Monthly Archive for November, 2007

Recovering from the Field

I came back from the field with two things: 1) a fever, and 2) a better understanding of the kind of suffering that people in the disaster area are facing.

I was in the field for only three days and was using hand sanitizer every 30 minutes. Yet, despite that, I ended up getting some sort of respiratory bug that has left me coughing a lot, with a bit of a fever, and pretty weak. This gets me thinking – if I had it this bad after three days - imagine living there.

I’m recovering pretty quickly – but that’s because I have luxuries that those over there don’t. I can get rest, can have plenty of fluids, and take regular showers and have Tylenol to keep my fever down. These are luxuries that most in the disaster area don’t have.

One thing I remember I distinctly remember was the intense heat. I had spent my last day in the disaster area with Save the Children where we examined remote areas where aid had not completely arrived. The cyclone had destroyed any roads that could have been used to get there. Now, you could only get there by boat or by foot. The only clean water for miles was the water bottles we carried from basecamp.

There were rows of graves right next to rows of make shift homes. Children all over the place. Many of them, no doubt, probably caught the same bug I did (or caught something worse). But, most of them won’t have any Tylenol for their fever, clean water to rehydrate, and definitely no place to shower to clean up.

Apologies if I have been reticent with this blog in recent days. I hope to be up to speed again in a few days time. Been trying to get a lot of rest since coming back.

Back from Disaster Area…

I don’t want to talk about what I saw now – at least not yet. That’s why I didn’t write a Day 3 entry. There are things I’ve never seen (and smelled) before.

I’m also in a bit of shock still I guess. But, not all of it was disaster related – some of it was just junk that went on there that ruffled my feathers a bit too much.

Anyways I’m here, safe, and cleaned up. And being able to actually see my own reflection in a mirror is nice. We didn’t have wall mirrors in basecamp.

Disaster Area – Day 2: Life at Basecamp and the Beginning of Donations

Overwhelmed and burnt out – that’s all I can say about this. Everywhere I look I see destroyed homes and destroyed lives.

I interview a girl today – she lost her mom to the storm. She spoke of it like I was asking her for her mailing address – no emotion. I spoke to a father today. He told me how he tried to clutch his little child to his chest during the floods that came with the cyclone – but his grip slipped. He doesn’t even have a body to bury – he lost her. Just like the girl without a mom, this father who lost a child had no tears. Just shock. No emotion. I don’t need to be told what that feels like – I’m feeling that now.

I also feel helpless. I gave 30 blankets in an aid mission today. 30 wasn’t enough. We had come to a small spot along a river and pulled up. There were more people than blankets to give away – when we tried to leave, people stormed the boat and jumped onto it. 30 blankets is not enough for an aid mission of course. We had given tons of food, rice, and water along with it (supplied by Muslim Aid and Global Medic). But, no matter how much we have – it’s never enough. Never.

I have a lot of footage and photos today – but Rahul (the guy you don’t mess with) ordered lights out in 5 minutes. Gotta run. Gotta rest.

(Disclaimer: Tagging along with Global Medic and Muslim Aid in no way implies support or endorsement of The Uncultured Project, me, or my views. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect Global Medic, The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, Muslim Aid, or any other NGO or charity. I am not under the employment or contract of any of these organizations.)

Disaster Area – Day 1: The Drive In

“Why are they waving at the car?” I naively asked the driver who was taking me to basecamp in Bagarat. “Their homes have been destroyed – they are asking us to stop and help,” the driver somberly replied. It was then that it sank in – I was in a disaster area. The tipping point for me – the point when shock turned to tears, was when we drove by a school. The school kids yelled – in English – “STOP! STOP! STOP!”. But we just kept driving – even if we could have helped them, we would have been mobbed if we stopped.

I also never expected to have trouble taking photographs. For the first time, I was no longer greeted with inquisitive and happy looks. I was snarled at – one person even hissed. “Don’t take my photo!” one yelled. “Don’t take photos – give us something instead!”, “You only come to take photos – not to help”….

Here are some of the few photos I managed to take today – after the jump. Continue reading ‘Disaster Area – Day 1: The Drive In’

The Harm of Professional Beggars

“Yeah, that’s right – go to your bed and sleep!” yelled the girl in Bengali. “Please go,” I pleaded with her in Bengali. She just cackled and started repeating what I was saying in a mocking tone. “Please go! Please go! Please go!”.

The girl was a professional beggar. But more importantly – she was a sort of a pimp. Although she was probably no more than 15 years old, she was in charge of a lot of other younger professional beggars (ranging from 5 to 8 years old). She was called in as reinforcement because the younger beggars – small children – weren’t getting any money from me and my friend from Global Medic who was accompanying me while shopping for supplies.

