Raamis in India

Raamis is a sophomore President’s Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. During summer 2012, he is traveling to Aligahr, India, as a Richter Fellow to conduct research on water contamination, child psychology and public health in a slum.

Testing the water

It’s that time.  I think I’ve delayed getting to this point, and maybe some of that has been on purpose.  For the past week, I have been going daily to different areas of the city, slum or no slum, to take water samples and test them.  There were a lot of thoughts running through my mind as I zoomed by on motorcycle, stopping to collect water from hand pump, Russian pump, municipal water lines, and submersible pumps, input the point on my GPS, take pictures, label the sample, and note all observations in my diary.

In between, I met rickshaw drivers, orphaned children, large families, poor families, wealthy families, students, and mothers.  Every single person was concerned about the water they used to drink, cook with, wash clothes with, and bathe in.  When it came to water, all were equal.  Some of the richer folks have the money to install expensive reverse osmosis water filters, and they felt relatively safer, but in the slums, nothing is certain.

I met one rickshaw driver who was so happy that I had come to test water, he said “At least someone in the government cares.”  I had to tell him I wasn’t from the government, that this was for my project, but I would make sure to let him know how the water tested.  He took me to his house, gave me his own water to test, offered me tea, and bid me good luck.  There were many stories like this.  Once, I told a student who goes to Hamara School, the same slum school the book project is concerned with, that the water from his house had a strong concentration of E. Coli, and he simply looked at me, smiled, and said, “What then? There isn’t any other water I can drink.  This would explain why someone at our house is constantly sick, but that’s all I have to drink.”  I didn’t really know what to tell him.

So far, I have performed about 25-30 tests and look to add about 10 or 15 more, before I call it a day and ship back all the samples to SMU in Dallas, Texas.  What did I test here, in the field?  I noted the pH, salinity, temperature, presence of total coliforms, of E. Coli and definite fecal contamination, type of water source, age of water source, presence of rust, and boring depth of water source.  I also jotted down any observations I had relating to the surroundings.

Of course, the biggest test is the E. Coli one, and that’s really the one people are concerned about here.  The same goes for me.  I really wanted to look at how disease is spread, and I knew water would be the place to start.  From the results so far, the question really isn’t anymore where disease exists and where it doesn’t, where water contamination is and isn’t, but how large this problem really is.  From the tests (and I will get into the details in the next post), the conclusion is clear: there is fecal contamination everywhere and it is downright scary.  I’m not sure what else to say.  Out of the 26 tests that have definitively yielded results, 13 show fecal contamination.  That is a huge percentage.  Even more scary when you consider that some of those 13 are from wealthy homes, where deep reaching submersible pumps are installed.  Generally, submersible pumps are considered the safest of all water sources, but even they haven’t been spared.

My next goal is to test the water provided in railways, hospitals, and other public places.  Clearly, my mother and father knew what they were doing when they absolutely forced me to only drink water from my grandparents’ home and carry it around with me like a talisman.

Word got around quickly that some tall, skinny boy from America was conducting research on water contamination. So far, at least 10 people have requested me to come to their homes and test their water, and my uncle even sent 4 large bottles to my house today after he found the water in his bathroom sink was contaminated.  I feel that since hard evidence is coming out for the first time, it is getting people’s attention in spades.

Well, that was a lot of rambling on my part, but I really wanted to get some of my thoughts out.  It feels nice to write this all down because for the past week I developed a habit of obsessively checking the cabinet where the samples are incubating to see if any more had turned the ominous yellow indicator.  In the next post, I’m going to present you with the full details on how many samples I tested exactly, how many were contaminated, and further specifics such as salt content and pH.  I will also post a bunch of pictures showing you why it’s clear that contamination is occurring (hint, hint: half of all hand pumps are located on top of open sewage moats) and other mind-boggling information.  Until then, it has been a pleasure writing for you.

May your water be safe,


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Dream, My Child

This is definitely the most exciting post to write because I am sharing some of the drawings by students from the slum school. These drawings have become an incredible discovery, not just for me, but also for the teachers of the school, my grandparents and other people who see them. The powerful scope and message of what has been drawn is exactly why I believe a defeatist and skeptic attitude has no place in this world. Indeed, this is not meant to be an overly sentimental examination, as I believe the drawings possess a rare, healthy combination of practicality and imagination. Without further ado, here are a few:

This picture is simply awesome, probably my favorite one. Look closely, and perhaps tilt the page sideways, and you can discern the religious symbols of four major religions: the Christian cross, the Hindu om, the Islamic crescent and moon, and the Sikh symbol. A 15-year-old girl drew this one. She wishes that people would help each other more regardless of religion, and view that all religions are part of our humanity.

What I was most happy about was the enthusiasm I received from the student body. There are 180 students total, taking both the afternoon and evening shifts, and the time I spent at the school revealed a lot to me as well. Here is how it worked: I brought art supplies and paper to the school, and told the children that I wanted every one to draw something for me, anything they liked. They had one hour to do whatever they wanted. They could draw for a minute, or for the whole hour. I gave the students one night to think about what he or she may want to draw, but all students had to draw at the school while I was present, and to hand me their drawings.

