Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Three Days with the Station Children

This article was written by Ludivine, a volunteer from the organization Missions Etrangères de Paris (Foreign Missions from Paris). She is living in Mymensingh and working with the Taizé Brothers for two months.

We left for three days with about twenty very poor children from the Mymensingh Rail station, our destination was a beautiful village a few kilometers away from the town of Haluaghat, north of Mymensingh. Let me tell you, this group of children was ecstatic to be going on this adventure! With no luggage to be found, not even a little sack, they arrived with big smiles on their faces. Having left behind their little houses and their burlap bags, normally used for picking up paper found on the streets in order to resell it, they were ready for a new adventure.

After an hour of driving “Bangladesh-style” (that is, ridiculously fast and laying on the horn the whole way), we arrived alive in the town of Haluaghat. From there, we continued our journey in a “tempo”, a very bumpy type of minibus, which is always overflowing with an unimaginable number of passengers. Once again it was a wild ride, and quite the adventure! Every five minutes or so around 10 children would get off the tempo to lighten the load and push the vehicle through the ruts and over the bumps of the virtually destroyed road. But even that could not dampen our spirits! A few hours later we had finally arrived in the little village where we were staying the next few days. We were hosted by a wonderful family of farmers, friends of the Taizé Brothers, and members of the Garo indigenous group.

The program continued with regular dips in the cool waters of beautiful ponds, sessions full of songs, games and drawing, strolls by the river and finally a large work site, the “tree plantation.” Thanks to a great idea by brother Guillaume, we were going to plant a hundred saplings. Now this is not an easy task, but for a group of courageous, brash, young children, with no worries in the world, it is but a challenge to be overcome. There again I underestimated their remarkable creativity and ability to do whatever it is they want. Some of these children are no more than three feet tall and yet there they were, digging, planting, and clearing the field as if they had been doing it all their lives.

Apart from their incredible ingenuity, it became obvious that these children were no angels! Like many Bangladeshis, it is unbelievable how easily they become angry and hot under the collar. At the slightest provocation between the children, without a moments delay, a fist fight would ensue, because after all that is how problems are solved, a lesson these young children have had engrained in them at a very early age. At times it was necessary for us to intervene and calm the childrens nerves; brother Guillaume noted quickly that I had picked up the most important phrases for solving little fights among the children; phrases such as “choop koro!”, which means “be quiet!”, or “eyta bhalo na!” to say “that’s not good!”.

We had a wonderful three days together. Everyone returned exhausted (both the children and the volunteers), but we were all so happy! For me, I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know the children a little bit better during our time together, and it was so fun to be able to put names to the faces of the children at the station. I have been able to better understand the children who live in such poverty by the Rail station, and I hope I can help them more in the future, and be able to understand a little bit more about their daily lives.


This article was translated from its original French, any mistakes in translation are my own.


The Marriage Dilemma

A friend confessed to me yesterday that he was having a rough day; he was confused and wanted some help. The story is one that I have heard too many times here, and it is one to challenge cultural practices around the world. The Marriage Dilemma.

Marriages are a strange proposition here in Bangladesh. My friend's sister got married just before Christmas 2007 to a guy she had only met once. This may seem strange to a North American or European audience, but here in Bangladesh and India this is the norm.

The process starts:
- A girl's mother and father decide their daughter is of a proper age for marriage (this age depends on many factors including education, trust, financial stability, and more).
- A boy's mother and father decide their son is of a proper age for marriage (all the same factors are involved)
- The girl's parents find a trusted friend or relative to look for a suitable partner for their daughter.
- The boy's parents find a trusted friend or relative to look for a suitable partner for their son.
- Those friends or relatives searching for a marriage partner then begin the search, they listen to gossip about those who may or may not be near ready to get married, they listen to stories from people who have been to other villages for news of someone wanting to marry.
- Finally those searching friends or relatives find each other and they start talking. Discussed are matters such as finances, gifts, ages and family expectations.
- Once everything is fixed, the wedding proceeds within a few months.

