Saturday, 18 November 2006

Bangladesh: Khoda haphes. Abar dakha hobe.

As we pressed on hour by hour over the Atlantic on October 29th, visions of delicious curries, balmy temperatures, renewing friendships, and the smiles of 8,000 children, danced in our heads. Little did we know that a political storm was brewing in Bangladesh.

We arrived to the misgivings of the Rotary Club. There was discussion of postponing the Bangladesh distribution to February, 2007, following the country’s elections. Fortunately, since the political parties had agreed to a period of peace, we were able to distribute to the 4,000 children selected by Rotary, and started enthusiastically into the distribution of the 4,000 bedkits to be supervised by the Lions Club of Dhaka, Supreme View.

Along with the Rotary Club of Dhaka (See Report 6 – Our Rotary OVO), the Lions Club of Dhaka has been our volunteer service club for many years. The chair of the Club, Mr. Hadi, and his wife, Marzan, have fond memories of visiting Murray Dryden in Toronto. Mr. Hadi emotionally recalls Murray laying his hands on his head and blessing him. The Lions are involved in a number of social service activities. They are devoted to the SCAW program and to the children of Bangladesh.

The Hadis, along with their sons, Rahman and Nahian, and extended family members, have faithfully participated in the distributions over the past several years. As the SCAW team watched the unveiling of the sample bedkit, Marzan’s talent for design and colour was immediately apparent in the beautiful outfits for the girls. Rahman and Nahian have grown into conscientious young men who willingly supervise the dressing of the boys and ready them for the photographs. They enthusiastically assume any job that facilitates the smooth running of the distribution. Nahian was invaluable as interpreter during the parent surveys. He also displayed some talent as a cricketer.

Even as Professor Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi economist and microfinance pioneer, was being feted for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, political tempers flared and the opposition 14-Party Alliance laid siege to Dhaka City, blocking roads and bridges. Two days into the Lions' distribution, the SCAW Team was virtually grounded.

We waited patiently, but, as the situation demonstrated the potential to escalate, and our hearts heavy with the disappointment of not reaching the last 2,500 children, we returned to the peace and safety of Canada.

We pray that the kind and courageous people of Bangladesh will find peace and prosperity. Abar dakha hobe.

Linda Webb
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Bangladesh: Bangladesh on the Map

Sunday, Nov.12, 2006

On our Bangladesh map there is an inset entitled "Bangladesh in the World." The tiny red dot appears insignificant in the grand scheme of things but we now know that this dot represents millions of warm, hospitable people, most of whom are struggling to eke out an existence. Often in countries such as this, where corruption in business and politics is the norm, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, frustrations give way to political unrest. Such is the case in Bangladesh at the moment.

Normal life and business activities have come to a standstill as an indefinite blockade programme, enforced by a fourteen-party alliance, started Sunday across the country. This initiative has brought Dhaka, and the SCAW team, to a standstill. Although it is easy to understand what motivated the opposition to strike, it is difficult to see what will be gained from it.

The hiatus has given us time to reflect on where we have been, what we have done, and on the many fascinating people we have met along the way. We have already written about our volunteer partners and their efforts to help their people but working in Bangladesh are many more folks who have a heart for humanitarian efforts here.

One such person is an obstetrician/gynecologist from New York whom we met on the plane from London. She came to Dhaka to study the work of BRAC, which is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. BRAC is recognized as one of the foremost national initiatives for providing aid to rural areas in the world. Small villages have centres where women are taught to use the skills handed down to them to create crafts such as needlework, weaving, pottery, and beadwork.

Outlets for sale of the goods provide income to purchase more materials and support for the women and their families. BRAC also has local schools which enable students to attend at times more convenient to their work obligations while extra help gives the struggling student a chance to succeed. BRAC University takes these young people one step further as they gain education they need to get ahead. Women’s’ health issues are of some concern to BRAC and because of our friend’s expertise she was able to initiate a programme to give local midwives ongoing training which would enable them to provide safer deliveries and to recognize the need to transfer the woman to hospital if the situation warranted it.

Visiting slums and rural homes, hospitals and clinics, she was able to share her knowledge to improve conditions here. Having retired from active practice, she is now planning on using her gifts, along with what she gained from her time with BRAC, to start a similar programme in Colombia. It was a privilege to spend time with this woman.

