Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Sidr / Onward

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 23:12

Another letter from my father in Bangladesh.

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Dear Family and Friends,

Happy Thanksgiving! Apologies to those who feel the reference is out of date (Canadians) or a cute local reference (most of the rest of the world).

Vivian has asked me to send out an announcement that I am fine following Sidr, the recent Bangladesh cyclone. I live in a concrete and steel building in the capital city, well out of the path of major destruction. I was wakened by the clattering and roar of the wind and stepped out on the balcony for a couple of minutes. Then stepped back inside to wait for the light to fail. In the morning the ladies were out sweeping the street as they do every morning. There was just more to sweep. We got electricity back a day and a half later.

Last weekend I did get out of the city on school visits and saw about of a third of the rice crop lying down from the storm. This was in areas not badly affected. Poor people will be paying more for rice and eating less. As a rich person, by local standards, I have a 50-kilo bag of rice in my larder. (Is it appropriate to be thankful for being rich rather than poor when living in one of the world’s poorest countries?)

The papers are full of human-interest stories and statistics. All are horrific. I think nearly everyone in North America has heard that there are ten thousand dead, despite what is generally accepted as good planning, storm shelters, and warning systems. Some communities have been totally wiped out. In others, most families have lost members — often those responsible for feeding the family. Eight thousand schools have been flattened. Houses were damaged or destroyed. Broken fishing boats lie on their sides in the forests. Most shrimp operations are devastated, leaving their owners in terrible debt.

Many relief organizations are helping out but the scale of the disaster is difficult to deal with. Potable water is often not available in areas of high salinity. Rice dropped from helicopters can’t be cooked because there are no working stoves. But there are also stories of people starting to rebuild. And, like in New Orleans, there will be more than one industry doing well with new construction. Today, on the front page of the newspaper I read, was an ad announcing a donation of 1 taka (not very much) for the relief of Sidr victims with every bag of cement sold, but nothing about a discount.

As I was leaving the bank this afternoon, a group of college students came up and told me that they were collecting money for Sidr victims. I could tell them, “So am I.” Several of my family members, on hearing that one of Beli’s sisters had lost a side of her house and all of her fruit trees, pledged contributions. The husband is a good and thoughtful man and a tailor, whose customers will not have money for tailoring for some time to come. We’ll be taking our contribution to them tomorrow in Jessore (for those of you with maps) so they can start to make urgent repairs.

Saturday we are planning to return to Dhaka through the Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Jahlkhati, and Barisal (for those of you with really detailed maps). These are some of the hardest-hit districts. I don’t know what I’m expecting to see. It should provide context for what we’ve been reading about and seeing on television.

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Vivian said I should send some disaster pictures. See attached photos of Patrick Just After The Fall
Patrick Just After the Fall

… and One Day Later.
Patrick One Day Later

It was about 6:30 a.m. and I was entering the final third of my stately 7-kilometre jog around the Dhanmondi Lakes. Suddenly a toe caught a ravenous slab and hurled me onto the concrete path. Just as suddenly, I was surrounded by a crowd of middle-income Bangladeshis, whose doctors have told them to walk every day to treat their diabetes and high blood pressure. (I have never seen a foreigner out there, though I’ve heard there is one.) I was helped to a bench, offered handkerchiefs, and provided with advice. One offended onlooker announced to the others in Bangla that Bura (the old man) shouldn’t be running. I was slowly becoming the victim of a campaign to get me to the emergency department of a brand-new hospital nearby when a wonderful man identified himself to the crowd as a doctor (he may have been one), examined me, announced that despite all the blood it was only abrasion, and helped me into a rickshaw. I was pretty spectacular for several days, but this is now history.

The second day after the accident my driver told my national counterpart, with whom I spend hours each day, that I had been injured. Muhammad Ali looked in horror at the bandages and contusions and asked me why I hadn’t told him.

I’ll try to have some pictures of how the real disaster is recovering in a few days.



Addendum: I am travelling along a somewhat bumpy road southeast of Khulna. I can’t see the screen because of the sun.

I feel odd about being a disaster tourist, but I’m sticking with Ogden Nash’s advice that not doing things you could have done is worse than doing things you shouldn’t have done. Onward.

This is beautiful country and it is clear that nature has the upper hand here, and will cover up the losses.

