Under the shadow of a mountainous garbage dump near Kolkata’s city center lies a slum neighborhood where children taught me how to properly wash my hands. The primary occupation here amid clouds of foul-tasting smoke is scavenging—plastic bags, pieces of cloth, bottles, cans, food, and scraps of iron, steel, and wood.
As dawn breaks, the crimson sun is shrouded in a verminous haze and the slopes come to life. Choking and spluttering, school-aged kids scurry up the refuse hillsides beside their parents, hoping to fill their bags with saleable goodies before the school bell rings. Many suffer from sores, blisters, water-borne diseases, and constant coughing. By ten o'clock these same kids, immaculate in maroon and white school uniforms—red and white checked shirts with black ties— sit on wooden benches in a small courtyard under a corrugated iron roof next to a dark classroom. There is no blackboard in the courtyard. The kids between the ages of six through nine or maybe even a few years older, huddle together silently to read the English text in their teacher's exercise book. They have an assignment to complete. “Put these words in the correct order: “bicycle, ride, a, I.” Their script handwriting is impeccable.
This elementary school is desperately short of space and there is no room for the local council to build toilets. Kids suffering from diarrhea have to rush to communal toilets a few blocks away. A putrid sweet smell smothers the alley. It was here, that I, a mother and grandmother, who has lived most of her life in a first world country, and who has always had plenty of clean water and soap available, first learned to wash my hands correctly. My teachers—these kids—ingrained new hygiene habits in me.
In the adjacent lane, stands one of the few two-feet-tall community taps, where water runs for two hours daily. During that time, Ajit, one of the teachers, makes sure to fill a bulbous plastic tank, about the size of two USA mailboxes together, designed and provided by Splash, a Seattle-based nonprofit. As water flows into the top it is filtered and purified. Now, bottle quality, it is safe to drink through a short nozzle-faucet, at the bottom. But basic hygiene behavior—washing hands after using the toilet and before eating—matters as much as potable drinking water in checking infections.
At midday these kids are served a meal of rice and dal, subsidized by the Indian government. Piggybacking on an Indian government hygiene program, WASH, Eric Stowe, Splash’s CEO authorized the installation of fiberglass hand washing stations. Results are astonishing. Respiratory and stomach infections have decreased by an average of thirty percent.
On a recent murky day, just before the midday meal, I watched the Child Cabinet, consisting of a girl and a boy aged about eight, armed with a cake of Lifebuoy soap, a bucket of water and a plastic cup, scrutinize each kid’s washing habits. Their students wet their hands, took the bar of medicinal-smelling soap between the palms of their hands, rubbed their palms together and passed it on to the next kid. Then they fastidiously washed, rubbed, scrubbed, and scoured their fingers, their wrists, forearms, and the back of their hands. Criticism from the strict Cabinet was harsh. No pupils could possibly miss a spot or rush through the ritual. Chattering excitedly the kids competed with one another to see whose hands foamed whiter and laughed proudly as they held their hands up for inspection. I don’t believe I’d ever scrubbed in between each finger, or washed my inter-digital folds as well as these kids. In fact, until then, I’d probably never ever washed my hands correctly.
“See Ma’am,” a girl skipped in front of me and plopped a few suds in my palm. She flipped her braids over her shoulder. “You must be making bubbles to stay clean.” Her fingers twirled and twisted. The lather grew rich and creamy.
This hand washing training doesn't end there. There is a determined effort to involve parents and the community as a whole. A special curriculum has been developed for schools so that the children can take the lessons they are learning at school back home to teach their parents, siblings, and elders how to wash their hands—especially after defecation, before cooking and eating. Families, too, are required to buy their own cake of soap.
“There are fewer sick kids staying home," Ajit continued. We have less absenteeism by almost half. The children don’t stay away from school so much because they are much more healthy.”
Infrastructure was much better at most of the other urban schools that I visited in Kolkata. Almost all had toilets. But the hand-washing instructions and supervision for kids by kids remains rigorous. Even in the toughest conditions, I realized, seemingly small things can make a huge difference in peoples’ lives.
Now, during our flu season in the ladies bathroom at work, I share the lessons that those kids from one of the poorest parts of the world taught me, with my colleagues. I rub my soapy hands together under a faucet with clear, clean water, and fragrant heather soap. Only this time, I make sure to rub carefully, in between each finger, over my wrists and up to my forearm. I hear the shouts of the Child Cabinet complaining that I haven’t rubbed every nook and cranny. That I need to make more suds to stay healthy. I long to smell the pungent vinegary aroma of the kid’s Lifebuoy soap and feel their sparkling hands hugging mine.