Blog

Within 30 seconds of reading this you can get a seven-day weather forecast for Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, or Tokyo. You can learn how vaccinations work, get instructions on how to construct a pig pen, and even learn the definition of poverty… in Japanese. The point being, we live in an information rich world. With 1.7 billion internet users, some of us clearly have access to limitless amounts of information that the remaining 5.3 billion do not. However, when one goes further and looks at the billions who do not even have access a public library, the world’s 72 million children who are not enrolled in school, or 774 million that are illiterate, this information gap becomes almost unimaginable, but its consequences are very real.

Read More

Taylor Corbett is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, pursuing a double major in Economics and Diplomacy and World Affairs. This post is part of a series he wrote as part of an internship with BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra-poor program in Bangladesh.

As an American student in Bangladesh I have quickly learned that there is one question that I inevitably face in every greeting. Wedged somewhere between the handshake and friendly smiles slips the question, “What are you doing here?” It’s something I have been asked by customs agents, taxi drivers, chai wallahs, school teachers, businessmen, village leaders, and even friends. In Bangladesh this is a completely justified question. With virtually no tourism industry and monsoon season fast approaching, many wonder why someone would come to their country to tromp around isolated villages for days at a time. The simplicity of my response has, thus far, never failed to solicit a smile. “I have come to learn from you,” I always tell them.

The context of my response can be found eight months prior as I read Nicholas Kristof’s column titled “More Schools, Not Troops.” In his column, Kristof compares the different developmental paths of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 30 years since their partition in 1971. Pakistan, choosing to spend its aid dollars on military spending has come to face a militarized and divided society. In contrast, Bangladesh has chosen to focus on educational and societal development, which Kristof argues, has led to healthier, better educated, and less radicalized society. He went on to attribute this progress, in part, to an NGO called BRAC for their education and development initiatives. As an international relations and economics major, studying how development organizations can provide effective solutions to pervasive transnational issues (such as terrorism or insurgencies) is my academic dream. Clearly interested, I did what any information hungry American does, I Googled-it.

Read More

A few weeks ago, my Nana (maternal grandfather) and I ventured out to Mohammadpur, Dhaka visit BRAC Limb and Brace Fitting Centre (BLBC)- which in case you didn’t know, is a partnering project of Jolkona. Adnan and Nadia were kind enough to extend the offer-so I took on the chance to check it out! We reached the center at about 10 am, a bright, beautiful morning. The center was right across the street form the National Cardiac Institute and surrounded by various orthopedic centers-seemed like the ideal location. Upon arrival, Nana and I were warmly greeted by Dr. Ripon, the director of the center. He lead us to a large outdoor lobby, with seats on the left side, a few handrail structures in the middle, and entrances to smaller rooms and offices on the front and right-side walls. I made awkward eye contact with a few of the beneficiaries, who (understandably) didn’t know how to quite greet the newcomers. After a few nervous smiles and rushed assalamwalaikums,  we were in Dr. Ripon’s office.

Over a cup of tea and biscuits, Dr. Ripon expressed some of the reasons why he started his work at BLBC. To him, there was nothing greaterthan providing individuals the chance to reclaim their lives after a devastating accident or illness. In his own words, Dr. Ripon views his work as a nesha (addiction)-he can’t stop. Many of Dr. Ripon’s patients are financially poor with little hope of regaining the simple chance to walk. Without this ability, there’s no opportunity for self-sufficiency and work-which only asks for poverty. BLBC single handedly provides these very people the right to earn an income through the gift of walking.

We took a tour of the center right after. First, we visited the rooms in which the artificial limbs are constructed. There was an array of tools, plastics, and machines-each being carefully operated by the trained technicians. According to Dr. Ripon, all the technicians at BLBC are trained outside of the country (Thailand) to build quality prosthetics for their patients. Next, Dr. Ripon took us out to the front lobby where patients were practicing how to walk with their newly acquired limbs. At the BLBC, each patient is required to complete a two-week training session to become accustomed to walking. This way, each patient leaves the center fully moving and recovered.