It has often been said that it is a small world and this has never been more true than during our time in Dhaka. A volunteer in the SCAW office in Toronto has a sister whose husband is affiliated with the British Embassy here. Over the past two weeks she has been most helpful, providing travel advisories and updates and last evening, inviting us to dinner with her family.

A teacher by profession, she told us about a volunteer project which assists girls here in the city. Thirty of these girls are orphans who are learning to sew, with a view to eventually being able to work independently or in the garment industry to earn a living. The materials — including the sewing machines — were purchased by our friend to get the programme started. Successes are celebrated by all involved.

A somewhat more ambitious project involves former sex trade workers, some very young, to enable them to get off of the street. Bringing with them a myriad of emotional problems, these young women enjoy fewer gains, but nonetheless the programme continues to give them a chance to get their lives on the right track. All this just for the joy of helping someone, makes this woman a very special woman and a real joy to know.

Murray Dryden was fond of telling the Starfish Story: A young boy was walking along a beach strewn with starfish washed up on shore. As he walked, the boy picked up a starfish and threw it back into the water, repeating this often as he went. Watching him, a somewhat cynical man asked, “What good do you think that will do? There are thousands of them.” The young man bent down, picked up a starfish, and threw it back. “It will make a difference to that one!”

Surely this is what SCAW and our new friends are doing. Unable to undertake a project to change a nation, people are being helped one at a time — and lives are being changed.

Ron and Mary Ann King
SCAW Travelling Volunteers

Bangladesh: Traffic in Bangladesh

After two weeks here, we have reached the stage where we are looking forward to sitting in rush hour traffic on the 401.

To distribute the SCAW bed kits, we have to travel to sites in the inner city of Dhaka and in villages — often remote — elsewhere in Bangladesh, sometimes many hours away. We have travelled by boat but we usually travel as a group in a van.

In the city, although the traffic does move, it is amazingly congested. There are more than 200,000 pedal-cabs, a whole bunch of natural gas motorbike-cabs, regular cabs, regular buses, a variety of private buses, large and small (hustling for business) and trucks, trucks, trucks.

The pedal-cabs, and their commercial equivalents: freight rickshaws, seem to be the vehicles which keep things going. They shift people and goods through traffic jams and along sidewalks and lanes. They are pollution free. Without them and the increasing number of natural gas vehicles the air would be un-breathable. All sorts of people — men, women and children, smartly dressed and less smartly dressed — use them and enjoy them, The freight rickshaws carry everything: a complete set of bedroom furniture, bundles of bamboo five or six times the length of the vehicle, huge mounds of produce (often with the owner perched on top), incredibly heavy loads of metal, great baskets of chickens, and apparently tottering (but remarkably secure) mounds of garbage or recycling material.

The regular buses are massively built, un-kept on the outside, generally built by Tata/Mercedes The Tata corporation, originally in steel, was founded in the Indian state of Bengal, much of which became Bangladesh. These vehicles are built for really heavyduty wear and tear. They often operate on rough roads, they stop and start all day long, and they appear to be over loaded all the time with people inside and out. Often, there seem to be as many on top as inside. But they clearly function as a system, shipping hundreds of thousands around and in and out of Dhaka, daily.

What we think of as the private buses range from minibuses to full sized vehicles. They have a hustler, often a young boy, who seems to shout out where the bus is heading and where it will stop for customers who climb on board. These too are filled beyond capacity but fewer people seem to ride on top perhaps because the roofs are less suited for sitting.

The trucks are also often built by Tata. They are tank-like versions of the buses. They also operate grossly overloaded. Often with passengers on top.

In the city, there are sometimes six lines of traffic (there are no lanes) with rickshaws and pedestrians winding their way through. Once, our own van traveled a full block against such a stream of traffic without exciting any more horn blowing than usual. We are told that there are relatively few serious accidents in town, presumably because the pace is so slow.

This does not hold true in the country. The main roads outside the city are good two-lane highways generally built up above the low-lying delta farmland. There are still rickshaws and pedestrians and there are still buses and trucks, as described above. However, here on the open road driving is one great big game of chicken. You put your foot down, lean on your horn, and go for it. Pedestrians and livestock on the edge of the road causeway, rickshaws, and oncoming vehicles are all fair game. You drive on your own side, in the oncoming lane, and on such shoulder as there is – anywhere to keep moving. In this environment, from the vantage point of a minivan, the Tata trucks and buses really do look like tanks with cheering troops on the top, revelling in the speed. Horrific accidents are reported from these roads daily – tens of deaths and scores of injured in a single bus crash.

