Tag Archive for 'Cyclone Sidr'

This Takes Time

Jason Sadler

Inspired by some recent comments on this blog and tweets, I’d like to talk about the direction I feel this project needs to be going. And it starts with the story of Jason Sadler.

Jason Sadler is an entrepreneur who has successfully used social media to generate fame, attention, and wealth for himself through his business called I Wear Your Shirt. Hoping to use his momentum on social media, Jason decided to form his own non-profit organization.

Jason’s non-profit was about providing free clothes to people in Africa. He called his organization “1 Million Shirts” with the goal of getting people to donate 1 million used shirts which he would then ship to needy families in Africa.

A lot of us donate our gently-used clothing to local good-will. And, when I’m overseas, I often find myself parting with some of my favorite shirts because I find people who could benefit from them more than I could. But, on the scale Jason was aiming to do, this could do more harm than good.

Click the jump to read more…

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Lost in Translation

These past 14 hours have served as an example of one of the many frustrating challenges a project like this faces.

What many non-Bangla speakers sometimes don’t realize, is that there are many variations of Bangla. There is city Bangla, Bangla used by those who emigrated away from Bangladesh, and rural village Bangla. Each one comes with different accents, meanings, and translations.

This can be a lot of trouble when trying to translate words I’ve heard for the first time in rural villages. This was exactly what happened when a local villager tried to explain to Paul that Cyclone Aila had destroyed many “bhitas”:

In many ways, I relate to this villager a lot. I often throw English words into my Bangla when I don’t know what the Bangla equivalent is. And this villager, while explaining the damage caused by Cyclone Aila, had to throw in “bhita” because he didn’t know the English equivalent.

The problem is that there is no direct English translation for “bhita”. And thus began my 14 hour struggle to find a translation.

The first people I turned to were those from the American-Bangladeshi community. This consists of Americans who originally were born and raised in Bangladesh. To my surprise, many of them told me their Bangla was too poor to properly help with any translation. This includes people who still do business in Bangladesh! I was shocked and surprised.

Those in the American-Bangladeshi community that did try and take a stab at translating each came up with different words. One suggested it means “embankment”, another suggested it meant “landscape” or “property”, someone else suggested it meant “home”, finally one of them suggested it meant “mud hut”. How could one word mean so many different things?

Well it turns out they were all wrong… and right at the same time. Click the jump to find out what the word “bhita” means.

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Changing the Conversation: charity: water

In January of 2008, a few months after Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh, I approached a (then) relatively new and unknown charity that specialized in providing clean water to the developing world. I wanted to team up with them and repair a tube well – or perhaps build a new one.

Unfortunately, it was too late. After extensively corresponding with their volunteer coordinator, I learned that they had already left Bangladesh and were currently focusing on the water crisis in the African continent. Although they haven’t come back yet, they told me “Bangladesh is an area dear to us”. The charity? You know them as charity: water.

Even though I wasn’t able to team up with these guys, over the four months I corresponded with that organization (and even their founder Scott Harrison later that year), I was able explain a lot about my project and my philosophy and desire to change the conversation about global poverty – a theme many of you following my work may know quite well. This is an approach charity: water seems to have wholeheartedly embraced.

A few short months after I corresponded with Scott Harrison over Facebook, I noticed that charity: water posted a new video on their YouTube channel. Their new video wasn’t a TV spot or mini-documentary. Instead, it was just Scott.. standing on a roof… vlogging! What impressed me even more was what he was talking about. Taking a page out John Green’s “Nerdfighting in Bangladesh” video, Scott was vlogging about “showing exactly where the money goes”.


Top: charity: water founder Scott Harrison does his first rooftop vlog (2009), Below: I do one of my rooftop vlogs from Bangladesh (2007). This cheap, simple, and no BS approach can really be a great way to connect to people to the fight against global poverty.

That all looks and sounds familiar doesn’t it? 😀 In fact, in a recent interview Viktoria Alexeeva (the Director of Design & Branding of charity: water), basically took the words right out of my mouth by touching on the same themes I’ve been talking about for a while now:

I think one of the worst things a non-profit can do is have the poverty mentality. When it comes to asking people for donations, there are two ways to present the interests of your beneficiaries: the traditional way has been the charity case. We’ve all seen the kids with flies on their faces in bad infomercials at 2 a.m. This approach is just not effective anymore. I think one of the things a non-profit can do to get ahead of the game is present their cause as an opportunity. Which is what it really is! Every day we have the chance to buy a consumer product to satisfy ourselves in some way. It’s not every day that we have the chance to actually help another human being. The non-profit that recognizes its value in such a way will be able to blow their competition out of the water (no pun intended). Who says that charity has to be boring or a chore? I think we’re proof that it can as trendy, cool and satisfying as buying a new iPod. (source)

A good friend of mine once told me that a good idea (like my idea of changing the conversation about global poverty) can spread like a mustard seed caught in the wind. I brushed it off as flattery – but maybe that’s what is happening? Using this personal, interactive, and non-guilt inducing approach, charity: water has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through social media like Twitter, Facebook, & YouTube, increase it’s profile and name recognition around the world, and help hundreds of villages around the world (including Bangladesh).

