Tag Archive for 'Blankets'Page 2 of 2

Uncultured Project Inspires Family – Blows My Mind

“So exactly how many blankets did you buy?” asked my uncle on a phone call shortly after I returned from the disaster area. “About 70” I answer. “Uh huh. And how much did this cost?” he asked. “About 14,000 taka [$204 USD]”. “Uh huh” my uncle replied. The phone call pretty much went like that for a few more minutes. He was asking very probing questions like where I bought these blankets from, how did I take them to the disaster area, and where I got the money to buy these blankets from. I answered them in a matter-of-fact manner. After a few more “uh huhs”, he gave me his best wishes, said goodbye, and hung up.

Little did I know that I was about to be upstaged by my uncle. And the best part is – I love it.

This is the same uncle I called while I was in the disaster area with Nick Downie from Save the Children. After my uncle retired from military service, he went into business for himself and has become somewhat of a successful man in the private sector. Less than 24 hours after this very inquisitive phone call, I find out that he, his youngest son, and his daughter-in-law have organized a self-funded family aid operation of their own. This aid operation blows what I’ve been doing right out of the water.

Whereas, I bought 70 blankets to give away for about $200 USD – my uncle and his family has bought two-thousand blankets for over 500,000 taka. That is over $7,000 USD in blankets. Given the fact that these are “family-sized” blankets (where more than one person will be sharing this blanket – sometimes a whole family of four) – this means that anywhere from two to eight thousand people will be sleeping warmly this winter. In addition, my uncle’s daughter-in-law (do I say cousin-in-law or just cousin?) will be giving out cold hard cash on-site so people in the disaster area can cover any emergency expenses they have. Approximately 10,000 taka (over $140 USD) in cash will be given out in the disaster area.

Now, here’s the crazy part: I am going with them to help distribute all this! I leave tomorrow. I’m leaving my computer behind because a lot of the journey will be via speedboat down rivers. I hope to come back after three days and hopefully will have lots of photos and videos to share.

Once more unto the breach.

Helping Kids with Save the Children

On the third day, I teamed up with Save the Children to try and make a difference in the remote region of the Cyclone Disaster Area. Why am I uploading a video about Day 3 first? Well, this was one of the most profound days of my life. I wanted to share this first. I also wanted to try and have a video that ends on a somewhat positive note. This video features both freshly laid graves and clapping children – so it’s quite a wide gamut of emotions in this episode.

YouTube has a ten-minute limit on its videos, so this is really just a snapshot of what happened that day. Here are some things that I wasn’t able to mention in the video:

  • The first kid you see to receive a blanket lost his mother from the Cyclone.
  • As we approached the coastline, Nick Downie was warning me “careful what you film – we don’t want to anger the military”. I quickly call my uncle (ex-Colonel in the Bangladesh army) asking him what regiment he used to be in – just in case I need to drop his name in the event the military harass us. “Don’t worry,” my uncle replied, “the relationship between Bangladesh and Save the Children is as old as Bangladesh itself – you’ll be fine,”. But then he added, “if you do get into trouble – give me a call,”.
  • We found a lot more graves of small children along the way – I just couldn’t bear to include them all in the video. Some were buried so shallow you could basically see an outline of the body.
  • At one point I ask Nick Downie (Save the Children), “is that smell the dead bodies or the dirty water?”. He replies “a bit of both”. The stench really was that bad. But, I didn’t want to disgust my viewers more than I already had – so I cut that out.
  • I got scratched by a rusty nail along my journey to the abandoned school. I also banged up my ankles a bit as I tripped in a few spots. The paths were far more treacherous than they look on camera.
  • Some of the most dangerous paths to the abandoned school couldn’t be filmed – like walking on a stick of bamboo over a pond. Bamboo is officially miracle wood in my books. Anything that can support my weight with just a stick has to be magical.

The worst was when I was distributing the blankets. I know that should be the high point – and it does look good on video. But, in reality, my stomach was turning. I only had 30 blankets – and the room must had far more kids than that. For every kid that was happy to get a blanket, I saw another right next to him or her with this anxious look on their face. It’s the kind of look that says “Will I get one? Will I be called next?”. It killed me. After all my 30 blankets had been assigned for distribution, a little girl came up to me and asked in Bengali “Can I have a blanket too?”. I can’t even type that without chocking up.

