While on a visit to one of our programs in the slums of Chennai, I noticed that all our programs were structured around women. The program was a very successful one and the team had worked hard with the slum community as well as the local slum clearance board to make things happen and very visibly, the impact was there for all to see. But no men. I was aware that it was day time and the men might be at work; but I still asked.
Any programs with men?
Some whispers and murmurs, but no answers were offered. But curious, I keep probing. Deep inside I knew what the answer was, as over the many years of working with slum communities, the work has always or almost always been with women. So the answer, when it does come, does not surprise me.
We do not have any program with the men because they are either at work or if not, they are drunk.
So why do men drink, I ask.
Another round of familiar answers followed.
Men go for work and get tired and then need a drink for recreation. Or, they have lots of worries and tensions and alcohol helps them forget their worries, atleast for that brief period of drunkeness. And so they drink.
I probe further.
What do women do and why don’t they drink?
Well, women don’t go for work and are not involved in manual labor, so they do not have the compulsions that men have.
But they do have their worries and fears don’t they? What do they do?
Oh yes. The women have their own fears and worries. They throw the household utensils around and go to the neighbor’s house to gossip.
So in the evening, all the slum women are huddled around gossiping, while the men are slumbering, dead drunk. Neat. Very neat.
For years, I have been observing that programs planned with men almost always fail. Despite the same dedicated staff, the same meticulous planning and the same amount of effort put in, programs with women succeed while programs with men fail. Usually this is because nothing consistent can be planned with the men due to the problem of alcoholism among the men in the slums.
This is the case with us in Oasis, as is often the case else where too. Alcohol seems to be the almost universal soporific of recreation in the slums and almost the only one, it would seem. So can any thing be done for men or are all developmental programs in the slums destined to succeed with women alone?
Some thing about Oasis’ programs among young men gives me a ray of hope. I don’t know when we will ever be able to break the scourge of alcohol and its hold among the older men, although I should not be pessimistic. But our program with the young men from the slums and others on the verge of dropping out of society which focuses on sports as a tool might be the answer, at least for the younger people. Using football as a glue, Oasis is able to bring together young men who might all have gone their own separate and destructive ways.
These young men learn the value and worth of discipline, sportsmanship, fairness and respect for rules and perhaps most importantly make lasting friendships and bonding that may, if they are lucky, last a life time. The Oasis program is only a few years old and it could be said that in many ways, it is in its infancy. There is very certainly a long way to ago, and it will be a long time, before we can draw any definitive conclusions.
Perhaps , I am being a fool to anticipate so much, expect so much to happen from a program that is so new, so nascent. But even so… I dream that way. I dream that one day it will be possible to walk into a slum and ask the question – not “why do men drink so much?”, but on the contrary “why do men play so much?”
It will be the day when the brawls caused by drinks will be replaced by the laughter and the banter of sport. That would be change. That would be transformation. That would indeed be life.