April 23, 2009
I must admit, I am a charity virgin. Many of my friends have come to India at some point or the other to do charity work. There are countless NGOs operating in Jaipur. Bur for some reason – for many reasons – I don’t get involved. I did help once, for a few months, with my friend Nina. Never since. And I am not proud of it.
The one I am quite proud of, on the other hand, is my baby sister Clemence.
Clemence visited me three years ago, age 16, at this time of the year. It was absolutely boiling, she fell sick, and although she was still her fierce-spirited self, I knew she was having a tough time. She had to have injections, which she hated, and she felt so low I had to tell her mighty humiliating stories about myself to get her to smile. You will be happy to know that it worked, and that she has now passed the stories on to my entire family.
However bad she felt, Clemence decided to accompany Nina and I on our last field trip.
The NGO Nina worked with organized a health camp at the railway station every week. There would be free consultations and medicine for the street kids, who would also be taught about basic health and hygiene rules. In order to teach them about hygiene but really in my eyes in an attempt to bloody make them feel human, we’d give them a bath. The railway station, amazingly, let us use their airy bathrooms. And we’d go there, once a week, with buckets and soap and toothbrushes, and a cohort of urchins that grew bigger every time.
We took only the younger kids, up to 6.
And for hours on end, we’d wash, wash, wash these little bundles of crap.
It was intense, we’d be soaked, the turnover was crazy, and then we’d have to retrieve all the toothbrushes from the pockets of these sweet-faced 4-year-old little thieves.
I told Clemence I wouldn’t have time to look after her, and that she might find it a little overwhelming. She shrugged and came along.
I was worried. My baby sister hadn’t done anything remotely comparable to washing street kids in an Indian railway station before. She lived a relatively sheltered life in the French countryside. There was the odd weed-dealer in our high school, but we certainly didn’t know any rocket-pill-addict child.
Clemence, however, amazed me.
I got so absorbed in keeping up with the flow of dirty urchins coming in that I totally forgot about her. When I looked up an hour later, sweating, drenched, exhausted and handing over her toddler back to a mother, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Clemence had put herself in charge of the combing and tooth-brushing. There was a group of tiny evil kids around her, the kind I couldn’t really handle unless I splashed soapy water in their faces. She was making them brush their teeth with one hand, while with the other one, she grabbed a little girl:
“I don’t think so honey, gimme that toothbrush back. Good, now keep quiet.”
“Not your turn babe. You just wait. No jumping the line here.”
“Good, well, yes I know it’s fascinating to look at your white bubbly spittle but we’ll do this another day ok?”
I was stunned. I thought I’d have to take her back home within 10 minutes, and here she was, bossing around an army of street kids who had given me a run for my money.
I couldn’t help feeling a little responsible. We did bully Clemence a lot when she was a baby. Apparently, she’s made the best of it.