Musings on research, world culture, medicine, and literature.

Hamari Aawaz (Our Voice) Student Artwork Booklet PDF

Hamari Awaz

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Good or bad? The guilty excitement of finding E. Coli in your water sample…

It’s that time.  I think I’ve delayed getting to this point, and maybe some of that has been on purpose.  For the past week, I have been going daily to different areas of the city, slum or no slum, to take water samples and test them.  There were a lot of thoughts running through my mind as I zoomed by on motorcycle, stopping to collect water from hand pump, Russian pump, municipal water lines, and submersible pumps, input the point on my GPS, take pictures, label the sample, and note all observations in my diary.  In between, I met rickshaw drivers, orphaned children, large families, poor families, wealthy families, students, and mothers.  Every single person was concerned about the water they used to drink, cook with, wash clothes with, and bathe in.  When it came to water, all were equal.  Some of the richer folks have the money to install expensive reverse osmosis water filters, and they felt relatively safer, but in the slums, nothing is certain.  I met one rickshaw driver who was so happy that I had come to test water, he said “At least someone in the government cares.”  I had to tell him I wasn’t from the government, that this was for my project, but I would make sure to let him know how the water tested.  He took me to his house, gave me his own water to test, offered me tea, and bid me good luck.  There were many stories like this.  Once, I told a student who goes to Hamara School, the same slum school the book project is concerned with, that the water from his house had a strong concentration of E. Coli, and he simply looked at me, smiled, and said, “What then? There isn’t any other water I can drink.  This would explain why someone at our house is constantly sick, but that’s all I have to drink.”  I didn’t really know what to tell him.

So far, I have performed about 25-30 tests and look to add about 10 or 15 more, before I call it a day and ship back all the samples to SMU in Dallas, Texas.  What did I test here, in the field?  I noted the pH, salinity, temperature, presence of total coliforms, of E. Coli and definite fecal contamination, type of water source, age of water source, presence of rust, and boring depth of water source.  I also jotted down any observations I had relating to the surroundings.  Of course, the biggest test is the E. Coli one, and that’s really the one people are concerned about here.  The same goes for me.  I really wanted to look at how disease is spread, and I knew water would be the place to start.  From the results so far, the question really isn’t anymore where disease exists and where it doesn’t, where water contamination is and isn’t, but how large this problem really is.  From the tests (and I will get into the details in the next post), the conclusion is clear: there is fecal contamination everywhere and it is downright scary.  I’m not sure what else to say.  Out of the 26 tests that have definitively yielded results, 13 show fecal contamination.  That is a huge percentage.  Even more scary when you consider that some of the those 13 are from wealthy homes, where deep reaching submersible pumps are installed.  Generally, submersible pumps are considered the safest of all water sources, but even they haven’t been spared.  My next goal is to test the water provided in railways, hospitals, and other public places.  Clearly, my mother and father knew what they were doing when they absolutely forced me to only drink water from my grandparent’s home and carry it around with me like a talisman.

Word got around quickly that some tall, skinny boy from America was conducting research on water contamination. So far, at least 10 people have requested me to come to their homes and test their water, and my uncle even sent 4 large bottles to my house today after he found the water in his bathroom sink was contaminated.  I feel that since hard evidence is coming out for the first time, it is getting people’s attention in spades.

Well, that was a lot of rambling on my part but I really wanted to get some of my thoughts out.  It feels nice to write this all down because for the past week I developed a habit of obsessively checking the cabinet where the samples are incubating to see if any more had turned the ominous yellow indicator.  In the next post, I’m going to present you with the full details on how many samples I tested exactly, how many were contaminated, and further specifics such as salt content and pH.  I will also post a bunch of pictures showing you why it’s clear that contamination is occurring (hint hint: half of all hand pumps are located on top of open sewage moats) and other mind-boggling information.  Until then, it has been a pleasure writing for you.

May your water be safe,


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First Foray: If you grimace, don’t let her see you

Finally, here it is.  Through pictures, firsthand accounts, and my own observations, I present you with the first look into the slum.  While I believe that only stepping into the streets and walking around gives one a real idea of how conditions in a slum are, pictures and quotes do help paint a realistic picture.

Many people look at what I am doing and the only thing they can remember is the word slum.  That is not all my project is about.  Rather, it is about trying to get past that word, and look at aspects of life beyond just the unsanitary living conditions.  At the same time, it is important to talk about the conditions of the slum, because like it or not, they do exist and they do shape the psyche of both the people who live there and the people who see it from outside.