The boy who drew this, Anil, in Class II, simply said he loves early mornings.

The school is extremely small so I was able to walk around and monitor what their drawings.  They asked questions as they worked, “Is it okay if we color outside the lines,” or “Do you really mean we can draw whatever we want?” or “Sir, does this look okay?” It took a while for me to explain that I wanted to see their imaginations at work, not judge them for how good the drawing was or if the colors were inside the lines. This alone, aside from the drawings, revealed much about the psychology. Their experiences had taught them to simply copy something already drawn out, draw it well and not ask too many questions, lest they be judged harshly. Obviously, this isn’t the treatment they receive from the teachers, but more generally how they are viewed. As I mentioned in a previous post, these kids have always, always been judged. Harshly.

This drawing is titled “child labor”. The boy who drew it wanted to say that childhood is for running around, jumping up and down, playing with friends and learning. Children should never be made to perform labor at a young age. Many kids in the slum do have to start working at early ages, though not in factories. They must aid their parents in whatever way they can to bring in more money.

As you can see, these children are filled with ingenuity, genuine kindness and optimism, and are able to instantly discern motives. They are capable young people in an unfortunate environment who have the will and ability to succeed. More importantly, as they drew I saw that they cared about each other, often glancing at the drawing of the person next to them and offering a suggestion. I have shown three drawings from a total of almost 20 that will be published in a book. Or rather I hope the book will be published. I am running into some financial hurdles based on how much money I can allot from my research grant, but I remain optimistic that I can see this aspect of the project to its end. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Be sure to check back in a few days. I will have a post on the first set of tests from the water contamination testing. That’s all for now!

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Don’t let them see you grimace

Finally, here it is.  Through pictures, firsthand accounts, and my own observations, I present you with the first look into the slum.

While I believe that only stepping into the streets and walking around gives one a real idea of how conditions in a slum are, pictures and quotes do help paint a realistic picture.

One of the wider streets in the slum. Sewage carves it’s own path through and come monsoon season, the sewage water will overflow onto the streets completely. The hand pump is a primary source of water for people on that side of the street.

This post combines about 3 or 4 visits, spanning a week.  These shots of are of the slum only.   In my next post, I will talk more about the school I am working with inside the slum and the book project that the students are taking part in.

First, an all important stat: the population density in this region is over 50,000 people per square mile.  By comparison, the population density of the US is 87.4 people per square mile (2010 US Census).  In a later post, I will post pictures of maps I obtained of the entire city showing the population versus the land area.

Many people look at what I am doing, and the only thing they can remember is the word slum.  That is not all my project is about.  Rather, it is about trying to get past that word, and look at aspects of life beyond just the unsanitary living conditions.  At the same time, it is important to talk about the conditions of the slum, because like it or not, they do exist and they do shape the psyche of both the people who live there and the people who see it from outside.

A large pile of endless trash, that at times becomes a small hill. Children play here barefoot, along with the roosters, pigs and hogs that come to nibble.

Normally, I get to the school by car, and the driver just barely manages to squeeze the car through the narrow streets.  Each time, I get brief glances–it’s plain to onlookers that I’m not from these parts.  By the third time, I decided to walk.  It allowed me to blend in a little more and see people from up close.

The principal of the slum school where I am working shared a brief, powerful and interesting anecdote:   “Kids who grow up in the slum can often develop inferiority complexes.  They see that every time someone walks by, that person looks at the child, looks around and grimaces in disgust of the conditions.  The child becomes accustomed to this, to thinking that somehow, he or she is a part of the surroundings, and should be made to feel like the trashy conditions around him or her.”   Thus, one of the most important goals of the school, named “Hamara School,” or “Our School,” is to give students the confidence and self-belief necessary to succeed.  Students are taught that they are not less than anyone, that they are not bound by their circumstances and are as human as anyone else.

This is perhaps the largest open space in the slum. In order to play cricket, kids have cleared the trash out.

His point was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to look at child psychology in the slum, because I wanted to see how the students in the school had adapted, or changed their beliefs according to the school’s philosophy.

How will I examine child psychology?  My goal is to ask each of the students in the school to draw something, anything they like.  The only rule I set forth is that they should draw whatever they want with the question in mind of why they chose to draw what they do.

That “why” is real analysis.

Of all the drawings, I will select some from each of the age groups, based on how clearly explained the analysis is, and if the student chose to draw something that really mattered to them.  These drawings will be incorporated into a booklet with the title “Hamari Awaz,” meaning “Our Voice.”  If the cost is doable, I will try to distribute one copy back to each student. Hopefully, the students will be able to appreciate a project that they worked on together and made possible through each other. For all the negativity associated with a slum, I have seen resilience and hard determination from the children I have met.  I want someone to recognize that.  I want the students themselves to recognize that.  It is high time that we stopped feeling pity for them, and instead give them the tools to where they can succeed on their own.

