When we were first planning to move into a slum, the OG’s who advised us on how to get started kept repeating the same refrain.
“Don’t do anything.”
For the first year or two, don’t do anything at all.
Don’t start a business. Don’t start a school. Don’t start a service. Don’t start a project.
Don’t do anything.
Just be there. And learn.
In a way it was culturally difficult. Especially being “the man” in the family, it was hard to explain to people why I was just hanging out, without a job or anything like that. It wasn’t easy to explain that even to people in my own culture. But we soon learned that it was absolutely necessary.
We didn’t know the language. We didn’t know the culture. We didn’t know how to take care of ourselves in a slum. We didn’t know how to wash our dishes, our clothes, ourselves. We didn’t know what people did with their time and why they did it. We didn’t know what people’s needs were. We didn’t know why they did the things that seemed strange to us. We didn’t know what their hopes were either.
Most importantly, we didn’t have any relationships. We didn’t actually know anyone. And we were told, over and over, that it was very dangerous to start a service, a project, a ministry, whatever if you didn’t know the people yet.
So that’s what we did. Or, I guess, what we didn’t. For the first two years we lived in slums, split between two cities and five different homes, we didn’t “start up” anything.
We found out, though, that there are a LOT of things you can do when you’re not doing anything.
You can hang outside the wall of your room while the trains go by
Learn to wash clothes in a bucket
Get assaulted by strangers on a holiday
Attend an NGO’s class in a neighborhood home
Get invited over for dinner
Set up your kitchen
Work with a neighbor on your language skills
Go to a birthday party
Help your host family with cut threads off new jeans
Hang out with guys visiting for a festival
Break your kneecap carrying buckets of water back from the well
Watch neighbors gather after a man passing through was hit by the train
Hang out with the family that makes purses in their home
Go to a wedding
Get sick enough to lie in a kiddie pool in January
Learn to wear a sari
Be a place for the neighbor family’s overflow
Hang out in a tree at the local tourist attraction
Learn to sew on a manual machine
Entertain small children in your room
Go with an NGO on its visits to a slum project
Watch Scientologists do their thing
And a thousand other little events that make up life. It’s amazing how much you see and learn when you stop trying to “do something” with all your time and sit in a new place for a while.