It’s Kusum!

Two months ago, 13-year-old Kusum volunteered to give a talk at TEDx Gateway in Mumbai. Franz had been invited as a speaker, but wanted to pass the opportunity off to one of the girls to talk about Yuwa in her own words.

I explained to Kusum that there would be over 1100 people in the audience and that thousands more might watch it over the internet. The other speakers at the event would include some of the most passionate, intelligent and driven individuals in India. And her talk needed to be English. Kusum’s English is good… but she still has a long road ahead before she reaches fluency. She has never read a chapter book in English.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, after showing her some TEDx videos online.

She hardly paused before looking at me with an expression that clearly said: Well, duh.

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

For 6 weeks leading up to the TEDx event, Kusum and I worked together on her speech. We talked about what details to include, what was important for people to hear, and what fundamental message she wanted to share with everyone. She wrote her story by the light of kerosene lamp. Kusum’s family had electricity installed in their mud house last year, but power is spotty in villages.

After several drafts and revisions, Kusum created a hard copy of her talk. In less than a week, she had it memorized. She practiced in her home in the mornings and in the evenings, in front of her family and friends. She practiced in Yuwa English class and on Skype for my family. She practiced with Franz shining a giant flashlight in her face, to simulate the stage lights. She practiced with a microphone at Jharkhand’s World Toilet Day Event to an audience that wasn’t actually listening. 

Time for TED

We flew to Mumbai several days before the TEDx event to meet the other speakers and rehearse on stage. Kusum navigated a swanky cocktail and dinner party wearing a Yuwa track-suit. She carried around a martini glass of juice with a glowing ice cube and made casual English conversation with adults from around the world. I thought she might get tired or bored after a few hours. She didn’t. She talked with a man who recently became the first Indian in the world to circumnavigate the globe, alone, in a sailboat. It took him 150 days. She introduced herself to an Israeli composer, an acclaimed wildlife conservationist, a 15-year-old who has constructed a 3-D printer, the founder of a micro-enterprise development bank, a National Geographic photographer, and a woman who’s revolutionizing interactive museum technology.

Kusum leaned over to me and commented very seriously, “Everyone here is interesting.”

TEDxGateway Kusum clappingOver and over again, Kusum was asked if she was nervous for her talk. Again and again, she said she wasn’t. We found out that her talk had been scheduled as the last of the day; the organizers wanted her to be the grand finale. 

Raising the roof

Franz took to the stage first to introduce Kusum. He described how in the past year, since the trip to Spain, Kusum and her teammates have become youth icons. They have been featured in every national newspaper, a myriad of magazines and news shows, and acclaimed by Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra. We’ve estimated that in the past few months, their story has reached over 200 million people in India. 

Why is the story of the Yuwa girls so compelling? The struggles Kusum and her teammates face are shared by hundreds of millions of women and girls in rural India. Their struggles are not unique. When the girls of Yuwa confidently share their stories, they give voice to millions more who are not heard. Their triumph over the odds is inspiring.

“Kusum and her teammates are leading a movement of girls who are fighting for and finding their freedom, one football practice at a time. Ladies and gentlemen, my Indian super power…girl power…”, Franz began, attempting to refer back to a Marvel Comics executive’s speech earlier in the day that referred to a new female Indian superhero, “whatever she is, Kusum Kumari!”TEDxGateway Kusum shailesh photo

Franz gave her a high five as he walked off the stage, and Kusum walked into the spotlight. The audience went wild, making Kusum wait, smiling calmly, for at least 20 seconds before beginning.

I am Kusum.

I am 13-years-old.

I’m from Jharkhand.

I want to tell you how football changed my life…”

She shined. Her delivery was flawless and her voice never faltered. Although the auditorium was packed, I believe her when she said she really wasn’t nervous. Although I couldn’t see it from my place in the front row, many people were tearing up throughout Kusum’s talk. I was one of them.

The climax of the talk came when she delivered the following observation:

“In Spain, I saw that girls and boys were the same. There were no differences. Girls went everywhere that boys went, even at night.  [Big cheers and laughter]

“They did everything that boys do. I thought this was very good. [Big cheers]

“I want to feel free like the boys!”  [Audience went wild]

When Kusum came to her conclusion, the audience leaped to their feet and gave a rousing standing ovation, as if they had been waiting on the edge of their seats for their cue. The auditorium was a roar of sound. Kusum stood in the center of it all, beaming.

