I returned from a week in Bangladesh two days ago. I have been thinking about where to start and what to write since then. For the first time I cannot find the right words, because there is so much to tell.
I am sitting at the beach in Dubai as I start to write this. In front of me is a young man wearing a Louis Vuitton hat looking at his iPhone6 with a Gucci bag supporting his head. A plane is landing to take another batch of skydivers in the air. I am surrounded by wealth everywhere I look. The contrast to where I was 48 hours ago is immense and unfathomable.
Why did I go to Bangladesh?
I have recently started my dream job at the Maria Cristina Foundation (MCF). The foundation was set up by an incredibly determined woman – Maria Conceicao. She is one of the most selfless people I have met and has an incredible life story herself. She recently had her biography translated from Portuguese to English and I really encourage anyone, who wants to give a gift that inspires, to buy a copy.
After many twists and turns of life, she found herself in Dhaka while working as cabin crew for the Emirates Airline. She had 24 hours there and decided to visit a slum area near the airport. The poverty, destitution and hardships she saw shocked and saddened her so much that she could not leave without doing anything.
So, what does one do to fight poverty, which is largely caused by lack of opportunities, which in turn is largely caused by an out-dated social system? The prevailing caste system is restrictive and constantly putting ambitious, intelligent and hardworking people down simply because they are born into a lower class. As a result of enforcing this system for hundreds of years it is accepted by those on top and those at the bottom of the system. This is just the way it is. Tradition, they say. How do you break ‘traditions’ that are leaving more than half of the county’s potential untapped? For Maria, the obvious answer was and still is education. She vowed to educate anyone, who came forward and expressed a wish to break the cycle of poverty.
What am I doing for Maria Cristina Foundation?
I first found out about MCF when I was looking for a job in Dubai. I applied to be a volunteer, met with Maria and for some reason she liked me and saw potential in me. So a few weeks later she contacted me to say she had found a sponsor to pay my salary. My freelance work and unemployment period in Dubai was very short and for that I am incredibly grateful, because one goes crazy in this Dubai luxury bubble with nothing to do.
MCF is a small organisation doing big things. Maria had no experience in NGO work, development or poverty reduction, but she was determined to keep her promise and educate the next generation, to give them a chance of a better life. She started to do physical challenges to draw attention and funds to her cause. Since then she has become the first Portuguese woman to summit the Everest, ran tens of marathons and ultra marathons and swam to raise awareness of the complicated problems in Bangladesh, and raise funds to help the next generation get a good quality education. She has done a wonderful job and the children and their parents in Bangladesh truly love and respect her.
She has worked in this community for over ten years and managed to teach the older generations the value of educating their children. The children call Maria their mother. One of the many older kids I had a heart to heart with said this: “My mum (Maria) came and taught me to use the toilet, brush my teeth, speak in English. Before she came we were nothing.” Another girl said: “We love her like our own parents. Not more, not less. She is doing everything for us. She inspires me to be a good mum.” All this love is reciprocated by Maria, who always has a bright sparkle in her eye when she spends time with her Dhaka children. She cares and worries for them like a mother.
Maria brought me on board to find extra sources of funding for the foundation, so we could do more in Dhaka. And trust me, there is a whole lot that still needs to be done. So, it was important for me to go and see the work Maria has done thus far, to meet the children and their families and to understand the issues they face.
My main task for this trip was to visit all the 101 families and 168 students we currently support and gather information on them, find out what they need most and take photos of them. After a week of family visits I am glad to say that I accomplished the mission, but the really hard work of finding resources starts now.
The main issue – poverty
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also a very beautiful country with a huge human potential that is not being used to its full advantage. The airport, which I see as a business card to the country, greeted us with a friendly and rather smooth visa obtaining process and I was very happy to see only a few of the mosquitoes that Maria had warned me about. The baggage reclaim area seemed to work as normal at first. Most Bangladeshis travel with makeshift luggage consisting of a box or a blanket filled with stuff and tied up with a rope. These were recklessly being tossed on the belt by the airport staff and since there was too much luggage, they opened three belts for our flight. 20 minutes later we got our suitcases and sped past the customs, who only allow to bring a certain amount of goods into the country. We had 92 kilos of donations from our supporters in Dubai and we did not want to lose any of them.
Our local coordinator, Jewel, met us at the airport and as we drove away from the airport our car was stopped by some of the older students, who had come to welcome us. They were absolutely overjoyed to see Maria again and welcome me to Dhaka. This was the first flavour of what was to come for the rest of the week: love, hugs and kisses from over a 100 students every single day.MCF families live in the Gawair slum area near Dhaka airport. When we arrived in our little flat in Gawair we had a welcoming committee waiting for us with ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ posters. I felt loved at first sight by these kids. It was and still is hard to believe that they have grown up in a slum. They are just as any other teenagers and reminded me of myself as a teenager – curious, ambitious, slightly moody and very vain.
The families live in extreme poverty, they can hardly afford to buy rice and pay the rent for their shelter. Dhaka is said to be the most densely populated city in the world, which means every piece of land is valuable and used for a purpose. Most of the slum dwellers have come from rural areas to find their fortune in the city. Sadly, a tiny minority of the urban migrants will find a fortune. Most end up living in horrible conditions in a slum, where their poverty will only be deepened and their life becomes restrictive due to lack of opportunities, resources and hope.
The caste system in Bangladesh is a strong social force, which confines people to a certain life, which they rarely manage to escape. The older generations of the lower castes have accepted their fate and call it a ‘tradition.’ They have resigned to the idea that there is nothing better in store for them and so they are reluctant to try. The higher casts reinforce this by often treating those in the lower sections of the hierarchy with no respect and seeing them as ‘uneducated village people.’ Indeed, the parents of our children are uneducated. Many don’t know how to read and write. Maria used to run English classes for them and even managed to find jobs in Dubai for some of them, but the resources have ran low since the recession and we have had to downgrade a lot of the programmes. Women as old as me are mothers to 3, 4, 5 children, they look weather-beaten, sad and disheartened.
However, the parents now realise the value of education and are working hard to help their kids finish school. MCF pay the children’s school fees and support some families with food, rent and toiletries, but we don’t have resources to support all 101 families. This means that children are sometimes forced to quit school and get a job to earn extra income for the family. Many young boys and girls work in garment factories, as day labourers, maids and rickshaw peddlers. They earn a pittance and continue to live in poverty.The long-term gains of a good education cannot be appreciated while your stomach is rumbling and you’re unsure how to feed your family the next day.
Here’s a video from the factory:
The hardships they face are hard to describe. I strongly believe that the current and next generations will be a force of change that will start to break the out-dated social norms that have thus far confined people to a certain life. The difference in the mind-set of the parents and their children is huge. The parents often seem hopeless, almost given up, while their children have a spark in their eyes as they talk about their future careers as pilots, doctors and engineers. They are children like any other and they dare to dream big. Being born in a slum to uneducated parents is no reason why they should continue on the same path.
This is not a problem that will naturally fix itself; it is not the ‘survival of the fittest.’ The country is not using more than half of its human potential, because they lack an opportunity to go to a good school. They don’t have anyone to mould and guide them to strive to be more than just be a wife or a rickshaw puller. It will take an unimaginably huge investment to educate all the slum dwellers, but the return on this investment will be immense and improve the country’s economic and social standing. If these people are left to dwell in poverty for generations, nothing will change and the problem will only be amplified. With education they can start to make a chance and help themselves. There will be no shortage of day labourers, rickshaw pullers, housewives and garment factory workers, but if generations after generations remain uneducated there will be an abundance of them. What the country needs are entrepreneurs, engineers, honest politicians, businessmen and women, not unskilled workers and baby factories.
Conditions in the Gawair slum
The slum is not a place for the fainthearted. It is dirty, noisy, smelly and confusing. The open sewers filled with garbage and unidentifiable liquids slowly move along the bumpy road. The shop owners have built tiny bridges to cross the sewers to their shops. Somehow I manage not to step into the sewers despite sharing the narrow path with chicken, cows, rickshaws, children and old men carrying everything from long bamboo sticks to chicken by their feet.
Carpenters are engraving flower patterns on cupboards and beds, tailors are making bed sheets and mattresses, chicken farmers are collecting eggs by the sides of the road, broken down rickshaws are being repaired right where they broke down. The numerous teashops are filled with men passing time and chewing paan (betel leaf) with their teeth red with the stuff, spitting the red saliva on the street every now and then. There are entrepreneurial grandmas baking rice cakes by the side of the roads and old men selling fish that has stayed in the sunshine for too long. The smell of the fish is mixed with the raw meat hanging outside to attract potential customers and flies.The rickshaws are nimbly moving along and somehow managing not to bump into each other, leaving only millimetres between each other. And then there is the foreign blonde lady. Everyone is staring at me with amazement. I have tens of children following me and asking me what my name is. Some people approach me and ask me where I’m from. I soon realise Estonia not known in the slums of Dhaka and tell them I live in Dubai.
The houses are a mixture of compounds filled with tiny rooms with concrete floors and metal doors and makeshift shacks made of thin metal sheets with bare Earth floors. There are some apartment buildings closer to the main road, but they seem to be on the verge of collapse. The cooking facilities are usually outside – a fire powered by gas and little ovens made of clay. Toilets are usually somewhere near the kitchen and usually consist of a hole in the ground.
