Recipe for success
How Indian charity Butterflies are preparing former street children for a career in catering
The notion of India as a single country is a relatively modern one, forged in the ashes of British rule in 1947. “India is more of a continent than a country,” my colleague Shweta said. “Most people here identify themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis first, and Indians second.” A quick glance at Wikipedia backed up her assertion. India has 28 states, 21 official languages, nine religions and over 200 ethnic and tribal groups.
As well as these wide variations in culture, India has perhaps the world’s widest gulf between rich and poor, with some of the world’s wealthiest people living alongside those as destitute as in any African failed state. Along with China, it is one of the world’s two emerging superpowers and already the world’s largest democracy, but even more than its neighbour to the north-east, the benefits of economic progress have not trickled down to those at the bottom. Nowhere is this more evident than in the capital city, Delhi.
This was my second visit to UNICEF India but my first to include a project visit. My task was to train six country office staff in blogging and online video. I wanted to do this in a real-life environment. UNICEF regularly works with local charity Butterflies to include sport and play in children’s development, including through workshops and monthly play days. During the Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup, we worked together to provide sporting events for street children in Delhi. Butterflies has a number of other projects across the capital, and they agreed to let us visit two of these for the training – a catering school for former street children and a night shelter and community bank near Old Delhi railway station.
In the morning, I went to the catering school with Altaf, Idhries and Sonia from the communications team. We got a taxi to Begumpur, a district in south Delhi. To me it looked run down, with rubbish piling up in the street and the occasional person sleeping on the roadside, but appearances can be deceptive. “This is actually a wealthy area,” Idhries said. “It’s where people from the Punjab were resettled after Partition.”
We made our way down a side street to the Butterflies centre. Outside there was something of a commotion. A crowd of people was watching an argument between an old man and a fat, bearded individual. The old man gestured at his car, which had a dented bonnet. “I have two policemen with me and if you don’t touch my feet and apologise I will file charges against you!” he raged in Hindi.
Fruit and fibre
A few minutes later, Niharika from Butterflies arrived, a former nutritionist who now runs the cooking school. She took us up to her office on the second floor and the commotion of the street gradually faded into the background. Paper files were stacked on a wooden bookcase behind her desk and a list of students was pinned to the wall alongside a poster of multi-armed Hindu deities. As we sorted out our camera equipment, Niharika gave us some background to the project.
“We work with adolescent boys from 15 to 18 years old,” she told us. “Our street outreach workers find them, often near the railway station. The children are very insecure at first. They have had a hard life and don’t trust anyone. Many have been into drugs or to jail. But we say ‘we are your friends’ and try to win their trust. Then we ask them about their life on the streets and what they’d like to do instead. Do they want to go back home, to school or to learn a trade? Would they like to work in a restaurant?”
Those children who want to learn catering are brought to a nearby shelter and enrolled in the school, where Niharika teaches them cooking alongside standard subjects like Maths and English. As a nutritionist, she ensures that all the food the boys cook and eat is healthy. “You can see the difference in their energy levels,” she said. “Even their skin has improved. The boys’ level of literacy is often very low so I teach them with visual aids at first. They receive a 500 rupee stipend per month for their work in the kitchen, of which they can spend 200 rupees. We save the other 300 for them until they turn 18.”
The boys don’t just work in the centre – they also help to run it. When Niharika is away, she leaves one of the boys in charge to take orders and handle the money. I asked her if anyone had ever stolen from the centre. “Yes, it happens,” she acknowledged. “If money goes missing, I check the boys’ lockers and pockets. Then I show them how much money they have saved in the bank and explain ‘you don’t have to do this’. It’s hard work and some of the boys need a lot of counselling. There are boys who were into substance abuse on the streets and sometimes they just can’t cope with a structured environment.”
Despite the challenges, Niharika was clearly very happy working at the centre. “It’s a wonderful thing,” she enthused. “I really feel like I’ve changed their lives. Some of the boys go on work at hotels and restaurants. Even those who don’t get jobs leave here with better life skills. They know how to speak and behave properly, to read and write, and this will improve their chances in life whatever they do.”
After talking to Niharika, we went to the kitchen to meet the boys. The air was close and heavy with the smells of cooking oil and spices. It was a typical scene of barely controlled chaos, familiar to anyone who’s watched a TV show like ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’. A dozen youths in tall, white hats bustled around the hot, crowded space, cooking huge caldrons of curry on gas stoves, washing up or ladling food into thali dishes for delivery. The head chef, a former street boy now in his thirties, directed the mayhem like the conductor of an unruly orchestra.
In an adjacent room, other boys were studying, leaning low over their school books in concentration. Altaf followed a group of trainees outside and filmed them loading delivery boxes into a tuk-tuk. “I got a great shot of them driving off and waving,” he said.
After the boys had finished cooking and studying, we filmed interviews with some of them. Idhries, who is a real natural with children, had been chatting and joking with them in the kitchen to put them at their ease. “I used to do this in refugee camps in Kashmir,” he said. “It’s even more challenging to get children to talk to you in that kind of environment.”
Among our subjects were two brothers, Irfan and Adnan (not their real names). They were both around 15, although nobody knows their exact age. Irfan has epilepsy and neither boy had seen the inside of a classroom before arriving at the centre. “We used to live on the streets in Nizzabudin,” Irfan told us. “I worked on a juice stall during the day and we would sleep at night in the mosque. We didn’t go to school. But here we get to learn and study. I want to get a job in a restaurant and become something in life.”
His brother Adnan chipped in: “I used to be embarrassed when people asked me what class I was in at school, but now I can answer them. The best thing here is the children’s bank. I’ve saved 15,000 Rupees [£200] and I can use it whenever I need to buy something.”
After the interviews, the boys served us lunch and the UNICEF team tucked into their Thalis with visible enthusiasm. “This is delicious,” Idhries said, “It’s much better than the food at the office canteen. Then it was back to the office to pick up the rest of the team for our afternoon visit to Butterflies night shelter in Old Delhi.
To find out more, visit the Butterflies website.