You would think that you would be glad to turn off some of these highways onto the country lanes that we have to use to get to SCAW distribution sites. These are really single lane roads, generally with a good asphalt surface, again built up above flood level, with narrow foot paths alongside. Again you see rickshaws, which function very well in the villages but with more pedestrians and livestock. A peaceful, idyllic, situation you might think. Not on your life. Anyone with a motorized vehicle, including us, drives as quickly as possible using the horn as a threat rather than as a warning. This is one-lane chicken rather than two. The rickshaw peddlers are hardy souls who love this game. They delight in showing the motor drivers that they control the road – even when the motorized vehicle is coming towards them. On these roads, our van often leans precariously toward the slope leading down into a paddy field, river, or pond.

On these trips, only our leader Ms Linda gets any real sleep. After four SCAW visits to Bangladesh, we guess that it is possible to get used to the traffic.

Peter Adams
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Bangladesh: Photo Album 5

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Bangladesh November 11

Bangladesh: Children in Bangladesh

People who read the reports of SCAW volunteers or who regularly read items on the SCAW Web site, are used to descriptions of the children who attend the bedkit distributions in poor urban setting or remote villages. The recipients arrive early, by bus, boat, or on foot, often traveling many hours. They are excited and become more excited as they change into new clothes and sit patiently while the bedkits are being given out. Their brothers and sisters come with them and are equally excited and enthralled. These are emotional family occasions.

Also standing around the site, watching the proceedings are children whose families have not been selected for kits. This is a heart-wrenching experience for all SCAW travelling teams. On this trip, we are giving away 8,000 kits but this is a drop in the bucket in a country of over 150 million people in which children abound.

You see children everywhere.

  • The five day old baby in the middle of a large communal bed, lying on a SCAW bed mat from last year. The bed occupies two thirds of a room which is home to eight people: the baby under a net frame like the ones we used to use to keep flies off food.

  • The three or four year old child carrying a doll-like infant, scrambling in horrific traffic for pennies.

  • Boys playing cricket*, with a real bat and a rubber ball, in the only open space in an inner city slum.

  • A toddler playing, and occasionally appearing to plant a seed, in front of a line of family members, many not much older than she, systematically planting a field by a roadside.

  • A child waking and stretching on its sidewalk sleeping mat an hour or so after dawn, watched over by a woman left by a family whose rolled sleeping mats are stored for the day on a wall beside the already incredibly busy street.

  • Children playing cricket* on a sand bank (presumably with a ball which floats).
    Children among the crowd on top of a packed bus traveling at over 100km/hr on a packed highway. (We saw the wreck of a bus which had crashed the previous day, killing fifteen, and injuring fifty.)

  • A little girl throwing rocks at those of her twenty or so cattle which ventured too close to the train track.

  • Six boys under five years, carefully sorting a truck load of garbage.

  • Children playing cricket* in a paddy field, sliding in the mud for the ball.

  • A family, parents, and three very young children breaking up a truckload of bricks — presumably to make gravel — each with a small hammer. (There are essentially no rocks in Bangladesh, which is mainly underlain by the silt of the world’s largest delta.)

  • Small boys being moved on from in front of a store where they were watching cricket on TV.

  • Teenage girls in sari-like school uniforms, proudly going to school.

  • A young teenager peddling a rickshaw piled high with produce, on a traffic-clogged street, with a toddler proudly sitting on top of the load.

This is a country of children. They abound – in the rural areas and the packed cities, by day and by night. In Canada, most of us have forgotten what it is like to live in a neighbourhood full of kids. Even when there are children in our home communities, they spend long hours indoors and in school. We forget them and tend to keep them quiet even when they are excited.

We forget that they are our life and our future, that they are us as we were.

Here in Bangladesh, they have not forgotten such things. While we should never glamorize the lives of children here, no one can deny that they are front and centre in the life of the nation.

