Tuesday, October 16, 2012

And on the 209th day there was light...

As we walked away from the small plot of earth where a new school will be built over the coming months, I stopped and turned around to take in the view. Everything seemed miniature: the village behind me, the small causeway leading to the site, the orchard of young guava trees beyond, a storybook loaf of piled-up hay, and a squat bamboo storage shed. All was damp, dark, quiet, and insulated by foliage from the dusty chaos of the village road.

A single shaft of sunlight was breaking through the dense canopy of mango leaves above. It shot down to where two calves were busily munching on a fresh helping of water hyacinth that had been piled in their trough from the nearby slough. The stems, a tangle of shiny wet tubes, were a brilliant green in the natural spotlight. The black-on-white of the contented calves was brilliant too. Nudged by that sunbeam, I suddenly wanted to linger, to be welcome, to watch life grow out of this latent corner of the earth. This is what a small measure of light can do in a dark place.

(photo by Tasfiq of Change)
Back around the bend in the village is another miniature dark place: the school building currently being used by this Hindu cobbler community in Sonargaon. Building, of course, feels like an overstatement--this building is a four by six-meter tin shed. The only light is what comes through the door, two small windows, and the gaps under the eaves. But now there's another small source of amplified natural light. It's simple and sustainable, requiring only the sun's light to make it work. It's a two-liter Coke bottle filled with water poking through the tin roof. Even on this hazy day, it's adding light to the dark school. On a sunny day it may well brighten most of the space. Right now, though, it's difficult to tell how much real difference it makes.

It's difficult to tell. That's the tricky part about trying to do something worth doing in this world. How can we know that a "real difference" is being made? How does change actually occur?

(photo by Shah Shahid)
The desire to create change was certainly there on that day, as bright as any light can be. We were a potpourri of humanitarian intention: The Greenies, an environmental student group from International School of Dhaka (led by our own Bangla-Dasher, Chris Hesse), a Dhaka-based group called Change working in cooperation with A Liter of Light, and, of course, Shahed of the Shubornogram Foundation who is moving this school project forward with the help of the Bangla-Dash. We even installed a "Tippy Tap", an innovative hand-washing station promoted in Bangladesh by Helen Keller International. It's an impressive list of groups who care about improving the lives of people in Bangladesh and around the world. And most of them have very nice websites.  

But for all that intention, what was actually accomplished "on the ground" that day?

-We spent about 6 hours enduring the chaos of Dhaka roads to go to a village that is only 33 kilometers away.
-We distributed sports equipment (that will likely disappear very soon) and school supplies. -Our visit and gifts brought a lot of smiles and excitement that may linger in the village kids' memories.
-We installed a light fixture that provides a negligible amount of light.
-We installed a hand-washing station next to the village well (making it arguably redundant) only to find that its most critical components, the plastic jug and the bar of soap, were already missing by the time we left, apparently confiscated by a villager who felt there were more important uses for such items.
-We helped the children from the school use the bar of soap to wash their hands before it disappeared.

Students line up for a hand-washing - photo by Shah Shahid
With such a list, one cannot help but wonder if we really helped anyone in the village that day. But instead of succumbing to my more cynical instincts, I will answer with a resounding YES. But it was probably not the lives of the village residents that were changed. Instead, it was in the lives of the visitors where a difference was made.

I'll explain by offering this more hopeful--and probably more realistic--version of what usually is accomplished on a trip like this:
Faiza teaches a little one to wash with soap - photo by Shah Shahid

-You go with the assumption that you will be helping the developing world.
-You are moved by the contrast between "your world" and "their world".
-You realize it's not actually possible to have two worlds in our one world.
-You let that realization evolve--perhaps subconsciously--into a more empathetic worldview.
-You then spend the rest of your life making instinctive decisions that are an outgrowth of this new way of thinking.
-With your influence on others, the amount of people like you increases.
-The world gradually shifts from its current unbalanced state to one where those who have too much have less, those who have too little have more, and everyone basically has what they need to live a healthy, happy life.

