Smart Slums



Karim Ajania

I am immensely proud of being a descendent of generations of hard working and enterprising immigrants and refugees.

— Karim

The slums of Kutch in India where my grandfather lived as a child

My family is descended from many generations of slum dwellers and salt pan laborers in India.

My paternal grandfather was orphaned at the age of ten, after both his parents died an early death in the brutally high rate of mortality for salt pan workers in the Raan of Kutch, in Gujarat, in western India. I spoke Kutchi and Gujarati before I learned English at the age of seven, and so I heard my grandfather’s stories at a young age, about his poverty plagued life in the slums of Kutch.

My grandfather wanted to break the cycle of poverty, and slum dwelling, and salt mine laboring, and so with pluck and initiative, he wrote a letter to a former resident and neighbor of his Indian slum, who had emigrated to what was then known at British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).

Salt pan laborers in the Raan of Kutch, India

As an orphaned ten year old, my grandfather proposed a bold business deal to this enterprising former neighbor who had a thriving small shop in a remote mining town in the African hinterland.

My grandfather requested a job at his shop in Africa, where he would work free of charge, without a salary, if the shopkeeper were willing to advance the purchase of a third class steamship ticket for my grandfather, so that he could emigrate from India to Africa. It took a few years of negotiation, as the Indian shopkeeper in Africa, and my grandfather in India, vigorously haggled back and forth.

A salt pan laborer in the Raan of Kutch, India

Eventually, four years later, at the age of fourteen, my grandfather set sail for British East Africa.

Two generations later I was born in Nairobi when Kenya was newly independent from the British.

A couple of decades ago my friend Yema Khalif was born in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.

The slums of Kutch in India where my grandfather lived as a child

Like my Indian immigrant grandfather, who also grew up in the slums, Yema left the slums to seek better opportunities, subsequently moving to the United States. I love to view the sparklingly bright potential of slum dwellers through heroic examples of enterprise such as Yema and my grandfather.

It is what we educators do.

Educators acknowledge the harsh realities, such as poverty, and lack of opportunities, in the slums in counties like India and Kenya. However, at the end of the day it is the bright potential of children that motivates educators such as myself. We are motivated by those who are motivated.

We are motivated by those, like Yema, like my grandfather, who persevere, who show initiative; who pull themselves up by their bootstraps; who seek opportunity through a hand up, not a hand out.

A salt pan laborer in the Raan of Kutch, India

When I asked my grandfather how he managed to deal with the relentless rejection letters from the Indian shopkeeper in Africa, to offer my grandfather a job as an Indian immigrant, he replied:

“When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. However, you do not in reality have ‘nothing’. You have something priceless. You have something that most people who live a comfortable life do not often have: You have a fight in your entire being, and a blazing fire within your soul.”

A salt pan laborer in the Raan of Kutch, India

When I asked my grandfather how he could envision building a new life in a new continent, and a new country, when he did not even have a grade school education, he replied proudly:

“My stories are my education. They carry the wisdom of the ages, and the gentle caring of our ancestors. I learned these stories from my father and grandfather. I now pass these stories on to you. In the end, our oral stories will sustain you more than any written education you receive.”

He was correct. I have found what he said to be true to this day.

A “teacher-less school” in the slums of Kutch in India

When I asked my grandfather how he summoned the relentless tenacity to haggle with the Indian shopkeeper in Africa, getting him to finally pay my grandfather’s passage to Africa, he smiled:

“You can take the Indian out of the bazaar but you cannot take the bazaar out of the Indian.”

Salt pan laborers in the Raan of Kutch, India

My grandfather acknowledged that he did not write the letters to the shopkeeper in Africa himself.

My grandfather could not write the letters because he had never attended school, never learned to read and write. He was illiterate. However, he had a neighbor in the slum in Kutch that was literate and taught literacy to slum dwellers, for a small fee. My grandfather, at age ten, had no money.

Salt pan laborers in the Raan of Kutch, India

So, my grandfather persuaded his Indian neighbor to give him free literacy lessons. In return, my grandfather promised to send him parcels of books in English, once he secured his job in Africa.

For many years after my grandfather emigrated to Africa, he consistently kept his promise to his slum neighbor, and regularly sent him brown paper parceled books in the English language.

When my grandparents were well settled and prosperous enough in Kenya to make a trip back to India, they visited my grandfather’s slum neighborhood and thanked the Indian tutor who had written those letters for my grandfather when he was ten years old. My grandparents brought him three large suitcases bursting with books in English. The tutor shared the books with the entire slum.

Salt pan laborers in the Raan of Kutch, India

Inspired by the example of my grandfather, I am embarking upon building a prototype library for Smart Libraries in the slums of Kibera in Kenya. For the planning and implementation stages of this initiative, I am working with the advice of three very smart African business school graduates:

Yema Khalif, MBA, Dr. Dapo Tomori, MBA, and Muyambi Muyambi, MBA.

It is essential for me to seek the smart advice of individuals like Yema, Dapo and Muyambi, who have the requisite business strategy skill sets as MBA’s. Although I myself do not have an MBA, what I do have, are my grandfather’s stories, as well as his firm conviction about our heritage:

“You can take the Indian out of the bazaar but you cannot take the bazaar out of the Indian.”

Click here for my interview with the filmmaker of My Name Is Salt