There’s something satisfying about watching clothes sway as they dry in the sunshine. Same at home. Same in India. I walked past the rows of rainbow clothes and listened to the slap-slapping of wet cloth against concrete. Shirtless men soaked and flogged material against open-air concrete wash pens; one flashed a bright smile and waved when he noticed our group. Generations of families live and work here, among the never ending washing cycle. Many children might only complete a few years of schooling before working. This dhobi ghat (laundromat) in Chennai services hospitals, hotels and private residences in the area.
World Vision fund an urban project within this laundromat in Chennai. I’ve learned that challenges in urban environments are vastly different than in country areas, and so the solutions need to be also. Urban issues are extremely complex, and include poor literacy, low wages, poor hygiene and living conditions, high alcoholism, unemployment, water born diseases, child marriages, high levels of school drop out, child labour, unemployment, domestic violence and populations density. The challenges, seem to me, overwhelming, and yet World Vision is tackling these issues with strategy and patience.
See that big iron above? It weighs seven kilograms! World Vision gave families irons so they could extend their laundry service to include ironing along with washing (another income stream). However, it’s not charity; these families pay back 20% of the investment with their profits, and then continue to earn and grow their businesses with continued support from World Vision. I think this is important to understand about how World Vision work. Simply giving hand outs doesn’t foster the sort of ownership that produces long term change and growth. In one of the conversations with the World Vision staff members, he said to me, “We always, always, always have in mind that we will leave the project one day, and the goal is to have the individuals and community self sufficient, empowered, equipped and able to own it before we leave.” You see, an iron is a portal to long term change.
Why is the iron so big and heavy? They hold hot coals in the centre and stay hot for a long time before needing to restock. Plus, these irons can be used anywerhe (at home, shops or at stalls) because they don’t require electricity. This makes a lot of sense. A modern electric iron would not be as versatile, or even useable at all in these circumstances. This is a good example of why a key understanding of the challenges and realities within each area is integral to World Vision’s work in respective projects. For change to be real and sustainable, it has to work, be realistic, and doable.
One mother shared about how World Vision invested in her by giving her an iron, plus sending her to a tailoring course so she could learn the skills of making clothes (like the saris you see above). She showed me her certificate with pride. By sewing about two-four tops per day, she is still able to care for her young children. When her children are older, and are more self sufficient, she plans to set her goal to ten tops a day. I loved hearing her ambition. What fuels her drive are dreams of a better life for her children; that they may have access to have education and other occupation choices if they wish.
A father spoke too. He thanked one of the local World Vision staff members for taking so much time with his wife and explained how it changed their perspectives for they children. They now have hope, and prioritise education. The staff member in question responded and said, “You can thank World Vision for that.” And the father returned saying, “I thank you!” This is what impacted me the most about the trip this time: just how much the staff invest in long term relationships with these people, and in turn, are adored and respected. But they take no credit! It’s all about the people who are owning, and working hard to better their family’s future. I have nothing but respect…for all of them.