And there is the process. This cultural process is followed consistently by Muslims, Christians and Hindus. This method of choosing marriage partners is a good way to keep families happy (most of the time), and to keep the community happy. And everyone knows, happy communities make for happy families. Of course, it doesn't always work.

The idea of a "love marriage" here in Bangladesh, is one of communal shame and sadness. It is a choice a young person makes to marry because they truly love as opposed to marrying to maintain their position and their family's name. Marriage here is not based on two people's choice to spend their lives together, it is based on the community.

Back to my friend's story. His sister got married to a man she had only met once before. That was 7 months ago. Now come the problems. The gifts were not given in full, and the families begin to quarrel. Another girl (a Muslim no less) comes on the scene. And the problems begin.

Now here is the dilemma. There is a girl who this boy thinks he likes. She is nice and they get along well, but they can't really learn about each other because in this society that is taboo. Now this boy is married, but married to a girl he still doesn't know, married because his family told him so. What must be going through his head? What do you do when there is someone you were told to learn to love? What if that love never materializes? These are the questions of marriage. Why should he remain faithful to someone he never loved, and married not of his own volition? The flip-side. He is married. There is a woman who, pressured or not, he married. In this society she is very much dependent on him and what he does. What morality would he have to be unfaithful to his new wife? How much damage would he do to him and her by being unfaithful? What to do?

The other side of the dilemma. There is a girl whose reputation will be ruined if her husband leaves her or is found to be cheating. How can she be loved? How can she maintain her reputation with a man who she doesn't love and never loved her? What must be going through her head? Why does she slave for this man in the kitchen? Why should she raise his children when he just goes from woman to woman? Why should she remain with this man who she never loved, and married not of her own volition? What to do?

The community. The people who in effect caused the dilemma and will never be affected by it. The people who will gossip and spread rumours about husband and wife, often blaming the wife if something goes wrong. The wind to spread the flames of doubt and hurt, the community is a force that inhibits and makes its will known. The community is the powerful force keeping the system in place.

There is the marriage dilemma. Two young souls, joined in "love" sanctioned by the community. Two young people, with their lives ahead of them but one of life's biggest choices made for them. Two young lives, changed forever by their familes. My friend asked me what he should do, and I don't know. The dilemma is a dilemma for a reason. The answers have their benefits, they have their downfalls, and two young lives are at stake. The Marriage Dilemma.

Peace and Wisdom.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Sleeping Child

Lying on the street undisturbed,
Cradled in a ripped banner,
Lifeless and alone,
The Sleeping Child.

God bless this Child,
Your son who you have not abandoned,
Protect him in his innocence,
God of Love.

There I passed him, lying on the side of the street, alone and sleeping. There he was, wrapped in a ripped piece of a banner found as trash on the street. As I walked towards him he stirred but did not wake up, men and women walked by not batting an eye. As I walked past him I looked into his face, his eyes closed in serene silence, a world away from the loud, busy street on which he was asleep. I looked into the face of an innocent child, a child left alone to fend his way on the streets of Dhaka. A boy with a story, a story I will never know, and one that would likely melt the hardest hearts. I stood there, a few steps away from this sleeping boy, and I prayed for him. My prayer did not include words, for words were unnecessary, this child didn't need my words, this child needed love.

What to do? I wanted to sit with the child, to let him know that he is loved. But sleep is precious, and I did not want to disturb him. So I waited, I prayed and without any thought of what might happen, I slipped a gift into the child's pocket. I pray that God's gift brightened this boy's day, I hope that he could eat a proper meal and gain some energy, and most of all I pray that he felt loved; loved not by me, for my love is temporary, but loved by God.

We pray tonight for the sleeping children,
We pray tonight for the lonely children,
We pray tonight for the hurting children,
We pray tonight God, for all your children.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Changing Faces

* This article was written for the MCC Bangladesh Global Family Newsletter.