What does this look like in practical terms for the wealthy, educated, good-looking, conscientious, kind-hearted students who sat through 6 hours of the worst traffic in the world in hopes of "helping" some underprivileged village children?

It means they don't become the new generation of businessmen and women who get rich by exploiting the poor; they don't become politicians who care more about getting reelected than improving the lives of their fellow citizens; they don't live a life that prioritizes material gain and leads to over-consumption. Instead, they instinctively care about people and our shared planet, and they live their lives accordingly.

Two schools: a tin shed and a boat (photos: Shah, Tasfiq)
Before we installed the light in the cobbler community school, we visited the floating school of a marginalized river gypsy community. The boat-school is not very big, but it has its advantages; namely, providing a haven from the discrimination the students face on land, and, as one of the boys nonchalantly exhibited, being able to  step up onto the back deck and pee straight into the river. (I can just imagine the time that could be saved if I let my students open up my classroom windows, do their business, then get straight back to their essay writing.) So keeping the river clean may not be in the curriculum right now, but as Nafis Jalil (grade 12 "Greenie" and initiator of the light installation) noticed, they've got some things down pat--like being excited for school and getting up on time in the morning. It's a non-issue because they wake up with the sun. While presenting a gift of school supplies, he wanted to make sure his fellow ISD students were aware of this. So he asked the boat-school students, "...and, kids, is it hard to get up in the morning?" "Of course not!" they apparently answered. Nafis told me later that the only reason he asked them this was to prick the consciences of his schoolmates who find it difficult to get to school on time.

Indeed, consciences have probably been pricked in many ways. At the very least, smiles were exchanged and the beauty of human interaction was reaffirmed. Most significantly, small lights were turned on that day in the hearts and minds of several young people. They are lights that when turned on reveal that we're all in the same room. They illuminate our shared existence on this planet and they are difficult to put out. They might be miniature for the present, but the darkness of unawareness has been pushed back--and that will eventually make all the difference.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Days 3 and 4 - Thumbs Up and Other Non-Native Species

We can now verify that Bangladesh--despite its astounding population density--is largely an open, rural country. It has been about 210 km of mottled shade and sun patterns on country roads, pastoral islands of palms and farm shanties linked by a network of sandy footpaths cutting across a sea of green, and countless bridges over waterways choked with the soft purple blooms of water hyacinth. In fact, the only indication of a looming mega-city came as a distant cloud of smog on the horizon that steadily grew in density across the outlying plain of rice paddies. Then with the smog came the first roadside slums. They were a shocking contrast to the wide-open countryside our heroes had run through (I think it's not unfair to say that in their tiny roadside hovels, these people live worse than the stray dogs, who at least have the freedom to roam, find food, and a natural coat to protect them from harsh weather)...

So Dhaka steadily crawled in around us on Day 4, and Chris and Marc ran the last kilometer together, celebrating a strong finish on the China-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge high above the inky Buriganga. And once urban Bangladesh sets in, the rural dream one passes through is just that--a dream that, like all good dreams, seems irrecoverable once you've awoken to reality. Even in the smaller town centers, urban life seems to be sheer madness. It is the congested conglomeration of the same spirit that frequently interrupts the bliss of the countryside: the frantic spirit embodied by the Bangladeshi public bus. Like wild rusty bullets, the buses speed violently from town to town. Though all manner of humanity protrudes from the windows and is sometimes perched among the luggage on top and is therefore the source of his income, the driver pays no heed to human life along the road. He just blows and blows and blows his horn. He slows for nothing except speed bumps, and this only because no horn, however deafening, could rouse the asphalt bump and make it scatter to the edge like a chicken along with everything else.

But amidst it all, in the urban chaos or pastoral calm, the people of Bangladesh spurred our runners on with a well-known gesture: the "thumbs up". At first, Chris was using it as a game to distract him from the heat during their 64 km stretch from Gopalganj Junction to the Mawa ferry. He figured he would give an exuberant thumbs up to all passersby and see how many returned the gesture. We were surprised to find, however, that many offered the gesture unsolicited.