Peter Adams
SCAW Travelling Volunteers

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Bangladesh: By steamer on the river

Dear SCAW Donors,

As Bangladesh is essentially one huge delta, its rivers, fingers of water which are the entry to the sea of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers (Padma and Jamuna in Bangladesh) of India, are the real highways of the nation. When travelling on the crowded highways, you are made aware of this by the frequent river crossings, some of them causeways and bridges more than 10 km long. In the rainy season, you must be even more aware of this when half of the country may be flooded. However, the ultimate way to appreciate the roles of rivers in Bangladesh is to travel on them.

We had been to some of the river ports for bedkit distributions and seen the teeming life in them: ships and boats of all sizes loading and unloading, sometimes with cranes and pumps but most often by means of human labour; men carrying impossible loads of iron bars and huge sacks; endless human chains with baskets of sand, filling an entire ship. At these locations, we also caught a glimpse of the people who live by and on the rivers. They depend on the rivers for everything.

One of our major bedkit distributions was at the ancient port of Barisal, the port where, years ago, the British set up their government, arriving by river from Calcutta. To reach and return from this site, we travelled overnight, around ten hours by steamer. We arrived in the port of Dhaka as the sun was going down on the 6th. We found organized chaos as tens of thousands, like ourselves, were there to board ships for different parts of the country. Some of the ships were huge – three decks like football fields, upon which people sat or lay. Families arrived early to stake out a sleeping and eating area. Where it was really crowded, people sat to sleep. Where there was more room, they lay down. The larger boats must have had many thousands of passengers.

As far as we could tell, our vessel had under a thousand passengers on one and a half decks. You could not walk between people. There were whole families — grandparents, parents, and children — all excited and happy and glad to be going home to their villages from Dhaka.

We set off exactly on time and pulled out into the bustling, dark, river. Around us there were taxi-like rowboats, more large ferries like ours, freighters large and small, with the lights of the city all around. We were able to sit near the bow of the ship watching all of this with the aid of a scanning, probing, spotlight which kept us away from other vessels. The small freighters going by us very low in the water often had families on board sitting on top of the cabin or cargo enjoying the cool evening air. The vessel wended it way through rafts of water hyacinth. Even though still a long way inland, the tides of the Bay of Bengal affected our progress throughout the voyage.

We were fortunate to have tiny cabins, each with two campbed-like beds. There was a shared washroom. We ate in a central wardroom, good Bangladeshi food that we had already come to appreciate. We were also very fortunate in that two of our host Rotarians were traveling with us. They were a fount of information about the ship, the river, and the regions through which we passed.

At dawn on the 7th, we arrived in the port of Barisal: nowadays the centre of one of the most rural parts of Bangladesh. Outside of the port the people live in tiny villages. They depend on agriculture and inland and sea fishing. The family of our host Rotarian had lived in the area for generations. We distributed 700 bedkits during a very busy and exciting day, from the courtyard of his home – but that’s another story.

That evening, just before dark, we returned to Barisal to board our steamer home to Dhaka.

Barisal is not Dhaka: there were several large ferries and many boats, but nowhere near the overwhelming sights and sounds of a great city. As we waited for our ship to arrive we watched others boarding theirs, buying provisions for the trip: bananas, cooked nuts and beans, Bangladeshi pancakes, and the like. We also watched people who lived on and around the dock settling in for the night. One lady with two young children was staking a section of a walkway (which would be deserted once the steamers had left) for the night. There were groups of very young children – four whose leader was a girl of no more than eight years who lived on the streets around there. The girl had an open ulcer on her foot. We were a great source of entertainment for them.

When our ship arrived, it was a paddle wheel diesel, built in the 1920s. Its first passenger, we were told, was a Governor General of India. Queen Elizabeth (perhaps the Queen’s mother?) had travelled on it. It was smaller than our previous ship but equally crowded, this time with people travelling on the roof, as people do on trains and buses here.

We had smaller cabins than before, leading off a smaller “state room” which exuded ancient splendour. There was a key for the washroom – that is to say one key between us – which was some distance from where we slept with the intervening space often occupied by sleeping people. We were served traditional British food on the tiny foredeck – excellent fish and chips.

We came up to Dhaka at sunrise and saw the great river and its banks through the mist. Hundreds of craft, large and small. Banks lined with factories, brickyards and ship building and repair facilities. At one location, we saw around 12 ships in drydock (at the upper flood level) each at a different stage of construction. Although it was barely light. Everyone was hard at work: the welders, the gangs loading ships, and the boat taxis.