The girls at Baluchaura Mission quickly hid their giggles behind the nearest object, be it a book, a scarf, or their hand, as they silently disappeared into the nearest room. The boarding girls, like many girls here in Bangladesh, were very shy and embarrassed around us, the newly arrived foreigners. The girls are supported through MCC Bangladesh’s Global Family program and we were there not just to teach them English but to share in their lives and learn with them.

Baluchaura Mission is a small place, and the girls were always intrigued by our activities, swimming in the pond, singing on the roof, or joking in the dining room. But for the first few days, if it weren’t for our two English sessions a day, we would have been nearly unaware of the girls’ existence. Life for these girls includes daily chores, study times, cooking, and prayers. In comparison, our lives were devoid of work; never expected to exert ourselves, the time we tried to fill our own water buckets, Sean and I had barely begun before a line of girls appeared and the buckets were instantly full. Our initial days at the Mission we felt separated from daily life and routine, we were honored guests not close friends. We learned quickly that classes needed to be fun or the formality would stifle the joy of learning.

Our classes often revolved around songs. Singing was a gift our group shared, and we spent many hours singing. Using songs to teach English was a perfect fit. Repeating hits, especially action songs; the girls could listen and practice the words, it raised the energy level in the room, and it rejuvenated us. As the first week passed, we started to hear “Kumbaya” sung by the girls washing at the pump in the morning, “This Little Light of Mine” being rocked from the cooking fires behind the dorm, and the Moose song being stumbled through at full volume. We started to notice a change in the girls; instead of covering their faces and running away, they would offer a quiet “good morning” as we walked by.

The teaching of “Duck, Duck, Goose” was a breakthrough in building friendships with the girls. A spontaneous evening of silliness degenerated into raucous laughter and regenerated into the group favorite, “Duck, Duck, Goose”. Some evenings, after returning from an afternoon of visiting families, we would arrive at the Mission to a game of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” always made more entertaining by the antics of the crazy foreigners. The evening games and activities were always a time of joy and laughter.

With the use of our art supplies, games and of course, songs, we continued to connect on a deeper level with the girls at the Mission. They would often come tell me how much fun they were having with us. With a few days remaining at the Mission another change was noticed, the girls no longer ran away when they saw us, they came to talk, to ask us how we were, and to sing with us. No more covered faces, no more running away; we might have been guests, but we were also friends. Our time at Baluchaura Mission ended with a night of laughter, song and dance. The girls performed beautiful dances and we all sang our well rehearsed favorite songs together. Not only had we taught English and lived at Baluchaura Mission for two weeks, we had developed friendships, and had shared songs, games and memories with the girls. Leaving the girls at Baluchaura Mission was a challenging and powerful time. The power of friendship and laughter was starkly contrasted with the power of separation, and leaving our new friends. As Annika noted, “If it is hard to leave, then you must have done something right.” The tears shed upon our departure are a testament to the love and happiness that was shared in our short time together.

A quote that was shared by a number of the girls at the Mission as we were preparing to depart, is a testament to the power of friendship and happiness. Between tears the girls said, “Thank you so much! We have had so much fun with you! We can’t remember a time when we have ever had more fun! Please don’t leave; we want to keep having fun!” I pray that in their lives these girls will find many more occasions for joy and happiness, more memories to join the memories of our fun and laughter together.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Hai Hai!

"Oh Annika! Katal kabey?" The familiar sing-song voice of Sister Nisha drifts across the table. Annika, will you eat some jackfruit? The Salesian Sisters at Baluchaura Mission were full of joy and life. Often Sisters or Nuns are stereotyped as boring, old and out of touch, the Sisters at Baluchaura were nothing of the sort; the Baluchaura Sisters were too cool.

