March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
January 12, 2004
We were anxious as we made our way through the early morning crowds on the railway station. It was only nine o’clock and yet already the sun was making the air sticky and oppressive. The commuters sweated and jostled each other. Each Mumbai train was packed to its overflowing open doors. We rounded the end of platform one and came to the place where Sunni and Vinniy usually begged. There was no sign of them yet again. Sunni was seven. His sister, who was taller, thinner and quicker, was nine. They had been coming to the day centre we ran in Thane, Mumbai for months now. Everyday they would join in with the games and the lessons. They sat with the other children and ate and washed, although they were never really happy. There was always something they were complaining about. Given the situation in their family, it was hardly surprising. Vinniy was constantly angry, her small face turned down into an angry scowl. They both used to hit and scratch the other children. At times when the centre was packed with forty other street children the staff found them hard to cope with. There was only so much you could do. Then, for no reason they stopped coming. In the furnace of working with many very needy children in a small room under an asbestos roof, other things took our attention. A few days passed before we went out to search for them. It was not unusual for children to miss a few days. They had perhaps found a job sweeping up fruit peelings from a local store. Perhaps the mother and father who lived with them on the station had taken them to the village for a festival—there seemed to be a local festival every other week. They could even just be boycotting us for some imagined slight. We were going to find them to discover the cause.
When we arrived at platform one, we soon saw the mother sitting on the tiled steps of a public drinking fountain festooned with pictures of Shiva and Krishna and other Hindu gods. She was eating some rice she had found in a discarded plastic bag. She looked old and tired and defensive. The father was lying on the floor, covered in filth, lazily swatting flies. As he saw us approach he sat up. At least he wasn’t drunk and senseless. We approached and asked him about his children. It took a while for him to tell us the whole story, but eventually it came out. He had been drunk one morning when a man had come to the platform. He had offered a thousand rupees, about thirty dollars, for both the children. They were a nuisance anyway, the man said, rolling his eyes. So, he had sold them on the spot. The gangster had summoned two of his henchmen and dragged them away. The man looked mournfully at us. He told us that his wife had been furious with him, and that worst of all he had not even seen any of the money yet. If we met the gangsters could we please help him to get the money?
We were too stunned to be angry with him at first. Sunni and Vinniy were gone. They had been sold like anything else on the side of the road. Who had them now? We sat later in a chai shop trying to think what to do next. “Perhaps,” said Raju, “they had been sold for foreign adoption.” The gangsters could make thousands of dollars for that. They might be smuggled out of the country and sent to America. It could be true, we had friends who had seen street children kidnapped by the van load and the word was that they were sold for adoption. This was bad enough, but the alternatives made me feel sick to my stomach. They could be sold into slavery, working away, hidden behind closed doors, at domestic duties. No pay, no respect, no education, no rest. They would never have any contact with their families again. Worse than that they could be used as prostitutes, slaves in the sex trade that Mumbai is famous for, imprisoned in the cages in the red light district. They could even be exported for exploitation abroad in the Gulf or Europe. There had even been reports of children sacrificed in the foundations of buildings to bring good luck.
We never knew what happened to Sunni and Vinniy. We never saw them again.
What happened that day in Mumbai is not an isolated incident. UNICEF figures show that every year 1.2 million children are trafficked. Trafficking in women and children and sometimes men is big business. It always has been. Christians have to have a voice on this. We have to be heard. We have to empower the Sunnis and the Vinniys of this world to have a voice. Given the size of the problem and the fact that billions of dollars are earned each year from the sale of children, what can we do? Are we not powerless ourselves against such evil?
Recently I have been reading the account of the life of a slave who was born into another era. Sojourner Truth was born a slave in New York state in 1797. Hers is a story of both horror and inspiration. She lived with many other slaves in a cellar underneath the hotel her masters owned. It was cold, damp and dirty. Very little light filtered through to them. Many of the slaves were ill with fever. Sojourner saw her mother and father crippled and demoralised by the conditions of their slavery. Her mother would constantly mourn the loss of earlier children who had been sold on by the master and would never be seen again. Sojourner was eventually sold on herself. Some masters would beat her physically. Even the kindest would abuse her mentally with the notion that she had no worth, that her own children were only products to be held at no value and disposed of by him as he wanted. For a while her mind was so abused and damaged that she agreed with this low estimation of her life. This was the early nineteenth century. It was the slavery that we read about in history books. We should stop now, however, and consider, was her life different from the lives of Sunni and Vinniy? Even when they lived in nominal freedom their poverty destroyed the basic values of human worth. When they were sold into slavery all hope was destroyed. The slavery that Sojourner Truth endured is alive and well and thriving all around the globe today.
Eventually in 1827 a law was passed in New York state outlawing slavery. Sojourner’s master had promised her freedom a year before that, but had gone back on his promise. This had been devastating for her. To have hopes dashed at the whim of her master was usual in her life, but to have the ultimate dream of freedom snatched from her was more than she could bear. Something else had happened in her life though which gave her courage for the future. She had become a follower of Jesus. She had heard mention of Jesus once or twice, but had thought him to be one of the leaders of the nation, just like George Washington. When Jesus appeared to her in a dream she was overwhelmed and gave her life to following him. Now, in the moment of her crisis she prayed to Jesus. She determined to take her own freedom in her hands. She would run away, if only God would guide her as to when. If she ran away during the day people would see her and bring her back. If she ran during the night she would not get far and would be in personally danger herself. It seemed to her that God sent a thought that she should run away at dawn, and so she did the very next day.
Again, as if guided by God she arrived at the house of Quaker people who lived in the neighbourhood. Immediately and without question they took her into their house as a guest and a friend. Whatever she needed they provided. When she needed money to approach a judge to fight the sale of her son into the south, they gave without expecting return. When Sojourner needed a job they offered her one in their own house. Above all they accepted her as a friend and an equal. We are never able to bestow equality, we can only recognise it. When we do so, our eyes are opened to the image of God standing before us. This is what that Christian family were able to do.
How can this story from a previous era guide us in our actions now? It shows that the simplest of peaceful actions can have the greatest of effects in the fight against slavery and exploitation. Mother Theresa once said that not everyone can do great things but everyone can do small things with great love. It is these small things which change the world. Everyone can pray. Everyone can sign a petition. Everyone can write a letter to their government. Everyone can take the time to be informed. Everyone can question the source of children for adoption, and everyone can ask whether the products they are buying were made with slave labour. Ultimately these small actions are the only hope for the Sunnis and Vinniys of the world. The only hope for 1.2 million children sold every year.