Bangladesh Message: ‘Look Again’

Grant proposal writing isn’t the most blog-worthy of subjects, but when desk-jockeying on the other side of the world, it takes on its own charms. Working with my laptop on the veranda of the inn where I am staying, there are countless distractions from my “strategic objectives and “monitoring and evaluation plans.” Merchants stroll along the streets below, calling out their presence as they hawk their wares. First a man goes by with what looks like a basket of newspapers on his head, then a rickshaw full of rugs drives by, then most surprisingly, a man walks by calling out “Come get your chickens!” in Bangla. He’s holding a bundle of chickens upside-down by their feet. Alive and flapping, it’s literally a hen bouquet.

Bangladesh rickshaw

A colorful rickshaw brightens up the streets of Dhaka, a city of 12 million people and the capital of Bangladesh. Photo by Kathleen Merkel/CRS

The message I keep receiving throughout this trip is “look again.” Poverty is everywhere. A simple ride down the street brings tears to your eyes as people approach at every stop calling out, “ma-DAM, ma-DAM” in pleading tones. They are rail-thin, some severely handicapped, many small children. My standard of living, though not extravagant, is immeasurably, unimaginably higher than those I work to serve, and it gives me such an unsettling feeling of equal parts guilt and gratitude. I speak for myself, though I can only suppose most of my contemporaries feel the same. Not knowing what to do, I vow to look each person in the eye – all I can think to do to acknowledge our bond as human beings.

Despite its plight, Bangladesh is bursting with life. Perhaps it took a few days of getting accustomed to the sensory overload before I could look again, and see a little deeper into its history and rich, resilient culture. During dinner conversation over a delectable dish of mutton Biryani (goat meat cooked in rice), my colleagues, both now Dhaka residents, reminded me that Bangladesh has only been an independent country since 1971. The struggle for independence is a brave and terribly bloody history, which holds a sacred place in the hearts of Bangladeshis. The particularly touching struggle that my guidebook didn’t mention is “Language Martyrs Day,” when in 1952 civilians in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) were killed by police as they stood up for their right to speak the Bengali language instead of the Urdu that was imposed on them. I’m told that books, language and Bengali holidays are celebrated here with a joie de vivre that is hard to find in other parts of the world. Judging from the vibrancy and surprising openness of the people I’ve met here, I can only imagine this is true.

Bangladesh workers

Snigdha Chakraborty, CRS Country Manager, Bangladesh, with Pintu, a shelter expert for Caritas Bangladesh, outside the Caritas Bangladesh office in Dhaka. Photo by Photo by Kathleen Merkel/CRS

If all goes as planned, tomorrow we head to the field to visit the Caritas Bangladesh regional office in Barisal. Here I will get a chance (a rare chance for me) to look again at a project that, months ago, I played a small part in bringing to fruition. In the time since winning a grant to help families re-build livelihoods in the wake of the 2007 Super-cyclone Sidr, I haven’t been able to witness all of the planning and preparation that is going on to implement the recovery activities. I’ll get to see the other side of the story and observe first hand that my small paper-pushing piece of the puzzle contributes to a great deal of good work being done by field staff who spend their days providing tools people need to re-build their lives. Not only will the journey through rural Bangladesh unveil for me a whole new perspective on this resilient country, but will also shed new light on how the work that we do back home reaches from Baltimore to Barisal… and beyond.

– Kathleen Merkel, CRS public resource specialist, Asia

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2 Responses to “Bangladesh Message: ‘Look Again’”

  1. Melissa Leger Says:

    Kathleen – the world is a better place with people like you. Thank you for all you are doing and for sharing it with us. It’s a great reminder to always be thankful for everything we have and realize just how fortunate we are! I look forward to more posts.


  2. Hiralal Roy Says:

    The GOD has created the beautiful World for all the men in the world. Everyone can enjoy the beauty of the world but why someone cannot think to enjoy the beauty of the world. Is it GOD created or any others? All the beauty celebrate you and wish to your best success.

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