Most of our families live in one room. The bed takes up most of their room, some have cupboards, some even have a desk, some have goats in the house, some little chicks in a box on top of their cupboard.The mothers prepare the food in the kitchen, I find some of them shelling beans or cutting vegetables on the floor. Most homes have a collection of metal pots and pans for cooking and fetching water, a few have an old Singer sewing machine, which they use the make bags from recycled cement bags or sew clothes for others.Some families have a thin mattress on their bed, some sleep on a bed made of planks of wood. The sheets, if there are any, are full of holes and stains, the lucky ones to have a rattling fan in the ceiling put it on for me. Many of the roofs made of cardboard, bamboo mats or asbestos are about to cave in.
Some families have 8, 9, 10 members and only one bed. I find out that it is usually the mother and daughters who sleep on the floor when the bed cannot fit everyone. Most families have electricity and some even have TVs, which are covered by a cloth when not used to watch cricket or Bollywood dramas. The cleanliness of the homes varies a lot. Some are extremely dirty and messy while the others are humble, yet clean and tidy.
One thing that bothered me more than the open sewers were the dogs everywhere. There are thousands of them and they keep multiplying. All the dogs are the same mongrel type and they all seemed to be pregnant or just had puppies. They sleep most of the day and in the evening and night start looking for food in the piles of rubbish and fighting with each other. Some of the dogs have scratched themselves so hard that they bleed and I cannot even imagine the types of bugs and diseases they carry. Nobody cares for these dogs, they are like vermin. Sadly, nothing is done by the local government to combat this issue. The older kids told me that the dogs sometimes bite little children and they get sick. If there is anyone out there with the skills and willingness to come and neuter the dogs in the slums, please let me know!
There is very little room and nearly no privacy in the slum. The whole family sleeps in the same room and the neighbours room is only separated by a thin wall or a metal sheet. I saw a number of people having showers and I was just passing by. Whenever I stopped at a house the neighbours piled into the room to look at me. Nobody asked for permission to come in and I got so confused by which children belong into the family and which do not.
Again, I find it difficult to describe the conditions. It has to be felt with the smells and sounds in order to get the full picture and really understand what it’s like to live in such a confined place.
I don’t like it when people feel sorry for me, so I tried not to feel sorry for them, but when there is so little happiness in their lives then I cannot help but feel sad for them. I think helping the parents of the kids is difficult. They are very stuck in their norms and I am a foreigner who does not understand their society. However, I do understand that beating one’s wife into submission or marrying off one’s daughter at the age of 14 is not right by any tradition. Interestingly, the dowry in Bangladesh is paid by the girl’s family to her husband to ‘reduce the burden that the girl will be to her new family.’ Families are unable to feed themselves and their children, but they will make more babies until they have a son. The oldest son is meant to take care of his parents when they are old, so having a son is important and a matter of pride.
The new generation is different. I visited the school where most of our children study and met the principal. I asked him why he’s supporting us and he expressed his sincere wish to share the burden of helping the poor. He also informed us that the other, more privileged students have helped some of our students pay for their English course. This gave me so much hope for the future of our kids.
The people of Bangladesh
Bangladeshi people are very friendly and love offering tea to their guests. I was even offered a cup of tea during a visit to a bank. Everywhere we went we had to stop for 10 minutes and enjoy a small cup of sweet milk tea. I once asked for a coffee and got a tea with Nescafe in it…it was not my cup of tea.
We had so many invitations for lunch and dinner and some of the mothers came to our house every morning to give us breakfast they had prepared.I hope they will learn to care for their own neighbours like they cared for me and Maria.
I did not have a chance to go any further than the Gawair slum are during this trip, but the people in Gawair were lovely. I got stared at a lot – something I am quite used to from our year in China. Many mothers came up to me on the street with requests for help and to admit their children under our programme. The need for help is immense, but we can only do so much with the resources we have.
If any of you would like to come and visit our kids in Bangladesh and volunteer, you are more than welcome to do so. We need men to talk to the teenage boys, to be role models and teach them how to treat a woman. The children need direction, inspiration and a boost in confidence. While they go to one of the best schools in Bangladesh with our help, they still live in a slum in abject poverty and get reminded of their low status every day.
I have so much more to tell, but I better leave some for the next time. I am planning another visit to Dhaka very soon. This time with David, so he can spend some time with other cricket mad people.
I am so thankful to have found MCF and to have had the opportunity to visit Dhaka. The children will be overjoyed to see you there, too! If anyone wants to sponsor one of our students or help in any other way, please let me know. In the meantime, here is something to melt your heart:
In other news
David is also working like a madman. I am trying to keep up with university, but it is proving rather difficult now, but I WILL graduate next year. I will be in Estonia next week to write an exam before a holiday to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in January. So I hope to see some of you in one of these places.
Until the next time, salam aleikum.