Intrepid Woman: Educating Children in Goa

P1050292By Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog. A regular contributor, Thompson has just returned to the UK from a period of volunteer work for a charity in India. This is her story.

Goa: the smallest and the richest state in India; a former Portuguese colony, a place of beautiful golden beaches, swaying palm trees and over a million domestic and foreign tourists per year. The wealth brought by the tourists also brings an influx of economic migrants. In search of work and money, they travel to this tiny state in western India from other areas – hundreds and in some cases thousands of miles away.

I first visited Goa in 1999, have been back many times since then and have seen the volume of both tourists and of workers from other parts of India soar in the intervening years. Unsurprisingly, the Goan infrastructure is now creaking under this flood of people; from a tourist’s point of view, power cuts and water shortages are increasingly common but can be dismissed as being “part of the Indian experience.” However, what many tourists never see are the living environments of many of the migrant workers – and, more particularly, how this impacts the health and education of their children.

Before Christmas, I spent time undertaking volunteer work for a small Goan-based charity called Educators’ Trust India – I’m pictured here with some of the children on a trip to the beach. The charity was set up two years ago in order to provide practical assistance to the children of these migrant workers and they now, funded only by donations, run two schools, Leading Light and New Light, and a number of outreach projects where they work with migrant workers in the local slums.

Before I visited one of these slum settlements, the word “slum,” particularly in the context of India, conjured up images of “Slumdog Millionaire” – people living in city buildings, in poverty, but yes, in houses. I was very rapidly disabused of this notion when I visited one of the Goan slums (read more about my trip here in this blog entry) which was simply – a field. It’s only a mile or so inland from the beaches where my fellow tourists sun themselves and drink cheap cocktails – but it might as well be on the moon. Here, several hundred adults and children live in a field, taking shelter only under improvised tents made from blue plastic sheeting. There’s no running water or sewage arrangements, there’s certainly no electricity and all their meals are cooked in pots on open fires.

The people who we visited travel half way across India (around 800 miles in this instance) by train, a journey which takes up to five days, in order to set up camp and work (or beg) amongst the tourists. They stay for six months of the year, from October onwards and then return to their home states to wait out the rainy season. Whilst in Goa, they live in their tents and the women and children work – in jobs which include selling t-shirts, sarongs and jewelery on the beach, doing sun lounger based massages, manicures and pedicures or selling crisps and peanuts.

You’ll note my reference to the women and children … what are the men doing? Sadly, in many cases, they are drinking and gambling. One day I arrived at the rural slum in order to provide an impromptu lesson for some of the children (the younger ones, as many of the children aged 8+ were already out at work) to discover a group of about 20 men sitting around, playing complex card games, in a state of extreme , highly scented intoxication, fighting and brawling amongst themselves. Their wives, who usually have at least three and sometimes as many as six or seven children, often sport black eyes or evidence of other aspects of domestic violence.

So what were my Indian takeaways from this incredible, life changing experience?

  • Firstly, I’m clear that the only way to break the cycle of child poverty is through education – and that includes educating the parents to understand that, if they allow their children to go to school, that their future will be brighter, and filled with income based options which don’t include living under blue plastic or selling stuff on beaches. In parallel with this, we also need to help tourists understand that, by giving money to child beggars, they are helping to perpetuate child poverty, by creating an environment in which it’s more economically viable to beg rather than to go to school.
  • Secondly, that a relatively small amount of money (by Western standards) can go a very long way in Goa. One of my friends sent me £20/$30 while I was out there – this bought milk and fruit for all the children and pregnant women at the slum settlement. £15/$23 will buy rice for a daily meal for a school full of children for a month. This really put my daily grande skinny latte London habit into perspective.
  • And finally that, for anyone thinking of volunteering, either at home or abroad – whatever your background, you WILL have skills that can make a difference. I’m not a teacher or a nurse (the two most commonly requested skill sets), I don’t even have children – but I’ve been able to use my writing skills to help the charity with their website, Christmas card, and newsletter. What could you do to make a difference somewhere in the world?