At the harbour — among tens of passenger ships, most larger than ours — we again saw the extraordinary bustle of life of this great port city. Amidst all the bustle there were people, children, adults, families, still fast asleep in corners or on passageways where people walked round them or stepped over them. One young girl was fast asleep lying face down of a huge sack of something – total unaware that thousands of people were passing by. We saw one person who had died in the night, picked up by men with a freight rickshaw.

We were home in Dhaka, ready for the downtown distribution of 226 bedkits. One of the recipients was a blind boy, another was a little girl who was sick to vomiting but did not want to leave the line, yet another was a tot who was very upset because she had lost sight of her mother who was too shy to come forward. This is why we are here. This day we reached 4,000 bedkits for Bangladesh, 4,000 families touched with hope, but yet so few in the great scheme of things.

But, as Murray Dryden said, "You help those you can, one at a time."

Peter Adams
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Bangladesh: Photo Album 3

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Bangladesh November 8

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Bangladesh: Photo Album 2

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Bangladesh November 7

Bangladesh: Chakhar, Barisal

The gate was draped with brightly coloured bunting displaying a welcome to all. It was truly a festive occasion — certainly long anticipated. Everyone in the village was there. When we arrived following our steamer ride, at seven thirty in the morning, the children were already lining up.

Captain Moazzam Hossain had opened his ancestral home for the distribution and had erected a brightly coloured canopy over the courtyard. Families crowded round the edge to catch a glimpse of the proceedings as we readied the bedkit for the photos.

Seven hundred area children received their gift, the first in their area to have done so.
The last bedkit was given out and the whole group gathered. Dignitaries thanked the SCAW team. Those who had organized the distribution were acknowledged. The entire Rotary Club of Chakhar was in attendance.

What followed was a display of folk dancing which was truly amazing. A beautifully costumed young girl twisted and twirled, the bells circling her ankles keeping the rhythm of the dance as her feet slapped the ground. Traditional Bangladeshi music played as our host quietly translated so that the story of the dance would become clear.

Dressed as a young women, and looking very much the part, a boy took centre stage. Again our appreciation of the dance was enhanced by the translation as the young man told a story of looking for water. These dances have been passed down for many generations, and are obviously still cherished by the Chakhar villagers.

Captain Hossain treated us to a tour of the village and, as always, we had a large following. The village, we learned, is truly special. The population is about 40% Muslim. Hindus make up 20% and the remainder is a blend of Christians, Bhuddists, and other faiths. The wonderful part of the story is that they celebrate their differences. All the villagers celebrate the festival of Eid along with Christmas and others as they occur. They live and work in harmony, a model for villages the world over. Captain Hossain obviously cares about those folks who live and work on his estate, striving to improve their standard of living by developing market gardening and operating a feed lot, to name a few of his initiatives. He is truly loved and respected. It was a pleasure for us to get to know him just a little and enjoy the hospitality he and his family offered.

There is no doubt that Chakhar’s first SCAW distribution was much appreciated and they expressed hope that SCAW would return next year.

As the daylight waned and we made our way back through the “City of Rickshaws,” we had time to reflect on what was, indeed, an adventure. The Ostrich, a 1929 paddle steamer, took us on an overnight journey back to Dhaka, where we would complete the last of our Rotary sponsored distributions.

Ron and Mary Ann King
SCAW Travelling Volunteers

Bangladesh: SCAW Bedkit Questionnaire

Dear SCAW Donors,

In an effort to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the children, SCAW is conducting surveys during 2006/7 distributions.

We displayed a bedkit and asked five parents to examine the bedkit items and make their comments from the questionnaire. On this particular day, there were four mothers and one father.

The Bangladesh bedkit is a generous one. In addition to the basic items of mattress, bedsheets, pillow/case, mosquito net, and blanket, the bedkit also contains two sets of clothing, a school bag, water flask, drinking mug, lunch box and a wool shawl to wear during the winter season.

We asked each parent individually to make their comments as to:
  • the usefullness of the items,

  • which items they valued the most,

  • which item they valued the least, and

  • what other items they would like included.

As we neared the end of the survey we had generated a large group from the village! The Bangladesh people are very friendly and are naturally inquisitive!

