Volunteer at LP4Y for 3 years in India and Nepal between 2017 and 2020, Lucie Dubert was first a Coach in Bangalore, India, and then responsible for the Green Village in Nepal.
In her book, Lucie shares with us what she took away from this experience, what the Youth taught her. By describing their life, their daily life, their evolution in the program, Lucie gives them a voice. Here is her story.
I joined LP4Y with a commitment to work alongside the poorest and most excluded people. I arrived in India, full of convictions, ready to launch the first Life Project Center (LPC) in Bangalore. With me, my partner, Géraldine.
We first met in Nantes, as we both prepared for departure. We know nothing about each other, yet here we are, both embarking on an extraordinary adventure.
Together, we discovered colorful temples and cows wandering in the middle of the street, spicy curries and rickshaw rides. Very quickly, Sheraldjin, as some Indians call her, becomes my closest ally. On arrival in Bangalore, we immediately get to work. Our goal is to find a site for the new center and to start training young people as soon as possible.
As we meet with local actors, we come to understand that poverty here is much less visible than in Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi where LP4Y teams have already set up several centers. Many Bangaloreans we meet are surprised by our quest. For them there are no slums in Bangalore; we should be looking at another city for our project. Poverty in this booming city, which has become the third largest city in India in a few decades, is hidden, stifled, ignored. This embarrassing segment of society, the segment that LP4Y wants to bring into the light, well, we had to search hard to find it.
In the end, we decide on Devarajeevanahalli (known as Djhalli) as the site for our new LPC. Djhalli is a slum of 100,000 people; enough to prove wrong all those who question the existence of extreme poverty in Bangalore. This invisible district is also excluded from the rest of the city because the community is predominantly Muslim, hidden in plain sight in the largely Hindu state of Karnataka. Although they have been here for several decades, the inhabitants speak Hindi and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, but rarely Kannada, which is the local language of the state.
When you arrive in Djhalli, the transition is brutal. The beautiful paved road gives way to a rush of rickshaws. The glass skyscrapers disappear on the horizon and little by little the minarets of the mosques appear. The call of the muezzin drowns the incessant noise of horns. Here, there are no gated communities with guards at the entrance, instead children run about freely. Most houses in the neighborhood have four concrete walls and a tin roof. Perhaps to compensate for the gloomy interiors of these small dark cubes, the exteriors are brightly painted by the owners. Some streets are colorful mosaics, brightening up the black burqas. There’s a juxtaposition of contrasting images: at the corner of a street, a small church with a blue bell tower stands next to a bloody butcher’s shop; cricket bats in hand, the youngsters noisily play cricket on a rubbish-strewn pitch. The electricity supply is precarious and yet most people have a television. At the market, the foul smell of fish stalls in the sun gives way to the scent of fresh coriander two meters further on. I see the diversity of this place, and struggle to interpret what I see. The more I see, the less I understand. It seems you can live in the most basic house in the neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean you have no education. You can own an entire building, and yet still wash your dishes in the street. For the moment I can’t tell who is rich and who is not. There is lively confusion all around me.
One thing is certain, however: here, men reign supreme. They have beards rather than mustaches and apply kohl around their eyes. Their teeth are stained red from chewing betel quids, and their appearance sends shivers down my spine, reminding me of so many threatening Jafars5! No polite smiles; just stern looks that seem to question what a white woman is doing here. I feel uncomfortable, out of place. I too would like to be able to slip into a burqa... Integration is going to be complicated. The Djhalli district is indeed a slum: the poverty is blatant there, exclusion palpable. The faces are marked with life’s violence. So, what changed my fear into wonder, my pity into gratitude?
LP4Y’s purpose is to support vulnerable excluded Youth, to help them find and keep a decent job (with a contract, fixed hours and salary, and if possible medical coverage and social benefits). Each center set up in Asia targets a different population, selected after analysis of local issues. Some centers are reserved for young mothers, others are dedicated to street Youth, some even to prisoners. We decided that the Djhalli Center would be for young women. To publicize the project in the neighborhood and meet the Youth likely to form the first team, we go out to meet the inhabitants, dressed in our lovely LP4Y polo shirts. Despite having imagined this moment many times, having completed my training course, and really looking forward to finally meeting these young people, it’s not easy to get started. Knocking on doors, introducing yourself, making contact despite the language barrier. Confronting our fear of the unknown. I’m worried about disturbing them, being too intrusive and being turned away. I walk without really knowing where I’m going. I wander through small alleys. The further I go, the more entangled the houses become. I take an alley to the right and find myself in the poorest area of the neighborhood. There’s corrugated iron wherever I look. Families have limited and irregular access to water but this morning, the fountains are overflowing.
The unreliable pumps transform the street into a paddling pool. The women, in flip-flops and night wear, their hair gleaming with coconut oil, wait their turn to fill their bowls. Some are already vigorously scrubbing clothes; others busy themselves soaking pans from the day before. In short, it’s not the moment for introductions ...
I catch the eye of a young woman hanging out her washing, I bravely move towards her, jabber the few Hindi words that I have learned and ask her age. But she smiles at me, uncomfortably, and goes back to her business. Failure. I continue on my way without much confidence. I am overwhelmed by everything going on around me when I hear:
— Which country ma’am?
I turn around. There’s a man sitting on the steps of his house, arms folded; the jaded spectator. He doesn’t seem very busy.
— France, I reply.
— Aaah, France! Mbappe!
I take this as an opening, and explain the project to him.
— I am looking for young women aged 17 to 24 who do not go to school and who do not work.
He looks at me and pulls a face. I smile as best I can. He gets up nonchalantly and as if in a supreme effort, calls out to the busy women. Some, focused on their chores, barely pay him any attention, but others listen closely.
— My cousin’s sister is 18, no work, no school, she can come?
At last - some interest!
— Of course, of course, where is she?
In response to my enthusiasm, the woman gets up, leaving her washing bowl and decides to guide me through the maze of barracks. Off we go! A lively procession joins us: a few women who have chosen curiosity over laundry; the Mbappe fan; and a crowd of children. All of us in search of the cousin’s sister in question. I am no longer in unknown territory. As I listen to the kids calling “sister, sister ! ” I feel more as if I’m part of a big family reunion. In less than five minutes, I feel like they’ve adopted me. I’m barely inside the house before a baby is put in my arms. After a few dozen selfies taken with each of the neighbors, my apprehensions are a thing of the past. We talk, we laugh about our difficulties in understanding each other. I allow myself to be swept from one house to another; at each one the hostess offers me something: if I’m lucky it’s tea, if I’m unlucky, a revolting sickly-sweet soda. I meet some young women who will be able to join the program but, more importantly, I immerse myself in this new environment. I start to feel good here.
In just one afternoon of outreach, my perspective has changed. I no longer approach the neighborhood as a potentially hostile or dangerous environment but as my new home that contains more “Indian moms” than I could have imagined. Over the months and thanks to the local inhabitants, this atmosphere will become more and more familiar to me. This neighborhood will be my anchor. And I can go further: those terrifying bearded men will become solid partners for the creation of the center. There will be Afzar, our main contact, always available to put us in touch with motivated young adults. In respect of his motto: “First eating after meeting!” we eat an obligatory biryani before each meeting. There will be Asif, the owner of the building, and Siddiq who will renovate it. I can laugh now about my scary first impressions. The women will open their doors to me and explain their daily struggles. Their generosity and radiant smiles will almost make me forget the garbage dump next to which they live. Above all, there will be the Youth and their families, who will invite me with open arms to share their daily lives, their ups and their downs.