I step up onto the big yellow school bus in Mumbai, India, and am greeted by a sea of smiling young faces. Nothing I haven’t encountered in this city before. Only this particular bus isn’t heading to a school – it is school for these kids, all of whom have been raised in the slums and streets of India’s City of Dreams.
As I scan the drawings lining the bus walls – all of leafy green trees and bright yellow suns – I chat to Biju Thampy, the founder of the Vision Rescue charity that for the past decade has been using this travelling classroom and three others like it to educate and feed as many as possible of the 300,000 kids living on Mumbai’s streets.
Having identified a few needy locations, Thampy tells me he and his team park the mobile school buses – which are kitted out with desks behind the back of each seat, whiteboards, TVs, DVD players and PA systems – and gather the children on board to be taught basic English, Hindi, maths, science and, perhaps more importantly, health and hygiene.
“Most of these kids are Dalits, the lowest caste in India, which means that often they have very little self-worth or hope for the future,” says Thampy.
Although there’s free public education in India, he says most of the street kids have never gone because of their lack of self-esteem. If they have attended school, they often leave because they’ve been teased about their uncleanliness or the fact they don’t have a proper home. Vision also gives the kids toothpaste and a toothbrush, often the first they’ve ever had, and shows them how to use it. The goal at the end of the year is to get these kids confident enough to start attending government schools, and currently they have just over 100 children “graduating” from the bus schools each year.
The kids are just finishing up their lessons for the day. After a quick sing along they push and shove each other off the bus and are rewarded for their efforts with a free meal of rice and dahl. They grab their big silver plates and run out into their “playground”, a barren wasteland with a rubbish dump at one end and a slum at the other.
The kids clamour around me, wanting to shake my hand over and over again, giggling and trying out their English on the foreigner. They point and laugh at the goats eating the rubbish in the corner and sleeping beneath the bus. One beautiful little boy’s front teeth have turned brown, but that doesn’t stop him from beaming at me with his own version of a 100-watt smile and asking, “What is your name?”, then giggling and running away before I can answer. A little girl with a bumpy, dry skin disease covering her face plays clapping games with a friend clad in a dress that’s three sizes too big.
But there’s such excitement and happiness emanating from these little faces that it makes me believe this simple program really is helping these kids feel – perhaps for the first time in their short lives – like they’re worth something.
READ MY GUIDE ON INDIA FOR BEGINNERS HERE