If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. 1 John 3: 17 (The Message Bible)
Taking off my Crocs, I stand at the entrance of the two-room shack that’s home to four people: Kamala, her husband and their two little girls. I hesitate, thinking of how dirty my feet will likely get – and then shovel my selfish thoughts into a corner of my mind. I’ll probably take a shower immediately after anyway, I reason, as I step into the house. The “walls” are, essentially, corrugated tin sheets. The “roof,” a blue tarp. It is identical to the dozens of other shacks that cluster together in this settlement.
What greets me inside is a surprisingly neat kitchen. Three bricks form a stovetop. On a shelf above it, a sparse array of metal pots and pans stand in perfect order. The first room leads into the bedroom – except it has no beds. It’s slightly darker here. In the evenings, they light kerosene lamps as there is no electricity, Kamala tells me.
But more surprising than the immaculate kitchen is the floor. Granite tiles of different colours and shapes form the incongruous flooring of the shack. Kamala explains that her husband lays tiles in buildings. The discarded pieces now form the floor of her home.
Kamala is pregnant again with her third child. Had she not been expecting, she would have joined her husband on construction sites, carrying bricks on her head, expertly weaving her way through the mounds of sand and cement.
I slip out of Kamala’s home, ashamed of my thoughts about getting my feet dirty in this settlement, only a few miles from my own home with its marble flooring and its kitchen with seven different contraptions to make coffee and its too-many rooms overflowing with stuff that we barely need.
I had visited Kamala’s house as part of a “getting to know” experience conducted by an NGO which helps educate children of construction labourers. Every morning, Kamala’s children and their little friends wait outside their settlements, dressed in their black-and-red uniforms and tiny backpacks, excited to clamber onto the school van which takes them to their preschool.
For a few hours, they get to learn the alphabet and sing nursery songs. They get to make paper masks of monkeys and experiment with finger painting. They get to eat two nutritious meals. They get to experience indoor electricity and plumbing. They get to play and be safe. They get to just be kids.
To some, it may seem like just a preschool. But this is a life-changing experience for these little children. This may be their only chance to see a different world. And to know that they belong in that world.
Walking into Kamala’s house with its clean floors and well-kept kitchen helped me step into her life for a moment. It’s something our busy schedules don’t regularly give us an opportunity to do. We’re accustomed to seeing poverty from afar. We click our tongues in sympathy at the sight of a family huddled on the sidewalk. We hear statistics about the millions of children left unattended among cement piles and dangerous machinery, sometimes falling victim to sexual abuse. The details are harrowing. But it seems removed from our lives.
That visit showed me Kamala’s sweet and cheerful spirit despite her situation. It revealed her indomitable spirit and steadfast courage. It uncovered my own privilege and exposed my ingrained prejudice and indifference. And it stirred up in me the question: What if? What if this had been my life? What if all my kids knew was a life of wandering around a cluster of homes made of blue tarps? What if they regularly experienced gnawing hunger? What if I had no choice but to take them to work with me and leave them to play in piles of cement?
In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I don’t believe that visiting Kamala and her neighbours was enough. But it is a start.
It’s the start of what I hope is more action as each of us asks ourselves, “What if?”
It’s the start of that “What if?” turning into “What can I do?”
It's the first step in giving Kamala's children a real shot at a world outside the blue tarps they call home.
If you would like to find out more about DiyaGhar, an NGO that reaches out to the children of construction workers, please click on this link.