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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.

What Would Sachs Say? The Cyclone Tragedy and Poverty

ND Forum - Sachs

“You can see children dying before your eyes. What conceivable justification could there be for this?”

I heard Dr. Jeffrey Sachs say this during his speech at the Notre Dame Forum back in 2006. Those words ran through my head as I walked among the freshly buried graves from deaths caused by Cyclone Sidr. In his speech, he was referring to about deaths caused by malaria – an easily preventable, easily treatable disease. But these words seemed equally applicable to the situation I was in as well. Although I didn’t realize it by watching the news reports, after coming to the disaster area, it seemed quite obvious as to why some people died and others were able to survive.

In fact, it’s so simple even a child could have figured it out.

“Cyclone Shelters” are basically multi-story buildings made with something a bit more sturdy than mud and straw. They can be made of brick, steel and/or concrete. “Going to a cyclone shelter” is just basically going to a one or two-story school. These were the only kind of buildings that survived the wrath of the cyclone. My basecamp, a school turned into a disaster shelter, was across the street from a little cottage-like home. This home, like the shelther, was made with concrete and bricks. And like the shelther, the house stayed intact while all the straw houses and huts around it were wiped out. The solution to saving lives in Bangladesh is as simple as the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. If you have a house made of brick, a cyclone can huff and puff – but it won’t blow your house down.

If it’s this simple, why didn’t anyone else come to the same conclusion? Well, part of the reason is that we live in a 30-second news spot culture. 30-second news spots are great – perfect in fact – for very quickly providing sound bites and flashy images. You mention a death toll, show some destroyed homes, cut to a crying person, and then call it a wrap. But, there is so much more to this tragedy than just that. If people spent more time examining it, they would have a better understanding. That’s what I’m trying to do here by sharing my experiences. Because, showing photos of devastation caused by a cyclone – followed by pleas for donations – is the easy answer to this problem. What happens when the next cyclone comes? And the one after that? And after that?

I’m going to get preachy here for a second and say this: if people in my generation want to make an impact in this world, and leave the world in a better condition than what it was when we inherited it – we have to look at things and examine them for more than 30 seconds. The world would be a better place if we, instead of trying to help people recover from their loss, we tried to help them prevent a loss in the first place. Something as simple as raising the standard of living for the poorest of the poor – so that their homes could be made out of brick instead of mud – could save countless lives. But that’s the harder answer – because it involves more than just making a small donation. It involves more than just looking at something in the news for 30 seconds. It involves actually examining it, thinking about it, and taking action.

Caring for people our the world doesn’t mean your socialist, or communist, or against people taking care of themselves. In fact, caring for the suffering of others can be in our own self-interest. As I was walking in the cyclone disaster area, I remembered how Dr. Sachs finished that part of his speech:

“We have to understand the problem, and we have to solve it. We have to understand that it is urgent, because our own survival is going to depend on it as well. You can’t leave millions of people to die and believe you’re safe. You can’t believe we’re fighting terrorism if we’re neglecting life by the millions. It’s impossible.”

Cyclone Sidr Deaths Now Exceed Sept 11 Attacks

“We really got to make sure that we educate – not just the [local] people, but also ourselves,” explained Nick Downie. Downie, a British national, had come as Operations Co-ordinator for an alliance of Save the Children charities from around the world to come and help those affected by Cyclone Sidr. I had accompanied Downie for a day, earlier last week, to a remote region of the disaster area that could only be reached by either boat or helicopter.The location for Downie’s plea for education could not have been more imposing. We had just walked for 30 minutes along a path full of make-shift refugee housing and buried bodies. The largest grave we had found had over 13 newly buried bodies – over two-thirds of which were children. In the middle of the interview, I interrupted him. There was a powerful smell that made it almost impossible for me to breath. “Is that smell the dead bodies? Or the dirty water?” I asked…

With the official death toll currently being reported at 3,268 (source: Bloomberg.com), the loss of life caused by Cyclone Sidr already exceeds that of the September 11th attacks. With new bodies being found everyday – a great many of them children – the official death toll is most certainly expected to exceed the total number of coalition causalities caused by the Iraq War. However, despite the ever increasing scale of this tragedy, the plight of Bangladeshis affected by Cyclone Sidr seem to have faded from international headlines.

Although I am reporting from Dhaka, I often rely on British and American news sources for the latest facts and figures. However, finding the latest news on Cyclone Sidr from CNN and BBC is almost impossible. This is strange given that the story is anything but over. During my time in the field, I was fortunate enough to have not stumbled across any dead human bodies. A great many of my colleagues, however, were not so fortunate. Even as late as yesterday night, I was hearing reports of new bodies being found and in need of burial.

Although generous people from around the world are uniting to help donate to disaster relief, aid is still slow in coming. On my trip to the Bagerhat Disaster Area, I had brought 70 blankets which I had paid for with my own money to give away. 30 of which, I brought along with my trip with Nick Downie to this remote region of the disaster area. It turns out, that these 30 blankets were the first aid (of its kind) in this particular region. Whatever sense of accomplishment I felt was overridden by grief. 30 blankets never seemed so little an amount in my life.

“We’re very comfortable back in our homes – whether we’re in London or Toronto,” explained Downie – referring to our respective hometowns. “We just got to do whatever we can,” he added.

One thing is certain – we certainly can do more than just provide a 30 second spot for this news story.

This article has been also posted on NowPublic.com, you can read the same story here.

[Note: My YouTube channel/videos have been nominated in spotlight contest. Votes determine the winner – and I am currently in second place. You can vote for the next three days at PhillyD.tv – there is a poll on the left side of the page.]

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’

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.

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’