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A Playful, Yet Powerful, Presence

We were led to what was probably the “Main Street” of Dharavi. It was a fairly wide dirt roadway filled with garbage, of course, and a lot of activity. There were chickens, goats, dogs, children holding even smaller children, men working and loitering, and women in saris and burkas (the Hindi and Muslim population live quite peacefully together in Dhavari and often celebrate each others festivals) all milling about. The programs directors led us to a street performance already in progress. These young men perform on a daily basis in strategically located hot spots. In alignment with cultural traditions and Indian heritage, the Street Play Team employ folklore and ancient storytelling techniques to captivate its audience. The central focus of this team, through storytelling and entertainment, is to offer pertinent information related to HIV/AIDS and STIs. The content of the street plays usually include information on correct and consistent condom use and the features and benefits of STI treatment services at Key Clinics.

The performers spoke in Hindi, and there was a large crowd gathered around, mostly men and children. The characters were dressed colorfully and very animated and dramatic. This particular play was about three friends celebrating one young man's birthday. They decided he should visit a sex worker. Of course, the young man contracts an STI (I couldn't understand anything, but I got the general idea when the actor kept scratching himself). According to the crowd reaction, it was was hysterical, and they all seemed caught up in the storyline.

We were then taken to another area where we met Condom Man—an Indian man dressed in a large, red, inflatable plastic condom costume, complete with a smiley face, large shoes, and over-sized hands. He was dancing to music until a crowd formed around him. Then, other men began engaging the crowd to play simple awareness-related games. They used drawings or photos to illustrate, since most of the people in Dhavari are illiterate with little or, more likely, no education. Next to the table was a small tent where, in groups of eight, men were led inside and shown examples of what the different STIs looked like.

Sadly, we left Condom Man dancing in the dirt and continued walking through Dhavari. The people, like most of the people I've meet in India, were sweet and kind to us. I made eye contact and said hi often, since I was a guest in their home. It was important to me these people felt respected by our presence. Most of my "hellos" were met by smiles, handshakes, and offers of their precious, small supply of food.

We went to another area to watch another play. This one had men in drag, dressed in black wigs and colorful saris. Their makeup was running in the heat. This play was to raise awareness about having sex with male partners and transsexual street workers. I have seen transsexual sex workers and they are often quite attractive. But these street performers were the ugliest pretend women I have ever seen! I suppose it was deliberate, because the crowd laughed at their feeble attempt at femininity and stayed involved long enough to get the message.

I was incredibly impressed by the visibility and access that YouthAIDS has in this environment. YouthAIDS workers wear a blue or yellow coat to identify themselves to the people in the area. It has taken years of one-on-one and group outreach practices to cultivate trust among the men and women of Dharavi. They seem to understand that the intention of YouthAIDS is not to judge, exploit, or even rehabilitate. YouthAIDS is there to serve, educate, and encourage each person to take responsibility for his or her health and the wellness of the community in which they work and live.

Next, we were taken to one of the Key Clinics. The Key Clinic franchise was launched in 2004 to facilitate high quality STI screening and treatment. It is made up of qualified medical practitioners who operate their own clinics and provide affordable and accurate STI training for target groups. There are 12 Key Clinics in and around Dharavi, which are identified by a brand logo marketed toward target populations. The doctors are subjected to extensive quarterly thematic training on STI-related issues and sensitivity towards the needs of high-risk populations.

The office was clean and well-lit. We were broken into a few groups to meet the doctor because the room was too small to accommodate all of us. He was a middle age man who was polite and very confident in his role. He explained the different treatments he preforms. He sees mostly the male clients of sex workers treats thrush, genital herpes and warts, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, as well as, the common cold, scrapes, bruises, etc. He was very kind as he explained how he discusses condom use with the gentlemen and offered all of us a packet of Masti Condoms (marketed by PSI/YouthAIDS) to take with us.

We left the Key Clinic and were directed down the block to the local video parlor where a film was to be interrupted and a demonstration of condom use would take place. We were taken down a small road and led to a wrought iron ladder. It was completely rusted and flakes of metal fell off in my hands as I gripped it. I thought how grateful I am that I had that tetanus shot after all! We climbed the ladder up through a large hole and entered a fairly large, very dark space where a film was in progress. There were all men crowded in the dark space sitting on the floor. I walked towards the back and sat down on the floor before thinking about what usually goes on in this place. With my hands touching the bare floor, I got a little squeamish realizing that normally this dank theater shows nothing but porn. I couldn't imagine the things that go on in this room, and I was certain that there was no one mopping up afterwards! The energy was very creepy and dark, and I was uncomfortable sitting there among all those men even though I knew I was safe. I was grateful to leave once the YouthAIDS peer educators stopped the film and began their demonstration. They asked us to leave because they didn't want to make the men uncomfortable by having women present to watch.

This finally concluded our time in Dharavi. As we climbed back through the alleyway and onto the main roadway, I took inventory on my feelings and realized I felt sad, inspired, tired, hopeful, angry, and excited. I thought of Hala’s statement about "a country of contradictions." I knew precisely what she meant. We left and drove back toward the area in Mumbai where we were staying.

We were then taken to a large public movie theater where Bollywood movies play all day. The theatre was lively and everyone was talking and singing over the soundtrack. It was pretty wild. Everyone was very dressed up. It was clearly a more middle class crowd. We were escorted to the front and sat down to watch the film. It was hysterical. Bollywood films are elaborate and kitsch and completely delightful! The audience was almost as interesting as the film itself, with people talking in full voice, clearly enjoying themselves. YouthAIDS had staged another interruption at this theater as well. I asked, "Don't these people mind that their film is being interrupted?" Actually, no, they just go with it. They have no issue as long as it is entertaining. I could only imagine our reaction to something like in L.A. When they stopped the movie some members of Sanghamitra (a sex workers empowerment collective) got on stage and acted out scenarios from their lives. They showed police batterings, clients refusing to wear condoms, and being denied medical treatment. Then they showed how the collective supports one another, and what they are trying to do to empower themselves, each other, and fight for their rights. It was an amazing and inspiring demonstration and I got very curious about this collective of women, disenfranchised and illiterate, coming together to create change. I will find out much more about them later.

After they were done, Ashley went on stage and spoke about HIV/AIDS, correct and consistent use, and Key Clinics. She, as always, was articulate, humane, heartfelt, and clear.

When we got back to the hotel, through the glass door and into the grand lobby, standing on the polish marble floor, I was incredibly grateful to have this refuge to come back to. Walking through the main corridor to my room, I was looking forward to taking the bath that would remove the filth and stank of Dharavi from my skin. I was saddened by the thought though, of all the men, women, and children I met that day that will call that filth and stank, forevermore, their home.


I'm so impressed by the impact and visibility of YouthAIDS in Dharavi. It's a testament to the brilliance and dedication of the YouthAIDS team, and at least a tiny glimmer of hope amidst almost unimaginable suffering. Fills me with emotion and gratitude.

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