Magic Bus inspires Dharavi girl to use health and education to mentor youth

It is not common for girls in Dharavi, a slum community in Mumbai, to interact or play outside as they enter adolescence.

Sixteen-year-old Harshali Koli is breaking the mold. She wants to be a physical education teacher.

Ever since joining Magic Bus eight years ago, Harshali has developed a passion for health and education. The weekly activity-based sessions gave her an opportunity to play and learn with her peers — girls and boys.

“I loved all the activities in Magic Bus,” she said. “In my community, no one cares about you outside of your family but with Magic Bus, there was so much friendliness and motivation from my mentors.”

Although Harshali’s mother was always supportive of her involvement in Magic Bus, her father, a railway worker, was very much against it.

“He refused to let her play sports and attend Magic Bus sessions because she’s a girl,” her mother, Vaijanta, said. “But then she received a scholarship to attend a leadership academy in  the U.S., which was funded by the U.S. State Department, and he changed his mind realizing his daughter had potential.”

Harshali knew she had athletic talent, and she decided to use it for good by mentoring youth in her community about the benefits of health, hygiene and physical exercise.

“I was talking to some children and found a girl who wasn’t allowed by her parents to play with boys,” Harshali said. “I spent hours talking to her parents. We talked about the good things that could come out of her playing with other kids and eventually convinced her parents to let her play.”

From there, Harshali created a supervised program to play sports and games with the children in her community. She really liked playing with the kids, but in terms of a career, she had always been set on getting a traditional office job like many of her friends.

“I wanted to go into business, but I wasn’t very good at math,” Harshali said.

Her older brother helped her realize she can make a career out of her passion. She will start junior college in 2018 and plans to study physical education.

Harshali will be part of the 87 percent of youth in college in India, and all because Magic Bus helped her realize and achieve her dream.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

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From small village to big city: How Diksha made a new life in Mumbai

Diksha Singh had no idea of the life ahead of her when she moved to Mumbai from a small village in Uttar Pradesh.

Although she was born in Mumbai, Diksha’s mother developed severe lung and heart issues and her parents sent her as a baby to live with her maternal grandmother halfway across the country.

She finished 10th grade in a government school and then reunited with her family in Mumbai to attend junior college. She said she was terrified of the big city, and she was dismayed to find unsavory living conditions in Dharavi, one of the biggest slum communities in Mumbai. Diksha and five other family members, including her grandmother and uncle, share a one room home that also serves as the kitchen and bedroom.

“I don’t want to live in Dharavi,” she said. “It’s so crowded and dirty and girls aren’t treated well.”

Diksha also had a difficult time in junior college, where she was treated poorly because of her background.

“I was picked on a lot by my classmates because I was from the countryside,” she said. “I used to cry a lot. I wanted to go home where I had friends.”

On top of it all, Diksha’s family was facing a financial crisis, and she felt like she needed to get a job immediately to help. After a year of searching, she was still turning up empty handed.

Discouraged, Diksha felt like she had very little options left, until she met a friend who introduced her to Magic Bus. Her friend went to the Magic Bus Livelihood Center in Dharavi for a three month program, taking practical courses such as computer skills, English literacy and learning how to master an interview.

“At first I was really quiet,” she said. “Within two weeks, I became really comfortable with the people there.”

In addition to valuable social interactions, Diksha said she was groomed for interviews, which was one of the biggest challenges for her in attaining a job.

“As a woman in India, you’re taught to avoid,” she said. “You’re not supposed to look a man in the eye because you might get harassed. I learned at the Center that I need to maintain eye contact in interviews. That was helpful.”

Magic Bus arranged a job interview at Fidelity National Information Services (FIS), a financial company, where Diksha was selected as a data entry employee. At 20 years old, Diksha is thrilled to have her first job, where she works 10 hours a day for about $150 a month.

