Saturday, 11 April 2015

In Bangladesh with World Vision 2015: The story behind the photos




Thank you for taking the time to read about my Bangladesh and World Vision experience. Like many of my travels, it takes time after I return to fully realize the impact of such a journey. This blog is made up of the journal entries I kept while in the areas of Dhaka, Barisal, and Kalkini of Bangladesh. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

How it all began:

When I was small, Canadian television was plastered with commercials from World Vision and organizations like it unveiling the horrid living conditions of children from around the world. The only difference between me and those I saw on the screen was chance of our births. I had promised myself that when I was able to, I would sponsor a child.

During my first full time year of teaching, around Easter 2007, I found myself home alone. I am not sure why I was…someone was always home, and it was rare that I was home; I was working full time while completing courses for my Masters of Education. God may have had a play in this. I heard a knock at the door around midday to find 2 girls, around 16 years old standing in front of me wearing proud their World Vision badges and profiles of children in need in hand. To their surprise, I had welcomed them in with enthusiasm. You can choose the child you wish to sponsor, as well as where they are from. In hand they had 4 ready profiles. These were the children who were now considered critical. I imagine that sponsorship is similar to adoption, with the newborns and younger babies going first. I asked for the child that had been waiting the longest. It was then that I had a first glimpse of Ranojit.

April 5th:

Today I write from an Etihad plane, fully boarded and about to depart from Abu Dhabi to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

I’ve been sponsoring a little boy named Ranojit since Easter time in 2007. Eight years later, I finally get to meet him and his family. Feeling blessed for this doesn’t begin to describe the gratitude I have for being able to do this.

I regret that I haven’t sent him letters over the time of the sponsorship (a few had been written but never sent). I am hoping that this visit would make up for that. This trip would have been next to impossible from Canada. Living in the UAE has made this and other dreams possible. God may have also had a hand in this. When I contacted World Vision in November 2014 to start planning, they informed me that this was the last year that World Vision would be working directly with Ranojit’s village, for now they were reaching a level of independence. Had I waited another year to come, it would have been too late.

There have been recent advisories to Ranojit’s area and have suspended sponsorship visits according to their website that I checked before leaving for the airport. Mine as of now has been confirmed. I’m nervous, but I’m confident in my safety through this adventure. I can’t wait to share this story with friends and loved ones. I hope this encourages others to do the same, or some other way to help out their communities using their passion for change. People have asked me why. Why World Vision? Why Canon’s Cause? Why Bridge House? Simply because it makes my heart happy to see happiness in others. In a way, I’m completely selfish!

April 6th

The hotel here in Dhaka is peaceful and is of high standards for the area. Despite the craziness of the city and looks of the mattress, I had a really good sleep. Today I will have a brief meeting in the city at the World Vision office here in Dhaka, and then a 7 hour car ride into the country to the area of Barisal. Today an older gentleman caught me deep in thought at the hotel breakfast area as I looked out into the fountains. “We’re so busy with our day-to-day lives that we must stop to look at the beauty around us”. Exactly, sir.
















***

After breakfast, I headed down to the hotel lobby ready to meet my World Vison guide. This is where I met Santosh, who will be with me every step of the way.

Security brief:

A kind and knowledgeable man named Ishtiaque (Special Advisor to National Director) invited Santosh and I into the World Vision office and quickly into the meeting room where a PowerPoint slide and a stack of information was waiting for me. We were also joined by a woman named Rita, a manager to greet me and help answer any questions.

I was horrified by a few slides and was introduced to the idea of, “petrol bombs”, similar to what we in the west would call “malitov cocktails”, small man-made explosives in which travelers are not immune. Despite warnings before I left, I was clearly unaware of the depths of political strife in Bangladesh. They told me about “hartals”, which are political demonstrations or labour strikes. These can be announced or unannounced and can wreak havoc. Our security would be monitored from the National office in case of such an occurrence. 

Hmmm….leave it to me to finally reach the brinks of exploring somewhere that I actually put my own security at risk. God, please guide us on our travels. Ease my worries and protect us.