But this is all rather…obvious. I’m not here to blog about what you and I can easily read from a brochure or website. I’m here speak of what I saw next.

Minutes later Dr. Ripon ushered me to the front gate of the building-there was something everyone wanted me to see. First, I an empty rikshaw.  Then I saw a man, presumably the riksha-wallah (the one operates the rikshaw)-a tall man, in his 40’s, wearing the usual shada genji (white t-shirt) and lungi (a cloth worn around the legs-commonly worn by south Asian men). Dr. Ripon pointed at his leg and asked the man to pull up his lungi a few inches, and underneath I saw a beautiful tan plastic leg.

I climbed up on the rikshaw, and minutes later I was outside of the building, the wind blowing gently on my face and hair. The rikshaw-wallah was flawless with his movements, not a grunt, limp, or abnormal maneuvering of his body. He just rode, rode the bicycle with every swift turn of his legs. Of course, I was on the rikshaw for fun…to confirm with my own eyes whether he could actually ride it. But for this man, each push of his leg was food for his family, clothing for his boys, jewelery for his girls, and a sari for his daughters wedding. Each push was a reason to see over the horizon, to hope for possibilities, to climb out of poverty. Each push, each push, both with his real and artificial leg.

“Amra amader Ripon Bhai amader jonno oneg korse”-“our friend Dr. Ripon has done a lot for us,” said the Riksha-wallah as we were heading back to the center. I agree, I can see that Dr. Ripon has done plenty for these people.

I think what I take home from the BLBC visit is it’s 100% successful. The treatment is simple and virtually free of medical complications. I’ve seen hotel sex workers, injecting drug users, HIV/AIDS patients at health clinics where full recovery isn’t this certain. Of course, these centers are no less, but after viewing the trauma, the negative stigma, and the neglect for so many marginalized communities in Bangladesh….the BLBC stories rang music in my ears. There was not a fragment of hopelessness in these patients, not a tear, not a utter of complaint.

But then again, why would they be hopeless?

I try not to contemplate over how I got here and who I’ve become. I am who I am, and there’s nothing I can do. Sometimes, when I have courage to reflect, I feel utter shame and revulsion for my existence and for the things I do…and regretfully did. I’m alone, I have no one, no family, no community to seek acceptance. Occasionally, I do find comfort in knowing that my circumstances leave me no choice. But please, Allah, I ask you to not remind me of the past, my foolish youth, my simple, more pleasant life. I know…I know my wrongdoings. Yet all I did was love- too much love I suppose. So much that was blind to the deception that came forth and stripped me of my dignity…disowned from my identity. Oh Allah, I ask you to give me the strength to abandon these harsh memories, for they are unbearable…

I’m sitting in the showroom right now, 10 pm, and business is just about to boom. The room is enclosed with mirrors and pearly white tiles. Girls are teeming in, some young, some old, some fair, some tall, a whole variety. The fluorescent lights are beaming, brightening all our faces in an eerie glow. The room is almost too white to bear, but critical for our appearance. I chose to wear my black skirt and shirt ornamented with crystals.  My hair is pulled back to reveal my silver hoop earrings. I made sure to wear my bright red lipstick glazed with a bit of gloss-it’s my secret charm to so many clients. I hear the jingling of a nupur (anklet)-oh, it’s Shahida walking in! She looks flushed, ah, must’ve been with a persistent client. She gives me a grin, and gently flips out a hefty 500 taka bill and says,“It’s from Bilal. He’s been coming for me every week. The black garment market pays him well…” I playfully kick her in the shin, but it’s true, Bilal has been keen on spending  his nights with her…

