My Christmas story has neither a Christmas tree and hardly any Christians, but I hope it captures the Christmas spirit. It is a story of making the most of what you have even though others may have more. It is about the joy of striving to excel under the most challenging of circumstances. It is what we do when we are at our best.
The Dharavi Slum in the heart of Mumbai is a compact 520 acres with between 700,000 and a million residents. The density is estimated to be 870,000 people per square mile. Which makes Dharavi the second largest slum in Asia and one of the densest populations in the world.
Yet amidst the grinding poverty, there are surprises. The 60% Hindu, 39% Muslim and 6% Christian populations live together in relative harmony. There is a 69% literacy rate. The economy of leather, textiles, pottery and recycling generates about a billion dollars a year which translates to an average income of between $500 and $2,000 per year, or a dollar or two per day.
Sanitation is a problem: 1500 people share a single toilet facility and the open water used for washing has raw sewage in it. It is not surprising that disease is rampant and life expectancy only 60 years.
Remarkably, Dharavi is a self-sufficient community with schools, clinics, barber shops, food markets and restaurants. They even have their own White House, sans a billionaire president. The people are hardworking and they prize education and often send their children to private school.
Our guide, who was a resident of the slum was also a college student. He lived in a single, 5 by 20-foot room with his mother, father and sister. They all climbed up a ladder to a room above the living area where they all slept together. There was no running water. He said this was his grandfather’s house and if he married he would also live there with his new wife.
He said that he wanted to show us his home, of which he was obviously proud. We went to the home which was in a warren of dark narrow streets and through a tiny door we went into the one room where two generations and possibly three would spend their lives. Inside the home, we were offered bottled water and introduced to his sister.
She was beaming and wanted to show us a trophy that she had just won. It was a little plastic trophy she had been awarded for being the best French student in her class. More importantly, she was obviously embraced by a loving family. She was not comparing what little material possessions she had to others, but was indifferent or unaware of her situation, striving successfully to master a complex foreign language, taking pride in her accomplishments and striving to be the best she could be regardless of her surroundings.
No gift however grand could have ignited the confidence I saw in that little girl's eyes and the obvious pride of her brother in her accomplishments. The lesson of the slum was the triumph of the human spirit. People working to make better lives for their children and the children meeting challenges in a place many of us could not imagine.
Travel exposes us to how others live. When we celebrate Christmas or Hanukah we should just not consider ourselves fortunate not to live in a slum, but know that it is our fighting spirit, our resilience, our hopes that are our greatest gift to each other. If we can have the same joy as the little girl with the trophy, we will be blessed with the ability to make our own riches.