Back to the village

Weeks before, in preparation for TED, I showed Kusum a video of Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the UN. She was impressed by the story of Malala and excited that a girl was advocating for girls’ education; something Kusum wants to promote as she gets older. I pointed out to Kusum that her own story and her own TED talk held the very same message… and that she too was already reaching thousands of girls.

On the way back to Jharkhand in the airport bookstore, we bought Kusum her first chapter book in English: I am Malala.

As we went through the airport security, a female airline pilot approached us with the enthusiasm of a teenage Bieber fan. She explained that she had flown in from Delhi for the TEDx event and had been extremely moved by Kusum’s talk. As the pilot was speaking, a security attendant approached us, curious about the celebrity attention being given to this young girl, and asked the pilot who she was. The pilot smiled broadly and replied,

“It’s Kusum!”

I will post the video of Kusum’s TED talk when it comes online. In the meantime, you can read the text of her talk here.

Want to support Kusum and her friends? Click here!DSC_0362


Farewell to Mumbai

Although I have been out of Mumbai, the Maximum City, for almost a month now, I need to give it one last nod in this blog before moving on to my next adventures. It was a whirlwind of a place to meet India for the first time, but its fantastic collage of people, lifestyles, and cultures gave me a rapid overview of the diversity and dichotomy that is this country. Right before I left, I met one last girls’ team who took the concept to sports to new heights. Oh, puns!

Hands Up for Handi

In Mumbai, to celebrate the birth of the god Krishna, hundreds of team of kids and teenagers take to the streets and build human towers in the streets. Dozens of outstretched hands at the base act as safety nets. Bare feet are stabilized on shoulders with the help of towels draped around the neck and shoulders. The child selected to be on the very top is often no more than five years old, and wears a strangely mature, trance-like expression when they finally reach the peak of the precarious human pyramid. For a month leading up to the actual day of the celebration, I caught glimpses of these Handi practices everywhere I went: in school yards, behind temples, near the market. I always stopped to watch a few minutes, amused and deeply impressed by the commitment of Mumbai kids to this festival tradition. Neighborhood teams practice for weeks in advance, and are usually coached by a more experienced adult wielding a whistle. These towers can get up to eleven persons high.

While attending a Goal session one day, I found out that one of the young teenage netball coaches was a part of an all-girls Handi team that practiced at 9:00 pm every night. I asked if I could come to one of their practices to meet the group.

After the necessary cell-phone-directions miscommunication and circular wandering, I met up with Harshada near her slum neighborhood. Even though I was late, I was immediately ushered into her home to meet her entire extended family and receive the humbling hospitality that’s showered upon guests of Indian homes. After I downed my painfully sweet glass of Thums Up (An Indian cola drink), convinced her mother that I didn’t need any dinner, and got over the shock of meeting Harshada’s identical twin sister, we circled around to the slum’s open common space. It looked like a smaller, slightly less muddy version of Dharavi’s football field.

Harshada’s neighborhood Handi team is made up of about fifteen girls, who gather for an hour and a half every night for a month out of each year to prepare for the festival. My plan to quietly observe their practice was immediately thrown out the window. The girls, who treated me like a celebrity in their midst, insisted that I—at the very least—join them by acting as part of the human safety net at the bottom of the tower. So I stood near the base and kept my hands pointed skyward. Over the course of several rounds of Handis building, the girls told me that they absolutely love these annual practices and look forward to them throughout the year. The physical challenge was fun, but it seemed to be the social aspect that really brought them to life. When asked what they did during the evenings the rest of the year—when they didn’t have Handis practice every night—they shrugged, and mentioned homework, chores, and television.

After attending Harshada’s practice, I was still more or less enchanted with the novelty of large-scale people pyramids. As the day of the festival grew closer, I followed the Handis-related gossip in local media and used Handis as my go-to topic for small conversation around the city. I found an article in the Hindustan Times, a national Indian newspaper, which profiled the presence of an exclusively girls Handis teams. The article described the city-wide push for greater safety precautions, including health insurance, for participating girls. These precautions were especially important for girls, it claimed, because falling from the pyramids could threaten their future ability to maintain a household and have children.

An Indian gym, empowering both men AND women through athletics! Separate – but equal!

