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A Tale of Two Pictures – Don’t Just Look: Help!


Picture of an India Street Kid

from NPR Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

The premise was almost too horrible to contemplate. The marketing promo promises a tour of New Delhi India unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s a tour through the bowels of the city, the back alley path that even in India, where the ocean-sized gulf between the rich and the poor is ever present, is swept behind the skyscrapers, Pepsi’s corporate park. This is the land of the Indian street kid, made infamous in the Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire but explained better in the tragic reality of Born into Brothels a documentary about Calcutta street children whose mothers are prostitutes.
The tour shows one Indian reality, the stark, harsh truth of the millions of children who wander the streets throughout India begging for money, rifling through trash, living in tents and trying to survive. There are enough Indian street children roaming about the nation to populate New York City – twice!
More than half of these children are said to suffer sexual abuse; girls following their mothers into prostitution, boys being sold to wealthy European tourists.
The stories are appalling not just because the horrible acts of violence, sexual abuse, assault, homelessness, and starvation affects people not old enough to dress themselves properly but also because no one seems to care.
So here comes The City Walk Tour. For a mere $4.40 you can get a personal guided tour of everything India is trying to hide.
Billed as a way to make the story of the children of the street heard and to give us a view of their world through their eye this walking tour takes you through the nether parts of Delhi to see how the street kids live. The tour, sponsored by Salaam Baalak Trust, is led by a former (or current one can’t tell) street kid who tells you his or her story as they walk past their old haunts of under railway stations, in alleyways, on streets and trash dumps giving you an up-close and personal view of children sifting through trash, selling liquor bottles for cash and surviving in some of the worse conditions imaginable. Presumably, they leave the sexual abuse, assaults and violence to rhetoric, this is a family tour after all. The tour ends at the offices of the Salaam Baalak Trust where you can meet children and see the help the trust supposedly provides.
There is a school, but, according to an article on NPR.com, the children do not have to attend. There is food but they don’t have to eat it. There is water but they do not have to take a bath. It’s Romper Room ran by fans of Nietzsche – do nothing and see what happens. But maybe I’m being too harsh, I haven’t heard of Salaam Baalak (which means Hello Street Kid) before so I could be wrong but this City Walk tour tells me something is rotten in Denmark.
It’s not clear what good Salaam Bank is doing. It seems their shelter is just the streets with a roof. And the organization also has a group home but houses only a few children.
As a person who has visited India on behalf of organizations that actually gets them off the streets I am dumbfounded at two parties – the people who created this tour and the people who take it.
Surely there is an easier way to make $5 from people? The children have no choice but to be on display like some animal in a zoo. It is disgusting.
To hear that the idea for the tour came from a foreigner, a British volunteer, made it even worse. Did no one think this was wrong? Did know one say “We must preserve the dignity of the people we serve, we must show the reality but protect their soul?”
Reality tours are not new – even to those who work with the poor. But most of them include REPLICAS, huts and tents like the ones kids must live in, video stories of street children now saved. I have never heard of a tour that features no connection between the foreigner and the child in need, that is just a visual raping of the child’s dignity.
Sure Salaam asks for donation at the end of the tour and many people who took the tour felt “uplifted,” by the tour (a feeling I just am flummoxed to explain) but there is no long-term connection, no transformative action. The pictures on the tour blend in with the Taj Mahal and photos of street vendors.
I saw all I needed to see in the photos taken on the tour. A photo of a white man with black socks shooting children crowded in a small room with his long lens camera. I don’t know it made me cry.
Because it’s the visual representation of the intangible condition of slavery – the moment when a human ceases to be seen as such. Would you allow strangers to come in and shoot photos of your child dying of cancer? Or to tour your child’s hospital room? Would you allow strangers to see your worst moment of your childhood, the day after your parents got divorce, the date rape that occurred, the moment your boyfriend popped you in the nose?
Viewing poverty with no context leads to the dehumanization of the individual. Seeing poverty with no personal connection leads to hallow help. It is the visual equivalent of just writing a check. It is this voyeuristic venting, spewed in national magazines, online and quick 30-second sound bites that has led to the word-picture of Africa as babies with bloated fly covered bellies, with countries ravaged by tragedy, disease, abuse and never-ending horror among her people.
Ironically, this sort of reality tour can end up stripping the subjects of their realism. Seeing poverty is important but helping to transform lives is more important. People need to see the fruits of their labor to truly create change.
India is a beautiful country, with lovely, intelligent and loving people, many of whom are suffering terribly under the crushing grip of poverty. But if you want to understand the plight of a street kid, why not sponsor one through Compassion International, or do a mission trip or give to a trusted organization that actually can show progress in their programs. Don’t just go and snap a picture. Don’t just look – Help. And when you do you’ll see a joy that was never found in the photos taken at Salaam on that City Walk tour.