This post combines about 3 or 4 visits, spanning a week.  These shots of are of the slum only.   In my next post, I will talk more about the school I am working with inside the slum and the book project that the students are taking part in.

First, an all important stat: the population density in this region is over 50,000 people per square mile.  By comparison, the population density of the US is 87.4 people per square mile (2010 US Census).  In a later post, I will post pictures of maps I obtained of the entire city showing the population versus the land area.


This very same shot is available in the last post, taken right outside the school. Here, the same view is shown a year later. The difference is visible.


One of the wider streets in the slum.  Sewage carves it’s own path through and come monsoon season, the sewage water will overflow onto the streets completely.  The hand pump is a primary source of water for people on that side of the street.


A large pile of endless trash, that at times becomes a small hill. Children play here barefoot, along with the roosters, pigs and hogs that come to nibble.


This is perhaps the largest open space in the slum.  In order to play cricket, kids have cleared the trash out. 

Normally, I get to the school by car, and the driver just barely manages to squeeze the car through the narrow streets.  Each time, I get brief glances–it’s plain to onlookers that I’m not from these parts.  By the third time, I decided to walk.  It allowed me to blend in a little more and see people from up close.

The principal of the slum school where I am working shared a brief, powerful, and interesting anecdote:

“Kids who grow up in the slum can often develop inferiority complexes.  They see that every time someone walks by, that person looks at the child, looks around and grimaces in disgust of the conditions.  The child becomes accustomed to this, to thinking that somehow, he or she is a part of the surroundings, and should be made to feel like the trashy conditions around him or her.”

Thus, one of the most important goals of the school, named “Hamara School,” or “Our School,” is to give students the confidence and self-belief necessary to succeed.  Students are taught that they are not less than anyone, that they are not bound by their circumstances and are as human as anyone else.

His point was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to look at child psychology in the slum, because I wanted to see how the students in the school had adapted, or changed their beliefs according to the school’s philosophy.

How will I examine child psychology?  My goal is to ask each of the students in the school to draw something, anything they like.  The only rule I set forth is that they should draw whatever they want with the question in mind of why they chose to draw what they do.  That “why” is real analysis.  Of all the drawings, I will select some from each of the age groups, based on how clearly explained the analysis is, and if the student chose to draw something that really mattered to them.  These drawings will be incorporated into a booklet with the title “Hamari Awaz,” meaning “Our Voice.”  If the cost is doable, I will try to distribute one copy back to each student.

Hopefully, the students will be able to appreciate a project that they worked on together and made possible through each other. For all the negativity associated with a slum, I have seen resilience and hard determination from the children I have met.  I want someone to recognize that.  I want the students themselves to recognize that.  It is high time that we stopped feeling pity for them and instead give them the tools to where they can succeed on their own.  Year after year, I have seen pity breed pity, complaint breed complaint, and nothing seems to go anywhere.  Now, for the first time, the teachers of the school are working hard to educate these children, and that effort should at least be recognized.

In the next post, I will show you a sampling of the drawings I have selected, as well as several pictures of my visits to the school.  This book project is an exciting one for me because the students have responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.  Finally, I feel like their voices will be solidified into something physical, something they can hold and show to someone and say, “Look at me, look at what I can create, look at who I can be.  Look at me, and don’t grimace.  Look at me with the respect I deserve.”

That is all for now.  I hope you enjoyed reading, and would love to hear your feedback.  My email is: raamister@gmail.com.

The next post will not be up for another week as I am attending the wedding, but do not hesitate to send me messages, I will read and respond to all of them eventually.  Also, please rate the post so I have an indication of what I can improve next time.

See you soon!

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Welcome! A little bit about this blog…

It feels incredibly exciting to publish my first post!

This blog began out of my desire to chronicle the Richter Fellowship I am doing from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  The project is in the city of Aligarh, India and centers on water contamination, child psychology, and public health in a north Indian slum.

To follow all updates associated with this project, just click on the “Richter Fellowship” categories link on the left hand side.  The page link above titled “Richter Fellowship” gives some basic, static information about the project and also has a couple of links for you to explore in order to better understand the project and its aims.

As always, PLEASE PLEASE leave your comments and replies: these are what I am really looking for.  It would be awesome to hear what you have to say about my project, including your questions and suggestions.  If there is anything else you would like to see from me, post that too!

Other than that, I will also post updates on my travels through India, which will most likely consist of visiting the foothills of the Himalayas, sites in Delhi, and if I’m lucky, the Taj Mahal.  That will come a little later though, once the fellowship is over.

If you are so inclined, you can also follow this blog through email.  Just find the widget on the left hand side where you can enter your email and follow the blog.

See you soon!

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