I have been on some incredible journeys over the years but none more colourful and memorable than my trip to Bangladesh. I joined good friend and writer Anne Hamilton on an adventure of a lifetime. Anne had a long standing relationship with this incredible country and was in the throws of writing her first book about her emerging love affair. I joined her to find out more and take a few (thousand) shots along the way!
During our 6 week stay we traversed the country and it’s regions from the majestic tea plantations of Syhlet & Srimingal to the craze and commotion of Dhaka city and then onwards to Bhola Island, nestled in the Bay of Bengal. There I would be introduced to Bhola’s Children, more affectionately known as “the boundary” which is an orphanage for children and young people with disabilities. It is run by a Christian man called Ali Bhai and is supported by a charity which was set up as a direct result of Anne’s book A Blonde Bengali Wife. I will write other posts with more photographs from the Orphanage as it deserves a space all of its own to share its story.
However whilst at the orphanage Ali thought it would be useful to “utilize” having two white woman as a suitable “awareness raising” opportunity. So take a mini-bus FULL of children, 1 motorbike (hosting one white woman!) and a stream of pre-war, gearless (and possibly brakeless) bicycles (hosting a second white woman)…both in salwar kameez and gentle blowing dupata’s! Throw into the mix a couple of sea-faring (okay not so faring really!) vessels and you are sure of an adventure of sorts.
We meander across the mighty Meghna River…jostled together on our ship, amongst members of the community, rice crops and the odd livestock for good measure. We pass children and adults on the banks of the river who gaze curiously at the two white ladies! We witness communities working together to bring in their supplies. The same communities that could be swept away in the next cyclone to hit the coastline during monsoon season. These are a resilient and inspiring people, proud of their homes, their culture and whom offer immense hospitality when they have so little.
So we arrive at our destination, merely known as “Middle Island” called after its location in the “middle” of the Meghna River (which flows from the Ghanges). This is an island unlike any that I know of. This is an island made of silt, washed up into a small island during previous floods. The government provides funding for people to build homes and a community on this ‘temporary’ island as a way of tackling the immense overcrowding in the major cities. We disembark our vessel and begin walking…a huge group of disabled children…and two white women. As we go, we gather a merry following of inquisitive, giggling children. The woman of the village shyly whisper and smile as we pass and tag along behind. Before long we have the whole village’s attention.
Ali first addresses the village chief, explaining about the orphanage and asking if there are any children who might benefit. Children with disabilities in Bangladesh are considered social outcasts, and are often orphaned because of this. The orphanage works to give the children a loving home and an education, developing skills to enable the children to grow up with as much independence as possible. Again, more about this later. As Ali talked to the chief this tiny little girl was pushed to the front of the crowd, shyly dressed in a tattered white dress. Ali tried to talk to her but she did not reply. Ali asked for her parents to come forward and a woman was pushed to the front. She explained that her daughter had never talked and she slept in a barn with the animals. It was a very moving moment, one that I will never forget.
Then two other little girls were brought to the front, both children were deaf. They watched as some of the staff and children from the Orphanage started to sign to each other. Suddenly, across their faces came the realisation that there were other children who were just like them! It was truly an unbelievable moment, these children had no idea that other people in their country let alone the world were just like them. I am still moved when I think about that day on Middle Island! Ali offered the families the chance to visit the orphanage and think about the children having a place there. With a good awareness raising job done, we settled under the midday sun, with hard boiled eggs and oranges before making our way back to the boundary. Now what a day!
It would be safe to say that I have never laughed so hard in all my life, and probably haven’t since my time in Bangladesh. It is the most heart warming of places and one that will hold a very special place in my heart indeed.