Photo of children in India

These children in Chennai are overcome with joy after receiving gifts from a non-profit group in the United States

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Loving India (and her hair)


Ovetta's Real Hair

Bad picture of my new hair do

OK, a trip to the hairdresser and my recent trip to India got me all inner reflective so for all you folk of mine from another color here is an inside story on the most frustrating part of being a black woman. No it’s not finding love or a man or even Mr. Right now.
Naw, this is about the part of a black woman that she has the most trouble with. It’s a love/hate relationship that has her questioning her womanhood, her identity her place in this world. It’s the only part of her that has her frazzled, that undermines her impeccable Nubian credentials and even if she’s made peace with it and herself and her management of it, well, there’s a little girl inside of her that cringes when she walks by a salon and can smell hair burning. Of course, I’m talking about the black woman’s unique attribute – her hair. I can find an eligible man anywhere, but the right hair ‘do could take decades.

Ovetta Travels in Nigera

Ovetta with her long lock compliments of India

Today was my first hair appointment since I moved to Chicago. She was a new stylist so I had to give her the run down on my hair.

Now by all accounts I’ve been blessed in the hair department. My hair is fairly manageable and melts like butter when it’s supposed to. It’s not long, never has been, but it’s never really given me any problems. But what I do to my hair is a different story. I had to tell her that I swim about four or five times a week. This is unusual for a black woman so she asked me what I did with my hair. Since I was getting a relaxer (a perm which makes my hair straight for all my peeps of another color) she was astounded that I swam everyday. Then I told her about my 45-minute ritual after I got out of the pool – this includes washing with a specialized chlorine-stripping shampoo twice and then conditioning my hair with an ultra strong/protected conditioner then whisking my hair into a ponytail compliments of the “phony-pony,” a drawstring ponytail made from synthetic hair. I immediately felt so sorry for my stylist since I’m going swimming tomorrow and will mess up all her beautiful art work.
After she gasped, she asked me a question I’ve been asked countless times before:
“Have you ever considered getting hair sewed in?” I twisted my nose in aversion.
OK so for all of you who do not know what I’m talking about and are wondering about the title of this piece as compared to the subject matter here’s a secret: A lot of the hair on the heads of black women comes from countries they’ve never been too. From India, China, Korea etc., the hair extension industry is a multi-million dollar business supplying lovely straight locks to the previously short, nappy or funky-haired allowing women to literally change who they are by changing their looks. A black woman, who previously was ignored, marginalized or even stepped over, can stop men – black and white alike – in their tracks with a good weave and a low cut dress. Her long locks make her zip from invisible to mainstream. (Men’s fascination with long hair always confused me….that’s another story.) Even white women – Kate Moss, Cheryl Cole to name a few, and of course Madonna – have glommed on to the industry that gives human hair a different address. (Lindsay Lohan got to keep hers during her recent jail stay.)
Sewing in is the process of literally taking this exported human hair and sewing it onto your braided hair for a beautiful set of locks that last about three to five months. Anyone who watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair,” knows that this process is long and expensive. The hair weave/extension industry has exploded into a big import/export business that literally supplies millions of pounds of hair a year to black women all over the globe.
Like anything there’s varying kinds, textures and qualities. And they all have funny names like Yaki, Remi and then there’s, of course, the straight dope – human hair.
I learned from Chris Rock that a lot of the human hair supplied for weaves come from Indian women participating in a Hindu ritual. This, among other reasons, made me avoid the human hair sew-in thing. I didn’t want to support the subjugation of women (my description) and my own foolish vanity at the same time. Besides, as a swimmer I always thought getting a weave just wouldn’t work on me. I work out (or well I’m starting to again) a lot and swim as we said before. And weave is like a piece of art it’s meant to be seen and admired not used and abused. But then my hair dresser told me about this wonderful human hair product that turns curly when wet and looks great.
After being in India for a week and talking to my hairdresser I’m seriously thinking of starting an import/export business of Indian hair. But I want to get it from some of the poor villages I visited. I figure these women could retire from all the money they will make selling black woman their hair. Prices for the hair range from $150 a hair pack up to $300. It’s amazing how much it costs. I was shocked. Then after you get the hair there’s the price of up to $300 to sew it onto your hair. The whole thing sounds daunting but I know countless women do it all the time.
So my real question is should I do it? Since I travel to India I’d probably want to go get my own hair and make sure it comes from a women who is not being subjugated or oppressed or forced into selling her hair. I’ve been to India I know how commercial ventures could easily turn into exploitative practices. I’m just not sure that the hair I buy will be ethically correct. Maybe I should forget the entire thing and just go back to writhing in agony over my looks everyday. Mmmm. Decisions. Decisions.What about it? Can there be a such thing as an ethical hair extension company? I mean, could I really have a clean way of getting hair from poor women and commercially bringing it to other women who have historically been subjugated by society? Is that possible? Is human hair trafficking right? Your thoughts?

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