***

Travel to Barisal:

In many places en route to Barisal, I felt like I was in Old Delhi: low power lines, streets lined with shops the size of closets. I would see working along the side of the road, men in their skilled trades of wood, aluminum, and hard metals, all simple crafts and materials displayed with honour and precision. Many places would have packages of chips and other savouries, leading me to question how often and expensive it is for these small businesses to have these products brought to them. The traffic is simply lawless.

All of this craziness interrupted by amazing serenity of fertile lands and rivers stretching beyond what you can see.

***

Despite having a great sleep last night, I slept more in the van during travel. Our original path to Barisal has been changed: I have to put my full faith in the World Vision team to keep us safe. There has been an announcement while we were traveling of a strike and it’s unclear of the extent of the disruptions that this may cause.

The roads we are travelling on are narrow 2-way passages with people and vendors on either side. Rickshaws and other small vehicles are pulled over haphazardly. The traffic is made of various speeds, all trying to overtake the other. With little space to move, it is of little wonder why head-on collisions are the most common traffic accident in the country.

***

Arrival in Barisal:

They had just asked me if it was possible if I could change my flight back to Abu Dhabi. Fears of the hartal are increasing, and it is unknown at this point if I’ll be able to travel back to Dhaka on April 8th safely. Inshallah, this will not upset my visit with Ranojit’s family tomorrow, and everything else will go on as schedule as well.

I had spoken with Mohamed in Abu Dhabi who has been worried sick. I kept the conversation light and hope I sounded bubbly enough to put his fears at bay, but I am scared. I’m scared of the unknown, of petrol bombs, of strikes. I wonder what the cost of changing my flight will be. I wonder what the reaction for friends and family will be. I wonder how the people of Bangladesh cope with this fear on a regular basis.

April 7 (Day of visit)

There was even more to this day than the visit to Ranojit and his family. I could never have expected this!

The day started off in the Kalkini World Vision office (Area Development Project, ADP), a humble building, home to amazing relief workers inside. On arrival, we saw about a dozen teenaged local girls dressed up and demonstrating for World Health Day. Happy to join in the fun, they put me in a matching World Vision t-shirt and paper hat, and I happily stood with them for a short while for photos.

I met the amazing people behind the scenes, including Stephen, who has been translating Ranojit’s letters to me since the beginning. They presented me with flowers in the garden and I had some quick pleasantries. I quickly started to realize what a visit from a sponsor can mean.

Before we left, they had asked me if I was comfortable riding a motorbike with a guide. The road is poor and not meant for typical vehicles. Otherwise it would be a 15 minute walk in very humid weather. I had to pass on the mortor bike as I decided to wear a dress today. The walk is okay with me!

Ranojit’s village was off the main road at the end of a long path. On the way, we had passed Ranojit’s current school (equivalent to junior high or cycle 2), as well as old  his grammar school. I could tell from the looks of a few people on the path that I was the first foreigner that they may have encountered. 

Approaching the village, Santosh asked me if I would be able to recognize Ranojit. Despite having many pictures with me I suddenly had the fear that I would mistake another boy for him. Those fears were squashed…I looked up at the village entrance and my eyes gazed upon a boy whom I’ve only known in pictures, holding flowers, ready to greet me and welcome me into his world.

He held out his hand and walked me to his home. The adults and young children of the entire village were there as well (school aged children were in school). Many pictures were taken. I couldn’t believe the welcome and the impact of my simple visit has had.

Ranojit’s home consisted of 3 main rooms: the sleeping/greeting area, family area, and the kitchen. The house was clean and of wonderful colours. The home reminded me to those you might see in the remote areas of the Dominican Republic; no running water or electricity, and a clay oven heated by wood for food to be prepared.