There was Sister Nisha, gang leader and jokester extraordinaire. Sister Nisha is one of the first Bangladeshis I have met who understand sarcasm! She is also a host with the most, "Eat more, you've only had 3 plates of rice!" Sister Nisha hosted us in true Bengali fashion, three feasts and two meals per day (also known as three meals and two tea breaks) were enough to keep the most active person strong and happy. It was also enough to make the most ravenous stomach entirely satisfied at all hours of the day. And Sister Nisha was not without her beautiful quirks. "Oh Annika" was the call to summon the group together, the use of no other name was necessary, we all understood. Sister Nisha cared for us like a big sister (which is sort of what she is). She always made sure our water buckets were filled and we were well rested (although we tended to go play soccer when we were supposed to be "taking rest"). Under the care and supervision of Sister Nisha we were not in need (or want) of anything.

There was Sister Rina, punster and fanner extraordinaire. Sister Rina was a blast. She would twist words in funny little ways and always pull off a chuckle. Rina could make you smile just by walking in the room. And there was her fanning abilities. I have never seen anyone fan like Rina fans! The little plastic fan spinning faster and faster, blowing a steady breeze in all directions, drying the sweat on the brows of the ever hot and sweaty foreigners. To our regret, Sister Rina left after only a week with us to go to Mymensingh for a course, her smile, laughter and mad fanning skills were missed.

There was Sister Shantona, quickly learning the ropes of witty sisterhood. She quietly honed her skills as the days went on, topping up our plates with food and zipping in a joke about Annika and her kolas. She's got the making of a Sister extraordinaire, all she needs is a little more practice. Sister Shantona was also dearly missed for the last few days at the Mission when she also went to Mymensingh for classes and almost disappeared without a song (but not quite!), I will never forget her frienly laugh.

And finally, there was Sister Benuka. Resident nurse and expert on all things dirty. She could keep you clean and proper in a mud slide! Sister Benuka was a nurse with an edge. Not a meal went by without a few friendly jokes in Bengali about my accent, my sentence structure, how little I was eating or about my lunghi. She was a nurse Sister, with the wit and prowess of a tiger. Sister Benuka was kind and had a wonderful laugh to accompany her wit. She was a darling to Sean when he fell ill and was always available to tell you what animal was making dirty in the field! Sister Benuka, always up for a fun time.

The Baluchaura Sisters were a well matched team of supersisters. Always ready to help out and always ready to explain Bangladesh to us, the willing students. The Sisters at Baluchaura were a large part of what made our time at the Mission so rewarding, and I thank them for that. I will close with one of our favourite quotes from the Sisters. This game is played in Bengali and English here and is something like "Darling, if you love me". In a sing-song voice it went something like this:

Sister 1: Hai Hai! Oh my God!
Sister 2: What happened?!
Sister 1: I have fallen in love!
Sister 2: With who?!
Sister 1: With... Sean! (or Annika, or Bacca, or Eva, or Stiphen)

Hai Hai!

Friday, June 20, 2008

A New Song

The power of music never ceases to amaze me. Music has the power to unite, the power to lift spirits, the power of peace, and the power of joy. A song transcends words, it speaks directly to each person in its own way. Music is a gift granted and received, and it moves through time and change, but always remains. Music was, for our group at Baluchaura Mission, the main point of connection with the people we met. How blessed I was to be surrounded at Baluchaura with people who love to sing; people who enjoy making music for the sake of making music. And it was there that I was reminded of the power of music. I will share with you a few examples of the power music played in our two weeks at the mission.

