Catalyzing Change in the Slums of Bombay

Catalyzing Change in the Slums of Bombay

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

This blog post was contributed by Onikepe Oluwadamilola Owolabi, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth.

I can finally confirm that the Ad-line is true—India is incredible, and Mumbai, fondly called Bombay by its inhabitants, is incredibly intense. A vibrant city with incredibly long rush hours, its streets are filled with a never ending stream of people of every kind—so many I wonder how it can fit them all. And everywhere there are towering apartment blocks (how else can so many people find living space?), with so much ongoing construction to make space for more. Modern clubs and malls stand side by side with indigenous food stalls on streets where a huge variety of cars, auto rickshaws, motor bikes and people wearing kurtas, suits and jeans jostle for space. My 26 days here have been a rollercoaster of emotions for me. I have loved living in such diversity and hated being stared at so blatantly. I struggle with rolling my R’s in my sparsely acquired Hindi to survive the streets, and have experienced such love and help from total strangers. It’s amazing. I’ve learned to wade through crowds, longed for my friends at home, and experienced such heartache at the co-existence of abject poverty with such wealth and development.

Amidst Bombay’s entire splendor, beside service apartment blocks, on pavements outside the beautiful Taj hotel there are makeshift structures of cardboard and rubber sheets. In larger areas, these materials are mixed with cement and roofing sheets—characteristic slum building things. And everywhere I’ve visited they exist. Sprawling unplanned slum communities, from the Dharavi of movie fame to smaller growing ones which seem to grow like weeds wherever space exists, account for almost half (statistics say) of this city’s housing. And visiting them, talking with the people who live there, and seeing their health statistics all scream of unmet need!

Countless women who can’t access health care, scrawny visibly malnourished kids, no electricity, one source of water for 10,000 households…the baseline data on these communities are alarming and the experience when you visit much more. SNEHA, the organization in which I’ve been placed, has been doing fantastic work in improving the health of women and children in Mumbai slums for years. Founded by Ashoka Fellow Dr. Armida Fernandez, their projects for this vulnerable group have developed and implemented various interventions that involve the community, municipal authorities (such as health providers), and their expert team to create ongoing awareness of the need for women and children’s health. They work to address underlying social factors and improve the quality of service delivery from providers while fostering strong referral pathways between demand and supply ends of the spectrum. This all sounds very concise, but in 3 weeks I’ve learned being a catalyst for change is a much more herculean task.

My project with SNEHA is to help start community resource centers in our slum areas to be hubs out of which all of these interventions can roll out, and to give each community a space to work on these problems together. It’s been a whirlwind of meetings, of reading about previous projects, of visiting the people and available health services in these communities and wishing I could do some magic and give them everything at once. It’s been a battle of talking through a translator, and hoping that I can, through my work, create lasting change. Of paying attention to every detail including the planning process so that we can recreate this change in the thousands of other communities where we want and need to operate.

It has been 3 weeks of Mumbai’s splendor, of my host family’s overwhelming kindness, of working with a group of passionate women dedicated at every level to every infinite detail and determined to keep up a change that many would deem impossible, of missing my young champion family, of wanting so badly to help change things, of wanting to learn to speak Hindi, of a new life…  And it’s the start of an incredible journey.