It’s nonchalant statements like that one, casually slipped into a cosmopolitan paper, that reveal the existence of gendered expectations for girls. In Mumbai, I often found myself forgetting about the gender issues that affect and define the lives of many of the girls I met through Yuwa and Goal. I won’t forget the day I found out that one of the teenage players on Dharavi’s football team had dropped out of school four years ago because her dad thought she’d be more useful at home. She’s getting married this December to a man she’s never met. She doesn’t want to get married. Hearing this was like a slap to the face; I’d been speaking with this girl everyday for a month, had sipped orange soda and eaten biscuits with her family in their home, and teased her about her attachment to her cell phone. I had had no idea that this was her situation.

Sadly, this post doesn’t end with me standing in awe of the craziness of the Handis festival and sharing some jaw-dropping photos, as I had hoped it would.  In a classic Indian miscommunication, I booked my train ticket out of Mumbai for the afternoon of the festival. I thoughtthat Harshada told me the Handi celebrations would all take place in the morning. Wrong. In hindsight, I should have just cancelled and rescheduled my ticket. Instead, I felt lazy and confused and ended up on a train to Goa as the kids of Mumbai set to the streets to defy gravity.  Here today, Goa tomorrow. Despite being a little sad for missing the Big Day, I’m grateful I took the time to spy on so many Handis practices. If you’d like to check out some photos of the Handis of Mumbai, check out this photo album.

It was bittersweet leaving Mumbai, and I hope to see the friends I made there again. A thousand thanks for the warmth and generosity I received from the staff of Reality Gives and Goal, the patience and unabashed curiosity of the football and netball girls, the many hours of quality frisbee I shared with the Storm Chasers, the unexpected kindness of strangers who look the time to help a lost foreigner navigate a big city, and the fresh and chewy bagels of the Bagelwalas.

Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai, during the Ramazan festival.

Street food on Mohammad Ali Road. Note the live quails being kept directly below their dead brethren. For the record, it’s been very easy to be “veg” in India.

HORN OK PLEASE: Bombay Street Smarts

I realize that while I’ve been in India for well over a month, I haven’t given much detail about my everyday life in Mumbai. While I often feel like a hapless foreigner (especially without knowing Hindi), I have wizened up over the past month and can now navigate the city fairly well. So, for those who are curious about the ordinary happenings in an Indian megacity, I’ve compiled a list of lessons I’ve learned that help to illustrate my experience here.