According to Wikipedia, perhaps the first use of the gesture was in Roman times to determine the fate of a gladiator: up meant live, down meant die. Now it can mean different things in different countries (not always positive); it's also the name of the best-selling cola of India (without the "b"). But my point here is that it is certainly not of Bangladeshi origin. As the signal of exuberant affirmation we know it to be, it must be originally a Western thing. But these past two days it seemed to be thriving in a foreign land. In terms of the Bangla-Dash, it's interesting to think what the thumbs-uppers might have meant by it. "Exercising is good for you--keep it up!" or "Wow, you're white as a cloud, tall as a palm, and as fit as an ox: you are looking very beautiful!" or, as we heard several times, "It so good to see you!" Regardless of exact meaning, it was a familiar gesture in an unfamiliar land that spurred our runners on toward their goal.
Marc crosses a canal covered with water hyacinth.

The water hyacinth we saw blooming by the thousands in light lavender across western Bangladesh is another non-native--a foreigner that happens to thrive. A tourist guide on the Meghna River once told me that they are an invasive plant from Latin America that was first introduced when a powerful woman in colonial times thought they were pretty and had them brought to northern India. Now, though beautiful, they are ubiquitous and a nuisance to the native species and agriculture of Bangladesh. As negative as they might be, the people of Bangladesh know how to use them for their benefit. They dry the long tangled fibers in the sun and use it for fire fodder. On the rivers they corral it with bamboo fencing to form shade where fish like to gather and are easier to catch. The hyacinth is foreign, but no one would ever know it. Just like the thumbs up.

I'm not sure how the thumbs up gesture reached Bangladesh, but things like this evolve and spread silently, almost secretly it seems, over long periods of time and then, almost suddenly, we notice that they just are. I don't know who dropped the first hyacinth stem into a river in India, and I don't know how the thumbs up went from "Live, you valiant gladiator!" in Rome to "Go, you crazy white men running through our country!" in Bangladesh. I do know that big things start in small, very specific times and places. So from discrete, impoverished corners of Bangladesh, quality education can spread quietly and steadily across generations for the betterment of our entire world... Chris and Marc have completed the run and over $20,000 has been generously given, but now it's time for what might be the more difficult work: converting money, passion, commitment, and goodwill into something tangible. But for now, let's give these extremely non-native looking men (and Mofiz, The Man) a hearty thumbs up.

Memorable quotes from the last two days:

Chris (in the predawn): "Is that a child or a monkey or a dog?"

Marc: "You feel the van approach. You think it must be time. And then you just wait. Wait for the sound of the sliding van door opening. The pop of the latch and then the smooth sliding sound. It's like opening a beer can--and just as welcoming."

Chris at the finish, staring into the black murk of the Buriganga: "Hey Marc, I'll give you $20,000 if you jump into that right now."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 2 - A Rainbow Without Rain

Today was a struggle through the 39-degree heat. But our heroes pounded out the 58 kilometers from Jessore to Gopalganj Junction with great perseverance. They did this accompanied by a rainbow, but not the kind that typically signifies hope and renewal. I'm referring to Chris's pee. He spent several moments throughout the day hidden in bamboo groves with his back turned to the road painfully squeezing out droplets of liquid that he ominously described as "increasing in darkness". With this painful gradient of color trapped inside Chris, we held our breath in hopeful anticipation every time he ducked into the roadside greenery. After what Chris describes as the only remedy--"fillin' it up and flushin' it out"--he finally came out with the "all clear". So that was certainly the quote of the day: "It's all clear! Chris gave us the all clear!" Never has a disappearing rainbow held a promise of such hope...

Perhaps the one who suffered most (or at least equally) was Chris's stalwart and empathetic partner. His growing consternation was touching to watch. Later, when all was indeed clear and the runners had reached the small river ferry at Kalna knowing there were only 4k to go on the other side, Marc demonstrated his relief and affection: at the end of the ferry dock, and soaring over surprisingly clean waters, the couple reenacted the iconic scene from Titanic--Chris in Kate's position and Marc in Leo's. Despite the oppressive midday heat, I swore I saw a rainbow spanning the river...