What I have learned since coming to Bangladesh is that the honest-to-goodness truly poor people in this country are the ones that are the quietest. They struggle in silence – trying to earn a living anyway they can. My photoblog of the urban poor of Dhaka is a great example of this. A lot of them live on the streets but don’t ask for a penny. Even when I was taking photos right next to them – I wasn’t asked to give a dime. The ones who do ask, are almost always professional beggars.

Professional begging is entrenched in every city in Bangladesh – and crowds out any real “legitimate” beggar. If a boss sees someone on their street corner they don’t know – that person is in for some serious trouble (unless they give a cut). In many ways, professional begging in Bangladesh is a lot like prostitution. Most of a prostitute’s money goes to the pimp. The prostitute may in fact see little or no money. The same is true for professional beggars. Giving them money just gives money to the boss. Most bosses can live quite handsomely. While people like Mo (who I featured in episode three) earn about $2 a day – a boss can earn several times that in a day.

This is especially true for bosses who have beggars stationed near hotels that frequently cater to tourists. Which is why I avoided giving these little kids any money. They were not much older than 5 or 6 years old, but they had all the tell-tale signs of being trained as professional beggars. First, there is always a kid stationed to the entrance of the hotel – they take shifts. Each kid is offering the same thing: to sell you a newspaper. Except it wasn’t really a newspaper – just a single page of an old worn out newspaper. By offering to sell something, even if its worthless, it makes it technically harder for police to clamp down on professional begging.

Professional beggars also follow a pattern. First they try a quietly follow you and ask you to buy whatever they are holding. If you don’t give them anything – they become louder and make it clear they won’t stop following. They then suggest that, if you give them some cash, they’ll leave you to your own business. If you still don’t give them any money – they call their friends. I had only been out with my friend shopping for supplies for an hour when we had assembled a small entourage of beggars. After it was clear we weren’t going to give anything – they called in the boss.

This 15 year old girl may not have even been the top boss . She had come in as a last resort to try and ratchet up the pressure. This is when the heckling started. “Yeah, go to your bed and sleep!” she would yell sarcastically as we made the last few steps to the hotel. The implication being that while we had a bed to sleep on – they didn’t. If professional beggars can’t appeal to your charity, they will try and appeal to your guilt. I turned once more – for like the 15th time – and pleaded for them to leave. This is when they started mocking and yelling at us. No longer was this about selling something or paying to not be harassed – this was about making things as hard as possible so that next time we won’t be so stubborn. Hotel security actually had to hold them back.

Clearly she got her point across more than I had thought – here I am at 3:30 am and unable to sleep, just thinking about those professional beggars….

So why didn’t I just toss them some money and be done with it? The world needs more charitable people – but if poverty is to be eliminated, it’s also going to need people who want to work to earn a living. If professional begging is ever going to be eliminated – than people with money must learn to honor the value of honest work. Rich people – both foreigners and rich locals – should stop supporting professional beggars even if they are only paying these beggars in order to stop being harassed.

Instead, we should support the locals that are industriousness enough to try and earn a living. Which is exactly what this friend and I did. We decided to go to the smallest hole-in-the-wall store to buy some biscuits. The store clerk probably over-charged us because we were foreigners – but we didn’t care. We also bought some sandals for 45 taka. Now anyone familiar with stores here will know that was gross overpricing. I didn’t haggle and instead – gave him 50 taka and told the clerk to keep the change. He was so ecstatic, he went to tell a neighbor about this as soon as we left the store.

A professional beggar such as those kids, probably would not have stopped bothering us unless we gave 100 taka or more. What kind of message would I have sent if I haggled with a hard working shopkeeper to save a few bucks, while at the same time giving so much to some kids trained to professionally beg for their boss?

(Disclaimer: Tagging along with Global Medic and Muslim Aid in no way implies support or endorsement of The Uncultured Project, me, or my views. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect Global Medic, The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, Muslim Aid, or any other NGO or charity. I am not under the employment or contract of any of these organizations.)

Food Poisoning Stalls Journey to Disaster Area

“Are you sick?” asks Rahul Singh – an EMS first responder and fellow Canadian from my hometown of Toronto. He came to Bangladesh to try and help the victims of Cyclone Sidr as part of an NGO he runs called Global Medic. Rahul is a big guy – but he isn’t as big as the presence he is able to command. You don’t mess around with this guy – even over the phone. If it was anyone else, I might have lied – but not with Rahul. “Yes I am,” I explained. I then quickly added “I’m sure it’s nothing and I’ll be fine by the time we get there,”. That wasn’t good enough for Rahul. I’m stuck in a hotel just a short drive to the disaster area – alone.

