by Sabrina M. Parker
(excerpted from the March 2009 issue of Sister 2 Sister magazine)
Eric Benét’s girlfriend Manuela Testolini exhales after surviving the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.
When the images of burning hotels lit up American TV screens during Thanksgiving, our hearts went out to the innocent people who had come under attack in Mumbai, India. We shared some of the fear that those hotel guests must have been feeling when they learned that machine-gun toting terrorists were randomly shooting to kill. Later, we learned that the terrorists, who were seeking out Americans and Britons, killed 170 people in coordinated attacks that targeted the city’s largest train station, two five-star hotels, a Jewish center, a movie theater and a hospital.
Philanthropist Manuela Testolini, singer Eric Benét’s girlfriend, was in Mumbai during those attacks. She had a room in one of the burning hotels. Luckily, she had left the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to have dinner just before terrorists stormed its lobby. It was her last night in India and she really wanted to stay in her room and pack, but she was convinced by a friend to go to dinner. Unfortunately, they had dinner at the Oberoi, the other hotel that would be on fire by the end of the night. Manuela said she narrowly escaped death several times that day.
“The manager of the Taj was helping people escape, and he lost his wife and two kids, as they were trapped by the fire raging on the sixth floor. My room was on the fifth floor. That could have easily been me because I had every intention of staying at the hotel that night and packing for my trip home. Or it could have been me in the restaurant across the hall at the Oberoi, where diners were killed and some taken hostage.” She was also shopping in the Colaba district hours before gunmen arrived and opened fire on tourists in a popular café.
‘An adventure was upon me …’
When S2S Publisher Jamie Foster Brown talked to Manuela about her horrific experience, she didn’t start her story at that restaurant. Instead she spent most of the conversation explaining why she was in India and sharing the amazing scenes she took in before the attacks. Manuela is the founder of In a Perfect World, a nonprofit
She went to India in mid-November to start a partnership with Akanksha, a nonprofit group that aims to educate and empower children living in Mumbai’s slums. These kids live in extreme poverty and most don’t go to school. Manuela said she was excited to visit a new country but felt a little nervous about not being able to speak the language. “Nevertheless, an adventure was upon me,” she said, adding that she was eager to do philanthropic work.
She spent most of her trip sightseeing, visiting the slums and Akanksha’s school in Mumbai. When she first hit the slums she found it hard to catch her breath. “I opened the car door and was immediately struck by a stench like no other I have ever experienced. It was a combination of rotting food, open sewage, animals and garbage. Instinctively, I started to breathe only through my mouth. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered persistent flies that found my mouth the perfect place to land. I closed my mouth and the flies went in my nostrils, my ears, my eyes.”
Later, her friend and tour guide Sumeet told her that the slums she had visited, where large families lived in 6-by-6 rooms and shared a communal toilet, were “penthouse suites,” compared to areas that he didn’t take her to because he thought she wouldn’t make it.
“I was trying to not look horrified,” Manuela said. “But I was horrified. But the people there, that’s their life. They were so welcoming and smiling and really warm and open to a visitor.”
Manuela said she saw the most beautiful children there and some followed her around. When she asked why the kids weren’t in school, Manuela got a variety of answers. Some of their parents don’t think their kids need schooling, some kids have jobs and work during the days, and others get to go to private schools in the evenings to get a couple hours of schooling.
Akanksha is housed in a private school. Its teachers give lessons in English, not in their native Indian, to give the kids a head start. After four days, the students had fallen for Manuela and she said they asked her to stay when she told them she had to return to the United States. “My eyes welled up as I wished I could take them home with me.”
Read more about what happened to Manuel in Mumbai when you pick up the March 2009 issue of Sister 2 Sister magazine.