(Full album of the day available on the facebook page.)

Day 1 - Kolkata to Jessore - (Of Action Movie Heroes and Paradox)

If I were to inflate our two heroes to cinematic proportions, I would say that they fought off Maoist rebels all the way from Kolkata to the border. And they managed this with their amazing karate skills. But cinematic heroism has already been lambasted in the previous post, so I'll give you the less sensational truth: Well-intentioned relatives of Chris and Sheila were worried in light of the recent kidnapping of Italian tourists by Maoists in West Bengal, so a well-connected relative arranged for a special escort to the border. The runners would, in this way, have a hassle-free passage all the way to Bangladesh. Except for one small hassle: they were not allowed to run until about five kilometers from the border. Despite this minor setback, the escort, five members of the West Bengal Olympic Committee, did stop so some appreciative village school children could adorn our heroes with garlands of flowers; they did help our heroes get through passport control; and,in the end, the Maoists simply didn't stand a chance. They were too cowardly to even show up. As for the karate? Well, that came as the "dialogue of the day":

 "Where do you live?"
"Your job?"
-Sport teacher.
"You teach karate?"
-No, just water karate.
"I like karate very much...You teach karate?"
-No, just water karate.
Contemplative pause, then direct eye contact:
"You are looking very beautiful."

 Indeed. They were looking very beautiful. Authentically--unlike movie heroes. And that's where paradox comes in: real heroes are usually very normal people...

Bangladesh is full of paradoxical scenes too. We saw one on the way to meet Marc and Chris at the border. Beneath the flaming red beauty of a newly blooming flamboyant tree, a three-wheeled minibus had somehow toppled over onto an elderly bicyclist. Several passengers frantically leapt out of the upturned side. They rushed around to try to lift the small vehicle back upright. I could see the feet of the trapped man just sticking out. As the ghastly scene faded in the rear-view mirror, I saw the minibus back on its wheels, the old man lying on the asphalt holding his head, and the beautiful red-blossomed tree above it all.

So as Marc and Chris ran today (and they did well in the heat, verdant countryside, and intermittent chaos), they were trying to rectify another paradox: that amidst the simple and beautiful contentment represented in the faces of Bangladeshi children, there is an unsettling need for quality education that, as they grow up, could save them from a life of poverty.

At one point, a group of boys, shirtless and shoeless, began to run behind Marc. They kept it up for nearly a kilometer--for the pure joy of it. I reached out the window of the van and squeezed the shoulder of the nearest boy. "Wow, you're strong," I said. You should have seen how he straightened up, puffed out his chest, and tightened his technique, making his hands rigid to cut through the hot breeze with each stride... It's for boys and girls like him that Chris and Marc are running.

(Please visit the facebook page for full photo album of Day 1)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Diesel, Cena, Hesse, Favre - I Need a Hero

I'm sitting at the Dutch Club in Gulshan 2, Dhaka, Bangladesh, trying very hard not to watch a Vin Diesel movie that's playing on the flat screen hung in the corner of the cabana. Vin Diesel amazes me--I mean, that he is famous, amazes me. That he might even be considered some sort of archetype for a hero in our society amazes me. I guess I'm a bit disturbed by whom we make our heroes and that true heroism gets left by the wayside. I've seen in my various travels the near world-wide worship of people like Diesel and, say, John Cena, so this philosophical query in an international context is not new to me. But it is new for me here in Dhaka. And it joins a tormented host of many others. Living here as an expat, one's conscience suffers daily from philosophical attacks of moral consequence (like the fact that I, and not millions of others, have the privilege of sipping a cappuccino in this club--this bastion of wealth and calm--surrounded by the chaos and squalor that is Dhaka). But this new question of heroism prompted by the low grade action film before me (that's annoyingly tempting to watch) deserves some attention at the moment.