We sat in the front room, in the dark, free from the harsh sunlight. As sweat beaded down my face, Ranojit’s mother started to fan me. I was very grateful. Ranojit’s English is simple yet clear. He could understand most of what I was saying, but didn’t have the confidence to speak much quite yet (just like my current Arabic). Thanks to translation by my guides Santosh and Ashish, we spoke of great football players, his dream of becoming a teacher, him helping his mother with carrying drinking water to the home from large distances, and being a good brother to his younger siblings. He has his exams coming up but is confident that he will do well. He had asked his headmaster yesterday for permission for the day off in light of my visit. I was reluctant to ask about his father as I noticed his absence, but it was brought up by the family that he was currently working in Singapore, in hopes for better wages as a skilled carpenter.

Before the end of our conversations, I looked up to see at least 50 smiling faces that have made their way into the home since I arrived. They loved to see me and hear my English, they said. They enjoyed the way I sounded. Before leaving the area, we would delight in photos with the other villagers, and refreshments of oranges and juice and cookies provided by the family.

It was hard to leave the village. The women had asked me to come back and made me promise that I would never forget them. How could I? They will always be a part of me.

Hand in hand and in front of the line, Ranojit walked me to his school. We would pass the grammar school first…the children were on a recess and rushed the path and joined our journey for a small time only to be called back by their teacher. They called out Ranojit’s name, and I was told that they were treating him like a hero for a day.

At his current school, I was greeted by his very happy headmaster and headmistress. They were excited to see me, show me the school, and delighted that I was an experienced teacher. They lead us to Ranojit’s classroom. There were about 25 boys on the left, and about 25 girls on the right. Their instructor graciously let me interrupt his classroom. I greeted them from Canada and wished them all the best on their upcoming examinations.

The staff then brought me into their meeting room, and were very proud to show me the table and chairs they were using that was only made possible by World Vision. Words of mutual thanks were said. I tried to express the best that I could, that the success of their students was because of their hard work, and that I recognized that.

After making our way out of the village, Ranojit and his family joined me at a Community Based Organization (CBO) that is unrelated to World Vision and is for-profit, but share the same goals. Their current focus was the children of the area and their education. For them, it was an amazing accomplishment to bring basic notebooks to their students. Their next endeavor was to create a small market on the property ensuring fair prices for all. Again, I tried to express my thanks and recognition of their hard work as I am sensitive to their plight.

Back to the Area Development Project (ADP), Ranojit’s family, myself, and the staff at World Vision broke bread and enjoyed lunch together. Unfortunately, I was the only one not having the dexterity to eat with my hands and having an intolerance for spice. I was grateful that the chefs at the office was able to cater to my dietary needs and provided me with a fork as I devoured the prawns, chicken, fish, vegetables, and steamed rice. It was really tasty to me, though I know it would have been tasteless to them. The family was curious about my diet and my inability to digest the spices of their country.

After lunch we were treated with a performance by local Bengali dancers. The original plan, I was told, was for me to travel to them, but due to road travelling concerns, is was safer for us to remain at the ADP and have them come to us. They treated me like their guest of honour and I was completely blown away by their talents and colourful costumes. For one of the last dances, they girls invited me to join. Although incredibly shy when it comes to dancing on the spot, I let loose and joined them enthusiastically. When a child asks you to dance, you dance.

We left his family for a brief time at the center as the team took me to what they called a “child-friendly area”. This would be their poorest of the poor. The pictures of clean and freshly dressed children do not tell the whole story. They were brightly dressed in the World Vision’s orange, and they had just received their backpacks that day. These children would have been about the age of junior kindergarten, or KG1. Many were excited to share their talents with me. I was presented with individuals who sang songs, shared their favourite bits of poetry, and their cultural games. Like the UAE and Canada, they are trying to stress learning through play. With this group of teachers, I again expressed thanks because I am well aware of the work they are putting in behind the scenes with these amazing children. To the children, I expressed my wonder and amazement of their beauty and talent.

Outside the small schoolhouse a small crowd began to gather. Many were wishing to see their first foreigner. We walked down the path where we would see rudimentary boats along the river, looking much like large canoes with an enclosed space, where they call home.

My time in Kalkini was almost finished. We made our way back to the ADP where Ranojit’s family was waiting to say goodbye. I presented them with chocolates and a promise to keep up communication. I couldn’t believe the time was over.

