Jai Dharavi!

Although I’ve been in Mumbai for two weeks now, I want to rewind to my first full day in the city.  To spite the jet lag, I took on the heat and humidity and started getting to know the home turf of the girls’ football[1] team with whom I would be working: the largest slum in the city, Dharavi.

As many of you know, my reason for traveling to India is to study the use of team sports to empower girls. I have two main contacts here that have started ‘sports for empowerment’ projects all over the country; both, however, have projects in Mumbai. The football team in Dharavi was co-founded this past April by a group called Reality Gives and another group from the northern Indian state of Jharkhand called Yuwa.

The non-profit organization Reality Gives provides tours of Dharavi. The idea of a ‘slum tour’ is immediately a controversial concept, giving rise to ethical questions about the exploitation of the poor. An uncomfortable image may jump to mind of wealthy foreigners staring out the windows of a tour van at scenes of abject poverty and taking photos of slum residents going about their everyday lives. This image is, without a doubt, an assault on the dignity of the people being “observed”. The Reality Gives organization, however, conducts their tours in an exceptionally respectful manner that actually gives back to the community. Their goal is to correct misconceptions about slums, share the reality of life here on a person-to-person basis, and harness the economic benefits of tourism for the benefit of the community. And for the record, no photos are allowed during Reality tours.

The Overcrowded, Undersized Heart of Mumbai

 My own tour began at the train station right outside the slum, where I met my two guides and the six other travelers who had signed up for the day’s tour (from Guatemala and South Africa). Our guides were both young men from Mumbai. The tour was entirely on foot, though over the next two and a half hours we covered only a small portion of Dharavi. The slum itself is about 2/3 the size of Central Park and has a population estimated to be around one million. The main streets are paved with concrete bricks and lined with shops, businesses, hair saloons, elaborate Hindu temples, restaurants, firehouses, and bakeries. Hundreds of tiny alleyways spread like capillaries off the main roads to separate neighborhoods and industrial sectors. It is truly a city within a city.

The largest industry in Dharavi is recycling. Residents collect plastic and aluminum from all over Mumbai, and then take it through an elaborate process in order to export it both nationally and internationally as high quality raw material. The conditions for workers in these industries are horrible and obviously dangerous; but efficiency is prioritized above all else, and workers willingly sacrifice their health for the sake of making a living. On the tour we were also shown the leather tanning sector, the cloth-dying district, the women’s businesses that produce massive amounts of snack foods everyday, and the community center that receives funding from Reality Gives. The residents were familiar with the routine of walking tours passing through their neighborhoods; we were greeted with smiles, blatant stares, and countless children who wanted to practice their English.[2]

The underlying vibe of Dharavi is enterprising, lively, and hard-working. I don’t mean to paint a falsely rosy picture of this slum: it has serious problems. It is overcrowded, lacks quality drainage for its sewage, and struggles with outbreaks of illness, especially amongst its children. But these are not despondent or even disenfranchised people—it’s community with a culture and economy all its own. If you look at a map, Dharavi appears to be in the shape of a heart. Hence, its  affectionate nickname: the heart of Mumbai.

A Field of One’s Own

The 20 girls who made up Dharavi’s newest football team are a motley crew with the common desire to do what every kid wants to do: play. They range from age 6 to 12 and come to practice wearing everything from full-length dresses and headscarves to shorts and bare feet. The coaches include Anand (22), Meena (15), and Sunita (17), who traveled down to Mumbai from their rural home in the state of Jharkhand in order to help found this team. These three have all been coaches for Yuwa, an organization that has been wildly successful in establishing seriously competitive girls’ football teams in small villages since[3]. I can only imagine the courage and confidence it must have taken these three energetic young leaders to travel to a city like Mumbai. That said, both Meena and Sunita confessed that they really did not like the city. With its noise, pollution, and frenzy, I can’t say I blame them.

If you were to watch one of the Dharavi girls’ practice (which take place every evening between 6:30 – 8:00), it may appear to be on the brink of chaos. The girls tend to bicker and have trouble following directions. Because it is monsoon season, their field is currently flooded. The space left for them to play is ridden with trash, boys trying to play cricket, younger siblings who tag along, and mud. All of this creates innumerable distractions for the girls; the vast mud pond that used to be their field is just begging to be explored. The coaches have made the very best of the situation, but it’s extremely difficult to keep order or rhythm to practice times. Since that first day, I’ve been attending every practice—even though I’m not the one leading practice, I feel exhausted by the end of it.

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But there is real significance to what could be disregarded as a chaotic free-for-all. I had the opportunity to do some interviews with the parents of a couple of the team’s most dedicated players. I learned that before the team started in April, many of the girls had nowhere to go and nothing to do after they got home from school. They stayed in their houses (which consist of either one or two small, multi-purpose rooms), did homework, and then did chores like cooking and housework. And that was it. One mother told me that over the past three months, her 10-year-old daughter Mansi had completely opened up. Before the team, she was quiet and insecure and never spoke up in school. Now, Mansi talks to everybody and has a group of friends she never would have met otherwise. Her teachers have even noticed a difference; she regularly participates and has even become the top student in her Sanskrit class. Mansi’s mother attributes these changes to the fact that she has football as a daily outlet. She never misses a day of practice, even on the weekends.

After a day of interviews, the girls’ behavior at practices made more sense. Of course they were going to be a little unruly! This was their chance to unleash all that energy that had been building all day. They were amongst their friends, they were playing a game they love, and they were outside. Can you really expect them to stand quietly in line?

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Reality Gives is currently searching for alternative field space and actively fund-raising for the team. It’s a tough dilemma, though—Dharavi just doesn’t have open space and the field must be close by, otherwise the girls wouldn’t be able to come everyday. Meena, Sunita, and Anand all hope to see the team grow to include more girls and eventually become a competitive team. It’s a dream that I sincerely hope can be realized.


[1] From now on, I will be referring to soccer as ‘football’. Every other country calls the sport football. I get weird looks when I refer to it as soccer. Amurica, we need to get with the program.

[2] Indian children’s favorite English phrase is “How are you?”, closely followed by “I am FINE!”. I don’t think any other response is taught to the “How are you?” question in their schools. I have yet to meet any Indian child who is not “FINE.”

[3] Check out their website. It is very cool: http://www.yuwa-india.org/

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