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Neighbourhood Diaries: Training Citizen Journalists in Calcutta's Marginalized Communities

Neighbourhood Diaries, a pilot project of the local NGO Kalam, is training marginalized youth in Calcutta's working class neighborhoods how to become citizen journalists. Through their poems and interviews we discover both the depressing and the delicious in Calcutta's Bowbazar neighbourhood.

Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have already seen some of Calcutta's toughest neighborhoods through the eyes of its young residents thanks to the success of photographer Zana Briski's documentary film Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids. Briski first headed to Kolkata (Calcutta) to photograph the city's large prostitute population. “While there,” according to the film's Wikipedia entry, “she befriended their children and offered to teach the children photography to reciprocate being allowed to photograph their mothers. Much of their work was used in the film, and the filmmakers recorded the classes as well as daily life in the red light district.”

The youngsters proved to be talented photographers and were able to capture a slice of Calcutta daily life that evades visiting foreigners. However, the photographs that were selected, the ultimate story which was told, was still left to the movie's editors and producers. Once the film's 90 minutes are up, those children exit our lives forever.

Partha Banerjee, who worked on the film as an interpreter, even went so far as to write a public letter to the organizers of the Oscar Awards which claims that the children featured in the film ended up worse off in the end. (Updates on several of the youth were published on the film's website in 2006.)

Kalam Co-Founder Bishan Samaddar explaining the organization's mission and history.

Kolkata has a rich literary heritage including India's first Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, and legendary filmmaker and author, Satyajit Ray. If Mumbai is home to Bollywood, India's version of Hollywood, then Kolkata is its New York, a writer's city. However, its long list of literary greats almost all come from upper class (and upper caste) families. Kalam founders Sahar Romani and Bishan Samaddar believe that creative writing – and its benefits – should not be restricted by class, caste, or neighborhood. They founded Kalam and began organizing poetry and creative writing workshops in Calcutta's marginalized neighborhoods.

Kalam's staff members Nargis and Bina Doloi describe Kalam's current outreach programs. (The video should read “Nargis” and not “Rohit”.)

Last year they received a Rising Voices microgrant to fund a pilot project which teaches the fundamentals of citizen journalism and blogging to youth groups affiliated with partner NGO's in Calcutta. Under the leadership of director of programmes, Urbi Bhaduri, Kalam first partnered with SANLAAP, an Indian feminist NGO, to train around 10 young people living in Calcutta's Bowbazar neighborhood. The group met a total of 13 times from November 2007 until June 2008 when Urbi fell ill and was no longer able to facilitate the citizen journalism workshops.

Each workshop focused on a new topic and left the young citizen journalists with a new assignment to investigate for the following week. They took their pads of paper, their pencils, and their growing sense of confidence to the streets where they contemplated the stereotypes about their community, the landmarks which define it, their own homes, the characters, livelihoods, the ability to make local social change, and more.

In fact, the Neighbourhood Diaries project blog is practically a guide book for how to run a successful citizen media outreach campaign in a marginalized community. The pilot project only ran into one problem, albeit a major one: they had a difficult time teaching the new citizen journalists how to transfer the articles they wrote using pen and paper onto blogs which we could all comment on and link to. Rather, Urbi would collect their notepads and painstakingly transcribe and translate their articles which she posted on the project blog. (For example, see the jouranlists’ reporting on local livelihoods and fashion.) Learning how to type in Bengali is difficult enough – you must use special software which converts phonetic, romanized versions of Bengali words into the proper script characters. There is still poor unicode support for the Bengali script as well. The citizen journalists, hoping to learn how to publish online, left the internet cafe frustrated and despondent. On top of it all, Kalam's staff had difficulties convincing cyber-cafe owners to let in 10 young people from a marginalized community to use the computers for a workshop.

Anjali, in a message to the Foko bloggers in Madagascar, describes what she learned in the Neighbourhood Diaries citizen journalism class.

The Neighbourhood Diaries course in Bowbazar has now come to an end, but as you can see in the video above, its legacy will hopefully live on in the confidence and camaraderie it gave its participants. Rahool Goswami, at 19-years-old the oldest of the participants, will be traveling to Brussels for the Global Interdependence Youth Summit where he will join other Rising Voices citizen journalists from Colombia, Madagascar, and Bangladesh.

The Neighbourhood Diaries project will soon continue in another neighborhood. Kalam is now approaching other Calcutta-based NGOs to find a youth group that is close to a computer lab or willing cyber-cafe.

Finally, on a personal note, when visiting the Bowbazar project I was amazed by just how well the citizen journalists described their community. They took me around and showed me the landmarks they had written about and the local personalities they interviewed. We even tried a hot kati mutton roll at one of the food stalls they featured. Rather than recording video of all this myself, I handed my video camera over. The first video in this post shows what they came up. It was a great reminder to me that, in some cases, video has less of a barrier to entry than text.

Special thanks to Rezwan for all the time he put into transcribing and translating the sub-titles of the above videos.

11 comments

  • we’ll make sure anjali’s wonderful words will get to the foko club kids.
    the kolkata citizen journalists are the most passionate despite the social difficulties they meet, at the end they will meet success.

  • Anjali’s eloquent testimonial on how Neighbourhood Diaries impacted her life (“My life changed very much”) sums up the overall success of RV projects such as this one.

    It’s also nice to see the youth enjoy themselves, all the while being empowered to come out of their shell and share their own realities. Looking forward to reading more of their stories.

  • Partha Banerjee

    On Born Into Brothels, Kolkata’s leading daily Ananda Bazar Patrika published a story on August 7, 2008 that the featured kids (except for one who’s now reportedly in the U.S.) have now brought a lawsuit against the filmmakers. The lawsuit is based on the fact that the filmmakers breached their promise to share in the enormous profit from the Oscar-winning movie with the children and their sex worker mothers. Unfortunately: almost all the kids on the film whose identities were exposed are now going through a miserable life; at least one young girl Puja is now a sex worker herself. This movie is a grotesque display of exploitation, violation of privacy and ethics as well as self-promotion and aggrandizement. It created false hope and then destroyed it.

  • […] after clicking through all the links in our recent feature on the articles produced by the citizen journalists of the Calcutta-based Neighbourhood Diaries […]

  • Janine

    What an amazing story! It was interesting to learn about the project’s background and see what has come out of everyone’s hard work and dedication. And point well taken about video being less of a barrier to entry than text.

  • Thank you for sharing this eye-opening journey with us David. All the best to Kalam and its ground breaking projects, thanks to Urbi’s efforts.

  • What an amazing project! Best of luck to Kalam, and thanks for sharing this story with us.

  • Get well soon Urbi. Thank you for helping us learn about the children and their inspiring project. How Anjali articulated overcoming her fear of writing and what it meant to her is what we hope to hear from all aspiring netizens.

  • Urbi

    Dear all, feels great to be connected! Para Diaries was a wonderful learning curve for me, a space for meeting new friends, sharing stories and journeys, developing courage, initiative, compassion and new perspectives…glad to know you are equally inspired!

  • An amazing and inspiring project. Great work by Urbi and everyone else involved – I hope that Neighborhood Diaries can serve as a model and inspiration for projects in similar communities around the world.

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