What we do here

sophia playing in the basti

It’s been a long time since we explained our lives here.

Peregrine, Shakeenah, and I live in a one-room concrete-and-brick home in an average basti slum in north India. We’re lucky enough to have our own tap and no shared toilet (for just the second time in a decade), though of course we still take bucket showers. We have electricity about 95% of the time. Outside of rare trips to the office and once picking up someone from the train station, I haven’t been more than walking distance from the slum in over two months.

My “day job” is as a literacy teacher, facilitator, and teacher trainer. I’m teaching two classes of Hindi literacy for a combined three hours a day (when I’m healthy enough). Our learners are kids in the slum, mostly about 6-14, who either don’t go to school or are going to schools that fail to teach them how to read. In both classes I’m co-teaching with a friend from the slum. All the teaching is one-on-one, learner-centered, and cognitively intense, so the daily lessons are just 10-15 minutes per student. Between us, we teach around 30 kids in those three hours. Most kids learn how to read within 3-5 months.

My teammates and I co-facilitate seven such classes across the slum and nearby slums, which combined have ten (soon to be eleven) teachers. For six years, I was the primary facilitator and trainer, but a friend took over and became the full lead in 2020, which I am grateful for. I still train some of the new teachers as they come on, source most of their salaries, and work together with the other facilitators to troubleshoot all the weekly questions that arise.

Until 2020, I was often involved in facilitating and/or training teachers for such literacy labs and other literacy initiatives in the broader city and sometimes in other states across the country, but thankfully a teammate has taken that over as well. I’m still involved in revising the teaching and training materials to a degree and may do more training and facilitating in the future. But for now my main non-teaching task has been to write a book on school reform (our second), which I can do from home.

Peregrine’s most formal job is as a counselor, trainer, and troubleshooter at a safe house for teenage girls who come from abusive situations. She also spends a lot of energy trying to be there for various women who “graduated” from the safe house and are now struggling through life (including our foster daughter, Shadia), as well as other young women who are our neighbors in the slum. Recently she has walked alongside pregnant neighbors and is giving what help she can in their journeys. She also takes Shakeenah to a small-group home-schooling preschool twice a week, and does some home-schooling of her own, sometimes involving the neighbor kids who show up to play.

We get involved in various difficulties and dramas that crop up in a place like this – giving medical assistance, helping get folk to the hospital, breaking up fights occasionally, putting out (literal) fires, trying to give advice and support people stuck in abusive relationships, sometimes helping with emergency financial needs. Besides our foster daughter, we’ve been providing financial support for another young woman who has left her abusive husband and is trying to make it as a single mom.

Our teammates here consist of three Australian adults (all of whom have lived in slums for more than twice as long as us, but in this slum half as long as us) and one Indian adult from a different state. Besides their roles in the literacy program, they also do planning and training for a large school reform program, perform an enormous amount of local health care assistance, are spearheading a TB patient initiative, and assist neighbors in getting government services. We employ two young neighbors who help with both the hospital and government programs.

When emergencies arise we sometimes get involved in much larger initiatives, most obviously during the Covid lockdown period when the incomes of impoverished persons dried up for months and we ended up running relief programs across some 20 slums. Our teammates took on a huge role in a slum demolition crisis two decades ago, and that has threatened to repeat itself here but appears to be on the back burner for now.

On a broader level, we’re trying to raise awareness of the issues that people face in the slums and deepen cross-cultural understanding. That has included public speaking (both here and when we’re back in the West), writing articles, contributing to books, and writing blogs like this one. We do a bit of supporting folk doing similar work in other cities. And we host interns to see what life is like in the slum, and what we do, and hope they think about moving here themselves.

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