I notice a man walking by. Young man, no older than 25 wearing a red shirt and black pants, cigarette in his right hand. Judging from his looks, must be a local cab driver. He’s speaking with the hotel manager…obviously negotiating prices. He doesn’t seem pleased…but now he’s nodding in agreement. I see him drawing bills from his pocket… 100 taka…200 taka…300 taka…400 taka…oh my! The hotel manager gestures him to the glass window of our room. He peers inside, examining each and every one of us…I suppose imagining the possibilities. One by one…one by one. His gaze pauses at the girl next to me-a skinny, flat-chested 13 year-old. He couldn’t possibly want that unattractive rat! But wait-his eyes are now on me! I adjust my posture so he can perceive a clearer view. He stares. Keeps staring…is he alright? His eyes haven’t faltered! Seconds pass, and I notice an ever so slight nod towards to hotel manager, but his eyes remain fixed. The manager wastes no time in his response. He opens the door, looks at me, and points his thumb out the door. “Room 23!”, he shouts. I hastily snatch a few condoms and a packet of lubricant I picked up from the local health center earlier this morning. I’m out the door.

He’s following me down the hall, I can hear his breath and virtually feel his eyes following my spine. Our room is down the hall to the left, just a few meters to go. I quietly slip a condom in his hand. He has 10 minutes with me, and I know he won’t want to waste a moment. A couple more feet to go…I see a cleaner picking up loose condom and lubricant packets from room 20…

We’ve arrived at room 23. A standard room: one bed, one bathroom, and one light bulb illuminating the stained brown walls. Our shadows slip in, silently shifting in the flickering pale yellow gloom. He shuts the door and I feel his hand slip up my neck.

And for the next 10 minutes, I am all his.

 

I started with this monologue because I felt it was critical background in understanding the female hotel sex worker in Bangladesh. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit an Integrated Health Center (IHC) sponsored by Bangladesh Women’s Health Coalition (BWHC) and Family Health International (FHI). This establishment provides sexually transmitted infection treatment, general healthcare, and HIV testing for women in this profession. I’ll be going back tomorrow and next week to observe more of the healthcare aspect of the institution. My first day was primarily catered to listening to these women’s stories and visiting an actual hotel involved with this business. I sort of culminated this story based upon the stories and attitudes I heard-and also after seeing actual hotel rooms, clients, and sex workers at a nearby hotel. It was nauseating, but an incredibly valuable experience as a young Bangaldeshi woman. The first response the general Bangladeshi population has for this marginalized community is, “I never knew.” I know this for a fact because that is exactly how my greater family responded. Regardless, I hope to gain more information about this phenomenal community and how HIV/AIDS is being combated within its context. I intend to post this blog as a prelude of what more is to come.

I’m looking forward to revisiting these sites in the next few days. Due to tensions with the government (afterall, sex trade is illegal in Bangladesh), I may have difficulty in taking pictures of the actual hotels. But I’ll do my best to negotiate and bring more stories.

Wish me good luck!
A BWHC peer educator-a former sex worker-now spends her time at the fields to find and inform other sex workers of safe sex practices. Pictorials are one of the many ways they initiate their outreach sessions.

A BWHC peer educator-a former sex worker-now spends her time at the fields to find and inform other sex workers of safe sex practices. Pictorials are one of the many ways they initiate their outreach sessions.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve reached Dhaka safe and sound! Over 24 hours of traveling (19 hour lay over in Singapore, eek!), 5 delicious Muslim meals, 7 carry on bags, 100 pages of President Obama’s autobiography, and one Nikon D40, alas, I’ve made it.

I sort of craved the smog, the heat, the odor of rotting street trash, the erratic harmony of rikshaw bells and car honks, and the monotonous pleas of street beggars. And oh boy, when I got the first whiff of sooty Bangladeshi air, I knew I was home. It was a pleasant reunion.

On the 9th, I had the pleasure of spending my day with Deni Robey, Americans for UNFPA Vice President of Public Affairs and Nicole Paprocki (check out her blog at http://www.americansforunfpa.blogspot.com/ ) to visit a women’s empowerment organization in Bangladesh named Tarango (meaning river waves in Bengali-symbolic of women rising with the waves). Words cannot fully express what I saw and felt that day. I felt hope, I sensed beauty, I saw community, and most significantly, I was surrounded by progressive minded women. The women seeking aid from Tarango are flawless. I use the term flawless because they truly are. They are kind, ambitious, patient, and endlessly warm to everyone around them-with a sense of humor too! But they’re not only women- they’re also mothers, wives, and even grandmothers-incredibly proud ones. From what I saw, Tarango was obviously more than a place to work, it was a haven for women seeking community, friendship, and basic human rights.