In hindsight, he was probably right. I had come to the hotel from Dhaka by midnight – after a long 7 hour trip. I hadn’t slept and I was hungry. The only thing to eat at this late hour was some food the Global Medic and Muslim Aid team had saved for me and my travel companions (who were employees from Muslim Aid). It was cold but it looked safe. I mean, the hotel we were staying at is impressively modern. Cable TV, room service, modern bathroom with all the trimmings – you could hardly tell you were in rural Bangladesh. The food poisoning, however, was a cold reminder that looks can be deceiving. I spent the entire night – the entire night – throwing up.

….. Looking back at that last sentence, that was probably as delicately as I could have worded it.

Even though I was sick – I wanted to go. If only because I wanted to correct a mistake. I met Rahul once before – months ago, very early into this trip. Before I was blogging in fact. There was a devastating flood that hit Bangladesh and I was here for that. My dad, back in Canada, had seen a news story about this Canadian NGO going to Bangladesh and told me about it. I looked them up and was ecstatic to hear that they wouldn’t mind me tagging along. My grandmother, mother, aunt, and uncle – however, were anything but ecstatic. My parents had been very supportive of this whole project. Not many parents would be cool with helping to fund a trip around the world for (well, for all intents and purposes) an unemployed former grad student. So, when they wanted to veto something – I conceded.

I quickly came to regret that decision. My own efforts at independent aid were nothing like I had hoped for. The best I could do was provide two crates of water bottles to a flood affected region within the city – hardly the big difference I wanted to make. While I would have preferred that something like Cyclone Sidr never would happen – when it did, I didn’t want to repeat my mistake. “70 blankets can save 70 lives” said my dad to me over the phone. It had been a couple of months since the flood – and this time my parents attitude was somewhat different. This time, both he and I agreed going to Global Medic and Muslim Aid was an OK if not-without-risk idea. And 70 blankets is far more useful than 2 crates of mineral water to about 2 dozen people.

But, I guess what they say is true – nothing worthwhile is without risk. So, here I am – all puked out with my tummy still hurting. I’m so close… yet so far away from making a difference in the lives of the Cyclone victims.

(Disclaimer: Tagging along with Global Medic and Muslim Aid in no way implies support or endorsement of The Uncultured Project, me, or my views. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect Global Medic, The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, Muslim Aid, or any other NGO or charity. I am not under the employment or contract of any of these organizations.)

Cyclone Sidr – Brings People Together to Help, Risks Becoming Old News

“We need you here in an hour” said my contact at Muslim Aid – one of the charities I mentioned in a previous YouTube episode.

I am in the road as I type. I am heading to Bagarat – one of the areas worst hit when Cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh and killing over 3,000 and leaving countless displaced. Cyclone Sidr may have displaced many people – but it’s also brought a lot of people together. This aid mission includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Atheists coming from places such as Canada, UK and Bangladesh.

Among all this is yours truly. I had little time to prepare – I’ve never showered, brushed my teeth, packed my bags, and ate a meal so quickly in my life. This mission includes a lot of equipment from all around the world. I am proud to say that I was able to get my 70 blankets back from that horribly botched joint distribution with BRAC. The are with me on this car and they they will be going to those who need it.

The toughest part lies ahead. I’ve never been in a situation like this in my life. Then again, many of the victims of this Cyclone are probably saying the same thing. I’m hoping and praying that the world keeps Bangladesh in mind. People in the developed world seem to have a short attention span when it comes to the tragedies elsewhere in the world. This is especially true among college and high school aged students. Much like fashion trends, certain issues fall out of style.

The “trendy” thing back at Notre Dame seems to be helping victims of the cyclone that hit Mexico. It even has a better slogan than the tragedy here: “the Katrina of Mexico” they call it. Never mind that the Cyclone that hit Bangladesh was more powerful than Katrina. But you know what? Tragedies shouldn’t need to be competing for attention. There should be enough compassion and attention for all of them. Just cut the Paris Hilton and Britney Spears coverage by 5% and you can make room for both.

The worst thing that can happen to the victims of Cyclone Sidr right now is for their tragedy to become old news.

(Disclaimer: Tagging along with Global Medic and Muslim Aid in no way implies support or endorsement of The Uncultured Project, me, or my views. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect Global Medic, The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, Muslim Aid, or any other NGO or charity. I am not under the employment or contract of any of these organizations.)