Walking through the old city of Udaipur, passing piping hot jalebi stands and dodging decorated cows, a scene down a stoned laneway makes this ME to WE traveller pause. What would you do if you came face to face with child labour?

By Katie Hewitt

 

I’m standing in the middle of a narrow street, absorbing the smell of bonfire and greasy street food, sweet jalebi and spicy bhelpuri. Udaipur traffic is a parade of pack mules, mopeds, wild dogs and tuk-tuks that honk incessantly. Patterned shawls hang from awnings in small shops at either side of the road, framing it with a billowing curtain. On temple walls, faded murals of Hindu gods welcome visitors.

This is my first time in India, and though I’ve been in the country for several days, my first time exploring a city here. I’d spent the week in rural villages, travelling with a group on a ME to WE Trip, making chapatti with local women who gently chided our culinary efforts, gesturing to their children as if to say: how will you manage this? I’d grown accustomed to wide spaces, hiking the foothills of the Aravalli Mountains, yoga at sunrise, the smell of hot chai and the still pond outside our camp.

I should be more alert in this new urban setting, giving the cows a wide berth and straining my neck to look for motorists. Instead I am transfixed. Two women are working below a vertical rise of bamboo scaffolding. They’re mixing masala, a word mistakenly used in the West for “tea,” but in Hindi, I’m told, has more versatility—“a mix of things”—in this case, cement, dirt and water to lay bricks at a construction site.

Hunched over a small volcano of dry ingredients, the women slowly add water to the hole in the centre, vigorously scraping the edges inward, like you would with pasta dough. Except they use a come-along rake, and it’s backbreaking work. You have to use your whole body to swing the rake overhead like an axe, then bring it down with enough momentum to drag the wet concrete back and forth until you reach the right consistency to hold a building together.

I know this because I’ve done it. I’d been quite proud of my masala and the wall I’d erected, piling on the grey goop between layers of brick. The previous day, a small group of us helped build a new classroom for a WE Villages primary school in Antri, a rural community in Rajasthan.

“I’m doing good? Thik hai?” I’d asked the supervising engineer, a local who spoke no English.

He gave no indication that I’d done good, but occasionally wandered over to adjust my brick alignment.

When we left for the city that morning, I’d been anxious to venture outside the ME to WE compound. I’d steeled myself for what my research had promised: the poorest province in India, a strict caste system that prevents social mobility, high rates of child marriage and child labour. I was not a naïve tourist. My stomach had braved five days of curry. In fact, I could count to five in Hindi. I was ready.

I didn’t see her at first.

The girl is tiny, the height and weight of a healthy four-year-old back home. Factoring in malnutrition and stunted growth, I suppose she could have been about eight. Her dark skin is lightened by a thin layer of dirt and white cement powder, and it peeks out in various spots from a worn pink cloth wrapped around her, a makeshift sari to protect from the sun. The sun is unrelenting here, even in winter.

I watch as she deftly lifts a wide, shallow bowl of masala onto her head, cradling it there to climb the stairway behind her, into the body of the building, where I imagine an unfinished wall is waiting. She doesn’t carry herself like a child. She looks like an adult resigned to circumstance, walking purposefully but wearily.

I guess you could say I had a fight or flight response on her behalf.

I want to yell at someone (Who?), or scoop her up and take her with me (Away from her mother? To Canada? And then what?) Everyone else in the street—merchants, tourists, exchange students, women leading wayward children—continues walking. For a moment, I’m concerned that no one else has stopped. But I know why.

 

All of my hypothetical interventions are irrational, and not nearly enough. The problem is much bigger than the girl, who can’t be rescued without an alternative solution. Fighting the systemic problem is what will ultimately let kids be kids.

A few days earlier, I’d witnessed the opening ceremony for a new classroom in Kalthana, a WE Villages partner community, where screaming children could barely contain their excitement. They popped the balloons hung for celebration and darted between desks, mischievous and playful.

Later this year, the classroom in Antri will open and another swarm of kids will become students, instead of forced into labour.

I keep walking, absorbed back into the city.

 

WE Villages five pillar development model was created to end child labour. It’s holistic and sustainable because we know there is no single answer. We work in education, water, health, economic opportunity, and food to enable families to break generational cycles of poverty and create bright futures for their children. On a ME to WE Trip you will learn about social injustice and—most importantly—what you can do to fight it.