Right now we are about to stop and see an ancient mosque, rising in the jungle.

More later.

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Notes from Bangladesh, September 22 2007

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 05:47

My father is working in Bangladesh these days. This is his latest letter, published with permission.

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Dear family and friends,

I’ve been back in Bangladesh for about a month after three months away. Vivian and I had a busy summer. Happy times in Ottawa with Alison, M., Bertha, Matthew, Vivian’s mother, and friends… and a contracted version of the annual birthday barbeque. Short visits to Cortland – including the Port Watson Street Canada/USA Birthday Party. Two weeks in Vancouver and environs, welcoming Daphne (newest granddaughter). And two weeks in England visiting with friends, Vivian’s relations, and Danjuma and hiking in the Lake District. Busy, and rewarding.

My plan on returning to Bangladesh has been to spend as much time as possible in schools – assessing what government can do to support teachers’ professional development at the school level; and finding out what teachers and well-functioning schools can do to support their colleagues. This is paying off. The primary system has been in decline for the past several years, but now we are finding pockets of locally initiated innovation and collaboration (through necessity). Documenting this supports our bottom up approach in opposition to the top-down bureaucracy.

The attached photograph is from one of the school visits. The little girl was sitting inside the classroom door when we were ushered in for a ‘cultural event.’ She was so small, I thought she might be being baby-sat. Our first entertainment was an older girl who accompanied herself on the harmonium singing classical Bengali songs. Competent and affecting. Then the little girl took her place in the front of the classroom and waited for her music. She danced for a full ten minutes with sensitivity, variety of movement, and extraordinary skill. She never slipped from her program, as far as I could tell. She stopped when the music stopped and received her applause without changing her expression. She accepted the praise of the women in our group apparently without needing it. A tiny, confident, and accomplished artist.

girl in schoo uniform in front of blackboard

We are now in the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is all about fasting, and fasting is all about food. From sunup to sundown observant Muslims neither eat nor drink (even water). But there is makeup time throughout the night. The fast is broken around six p.m. with ‘iftar.’ I think iftar is supposed to be a light meal, but from what I see on the street the public face is about frying things in oil… mainly meat and vegetables. The iftar Beli [cook-housekeeper] serves is quite different. Tonight it was haleem, a mixture of pulses that she stewed in a beef curry. We topped it with cucumber shreds, ginger, green chilis, onions, tomatoes, and chopped coriander.

As iftar finishes, the faithful are called to pray. The men walk in hordes to the mosque wearing long white robes and prayer caps. Women stay at home. (Beli prays on a prayer rug in her room.) Following prayers, serious eating can begin… but last night we both agreed we don’t need a second evening meal. Beli was hungry a good part of yesterday because she had not had enough appetite to stuff herself when ‘suhoori’ came around. Suhoori is the last meal of the night, prepared from three-thirty onwards and eaten shortly after four (followed by prayers and then serious napping). We have our own rituals for Suhoori. Mullahs shout out the wake-up call from the microphone tower at 3:30 a.m. Beli has an arrangement with the guards to phone her and report the mullahs’ announcement. My task is to listen for the guard’s call and wake up Beli. Beli shouts that she needs ten more minutes’ sleep. I go to my computer and think charitable thoughts. By shortly after four, Beli has assembled suhoori, which she eats while I watch. Eating done, she prays and then goes back to bed. I may work for a while, then go out for a run. With everyone napping, the streets are quiet and the park is nearly empty. Beli gets up around seven to make my breakfast. Life is good!

This morning, there were Rapid Action Battalion police sitting around the entrance to the park on the embankment at the end of the lake and in inflatable boats on the water. This might have something to do with fundamentalist rallies yesterday… over a cartoon published in a satirical magazine. Maybe the police thought the crowds would try to drown the cartoonist.

The entrance to the park is the centre for another kind of action. A couple of weeks ago at around 5:30 in the morning I shuffled my way past a collection of young ladies trolling for rides home to finish off their night’s work. As I moved past them, the whole group rose like a flock of swallows and ran along beside me, touching my arms and shoulders and giggling in their saris. I picked up my pace and quickly outdistanced them. I am sure they would have done better with better shoes. Still, it was nice to see entrepreneurship combined with healthy living at this time of the day.

Affectionately, P.

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