Hopefully this is just the first of many charities to follow this approach.

[edit: Also congratulations to charity: water for their nomination by The Webby Awards. Both The Uncultured Project & charity: water were honored with this year’s Webby Awards – with charity: water getting nominated for best charity website and Uncultured Project becoming an Official Honoree in the area of Experimental Online Film].

Challenge Poverty (with Save the Children)

The Pond Sand Filter (Save the Children USA)

Choosing has always been the hardest part of this project. I’ve tried my best to share all the emotions I’ve had during this project like the joy of helping children in the Hill-Tracts, or the anguish and sense of powerlessness during Cyclone Sidr disaster relief, or the craziness involved in reaching some remote rural village. With this latest video, I’m sharing the toughest reality of this project: being forced to choose.

With this video, there is no wrong answer – only tough choices.

More after the jump.

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The Importance of Twitter

When I first heard of Twitter, I couldn’t ever imagine myself using it. I already have a blog, so why do I need to go beyond that by posting short messages about what I’m doing at every little moment?

I tended to agree with people who suggested that Twitter is nothing more than “inane twaddle” and more akin to a “glorified messenger service”. But that was before Matt started integrating Twitter into this project.

As Matt explained to me, the internet connection in Uganda is worse than Bangladesh. So, not only is video blogging out of the question, but also even regular blogging is sometimes hard. Each photo he uploads to this site, he told me, takes about half an hour.

That’s how he got involved with Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I’ve been able to keep track of the ups and downs of his micro-finance project to help over 180 Ugandan grandmothers earn an income. When you guys stepped in by offering to help finance his work, we were able to see how he did things every step of the way – practically in real-time.

After being inspired by Matt, I started to use Twitter myself. Sure, sometimes I do talk about inane things, like the new Star Trek movie posters that came out or the difficulties in making a background layout for the YouTube channel. But, I’ve also been able to share important experiences I wouldn’t have blogged about.

As those following me on Twitter know, I recently came back from a trip outside of Dhaka City that involved an overnight boat ride. Although such boats can be safe, there are also a lot of risks. One of the colleagues I went with, in fact, had lost her cellphone after being robbed at the docks.

If it wasn’t for Twitter, I would never have talked about the warning I got from someone reminding me the importance of locking my cabin door and then – after docking – how I had to stay inside the cabin for three extra hours while we waited for the robbers and thugs along the docks to lose interest.

After Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh, I was one of the few (or perhaps the only person) live-blogging during disaster relief work. Most of the personnel in the field (from various NGOs and charities) simply didn’t have time to do much more than send a quick email or SMS a friend. I could very easily see the importance of Twitter in providing quick, accessible, and important information in a situation like that.

The way I see it, Twitter has a lot of potential – maybe even more than blogs itself. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be “inane” stuff on there. For me, my biggest limitation to untapping that potential with Twitter is the equipment I have. I usually have to pull out my MacBook, boot it up, and then use Twitter. The keypad on my old Motorola cellphone isn’t very Twitter-friendly.

With this project, I’m trying my best to make important issues (like global poverty) accessible to a global audience by using blogs and video blogs in a way that no one has before. I can very easily see Twitter adding another dimension to making this issue accessible to others. And all it would take is an iPhone (or other smartphone) and use of the ubiquituous cellular (but slow) internet that is cropping up here in the developing world.

What Was My Emotional High Point?

All this talk about emotional toll has me wondering about what my emotional high points have been during this project. One of them has definitely been being able to make a meaningful difference in the life of one family over an extended period of time.

But, believe it or not, something actually edges that out as my emotional high point.

I actually hadn’t talked about it yet because I’m trying to leave as few spoilers on this site as possible for those who mostly follow my work through YouTube. So, if you want to be surprised when you watch my videos – don’t read the rest of this post. 🙂

It’s after the jump.

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Cyclone Disaster Relief with Save the Children

In the wake of the recent, Cyclone Nargis and the devastation it’s caused in Burma/Myanmar – I’ve been reminded of my time in the Cyclone Sidr Disaster Area. Even though there was so much destruction, there was a lot to be thankful for. There was an early warning system that helped prevent many deaths. While I did encounter many people who lost loved ones – I also was relieved to meet families who heeded the warning and either went to higher ground or to the cities.

I thought I’d share this latest deleted scene from my day with Save the Children from back in November: