Within the first couple of days of arriving in my new home I explored as much as I could, no matter the exhaustion that comes with arriving to a country that exasperates every sense of my body and mind. I navigated the sun-kissed alleyways of the giant labyrinth that snake through Hyderabad and saw painted streets dripping with varying degrees and strokes of vibrant cultures, proud religions, and silent languages. Prudently yet haphazardly, the wrinkles of a long history are sketched in dirt roads and blurred faces, and the surrounding settings are adorned with striking colors of diversity through dress, cuisine, and sound. But only once I began working with my new my host organization and joined them on a campaign trail to recruit local youth for their programs, did I realize that sound can be the most colorful, the most hopeful, of the senses.
As part of my introduction to my host organization SAFA, I joined a couple of my new co-workers on a campaign through one of the many slums in the area. SAFA is a grassroots NGO that works closely with marginalized communities by empowering women and young girls through socio-economic initiatives and education, while maintaining the fiber that binds communities together. “Safa” is an Arabic name that may be translated as “purity,” “serenity,” or “clarity of mind and spirit.”
For much of the work that SAFA does, it is vital for the organization to understand and respect the cultural nuances and challenges that the local women and children confront on a daily basis. For example, for many of them the Muslim faith plays an integral part of their daily lives. From education to language training, income-generating activities, and health education, SAFA is an inspiring institution that recognizes the value of incorporating a variety of services to minority populations that need them in their own unique ways.
Waking up early in the morning, I meet my co-workers outside one of the many centers they run. Every three months or so the various centers coordinate campaigns to go out into the local slums and communities to actively recruit for and promote the next round of trainings or workshops. Every center does it differently. Today, we decide to travel door to door, window to window, shop to shop, in order to spread the word.
To be successful in our excursion we must rent an auto-rickshaw. The group tells me that they have special plans for said rickshaw, and following a quick breakfast we step out in search of one. With hundreds roaming the streets, the options are limitless. You would think it is easy to find an auto-rickshaw driver to lend us one of his treasured possessions to flaunt it down the narrow, and fractured streets of the slums that are decorated with crater-sized potholes. And brandish it with the banner of a local NGO. And tie a large microphone to it. Despite some immediate rejections, the group is talented and convincing enough to gain the support of one driver. It’s a good business deal for him as the money he receives will surpass what he earns in a day, and as the final string for the microphone is fastened tightly, the five of us cram into what will be our designated SAFA outreach vehicle for the day.
We finally reach our destination, fumigated by the disorder and capricious traffic of Hyderabad. We step out, leaving one of our SAFA team members behind in the auto-rickshaw to speak into the microphone as we move along. With the sun’s rays sitting heavily on our shoulders to rest, we grab a handful of pamphlets with the dust from our fingers and march through the streets.
Above me I can hear the sounds of flapping kites rise and fall at the commandments of the wind. Soft chatters and hammers clank to clandestine rhythms of an intimate community unbeknownst to the outside world. The call to prayer summons boisterously to the entire city. Yet, in that moment, it is the sound of Hindi that I see reverberating through the microphone and soaking itself in the soles of pedestrians, that I find to be the most colorful, the most hopeful.
The palm-sized pamphlets we deliver to doors and windows eloquently describe in English, Urdu, and Hindi the upcoming job training for unemployed youth. The center in which my co-workers are stationed at specializes in classes that provide computer training, English proficiency, and even personal development workshops. For three months, 2-3 hours a day, six days a week, students between the ages of 18-27 can learn marketable skills to improve their candidacy for a well-paid job.
Most of the slums, particularly those predominantly Muslim, are fourth generation. About 80,000 people live in these neighborhoods, and about 25% are families of daily wage earners. The daily wage earners work about four days a week, rent out small rooms, and provide for the average family size of eight. Education is a powerful tool for many of these families, yet for most it is out of reach or inconceivable. Thus, the value of SAFA personally accessing these neighborhoods, provides a unique and vital outlet for many families; particularly women and children. Yet, it hasn’t always been that easy. My mentor, the founder of the organization, told me that first they had to earn their trust. Every SAFA center that sprouted across the city had to gain a tremendous amount of respect, earn a spot within the community, and prove time and time again that their intentions were honest, genuine, and in alignment with the needs of the community.
With the microphone bellowing from behind us and the auto-rickshaw trailing our feet, we hand out pamphlets one by one. Sometimes we stick them in doors, other times we toss them through open windows. Most of the time, however, we approach people individually or in groups to explain the opportunities available to them. Everyone is receptive, inquisitive, and eager to learn more. As the sun’s hips lean exhaustingly into the afternoon, we delve deeper into the core of the neighborhood. Eventually, when we run out of pamphlets and feel that we’ve spoken to enough people, everyone crams back into the auto-rickshaw. With the SAFA banner waving behind us as we leave, we hope that the word will spread quickly from resident to resident to encourage more people to enroll in our upcoming classes.
The sounds of the city, like any metropolis, can sometimes be overwhelming. The honking, engines roaring, and constant construction are often deafening. Yet, away from the chaos are the softer melodies to life. The sound of fingers jamming into the keyboard for the very first time. The sound of a teacher’s voice instructing her students not only English grammar, but also how to gain the confidence to step into an interview and present their very best self. Even the sound of scissors gliding through material to create a small bag reveals a woman with little formal education but a strong will to step outside the confines that the paradigms of poverty restrict her to. The sounds of energy and hope are softly whispered in every center, in every corner, of SAFA. Sometimes they get lost in the city’s chaos, and sometimes they are rediscovered in a child’s earnest laughter to aspire to become something more than what the rest of the world expects them to be. It is an organization of enormous activity; and the captivating sounds it provokes are shaking the landscape for the community in which SAFA serves.
As my body collapses into the chair seated next to my co-workers after the day’s campaign, listening as they joke away and tease each other, I try to imagine what the coming year will be like. The sudden power outage in the office reminds me that it’s been a whirlwind thus far. Until now, most of my senses have been telling me to run away and never look back. Yet the bright, colorful sounds of imagination and innovation echoing proudly from all the teachers and students that I’ve met, encourage me to stay.