“I’m excited to meet some pretty amazing heroes while I’m there. World leaders like Jose Manuel Barroso and Kofi Annan will appear alongside Ade Adepitan, a British Paralympic medalist who contracted polio as a child in Nigeria, and Sikha Patra and Salim Shekh, two kids from India who organise polio immunisations for their community in Calcutta.”
This was Bill Gates’s entry in his blog, dated April 22, in the run-up to the first Global Vaccine Summit which the Gates Foundation was organising at Abu Dhabi. Sikha and Salim, teenagers from the brick lanes of Nehru Colony near Ultadanga are back from a tour of the US. Abu Dhabi was their last stop on the way home.
The seven-city US trip was occasioned by the screening of The Revolutionary Optimists, a documentary film produced by Stanford University on the work being done by Amlan Ganguly, the founder of NGO Prayasam, empowering children like Sikha and Salim from slums and brickfields to bring about changes in their environment.
The impact of their visit was immediate in the US. Over half a dozen newspapers like Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the film, which was screened in the presence of Sikha Salim, the lead actors, along with directors Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham of Stanford University.
“We did live interviews on Huffington Post channel in New York, King FM and King Channel in Seattle,” says Sikha.
“In Oakland, we spoke over phone to seven reporters from different cities. The moment we finished one we were handed the next call. It was like an oral exam,” Salim said.
There were screenings at Stanford University, Pixar, Adobe and Unicef headquarters among others. They were interviewed on stage by Melinda Gates for a TedXChange event in Seattle.
Accompanying the trio on the cross-country tour was a six-member team of media manager, outreach director, publicist, photographer, food consultant and translator. But so thorough were Prayasam’s spoken English classes and so high were Sikha and Salim on confidence that the translator’s services were soon dispensed with. “I used to tell them ‘Say anything in reply, don’t keep mum’,” Ganguly says.
Both the teenagers and the film, which has won Hilton LightStay Sustainability Award, scored with the audience. “They received a standing ovations at Unicef in New York, University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and USAid in Washington,” said Ganguly.
The trio attended 15 screenings in the six days they spent in New York. These included both commercial screenings at Cinema Village and invitational shows like Tribeca Youth Screening, organised by the Robert De Niro-Jane Rosenthal-Craig Hatkoff-founded Tribeca Film Institute.
At the Earth Institute in Columbia University, Sikha and Salim demonstrated the Map Your World project that the Prayasam teens had undertaken to put their colony on Google Map.
“Earth Institute was interested as the children had used its software ODK (Open Data Kit) Collect for the survey. Prabhas Pokharel, the systems designer, was so impressed at the way Sikha and Salim explained the survey that they now want to work with Prayasam,” says Ganguly.
The next stop was the Seattle International Film Festival. “Students working on global health at the University of Washington, Seattle, also hosted a discussion on the film and our work.”
The San Francisco screening was so crowded that people sat on floors. “Quite a few Bengalis had turned up there,” Sikha says. At UCLA, the question hour was unending. “It seemed everyone in the 300-strong audience had something to ask,” exclaims Salim.
At the TedXChange meeting with Melinda, webcast globally, Sikha and Salim were each supposed to answer eight questions, handed to them a week in advance. Melinda ended up asking Sikha an impromptu question on gender.
Watching the interview again on YouTube, back in his Salt Lake office, Ganguly preens at how calmly Sikha replies and more so when Melinda concludes, saying: “We wish we could take you all over the world to get vaccination rates up.” The Prayasam kids have been going door to door to ensure 100 per cent coverage on polio Sundays in their areas, even monitoring health cards of each child, as has been captured in the film.
Meeting Bill Gates in Abu Dhabi was an experience in a different league. “The security was so tight at Etihad Jumeirah that which room he would meet us in was kept a secret till the last moment,” recalls Ganguly. “Bill sir said he had heard of us from Melinda ma’am. I had sat next to ma’am at dinner in Seattle and she had told us that sir had discovered Windows while making a map of his college,” said Sikha, whose group has mapped their colony.
“It was such a packed schedule that only the first day in New York was free for them to do any sight-seeing,” recalls Ganguly. Sikha says she loved Times Square and the Museum of Modern Art. “It was freezing. Dada bought us snow boots.”
If there was one thing the two did not like in the US it was the way food is wasted. “We said that to the students at an Oakland school. They have more than they need. We met a family where two kids had five bicycles. Also we were surprised that students were having to read out their questions despite speaking in their mother-tongue. But they are very disciplined,” she added.
Joseph Loftin, head of Wasatch Academy, offered the duo four-year scholarships to Utah’s only private college prep boarding school. “I left it to them to decide. The tuition fees, I heard, are about $50,000 a year. Each student gets an Apple Mac on arrival. It was an enviable offer.”
But the two friends turned it down. “Our work is in the community. How can we leave behind all that we have done which earned us this recognition?” reasons Salim. “And what if we got so used to the luxury that we wouldn’t want to come back home after four years?” adds Sikha.
Salim now attends Taki Government School for Boys. He wants to be a lawyer, “like Dada”. Sikha studies commerce at Belgachhia Manohar Academy. Having already made a film on Prayasam’s hand-held video camera, she dreams of becoming a filmmaker.