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  1. Finger Food
    Eating with your hand (always the right hand) is more nuanced than it may sound, and I’m slowly learning to wield my fingers as utensils. There’s a way to do it gracefully, and it takes practice. Rice dishes can be especially challenging.  However, once you get past the initial awkwardness, there’s something deeply satisfying about eating with your hand. There’s this quote that I kept reading in almost every Indian guidebook I found: “Eating with utensils is like making love through an interpreter.” Now, one month into India, I understand the appeal. I find myself eating slower[1], appreciating the texture of food more, and yes—feeling more “connected” to what I’m eating.
  2.  Identifying Chilis
    That vegetable in my curry that looks like a green bean is not a green bean. It’s a chili. Don’t eat it.
  3. Buying Fruit
    It’s tough to get a fair price on produce if you obviously aren’t local. I am obviously not local. If I don’t know the going rate of say, a pomegranate, it’s very easy for the vendor to dramatically inflate the price and capitalize on my ignorance. I can’t say I blame him. One trick that sometimes works is to ask about the price, then laugh like you’ve heard a good joke when you hear the answer and give the vendor one of those “I know all your tricks” looks. My best option, though, is to hover nearby while a woman is also making purchase, and then quickly ask the vendor about the price while she’s still standing there. Instead of looking at the vendor, I’ll give the woman a questioning, concerned look. Usually she’ll make a face, shake her head, and then help me argue the vendor down to the going rate (sometimes sparking a heated bargaining session in Hindi).
  4. Blending In
    Let’s just be honest: I’m not going to blend in in India unless I go with the burqa-and-sunglasses look (which actually could be an option here, albeit very hot). While women’s dress in Mumbai is much more conservative than you would see walking around a US city in the summertime, much of the clothing young people wear here is just as modern and Western as you would see in any US mall. That said, there are certain ways to dress that evoke less attention. It’s normal to keep your legs covered, pants are much more common than skirts, and shawls do well in making an outfit instantly modest. Also, in terms of walking-on-the-street ettiquete, it’s best not to make eye contact with men, as this can be taken as provocative. This has been a challenge for me, given my time in the Midwest and the South has taught me to be overtly friendly to passing strangers.
  5. Preserving Decency
    Do not wear a white shirt during monsoon season. Yes, it helps to carry an umbrella or rain jacket. But the white shirt just isn’t a good idea.
  6. Waterworld
    To follow up Number 4, never leave the house without an umbrella. Monsoon means sudden, intense onslaughts of rain. Sometimes you can see the rain creeping towards you from across the city like a strange mass of gray fog. I’ve been caught in these showers more than a couple times and will not make the no-umbrella mistake again (probably).
  7. Crossing the Street
    This is a tricky one. A good friend of mine provided a very accurate analogy for the task of crossing the streets here: the old computer game Frogger. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest checking it out here (http://www.happyhopper.org/). Instead of “shooting the gap” as we say in the US, crossing the street requires shooting many gaps, one by one. Because pedestrians do not have the right of way, you must always be on your toes. You must also be assertive; when a gap in traffic just isn’t coming, confidently raise one hand to alert the oncoming rickshaw or taxi that you are not going to stop walking. They will (most likely) slow down enough to avoid impact. If, however, you do not raise your hand, the driver will assume you are weak and submissive and that you are going to scramble out of his way.
  8. Self Preservation
    Avoid rush hour on the train at all costs. If unavoidable, proceed with a sense of humor. If carrying a backpack, always wear it in the front.
  9. Sidewalk Savvy
    Do not assume that motor traffic will stay on the street. While walking on the sidewalk, be prepared to dodge motorcycles, bicycles, and the occasional daring rickshaw that have decided to take a shortcut around a traffic jam.
  10. Indian English
    Most people in Mumbai know at least a little English. However, asking for directions of instructing rickshaw drivers can be full of miscommunications. My pronunciation is probably the biggest hurdle, and I’m slowly learning to speak Indian English, accenting words the way they are said here. I realized the other day that I’ve gotten in the habit of quickly saying “Yeah-yeah-yeah” instead of a simple, affirmative  “yes” or “yeah”.  Once I noticed that I was doing it, I couldn’t stop doing it, and I didn’t understand why I was doing it. Then I started noticing that “yeah-yeah-yeah” was an Indian English thing—everyone was saying it that way. I had unconsciously picked it up and added it to my own vocabulary.
  11. Hello?
    I dread making calls on my Indian cell phone. Combine poor reception with my mediocre ability to understand Hindi-accented English, and you get disaster. Conversations that should be simple become drawn-out ordeals, especially if giving directions is involved. Instead of saying “What?” if something is unclear over the phone, Indians almost always say “Hello?” Thus, my phone calls are punctuated with a ridiculous number of questioning “Hello’s” from both parties. I have come to realize that my two best options are to A) Send text messages instead, or B) Hand the phone to a random Indian and ask for help.
  12.  The Bobble
    Use the head bobble to indicate that you understand, to agree with something, to convey that you are okay, or to greet someone casually. While initially awkward for someone unfamiliar with the head bobble, after a couple weeks of use it feels just as natural as the nod. The bobble is performed exactly as it sounds: by lightly wobbling your head back and forth the way a dashboard bobble-head doll might on a relatively flat road.
  13. Beggars
    The extent of the poverty here is shocking and difficult to comprehend. It goes way beyond the poverty I witnessed in Honduras and Nicaragua. While walking in any part of the city, you will encounter beggars: brash kids, elderly men and women, mothers cradling handicapped or sick children, the blind, and people with any range of missing limbs or disfigured features. It’s been estimated that 1% of the city’s population are professional beggars—which is a significant number in a city of over 20 million. Many beggars choose to beg, and even deny work opportunities, because people continue to support them. So how do you react? This is not something I can neatly claim to have “figured out”. Several Mumbaikers I deeply respect have advised giving nothing to beggars, because it only perpetuates the existence of professional beggars—if you make begging a potential livelihood, you help create the next generation of beggars. That said, giving nothing shouldn’t be an absolute rule. Some people truly have no other option. When confronted with beggars, you’ve got to quickly discern whether this is their case or not. It is utterly heart-wrenching. I’m including this on this list, but I am not by any means street smart in regards to responding to beggars.

[1] In general, this cannot be said of Indians. From my experience, I tend to be the last one eating while everyone else has cleared their plates. Of course, this might also be due to the fact that I’m a novice hand-eater and can only handle small bites of spicy food without getting the hiccups.