Click the jump for some photos that supplement this latest episode. Continue reading ‘Helping Kids with Save the Children’

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.)

Broken BRAC – How an Aid Mission Got Scrapped at the Last Minute (Literally)

“We’ll send the car to return the blankets,” explained the BRAC manager over the phone. I wanted to reply but no words were coming out of my mouth. It was 4:50 pm – I was ten minutes from stepping into a car to go to the BRAC headquarters. From there, I was to board a plane and head to Bagarat where I would document the situation first and distribute the 70 blankets which BRAC had already taken from me earlier today. Turns out, it wasn’t to be.

This actually isn’t the first time I have been let down by the BRAC – the world’s largest Non-Government Organization. It’s a highly prestigious organization recognized around the world and honored by both awards from the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and countless other important figures and heads of state. This particular mission was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. After exchanging emails with Annie from BRAC’s official blog on Blogspot, I was put in touch with a well-intentioned and kind-hearted Communications Manager from the Public Affairs department.

She proposed a quick one day, one night trip to Bagarat – one of the areas worst affected by Cyclone Sidr. I was to go (with her) to document the situation and do some good. This is where the distribution of my 70 purchased blankets came in. The plan was for me to supervise and select who gets these blankets in a manner that is discrete and doesn’t cause a deluge of people rushing to get items (things are that desperate in Bagarat that a riot for items can break out at any moment).

After agreeing to the project on yesterday afternoon, I got an SMS from the manager that very evening (after buying some supplies for the trip) saying it was canceled. I was sad but these things happen. This was followed by another call later that evening saying that the trip had been resumed and I could still go if I wanted to. I desperately spent the night packing and preparing – I didn’t get any sleep, but I didn’t care – I wanted to help. BRAC made arrangements to send a car and pickup my blankets the following day (which was the only thing they did on time and on schedule). I was to arrive on location a later that evening by plane (ticket to be fully paid by me – no mooching off of BRAC). It was here that the plan fell apart.

You see, because the world’s biggest NGO, the most prestigious institution in Bangladesh, the most decorated charity in the country – forgot to reserve the tickets. With less than two hours to take-off, I got a call from the BRAC Communications Manager explaining to me that there were no more tickets available today. Or the next day. Or the day after that. Or the day after that one. The mission was canceled. The funny thing is, having had such a bumpy start, I made a point to confirm every few hours throughout the day. “Did you want me to come at 5:45 pm or 6:45 pm?” I asked just a few hours ago. “We need you here by six – because we already have your ticket, and we leave at 6:30” explained the Communications Manager. “Good thing I called to confirm,” I said sheepishly. Turns out “confirming” works differently in Bangladesh.

I now wait to see if I can find a way to properly distribute my 70 blankets some other way. At this point, I’m not even sure if I will get them back. Due to my desire not to have anyone lose their jobs at BRAC, let me just say that this isn’ t the first time I’ve given items to BRAC for a joint distribution – only to have the distribution scrapped at the 11th hour and the items not returned.

It’s not just me that they’ve left out in the cold today. There are 200 to 280 people that will suffer because of this. At a time with so much death, Bangladesh deserves better than the performance I’ve seen from this institution.

Helping the Cyclone Victims – “If Only I Could” turns into “Finally I Have”

Where would I be if I wasn’t here? There is no where else I would want to be than right here, right now. Too often I’ve witnessed tragedies unfold over the TV screen. Witnessed people who are too poor to fend for themselves die and suffer. I would often curse myself under my breath – “if only” I would say. “If only” I had been there – I could have done something. “If only” I could save just one life – it would be worth it. No more do I have to say “if only”. Now I can say “finally”.

For better or worse I’ve been given a chance to make a difference. That difference starts today. Just minutes a ago a BRAC jeep (BRAC stands for the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee – the world’s largest Non-Government Organization) came and picked up 70 blankets to go to Bagarat (near or in Khulna). “How did you get so many blankets so quickly?” a BRAC director asked me. “I bought them to give away in the first place – I just never expected to have to give them like this” I explained.