Right now, two young men--men who are Dhaka-dwellers, friends, husbands, fathers, educators, runners--are arriving in Kolkata, India, and preparing to run back to Dhaka starting tomorrow morning: a distance of 291 km covered in four days. They are doing this to raise money for the education of underprivileged children in Bangladesh. Knowing them as running partners (and from my most objective journalist's perspective), I think this "Bangla-Dash" is simply an attempt, albeit a valiant one, to attribute some sort of deeper meaning to their addiction to the masochism of long distance running. But knowing them as friends and colleagues (my more subjective perspective), I believe this is a cause that represents some of the qualities of true heroism.

One definition of a hero might be someone who does something courageous for the good of others. The courage (stupidity?) of running 291 km in the oppressive heat and humidity of Bengal is indisputable; the good done for others is perhaps the most valuable kind: better education for young people in an underdeveloped nation. But I would propose another definition for a hero that Chris Hesse and Marc Favre exemplify: someone who does something when few others will. This is the version of heroism that gets me excited, puts me on a pulpit, really, at the front of the classroom. Living in Dhaka and working as a teacher (a teacher of children from some of the wealthiest and most influential families in the city, I should add), I am confronted not just by the absurdity of the human misery around me. I am confronted daily by the greater absurdity that so many people (especially the most capable) believe that nothing can be done about it. Thus, millions live without basic rights and comforts of existence, while my neighbor in Gulshan owns three SUVs (and two Mercedes in the garage). So it is nothing short of heroic to battle this poisonous misconception--that we are somehow powerless to effect positive change in the individual lives of underprivileged human beings.

Now that Chris and Marc's heroism has been established and speaking of potential powerlessness, it must be said that this act of heroism will be nothing if money is not given to the cause. It's up to us to insure that the Bangla-Dash remains firmly in the category of true heroism and stays far away from the category of "mindless acts of physical prowess" (in the company of Diesel and Cena). We must, therefore, give. But why should one prioritize this giving opportunity? Why should we give money because two ambitious fellows happen to be running a ridiculous amount of kilometers in a place where running ridiculous amounts of kilometers should be banned for the sake of the health of all runners? Well, why do we give in the first place?

 I think we give for the following reasons (in no particular order):

1. For recognition of our generosity
2. To do "our share" (which comes from a conviction that we all have a responsibility to help our human family in some way)
3. Because it seems to be the "right thing" to do
4. Because it benefits us in some tangible way
5. Because we actually love the beneficiary

You will find that, for whatever reasons we choose to give, the Bangla-Dash can validate every one:

1. Our names will scroll on the "Honor Roll" on the Bangla-Dash website, indicating what degree of honor our generosity deserves. 
2. Guess what? We don't have to run 291 km to do our share. All we need (as usual) is a credit card!
3. As teachers, Marc and Chris (and I, for that matter) can testify that providing good education for young people is definitely the "right" way to help the world. This is true on a practical level: education is simply the most fundamental way to sustainably improve people's lives. It is also true, in this case, on a symbolic level: the money raised is going to help children who are often discriminated against in Bangladeshi society due to religion, ethnicity, and other factors. To help these children is to battle the poison of prejudice. Giving to them underscores that they are equal members of our human family. 
4. Indeed we can find a whole list of tangible benefits to giving on the website. But if this is the only reason we give, it begins to call into question the nature of giving. (Still, let's go ahead and give for selfish gain! Especially if an underprivileged child is getting educated in some far off corner of the world that you don't have to go to.)

5. Unless we personally know some of the Bangladeshi children that will benefit from this, the "love reason" is difficult--unless, of course, you've been gifted with an extraordinary degree of empathy...

Let us love, then, the men behind this charity instead. Remember, they are heroes. So let's trust them in their heroism, a heroism that can change children's lives for the better instead of give them a misguided view of manhood. Plus, Chris and Marc are pretty much as fit as Diesel and Cena, far more handsome, and much more down to earth.

Donate and learn all about the Bangla-Dash at http://www.bangla-dash.com/index.php/en/
and http://www.facebook.com/thebangladash
Notice the first two "heroes". Where are the gleeful children, jumping at the chance for a better education? I'll tell you where they are: behind television screens being brainwashed by misguided dreams and twisted versions of manhood. My loyalty lies with the true heroes: the second two.