Monday, January 9, 2012

The Chars

Woaaaah. What just happened?
Truth is, I only know a little more than everyone else with regards to this question.
As some may alreadyknow, this trip has been a "marathon", as someone eloquently put it. Whether we are sick, or simply and completely exhausted, or really uncomfortable, we have to find a way to keep going, because every minute we learn something that we would otherwise never know. At home, we would call this "Experience Discomfort". I'm speaking my truth here, and accepting nonclosure at every turn. I wish I had adequate words for the things I couldn't post about during my service learning project.
So, let me explain a little.
As a crucial part of this trip, we were expected to travel to a location with a small group and complete a service learning project. This meant that there was not only cultural exchange, but at times, complete immersion. We truly achieved solidarity at times, which was shocking, beautiful, eye-opening, and inspiring.
My host sister Sumaita and I went with a group of about 14 other Bangladeshi and American students to Sirajganj, a farming town outside of Dhaka. The bus trip there was the scariest traffic/bathroom experience I've ever had. (Picture scaling a crumbling hill down to a putrescent squating outhouse, then continuing the next three hours nearly headfirst into oncoming trucks, etc.) We arrived at ARCHES, an education facility in Sirajganj, where we were to stay four nights in tin shacks, three to a room. I lifted my mattress the first night to adjust my mosquito net, and met a cockroach the size of my thumb. We also made friends with two other spiders the size of my hand. (Thank god for the Bangladeshi boys, who happened to be arachnid enthusiasts). Needless to say, our group was uncomfortable the first night or so.
The next morning, we set off at dawn by boat for two hours to a floating silt island called a "char". The chars all along the trip were so picturesque in their pristine nature. The people in the villages on the chars face flooding annually, and every 5-10 years, they face unimaginable hardship when storms completely sink their whole community/livestock/schools in saline water. They must be ready at a moment's notice to move their families. These people are referred to as "climate refugees".
We were not expecting to see such a thriving community, and a truly gorgeous village. They met us on the shoreline with roses and mustard flowers, the US students speaking in broken Bangla, thanking the children for their graciousness. We met the students from a village school, which needed to be prepared for flooding and disaster management. We were to haul baskets of soil from the base of a valley up to the school, and create a mound/platform to raise the school onto. Many of the students had never even done the dishes, so such physical labor was not heavily anticipated, but what changed the minds of many was working alongside 6 and 7 year-old children, who were remarkably strong and patient with us. Without a doubt, the villagers could complete the task in a quarter the time it took the US and Scholastica students, but they treated us as their children, and took us under their wing. We learned, over the next few days, what life is truly like on the chars, and how human beings can be so resiliant and strong, despite the pain of losing everything.
They were the happiest children I'd ever met. Beautiful little faces, filled with curiosity. Everyone used much facial expression and body language on those three days on the chars, due to the language barrier. When the US students needed them, the Bangladeshis would help translate the words of the villagers, who spoke only Bangla. We worked alongside one another, in solidarity.
At the last town meeting, we sat in the square, with the council of disaster planning, and the elders of the char village. We were shocked and moved when he apologized to us for their poverty, especially if they had been substandard hosts as a result of this fact. The reverse, our offending them, was all we had considered previously. We had never known hospitality equal to that of the villagers, neither the US nor the Bangladeshi students.
By the end of our stay at ARCHES, many of us had had extremely emotional realizations. Those who contribute the absolute least to climate change, those who hardly have any carbon footprint at all, are the ones most displaced by it. Cyclones, deadly and becoming more frequent, are the reason why the villagers cannot educate their children past gradeschool, as the need for manual labor is too urgent. While the average American's consumption factor is a whopping 32, the average char villager has a consumption factor of 1. On the boatride back to Sirajganj on Day 2, it became painfully clear to me how enabled and entitled and priveleged I was to not need to worry about my own survival. I cried so hard I stuggled to breathe.
We bonded a lot in the tin shacks. By the end of the trips, we not only knew one another's names, but we also knew a lot about our goals, our aspirations. I will never regret a single moment of the service learning project, no matter how uncomfortable or confusing. Leaning into the discomfort made the entire experience worthwhile. I have never learned so much about human nature and it's beauty in that space of time before.
Coming back to Dhaka, the 8th most densely populated place on earth, was surreal. Everyone who went to the chars was changed for the better. We clearly see how our actions can either displace or assist someone else. We made a difference, we know, in the villagers lives. They had never had outsiders come to help them with disaster management in their community before. The villagers have zero voice, due to their isolation. Even the Bangladeshi government only recognizes the victims of climate change with food aid when they've lost everything to a cyclone. This is the first time someone has been willing to advocate for the improvement of their quality of life.
So, yeah. My entire mindset exploded. My expectations and worldviews have been thrown into the sea, never to be the same again. It's hard, but I suppose it's no big deal. Sure.
As this week continues, we're formulating social action project plans for when we go home. Hopefully we can spread awareness, educate, advocate, and serve to the best of our abilities. I have never known inspiration and drive like this before. The energy in the classroom at Scholastica nearly makes the walls burst.
I can't write fast enough to keep track of all the observations, and thoughts that flash through my consciousness.
What the f@!k just happened?

 ~Photos courtesy of the lovely Sumaita

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