70 blankets seems like a lot – but at the same time isn’t.

Uncultured Project - Aid to Bagarat

But, the way I see it – most poor families (even before the Cyclone hit) sleep in the same bed. So, 70 blankets translates to 70 families (and these blankets are big enough for that). So that translates to about 200 to 280 people. That means someone is going to be warm this winter and it cost me me less than a buck a person. Even the iPhone can’t compete for that kind of value (and I’m a huge mac geek).

Just how much 70 blankets actually is dawned upon me when BRAC came to pickup the blankets. They came with an empty jeep – but they still had to stuff them all inside…

BRAC Employee Loads Uncultured Project Blankets for Transport

Here’s a shot of after they managed to squeeze all the blankets in:

All The Blankets Loaded in the BRAC Jeep

The round white tanks are the CNG tanks – the fuel alternative I told you about in an earlier post.

I’m just hours away to the worst affected region in Bangladesh. My aunt warned me that things are so bad there the smell of death is still there. Thanks auntie, that makes me real comfortable going now…

P.S. – For the life of me, I have no idea what magic it takes to make a popular YouTube video. I’m not asking for crying about Britney Spears with a towel on your head popular (that video almost at 13 million views now by the way), but I was hoping my latest video about Dhaka after the Cyclone had featured-on-YouTube-frontpage potential. But it is starting too look like this video will be my lowest viewed video yet. I’m not worried though – especially on a day like today. I now have 200 to 280 more reasons to be thankful I’m here.

The Uncultured Project – Diaster Relief Items

I came to Bangladesh with no training and no aid or development experience. My only real assets are my enthusiasm and my compulsion to try and make a difference. Here’s where things are for me now: I have things to give away, but am trying to find a way to get them to those who need it the most:
Uncultured Project Cyclone Relief

  • A) LifeStraws – portable water purification straws capable of filtering deadly bacteria from any surface water source. Estimated lifetime: 1 year on average use. Number of items: 45 (used to be 50). Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.
  • B) ZeroFly – long-lasting insecticide treated sheets. Can be used as roofing for low income housing. It is water proof and it’s insecticide is the same used in insecticide treated mosquito nets (safe for humans). If a mosquito comes into contact with the roof – it will die. Helps protect against malaria during the night and Dengue Fever during the day. Estimated lifetime: 2 years for the insecticide, but the sheets themselves remain waterproof forever. Number of items: 25. Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.
  • C) Blankets – locally made, locally purchased. I count that as a two-fold impact because the money goes into the local economy. Number of items: 70. The cost to me was 14,000 taka or over $200 USD.
  • D) Water Bottles – ever since I met “Mo” (featured in Episode Three of my YouTube videos), I now know the importance of water bottles in this country. Especially now, water bottles can be used to store purified or boiled water. It can also be given in bulk to an individual because – for many industrious people like Mo – these items are as good as cash.

Not visible but also part of my equipment to give away:

  • Two hand-cranked LED-based flashlights – brought from Canada.
  • One remaining long-lasting, insecticide treated mosquito net. Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.

I tried distributing items myself and that really only works out when you know the people in the area and can get to an area yourself. When I distributed 50 mosquito nets, I was shocked and angered to find that some rich people (i.e. they own a car, a brick house, and even have servants) came and pretended to be poor to get a free net! They essentially robbed from the poor to help themselves. I only found out a month or so later – when a resident familiar with the area was looking over my footage. Even I gave out water bottles during the floods – I was kind of sad that the 4×4 I was in couldn’t head deeper into the flood zone.

I really do need to partner with an NGO of some kind to make a meaningful difference. The problem is most NGOs laugh when they are talking about such low quantities. “Fifty water purification straws? Ha!” “70 blankets? LOL.” has been pretty much the reaction I have been getting. I know NGOs deal in massive quantities – but the way I see it, these 50 items could save fifty lives and 70 blankets could keep 70 families warm. I’m not capable of saving lives in bulk. But so far, finding a like-minded NGO has been hard – although I am still making inquiries. But I definitely feel the clock ticking on this one.