Recently I was asked to reflect on some questions about my experiences of an international development education and exposure course I completed in India at the beginning of last year.
‘Are there any deep truths that you learnt while in India that have stayed with you one year on?’
I don’t want to add to the noise about India being someplace you go to find inner truth and so forth, so let me premise this by saying that I learn deep truths in the everyday of Melbourne as well.
To my surprise, some of the things that confronted me most in India were things that also confronted me in Melbourne, such as how to respond to someone on the street asking for money, or how to communicate with people who don’t share my language and culture.
Privilege was one thing that I was confronted with in India. I remember being taken to meet a group of girls at a school in the middle of a slum who were learning tailoring skills in order to earn money for themselves and their families. There was a poster on the wall of the classroom of goals/dreams that the girls had. One was to read a book. Another was to wear Western clothing. Another was to have the freedom to leave the house alone. There were gold stars next to the goals rating them from ‘easy’ to ‘very difficult’. The latter two goals where rated ‘very difficult’.
While on a train in Delhi I met an American woman who was living in a slum. She came up to us and started chatting because she didn’t see a lot of Westerners in this part of Delhi. We had a lot of interesting conversations but a few times she returned to asking us about where the Indian poverty line was according to the government. She had been trying to live very simply, pushing herself to her limits, and wanted to know if she was under the line. ‘It’s like a game to me’ she said half jokingly. She wanted to be relatable to the poor Indians she lived amongst in the slum.
However, it didn’t matter how little she could push herself to live off, she couldn’t actually be poor. You can’t chose poverty. This woman was white, Western, and educated. She has a network of friends and family that could whisk her back home anytime. These are the privileges that her neighbours in the slum do not have.
‘What was the biggest challenge coming back?’
While sitting in the offices of the development partner hosting us, we learnt about how the deeply ingrained values of Hinduism in India affect the way people think of poverty. The three major components of Hinduism–reincarnation, karma, and the caste system, form a worldview which holds that if you are poor, sick, hungry or homeless, it’s because you’ve done something bad in a past life, and so probably deserve it. Therefore, to help someone out of poverty is to interfere with the divine order.
However I’m not convinced Christianity does much better.
When I got back I was asked by my church to share upfront what I’d learned. I talked about privilege and shared the above story about the girls learning tailoring and their dreams; but during prayers afterward, the leader thanked God for my experiences in India and thanked God for the the privilege we have here in Australia.
Yes. Thankyou God for the global structures that perpetuate wealth inequality and for the history of colonialism that has made Australia the great nation it is today. In Jesus name, amen.
I became pretty upset and angry about this incident, but it wasn’t the particular leader or even the particular church that I was angry at, it was the culture we have in the mainstream Australian Church of separating spirituality from economics and politics except when we are rich and in power.
If you consider your job, house, and car to be blessings from God, does that mean people who struggle to acquire those things are not blessed by God? Or to use the language of Instagram and Twitter, if your life is so #blessed, does that mean that someone living in poverty is #cursed?
A person living off the dole in Melbourne still receives more in a year than 83% of the world’s population, according to globalrichlist.com. Melbourne has for three years running held the title of ‘World’s most liveable city’. With a population of 4 million that’s a 0.0006 chance of living in Melbourne, if you happen to be a person living on earth.
Using the language of probability, it sounds like we ‘won the global lottery’, and people in the aid/development sector often talk about the ‘luck of birth’. But looking from a historical perspective it’s no accident that we as descendants of Western Europe are in the position we are.
While I was writing this, I very nearly wrote ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate’ instead of ‘privileged’ a number of times. I think perhaps this habit of thought isn’t just my own, but a manifestation of an ingrained cultural denial–or at least ignorance–about our heritage in colonialism, and denial that our prosperity is dependant on the global capitalist and political systems that perpetuate poverty. At their worst, our religious institutions, be they Hindu or Christian, enable this cognitive dissonance.
‘How is life different now? What changes have you made in your life?’
But at their best, religious institutions are the most beautiful examples of peace and justice, which was my overall impression of EFICOR, the development partner we were hosted by. Another example of the Church at it’s best, in my opinion, is Love Makes A Way, a movement of Christians seeking an end to Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policy through nonviolent love in action, which I became involved in a couple of months after I returned from India.
Importantly, I have made a habit of knowing my privilege. This has not been a cut and dry process, but a growing illumination that has occurred as a result of listening to people who walk in very different shoes to mine. Just like the American woman I met on the train, there is nothing I can do to shed myself of privilege; I can only adopt a stance of awareness to it. I try to do this in a number of ways–
I think to myself often where things might have come from that I am eating or wearing, and what the lives of people that produced or created them might be like.
Whenever I am studying I try to remember the privilege of access to education, and whenever I share my opinions publicly (like here) I remember that not everyone has this freedom.
Despite my political predispositions often being in opposition to our government, I remember just how much an Indian school teacher I met on a train to Varanasi praised the Australian government for its stability and provision for its people.
When I think of travelling somewhere I remember that while it is so easy for me, for most it is much more expensive, and there are millions of people who would not dream of crossing international borders, because of cost, political restraints, or lack of paperwork. Money, and goods cross borders with more freedom than people.
Most recently I’ve been trying to remain aware of the privilege of my white skin and remember that so many things that come easily to me, do not for people of colour. I keep in mind the history of colonialism that has meant that I, along with most white Australians, have come out very near the top of global system.
We were gifted garlands like that in the picture whenever we visited another village. We each ended up with at least five or six from Koya alone. The hospitality was bittersweet. I wrote in my diary afterwards–“It made me upset to experience the separation between the villagers and myself. They were sitting right in front of me, but this did not close the gap between us”.