MUMBAI, India — Zulekha Sayyed sits with the men. They talk about the garbage dump directly behind their community and how the children have been playing in it and getting sick. As the wife of one of the men serves the group tea, the men say the dump’s stench gets worse when night falls.
The wife returns to the kitchen. The mother-in-law sits on the floor and serves her grandchildren breakfast. She tears off a piece of roti, kneads it in a metal bowl of milk and sugar and then places the bite in the toddler’s mouth.
Zulekha, 21, keeps talking. She looks directly into the eyes of the men, three construction supervisors who all live in a poor area of Ghatkopar, a suburb of Mumbai. She asks them questions. She laughs with them. She tells them what she thinks they should do to force the local government to respond to their complaints.
In a world where women usually observe quietly, Zulekha — a community journalist who reports on the very slum she lives in — stands out for her bold willingness to work for change.
“People recognize me and come to me for help, and I like that,” she says, while sitting cross-legged on a plastic mat on the floor of a video-editing room in Navi Mumbai, a city east of Mumbai. She’s barefoot and wearing a fitted salwar kameez, beaded purple necklace, clunky earrings and gold nose ring. Smokey eyeliner decorates her lower eyelids.
“I went to shoot video somewhere, and the cops were staring at me. I stared back at them,” she says with a mischievous smile. “They couldn’t understand who was afraid of who.”
Zulekha was not always like this. She grew up quiet and submissive. She wore a veil. A Muslim Dalit, she did not have male friends, let alone engage them in serious discussions on issues like sanitation and access to clean water.
When Zulekha was a child her father passed away, and her mother, working as a domestic helper, supported the household on 300 to 500 rupees ($7-11) a month. On days her mother could not bring food home from work, Zulekha would go hungry.
They lived with Zulekha’s grandmother in a hillside shack the width of a queen-size bed. There was no electricity or running water. During the monsoons, rain would leak into the slanted shack, rushing past Zulekha and her mother “like a river” as they huddled together on a makeshift bed, she tells me during a recent visit to their home.
Zulekha’s mother, who struggles with mental illness, spent 150 rupees each month — sometimes half her earnings — to send her daughter to a private English school in the community.
At age 18, Zulekha joined a community video unit called Hamari Aawaz (“Our Voice”) that trains young people from poor and marginalized backgrounds to report on their communities and then teach people how to take action. Hamari Aawaz was created by a local NGO called Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and an international one called Video Volunteers, which has trained 175 video producers like Zulekha across India.
The community video projects aim to address what the organizations consider a dearth in comprehensive reporting on poor areas by mainstream media outlets. They strive to improve the communities by giving the marginalized a voice to express their needs and grievances, tools to demand accountability and change, and an arena to learn about and discuss issues affecting them, according to Video Volunteers.
“What we are trying to achieve is an empowered community,” said director of Video Volunteers Stalin K.
The organizations start by training individual producers like Zulekha in leadership skills.
“If Zulekha becomes an educated, independent thinker in her community, she can influence those around her,” he said.
After the producers report and edit their stories, they hold screenings in the communities. The local organization YUVA has made 12 video magazines on basic rights like sanitation and clean water since it began in July 2006 and has reached almost 80,000 people via its screenings, said media coordinator Anil Ingale.
During a recent evening in Ghatkopar, Zulekha and her colleagues lug a projector and screen through a maze of narrow alleyways. Passing women standing outside combing their long black hair and men getting freshly shaven in two-chair barbershops, the producers stop in a busy walkway maybe 8 feet wide. As they set up their equipment, a woman drops off a bag of clothes at the nearby iron-wallah shop, and men stop at a kiosk to buy panipuri, a traditional Indian snack consisting of a hollow, fried crisp cut open and filled with a spicy concoction of water, potatoes, onions and chickpeas.
As darkness falls, a group gathers around the screen. Children squat on the ground, the older ones careful to sit on their heels rather than the dirty walkway. Men sit in apartment doorways. Others gather in the back.
Zulekha and her team show videos on the need to fight for one’s rights, sustainable development and waste collection. When the videos finish, Zulekha takes the microphone, stands behind the projector and tells her community how they can recycle and reuse extra building materials.
The group sits quietly, looking up at Zulekha. She may not have all the answers, but she sees the possibilities.