Music provides a bridge. We found ourselves in a village in Northern Bangladesh on the way to the Mission with a flat tire. Not an entirely atypical situation, but one which required some attention, so there we were standing by the rickshaws when, and slowly emerging from their dwellings were the local children, mothers and unemployed men. Cautiously they approached us to watch us, and feeling friendly and cheerful we struck up a conversation. Within a few minutes the crowd had grown from a handful of children and women to a group of over fifty people. The normal greetings were exchanged, the necessary questions were answered, and we found ourselves facing a large crowd not having any idea what to do. When suddenly a young girl was pushed in front of us and told to sing a song. She sang a beautiful song in Bangla and to thank her we decided to sing a song. And so we sang, the children's fascination grew as big as their eyes, and when we finished they quickly asked for another song. Now the crowd was quickly growing as word spread of the bideshis singing in the village, and a minute or two later, after another song, we were ushered onto a concrete platform, provided with a bench to sit on and stared at. It was the closest you could come to a village stage, the crowd grew to over a hundred people, and we sat there on the stage and sang until our rickshaw was prepared. The fascination and joy on the faces of the children and women said it all. Songs are a powerful tool to bring people together. The sharing of songs could brake the awkward barrier between us that no words ever could.

Songs provide a connection. Music also played a large role in our english classes at the Mission. Songs were in many ways the bridges or connectors to the girls at Baluchaura. Songs brought us together, songs made language irrelevant, songs provided entertainment and friendship without need for words. We taught upbeat versions of "This Little Light of Mine" and "Kumbaya" to the girls, as well as "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes", and the songs were a hit. With most of the girls still hiding and giggling behind their ornas when we walked by, we would often hear them quietly singing the songs we had done in class while they washed their clothes or before brushing their teeth. The songs were not boring class, songs are fun, enjoyable, and not like work. But songs did more than teach English, songs started the connection, the bond that formed between us all. When the end of our class time together came, the girls would all ask for one more song (which often turned into more than that!). The songs we would sing brought us together and were the launch pad for some wonderful friendships.

Songs console. One day we went to visit a woman gravely ill with cancer. The was on her deathbed and we came to pray for her. I was asked to pray in Bangla which did not work as well as I would have liked, due to my lack of preparation. And after the prayer we asked if we could sing for them. We sang the song "Lord, Listen to your Children Praying". The words were not understood by the family, caring for their ailing mother, but the meaning was. The music was an inspiration to the family, a consolation in a time of sadness, and after praying once more in english for the woman, with tears of thanksgiving in their eyes, the children of this dying woman thanked us for coming to pray for them, and the happiness in their faces spoke louder than a thousand words. Prayer is a powerful tool, and music is a gateway.

Song bring us together. They brought our group together at Baluchaura, they brought us together with the Bangladeshis we visited and met, and they linked our communities at home, with the community here in Bangladesh. Music is a gateway to our common humanity, a torch in the darkness, and tie that binds. As we go forward in life may we all sing a new song of joy, happiness, peace and communion.


UWB - Unidentified Walking Bideshi

What would it be like to see the first foreigner of your life? How many of those firsts have we been the privileged recipients of?

In Canada we come from a multicultural society. A society where people from around the world live in relative harmony. Our frame of reference is not limited to those identical to us. But how would we react if suddenly Tintin the lime green, pink haired alien showed up speaking some wild language? Sometimes here I feel like Tintin. Here I am an Unidentified Walking Bideshi- a white skinned, blond haired stranger who happens to speak a little Bangla.

Where are you from? The most common question received by guests to Bangladesh is where they come from. To the highly educated in the country Canada is a country in Europe, or Africa, or America. To the less educated in the country, Canada might as well be Venus, outside of their immediate reality is in many ways nothing more than a dream. Sometimes, as a joke, when people ask me where I am from, I will first tell people I am from another district of Bangladesh, and the number of people who believed me is astounding. Where I am from is really not what's important other than the fact that I am different. I am novel and I am different.

I don't think we, from Canada, could understand the concept of standing for 15 minutes staring at someone without moving. The idea of having someone from another place walk by you and being entirely awestruck by them. In the villages I am (and we were) the attraction. We provided the entertainment for everyone we passed, people gather from the surrounding villages just to stare at us.

I am the unidentified Walking Bideshi.