Standing in the alleyway outside Goonj, an NGO working to provide clothing and basic resources to some of India’s impoverished millions, I am reminded of our initial arrival into India; the drive from New Delhi Airport to our hotel left an impression not easily forgotten.
Although it was well past sundown and we were completely exhausted, we could not help but notice the vast slum through which we were passing. Clearly lacking even the most basic amenities, this was a degree and scale of poverty I had never imagined. The makeshift shelters of cardboard and plastic stretched on and on—and further on still—forcing the heart of the matter into full consciousness. Having just arrived from the USA, the content of our carry-on luggage alone was most likely worth more money than these residents would see in a lifetime.
Back in the alleyway, Anshu Gupta, the founder and director of Goonj, has just shared the inspiration behind his work and taught us something very poignant. With more honesty than we had with ourselves, Anshu reminded us that we have forgotten how to give.
When Anshu learned how many people die every winter from lack of clothing, he felt a call to action. He explained how people usually give clothing only when there is a disaster, contributing what they don’t want in their closet rather than what is truly needed.
He spoke about the inappropriateness of people’s offerings, how we give to relieve our conscience rather than to actually help. For instance, a village woman in remote India will never wear a Western woman’s business suit. She simply won’t do it.
One of Goonj’s initiatives is to take unwanted clothing and waste and make them useful in a multitude of ways. From notebooks for school children to sanitary napkins for women in remote villages, not a square inch of fabric or paper goes unused. They can turn the unwanted t-shirt in your closet into something beautiful and functional, and most importantly, they can ensure it reaches the person in need.
Anshu explains, “Most people underestimate or overestimate what we are capable of, mostly underestimating ourselves.” And here at Goonj we witness what one man accomplished simply by looking squarely at a need, and assessing what he could offer.
Now, sitting on the steps of this remarkable organization, I watch as a man irons reclaimed cloth while cows saunter by, and across the way, children are playing near improvised homes. It’s over 108 degrees and the air smells of the raw wastewater running down the street.
I have just understood that the privilege of freedom and abundance is wasted on so many. We in the West have so much and yet we all too often do the wrong things with it.