Trash Talk

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Dharavi, Mumbai Quick Facts:

1) One of the largest slums on the planet (approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants).
2) Created by British colonials in 1882.
3) Estimated value of exported, yes EXPORTED goods is $500-600 million a year.
4) Covers 217 hectares (535 acres).
5) 60% Hindu, 33% Muslim, 6% Christian.

There were a million ways for me to approach this writing, none of them unique: Dignity of man against great odds, such as this picture of my guide, Hashim, with his family who live in an 8’x 6′ single room…

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Or celebration of the human spirit amidst so much drudgery and suffering such as this wedding march…

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Or the ingenuity of people who create their own industry out of the rest of the world’s garbage…

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Or the joy and hope of young schoolchildren hungry to learn against all odds…(Yes, that’s the indefatigable Don Bergmann with me!)

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But instead, I’m going to focus on this:

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Yes, it looks like a “count your blessings/perspective” article, but please bear with me…

Imagine for one second the person who went through the trouble to find/buy/build this box, hang a complaint sign on it, then HANG it up on a building in the world’s largest slum. And then, what in the world would the person do with the complaints when they opened the box? On what scale of insurmountable problems could the receiver of said complaints possibly cope? (I imagined some government agent sitting at an old wooden desk crying with his head in hands next to a gigantic pile of crumpled messages).

That didn’t seem to be a problem…the box was empty. Now, there could be a variety of reasons for that. People weren’t interested, couldn’t write (or find paper/pencil), didn’t feel anything would change, didn’t understand what ‘complaints’ meant, etc. etc. But regardless, the box was there. And it was EMPTY.

I’ve been to a number of countries in which as a white stranger I was mobbed by people asking for things, chased by children calling after me, and surrounded by folks who made me feel very privileged and quite uncomfortable. The kinds of places that you never want to visit again.

In Dharavi, I walked down narrow passageways, over puddles and open sewers, past rows of fetid animal skins, men sorting mountains of plastic, and scores of children. Except for quizzical stares and a number of children who wanted to “high five,” I hardly got a look and walked past an empty complaint box. This was a place that teetered on the edge of catastrophe every day, where cholera and tuberculosis were rampant, sewers were filled with toxic chemicals, and people struggled every single day. Yes, it’s possible that the route of my ‘tour’ was the same route that all the tourists were brought down and the locals had grown accustomed. I thought of that. But that still wouldn’t have stopped a million people if they were desperate enough.

What I walked away with was that these people weren’t waiting.

They weren’t waiting for handouts from tourists, helicopters with aide packages, or, someone to respond to things put into a complaint box. Instead, they were responding to what their environment had given them and seemed to be acting upon it. Men ripped rubber casings from long metal wires to recycle the copper and steel inside, boys smelted aluminum on an ancient machine that recast parts for western blending machines, and girls sewed, dyed, and distributed plastic parts into bins, barrels and crates.

In a lot of schools I’ve seen in my 22 year career, there’s a plethora of two things that I didn’t observe in the world’s largest slum…complaining and waiting. Hmmmm.

We do a LOT of both in schools. We wait for better results, the bell to ring, the directions to come, the meeting to start, the leadership to change, the letter to arrive in the mail (seniors). We wait. We complain. They are both passive experiences in which someone else is expected to do something.

Dharavi isn’t waiting. I don’t want to wait. I don’t want my students to wait to turn 17 or 18 before they start impacting their world. I don’t want them to complain either.

I want them to be able to take a mountain of trash, a stack of insurmountable odds against them, and make something beautiful out of it. NOW.

This picture was taken in a tiny room next to five kids trying to teach each other to read.

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About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie and children Zoe and Ian in the Singapore. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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