After making our way back to Barisal, Santosh and I took some rest and enjoyed our last dinner together. Our dinner for 2 included a large portion of Pad Thai, a shared crown chicken soup and bottled water. It had the cost of 800 takka including tip. Converted, that is about $10 US. It started to storm. When it rains in Bangladesh, it really rains and everything stops. We were very close to the hotel, but stayed in the restaurant until there was a bit of a clearing. While we were waiting, Santosh got an update from the security advisors. We were given the go-ahead to travel back to Dhaka tomorrow, as long as we left by 7am.

April 8: Traveling back to Dhaka

We had a quick breakfast this morning and quickly got it in gear to head out for our 7 hour trek back to Dhaka. It was a different restaurant, only a few doors down, with breakfast for 2 being 260 takka ($3.40). Incredible.

At one point our travel came to a standstill. There was no one moving on the roads. I thought we were completely stuck, and felt my blood pressure begin to rise. The driver got out of the vehicle and asked what the reason was, and it looked like the Prime Minister was traveling through the area. I was frustrated that she chose to go by car but relieved that the standstill wasn’t due to hartal.

Part of our journey between Dhaka and Barisal is by ferry. On our way back to Dhaka we had a nice view of the river. There were many people who got out of their vehicles to view the river closer, but there were also many sellers from green coconut to popcorn. My comfort level wasn’t up for dealing with vendors, so I was again grateful for Santosh who stayed with me in the vehicle.

I noticed that there was an ambulance that boarded the ferry, and I asked about it. I was curious…it couldn’t have been an emergency. Was it a patient transfer? It was neither. Official vehicles like this are used for safe travel in case of hartal action. Official vehicles were almost guaranteed safe passage. I’m not sure who was in the ambulance or how they obtained it, but I applauded their creative thinking.

I looked forward to going back to the hotel and off the route. Thanks to my non-working data roaming package from Etisalat, I was going through Facebook withdrawal and couldn’t wait to show my World Vision visit through photos and videos with family and friends. I was however, not quite ready to say goodbye to Santosh and my humbling World Vision experience in Kalkini. Somehow, both of us felt that this wasn’t the last time that we were going to see each other…perhaps my time with World Vision hasn’t come to an end after all.

April 9: Dhaka tour

I couldn’t leave Dhaka without knowing more about it and the history of Bangladesh and how it came to be, so I had my travel agency in Abu Dhabi also arrange for a city tour on my last day. The morning brought us to the local university, to monuments, and to the Sheikh’s home which is now a museum. My smiles of curiosity and wonder were quickly brought to tears as I was shown the shear bloodbath that remains on display from his assassination, and the toll that independence has cost the country. My tour guide Sharmin was knowledgeable and friendly as she opened my eyes to this wonderful country that has been exploited and forgotten by the Western world.

There was slow traffic as it was the beginning of the weekend for the Bengalis. I returned back to the hotel just after 6, enough time for a quick freshen-up and pack so I could be out of the hotel and en route to the airport by 7. The hartal was ending, and the city was gripped in traffic chaos….all of us were silent with the known worry of my making it to my plane back to Abu Dhabi on time. The distance was not far, but the snarling of traffic makes everything take an extremely long amount of time. I know that God had continued to watch over me, and I made it safe and sound to the airport on time.

***

Like India, Bangladesh seems to have a “white privilege”, especially with women. I was quickly guided to the shortest lines and given priority in many situations. Thinking back to the hotel in Barisal, the military guard stopped all who was using the elevator so that I could use it alone with my guide. I would not test my luck, and always be responsible for my own safety and aware of my surroundings, but people should not fear travelling to the area for the sake of fear itself. I hope Bangladesh continues on her way to settling the disruptions with the hartals.
At the gate, airport personnel greeted me with a free upgrade to business class for my flight back. I was thankful for this gift and stretched out on one of Etihad’s reclining beds. I said a prayer of gratitude for the ability to lay down during the flight, and for the safety I had while making my dream of meeting Ranojt come true, and quickly fell asleep.

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