“When I got my first salary, I bought presents for everyone in my family,” she said. “I am extremely happy and proud because I am finally realizing my dream of being independent.”

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

Catching a crab: balancing practicality and fun in Ghodivali

As part of my communications internship with Magic Bus, I’ve gone into various communities to learn more about how the NGO aids and educates the children in impoverished areas. One of those communities was the tribal village, Ghodivali, in rural Maharashtra.

Despite being just two hours outside of Mumbai, the children in this village were disconnected from the outside world: in fact, I was the first white person they had seen in their lives.

The way these people live could be viewed as depressing and in many ways, it’s certainly not ideal: some live in makeshift shanties with little access to water or electricity with frequent power outages. Mothers tend to be housewives while fathers work in agriculture or serve as day laborers. Once the children finish fourth grade, they have to walk several kilometers to the nearest school.

Yet despite all the challenges and obstacles, these children were the happiest kids I’ve ever met. We began our journey planting trees at the school to provide shade and teach the children the importance of protecting the environment (which is definitely not a priority here, where people defecate in the streets and throw their trash anywhere they want). The children were in absolute awe when they saw a foreigner. They were not used to people coming in and showing interest in them.

We took a walk up a small hillside and sat by a waterfall. I was pleased to see some of the schoolchildren had changed out of their uniforms and followed us. They raced up the hill and across the rocks with expertise — and barefoot. They beamed with all their teeth, but were timid around me since they could not speak English and I did not speak Hindi. I observed them for a while and noticed them scanning the water and grasping into the river.

“They’re catching crabs,” a Magic Bus mentor, Nachiket, told me.

I was shocked. If I saw a crab, my last instinct was to reach in and grab it. I continued to watch and heard their jubilant and carefree laughter. I stood up and approached a little girl who was clasping several small crabs in her hand. I pointed.

“Can I see?”

She cracked open her hands so I could peek in. Before I knew it, she grabbed my arm and put all five in my hand. They scurried up my arms and I yelped, dropping them into the water. All the children laughed at me relentlessly and I feel a huge smile creep upon my face. I quickly bent down to collect her crabs from the river and returned them to her. They kids were thrilled and one little boy began pulling the crab’s legs from its body. Again, I was horrified. Nachiket started laughing, and then he explained that the children not only make a game out of catching the crabs, but they take them home to cook them and have them as a snack.

I was amazed. It was the perfect blend of practicality and fun. They created a fun game to entertain themselves and pass the time in a place where not much otherwise happened, but also used the environment around them for nourishment.

I went back to the house I was staying in and sat near the balcony, gazing out at the beauty of the mountains just beyond the village, when I heard laughter. Across the street, a small cluster of children gathered and were waving at me. I went outside and approached them. Several of the girls grasped my hand and arms and tried to say something. I had to express nonverbally that I could not speak Hindi, and then we realized we didn’t need to speak to have fun.

We began to play familiar games such as freeze tag, but they also taught me many other games they loved to play in the village. As the minutes turned to hours, other kids began to join. I waved to some of the children watching from the other side of town watching from afar, and they were excited to be invited to play. A little boy saw my phone and asked me to take a photo of him, and before I knew it, every kid was piling on top of each other for their chance to be in the camera.

Soon, a heavy downpour started (as it often does during monsoon season here in India), and I went inside to eat and reflect on my day in my journal. I asked myself when was the last time I went outside and just played for fun and honestly couldn’t answer. I couldn’t remember a time in recent history when I laughed out of pure, innocent fun. It was the greatest day of my life, and it was all because of these kids.

Didn’t I come to teach them something? To educate them? Instead, they were the ones teaching me. I have always struggled with severe anxiety and high stress. I had difficulty enjoying the small things, as I was always worrying about the future. In one short day, these kids demonstrated what I’ve struggled to achieve in 19 years of life.

I am so grateful I had this experience and think about the kids in Ghodivali every day. I hope one day I can have just a fraction of the joy they have.