Year after year, I have seen pity breed pity, complaint breed complaint, and nothing seems to go anywhere.  Now, for the first time, the teachers of the school are working hard to educate these children, and that effort should at least be recognized.

In the next post, I will show you a sampling of the drawings I have selected, as well as several pictures of my visits to the school.  This book project is an exciting one for me because the students have responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.  Finally, I feel like their voices will be solidified into something physical, something they can hold and show to someone and say, “Look at me, look at what I can create, look at who I can be.  Look at me, and don’t grimace.  Look at me with the respect I deserve.”

That is all for now.  The next post will not be up for another week as I am attending the wedding.

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A look back

Now that you know what the Richter project is about this year, I thought it would be good to look back at the lessons my past experiences working with the slum yielded.  If there is one thing I have learned, one overlying theme, it is that there are layers of complexity within the slum world – from family relations, to power brokering, to education, to child labor etc…  Here, I will try to give you a quick but thorough look into the patterns I saw emerge from past years.

I have been working in this particular slum for the past two summers, and last summer in particular was frustrating.  In fact, the day after visiting the only school in the slum, I came back home disturbed and distressed.  For a few days, I contemplated never going back because it seemed like there was nothing I could do to improve the situation.

For the first time, I had been exposed to a situation so complex, I could not see a solution.  I wrote about this encounter with complexity in full detail and published the article in the Journal of Global Health, based in Columbia University.

Here is a link: http://www.ghjournal.org/jgh-print/fall-2011-issue/incapable-of-complexity/

Yes, the article is very long, but if you read past the first few paragraphs, I promise you’ll get into it.  It turned out to be more of a narrative than an actual research article, and it presents a compelling story.  This story deals with accepting the complexity, not trying to blunder through it; with focusing on the newer generation, not trying to force the older generation to give up their beliefs; with emphasizing education and not giving into the knee-jerk reaction of “WHAT ARE ALL OF YOU DOING?  WHY DON’T YOU KEEP YOUR HOMES AND STREETS CLEAN?”  Because those sorts of questions were exactly the sort running through my mind last year.

Here is a small collection of pictures from the past two summers:

This photo is of the submersible pump that my grandfather helped install in the school to give the students a better source of drinking water.  Submersible pumps are better than the government water in that they bore down deeper and are supposed to retrieve fresher water.  However, people are now speculating that even submersible pumps are no longer safe.  Why?  Industrial  and sewage waste is sometimes disposed of by pumping it deep into the soil.  This waste then mixes with the same water drawn up into houses as drinking water.  E. Coli after lunch, anyone?

This picture is one I took right outside of the school last summer.  Judging from this year’s visit, not much has changed.

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A Richter project in three parts

I’m like to first spell out what the aims of this Richter project really are. You can read about my previous experiences in the same north Indian slum in an article I published in the Journal of Global Health. I’m also blogging about my experiences on a personal blog called The Intimate.

First, some exciting stuff!  The following pictures are taken from in and around my grandparents’ house and I thought would illustrate a quick few points.

The view from the roof of my maternal grandparents' home

There was some land available close by where I am staying. Squatters saw that no one was using it, and set up a shanty house. Land is a major problem.

I like to pretend that I’m actually of some help to my grandparents.

So, on to the Richter project! My project has three main components: water contamination, child psychology, and public health.

First, and most important, water contamination.  This is the engineering part of the project.  I am working with Professor Quicksall and his lab at SMU to perform field testing on water samples in the slum areas to determine the quality of water.  What are these field tests?  The only microbial test I will be performing is presence of E. Coli, to evaluate my hypothesis that sewage water mixes with government drinking water.  The other tests are for pH, temperature, and salinity.  Some water samples will also be shipped back to Dallas to undergo further laboratory testing.  The goal is to place these water sites on a GPS map and then color in the areas with the most polluted water.  That way, I will be able to identify where the greatest threat of water contamination is.

Second is the child psychology.  The procedure for this is very simple.  I will be working with a school in the slum and ask the students to draw something, anything they like, and give that drawing to me.  Once I have a collection of these drawings, I will select a number and ask the students to write down why they chose to draw that particular picture.  Finally, I will compile these drawings and descriptions into a book and call it “Hamari Awaz,” meaning “Our Voice,” and give it back to the students.

The third is public health.  For this part, I will be working with a nearby emergency medical ward to note down my observations on how slum residents view the hospital facility and what challenges are present in the future.  My goal is to give a questionnaire to the local doctors to figure out what strategies should be in place to facilitate a greater level of cooperation between the slum residents and the doctors.  From my past experiences, many of the slum residents are fearful of the hospital and many of the doctors have trouble dealing with the patients.

I should also note that I am going to be looking at multiple neighborhoods and slum areas within the city of Aligarh, India.  Aligarh is relatively small by Indian population standards, but it still boasts over a 3.5 million population mark according to the latest Indian census.

All aspects of this blog, from the research to the travels, to the culture, is a look into the “intimate.”  In other words, I want to look at the how and the why, to truly understand the slum world apart from my own bias.

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