It was indeed a wonderful experience for me to talk with the parents of children receiving a bedkit. All the parents were united is expressing their thanks for the bedkits and said, "Please come back the Bangladesh."

It was interesting to note that they valued the entire bedkit way beyond the actual cost of $30.00 CAD. This suggests that our Rotary partners are doing a good job of seeking out the best value for the best prices. It truly was a special time that will stay with me forever.

As one member of the Rotary Club of Dhaka said, "We can all rejoice in knowing that, as each child opens the bedkit, they can look forward to a warm and cozy sleep and attend school: the basic right of every child."

Norma Fenner
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Monday, 6 November 2006

Bangladesh: Our Rotary OVO

SCAW's Overseas Volunteer Organization in Dhaka

For the third time this week we wound our way through Dhaka traffic to the Retired Army Officers' Welfare Club where over five hundred kids waited patiently for their turn to receive a bedkit. Again our Rotarian hosts had arranged for these children to be brought to the site by bus from various outlying areas. Pictured here: (Left to Right) Rtn. Mirza Hossain, Chair of the SCAW program; Rtn. Khandker Hasan, President; Rtn. Rafiqul Rowly, Past President; Rtn. Taherullah, Sgt-at-Arms.

We are constantly reminded of our partners' commitment to SCAW. The Rotarians with whom we are working here in Dhaka have virtually put their lives on hold during the distributions. Making sure that the children, the bedkits and the help required to keep things rolling all arrive at the site is a Herculean task.

Add to this months of preparation with Rotarians travelling to all parts of the country choosing locations and registering children, and you have an idea of the cost in time and money for these folks. As a team we are so grateful for their care of us.
We have been thoroughly spoiled as our hosts have personally provided for our safety and well being.

The SCAW programme is only one of many projects sponsored by the Dhaka Rotary Club. They also sponsor: a literacy project, a weekly free health clinic, a medical boat, a microcredit programme for women, and a polio vaccination initiative. Our hosts are a dedicated group striving to help their people.

The SCAW system only works because of the teamwork involved and our partners here are only one group of many commited partners who enable SCAW to complete the process of the thirty dollars becoming a bedkit in a needy child's hand.

To our Rotary hosts and to all of the partners with whom SCAW works in many countries go our thanks for helping to make Murray and Margaret's dream -- and that of our many, many donors -- a reality.

Mary Ann King
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Bangladesh: Photo Album 1

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Bangladesh November 6

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Bangladesh: Dhaka Distributions

Today we had a bedkit distribution in the city of Dhaka. The site was the retired officers’ club (RAOWA), under a huge bamboo tent structure which had been used for a wedding celebration for 1200 people. The shade provided by the beautiful wedding canopy was most welcome but it was somewhat disconcerting that men with bare feet were climbing around the bamboos, taking the pavilion apart while we were in it.

The distribution went well – over 400 bedkits. This was the first day when we knowingly presented kits to HIV/AIDS children. Our partners, the Rotary Club of Dhaka, had contacted a local care group to select the children.

During the distribution, a young woman from Vancouver came in to introduce herself. She had been walking by and came over to see what was going on. She was as surprised to see us as we were to see her. We were sorry that we could not be more sociable but the flow-through of hundreds of children is like a tide which cannot be stopped.

It is quite rare for bedkit distributions on this massive scale to go off without a hitch. The hitches are not overemphasized in these reports but they are a major feature of the daily team-sponsor critiques. This day, we had trouble with the cameras which are a vital part of the SCAW system. The heat and humidity got to our main camera.

This was the day of the weekly Rotary meeting. We were invited by our hosts to attend. This was a very pleasant and informative occasion. “Ms Linda”, our leader, is very well respected here.

Peter Adams
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Friday, 3 November 2006

Bangladesh: Bhairab and Hobiganj

Today, the 3rd of November, was the official deadline for the Interim Government of Bangladesh to demonstrate that it is operating in a non-partisan fashion. The deadline was agreed to by the major parties as a device for ending the riots of a week ago. This made us tense when we left at 7 AM for the three-hour drive from Dhaka to Bhairab for our first distribution of bedkits of the day. In any event, in part because Friday is Prayer Day, the city and the countryside were calmer than usual although large numbers of police and troops were present in the city.

