Wednesday 21 August 2019

'It was my worst nightmare, yet the children were smiling'

In a Kolkata dump, street kids captured the heart of broadcaster Sile Seoige, writes Claire Mc Cormack

HOPE AMID DESPAIR: Sile Seoige visiting the homeless during her trip to India’s Kolkata with the Hope foundation
HOPE AMID DESPAIR: Sile Seoige visiting the homeless during her trip to India’s Kolkata with the Hope foundation

Claire McCormack

Standing in the middle of Howrah dump in Kolkata - formerly Calcutta - broadcaster Sile Seoige thought she had stepped into her worst nightmare.

All around her, thousands of men, women and orphaned children scavenged through landfill sites of solid waste to find scraps to sell on the streets.

Wild pigs, rats and other vermin rummaged among the poor as the thick stench of decay filled their lungs.

Nothing could have prepared the TV star for her trip to India with the Hope Foundation - an Irish charity working to save the street and slum children of Kolkata from lives of pain, abuse, poverty and darkness.

But despite witnessing these moments of insufferable desperation, the most haunting image that pierced her heart was the children's smiles as they pilfered the rubbish.

"Going to the dump was the worst day and probably the closest I came to having a panic attack. I'd never seen anything like it in my life - it completely took me by surprise," Sile said.

"I felt like I was in hell, I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. But what I found most disturbing was how beautiful, friendly and smiley they all were.

"The dumps and the slums are all they know, it's normal for them. But for us in this part of the world, we can't get our heads around it," she told the Sunday Independent.

Last month, Sile was invited to accompany Hope on its trip back to India, where it partners with 14 local Indian NGOs and funds over 60 projects for street and slum children and their families in education, healthcare, child protection, nutrition, drug rehabilitation and vocational training.

Over 250,000 children go to sleep each night on the streets of Kolkata hungry and without shelter or protection.

In 1999, founder Maureen Forrest, from East Cork, set up a girls' home in Kolkata, providing refuge for six girls. Now, the charity supports over 60 projects, including nine protection homes, and the Hope Hospital.

There are 175 girls and 82 boys - rescued from the streets, impoverished, abandoned and often abused - living in these homes.

"When you look at the great poverty in places like Kolkata, it's very hard to get your head around it. It was very difficult I have to say, I could barely talk after it," Sile said.

As a recently qualified yoga teacher, Sile was asked to join Hope's yoga group to help teach the boys and girls about the discipline's physical poses, breathing techniques and meditation.

"We did workshops with the children and helped them to do positions and chanting. They loved it.

"It was such a privilege for us - the irony of Western women going over to India teaching yoga to Indian kids," she said, adding that India is a country and culture she has always wanted to experience first-hand.

However, at the end of the day, the gaeilgeoir from Galway said: "What was really happening was the children were teaching us."

She added: "We were learning so much from those kids and it was beautiful to see how receptive they were to yoga, so it was very special and something I will never forget."

Although Sile started yoga just three-and-a-half years ago, she says she finds it hugely beneficial for her mind, body and spirit.

"I wasn't in a great place myself at that time in my life and I knew I needed to try something new, something different to see if it would help, and I found yoga.

"It's a wonderful practice. I think our understanding of it over here is doing all these unusual positions and being very bendy, but that really is only a small part of it.

"The philosophy of yoga is so beautiful and it's helped me so much. I wanted to deepen my own understanding of it so that is why I decided to go for the teaching training course," she said.

For Sile, the spiritual practice also complements her busy media career and allows her to switch off from the spotlight.

"In an industry that cultivates illusion and can be very ego-centric, yoga is very important.

"It can bring you back down to ground and make you realise what is important in life and that a lot of the other stuff that we worry about isn't really real," she said.

Meanwhile, Sile has hinted she's set for a TV comeback - but it won't be for any old show.

The broadcaster, who previously co-presented the chat-show Seoige with her sister Grainne, said she hoped to make a return to TV - but only if the right job came along.

"I'm looking forward to doing TV again, but it's all about the project. I won't just jump at anything; it has to be a right fit," Sile said.

"I've some projects in the pipeline, but there's a lot of things that need to line up, like timing and finance."

Sunday Independent

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