Meeting Ms. Kohinoor Yeasmin, the current manager of Tarango, was also deeply influential. She spoke vibrantly about the women in Tarango, the work being done, and most importantly, the work she aspires to accomplish in the future. She’s a modest dreamer. Every time she outlined a potential plan, she always concluded with, “but it’s only a dream right now.” But every reality starts with a dream, and I’m certain that Ms. Yeasmin-with her caliber and passion-can make all her dreams true for the women in Tarango.

On a side note, later that afternoon, Deni, Nicole, and I had the chance to have lunch with Mr. Fuad Chowdhury- a renowned film director in Bangladesh. He gave us a quick tour of his company, United Network Limited, and explained a bit of what he did. His work ranged from directing advertisements, to short commercial films, to even Bangladeshi Sesame Street episodes! But most remarkable of all was his involvement in producing documentary films. He took the time to share one of these films, “Nodeer Mohonai Barisaler Mehndigonj” (Mehendigonj of Barisal at Estuary of Meghna). It was a beautiful short film about how the people of Mehendigonj are seeking national and international aid to stop the river erosion for the rehabilitation of those affected. I brought a copy with me and am hoping to share it with the Seattle community!

It has just been so gratifying to see Bangladeshis empowering minorities at so many levels!

 
 
 
 

 

 

Recently, Semonti, one of our bloggers, visited Tarango – a project in Bangladesh that empowers women by helping them produce fair trade handcrafted products.

Here is a video that Semonti created based on her visit to Tarango

Here is an excerpt about Tarango from their website (http://www.tarango-bd.org): “Tarango works with some of the most marginalized women in the country, and assists them with entrepreneurship development, marketing facilitation, business advisory services, gender rights training, and personal and family health services.”

Semonti will soon follow up with a full-blown blog post about her Tarango experience.

Big results from small solutions?

It seems counter-intuitive, but take a look around and notice that some of the world’s most widespread solutions stem from the simplest of ideas. Believe me, I know this-I’m a Bangladeshi. My country, a developing nation with a per capita income of $1400 (as compared to global average of $10,200), has spearheaded the invention of the globally recognized Microcredit and the Sono Arsenic filter. I’m certain the inventors, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and  Dr. Abdul Hussam respectively, along with the world, triumph over the simplicity of these solutions. They really are that simple.

For those unaware, microcredit is the granting of very small loans to poverty stricken communities/people that show potential in repaying it through entrepreneurship. There’s no need to explain the economic implications of such financial innovation because the results speak for themselves. From worldwide women’s empowerment to the sprouting of new industries, microcredit has proven to drastically improve the quality of life for millions of the impoverished. Similarly, the Sono Arsenic filter, with it’s simple design and $40 cost, can filter water of fatal impurities for 2 families. What was once a critical arsenic poisoning crisis in Bangladesh, is no longer. This is incredible! 

Dr. Yunus
Dr. Yunus

 

As my first post, I want to emphasize the importance of small actions inspiring huge results. Sort of like a Jolkona (water droplet) creating ripples in a pool of water. You can be the small drop that brings ripples of change in your community, in your world. Take a look at the projects the Jolkona Foundation has listed on this site, and you might just find your opportunity.

I’m excited beyond belief for my upcoming trip to Bangladesh! I hope to witness more examples of what I call, the Jolkona Effect. What are some other examples that you know of today? How are they simple? How are they widely effective?

But more importantly, what are your ideas and visions of small solutions providing widespread change?  Who knows…maybe we’ll speak of you one day!

  • 1
  • 2

GET INVOLVED!