Bhairab is a bustling river port even on Prayer Day. All sorts of produce and construction materials were being loaded and off-loaded to and from small and large boats and ships. The cargoes included a large number of our bedkit children and their families who had travelled several hours by river to be with us. When they went home some hours later, they needed one extra craft as their incredibly loaded vessel could not contain the bedkits.

We distributed 600 bedkits which included two sets of clothing to 600 children using the “group method” – ten children being photographed at a time. Our depot for the bedkits was a government warehouse which usually stores grain for use during food shortages. The grain comes from the hinterland of the port which is extraordinarily productive delta farm land. The children who did not come by boat came from this region which appeared all the more rural to us by contrast with the teeming life of our base city, Dhaka.

We then drove for a couple of hours to Hobiganj for our second distribution of the day. The entire route was through rural Bangladesh including an extensive tea plantation area which was the only part of our route that was more than a metre or so above water level. This region must be quite different during the rains.

At Hobiganj we distributed more than a 100 bedkits to local children in the enclosed courtyard of a home belonging to the father-in-law of one of our host Rotarians. This was a great contrast to our morning in the port of Bhairab. The home was part of a region of small, often very small, rural settlements — very self-contained and pleasant. Our hosts family had lived there for generations.

As we started our drive home at dusk, we saw one of “our” children walking proudly through her hamlet wearing a dress from her bedkit.

We returned to Dhaka in the dark, by a devious route, because our host Rotarian thought that it would be safer than the direct route. And so to bed after a great, successful, SCAW day in Bangladesh.

Peter Adams
SCAW Travelling Volunteer

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Bangladesh: First Day of Distributions

Greetings from our fearless leader, Linda,
First-timers Norma Fenner and Jill & Peter Adams, and
Second-timers Ron & Mary Ann King:

The Bangladesh 2006 adventure continues to unfold, leaving us all much food for thought. Two very busy days have left us tired, but have nonetheless affirmed our commitment to SCAW and all that it stands for.

On Tuesday, our Rotary hosts arranged a visit to the homes of families who had previously been given bedkits. These folks live in the slums of Dhaka, home to hundreds of thousands of families, many of whom are the working poor. Entering from a long narrow passageway, we observed our first family: three generations sharing a room about ten by twelve feet. Serving as the bedroom, living room, and dining room, the area was clean and well-organized -- every inch of wall space being used for clothes, cooking pots, and whatever else is required to maintain the group. However, these details were only noted after we had greeted the newest member of the family: the beautiful five-day-old child who lay under a netting closely watched by a very young, unsmiling mother who was no doubt apprehensive as to the purpose of our visit. The love of her family, so evident in each of their faces, would ensure that this tiny child, so lacking in material wealth, would indeed be treasured.

In each of the other seven rooms along the passageway, this scene was repeated. In the common kitchen, young women smiled for our cameras as they prepared dinner for their families. We left with no doubts about the suitability of the bedkits, as each had served the families well. The group was strangely quiet as we wove our way home through the indescribable Dhaka traffic.

Wednesday saw us starting our first distribution within Dhaka city. Children had been gathered from communities, many outside the city, to a central location. Happily, the children, for the most part, appeared healthy and well cared for. We can't say enough about the quality of the bedkits: each contained almost twenty very useful and well-made items.

Our first-time team members now have an idea of what we have all been talking about. The beautiful smiles and the shy thankyou's made their day.

Before returning home we were treated to a visit to a factory where the backpacks were made that are contained in the bedkits. The word "factory" creates a certain picture in our minds, but the reality of a factory in Bangladesh is very different. A narrow alleyway leads from a very busy street to a climb up three flights of dark, narrow stairs to the room that is the factory. In this room, lit by two lights and cooled by two windows and a single ceiling fan, two shifts of fifteen men cut, assemble, and stitch (on old treadle machines) a variety of different bags, earning about eighty Canadian dollars a month. The owner provides food for the workers, who eat, sleep, and work in the factory. The quality of the backpacks is good and only points out that they are made with care by men who strive to produce quality work.

If only we could magicly transport each of you, the donors, to share just a few moments of the Bangladesh experience. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the shy smiles, have all all meshed to provide a memorable beginning to the Bangladesh 2006 SCAW distribution.

Mary Ann King
SCAW Travelling Volunteer