were smiling at me. Cardboard huts were few and far between. Instead, we moved through narrow walkways inbetween low and colourful two-storey brick buildings seemingly built on top of the next. As I rounded a corner, I heard a woosh from above. One of the social workers turned to me. “That is not a waterfall”, he said with a grin. From a long pipe leading from one of the houses, sewage splashed into the black river on our left.

Across the river, a few more steps, and we were on the second floor of a small yellow building. In this room, the size of a medium sized bathroom in Europe, fifteen girls and boys were waiting expectantly in silence, seated with crossed legs on straw mats. A large fan flapped slowly just below the corrugated roof. Though in the exhausting heat, the fan felt more like a tease than a relief.

Right. And this is where I came face to face with my own prejudices. This crowded room, filled with slumdwelling children, smelt of – nothing. And the children? In neat rows, and equally neat themselves. None of them with tattered, faded clothes. And none of them even slightly on the smelly side. The girls in light-coloured saris. Their hair either braided or pinned away from their faces with hair clips. Some had fresh flowers pinned to their hair. And the boys? Their shirts looked like they had been ironed. My knee-length tunic (kurta), on the other hand, was already soaked at the throat and armpits.

For the next few hours, I sat mostly in quiet joy. In front, next to a white blackboard, Eli explained, laughed and praised. The children beamed. Arms continuously shot high in the air. “Miss! Miss!” Every now and then, one of the four girls squeezed up against me would adjust an arm or a leg to get even closer. Behind me, a ten-year old girl occasionally nudged her five years younger sister. For some reason, this reminded me of a story Eli once told. When asked what they did after school, the children replied that they helped their grandparents. “We fetch them water and medicine, they said. Imagine, that is what a ten-year old does here; fetch his grandmother water.”

Half-way through the class, we moved on to Bob and Sally who had lost their dog Tiny. My boyfriend and I read it out loud for the children to repeat. Every time he spoke, the children made wide eyes. Norwegians are all very good, but a real English person in one’s English class, now that’s something! For a few minutes the two of us almost reached the stardom of teacher Eli.

She, however, held a different class than what I expected. This was far beyond apple, table, sister. We were doing present continuous tense. And, a grin spread across my face as the children shouted out their answers in unison.


Having boys and girls in the slum not only learn grammar, but also challenge gender roles in their weekly English class will perhaps not make much difference. But it’s a small step. And an important message in an area where small girls do not walk safely on their own. Each and every girl in this class, which takes place in broad daylight, is accompanied to school and picked up after class by a parent.

And there was to be one last surprise. After the last giggling child had shaken hands with the visitors and disappeared down the stairs, a neighbour put a hand through the open door. From her balcony, only a few centimetres from the room we were in, she held out a chocolate ice cream to Eli. For the past hours, the pitiful fan had done nothing with the ferocious heat. And visible to the neighbour, Eli was not only doing an impressive job but she was also coated in sweat.

So. My afternoon in the Annawadi slum was everything travels should be. Unpredictable, emotional, joyful. I went there not knowing what to expect. Yet, I still ended up with something I did not expect at all.

Hours of eager learning.

These children are in the middle of their school holidays.

And I understand why they still come - this is brilliant fun!

Spot the neighbour!

Head, shoulders, knees and toes!
Even in the Mumbai slum, Asians do the V-sign on photos.

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3 Responses to “My afternoon in the Annawadi slum”

  1. Danielle and David 24. Apr, 2013 at 20:35 #

    Dear Dominic and Kari,
    So impressed by your teaching efforts! Well done! A complete change of scenery from the countries you visited before is having a profound effect on both of you. Nice to know you are staying with relatives from Norway.
    Your vivid descriptions are always interesting to read. Thanks for sharing your impressions with people like us who will never travel to Asia!
    MA and Dad

  2. Heather 03. May, 2013 at 10:15 #

    Interested to know if you now feel you want to become more involved with the children/people of Annawadi? It made me sad to read in ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ that virtually no charity money goes to the slum dwellers and that corruption is so widespread. Your cousin’s project is obviously successful however, which is wonderful to hear . How do I go about helping her organisation?

    • Kari 05. May, 2013 at 16:39 #

      Hi Heather, many thanks for the message. The NGO is called “Fadderbarnas Framtid” and the website is

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