Bangladesh

Our contribution to enabling those recovering from Leprosy
to establish their own enterprise in Bangladesh.

Read about Blair's 2017 experience.

The Leprosy Mission New Zealand has a long and strong partnership in the Chittagong Region which has one of the highest prevalence rates of leprosy in the country. Many leprosy-affected people live in extreme poverty and face stigma and discrimination in their daily lives.

Recently Blair travelled to the region to assist in the Chittagong People-led Development Project (CPDP), which provides leprosy-affected individuals and their families with the skills and knowledge they need to take control of their own lives through social and economic development.

Here is Blair's candid day by day account of his experience helping others to help themselves and better the outcomes for their families and their communities.

Day 1

25 February 2017

Have just had dinner in a lounge in Hong Kong airport with 6 Indian men and 2 Chinese women! Fish ball soup, steamed veg and bread and butter pudding!! Quite the mix of cultures, food, and languages. While we discussed the merits of German black beer (?), amongst other things the realisation that travellers have many things in common. Have forgotten what fun it is travelling and seeing the world and meeting other people is such a highlight. On to Dhaka in a few hours. The airport is vast and having a good hour long walk is easy with plenty of space. Have also just realised that the “low cloud” is in fact smog!!!! Have forgotten about that too!

Day 3

27 February 2017

Today I have been busy. Flew Dhaka to Chittagong.
Nearly lost my life twice in a confrontation with a bunch of tuk tuks!
I have been helped several times once by the most friendly Bangladeshi who saved me from flying on the wrong plane
Today I learned afresh how we in NZ live in such huge wealth and hardly know we are living.
Today I learned that wealth doesn't matter.
Today I travelled 2 hours into the remote area north of Chittagong to meet 2 groups of people.
One group of 10 ladies have started businesses and work together helping each other to create funds for their children's health and education and they are are such dedicated and tenacious women.
Today I met a young man 25 who had an arranged marriage at 16 has a 9 year and 7 year old and has also had Leprosy. He is cured but with a loan and training now contracts to a car paint shop with his own tools and earns over 400% more than the average national wage. He held out his hands to show no effects left and holding my hands he thanked me. What have I done to receive his thanks? Such genuine gratitude is overwhelming and I realize there is a lot in my culture that by comparison does not have the “genuine” aspect to it.Today I spent a while at an office in the city where the project was explained and I am in awe of their procedures and process.
Tonight I hope to sleep as I start at 6.30 tomorrow travelling to more self-help groups in the morning.

My biggest worry for tomorrow is that I feel I have so little to teach them in my afternoon sessions and so much to learn from them. They have so much to teach me.

DAY 4

28 February 2017

So, today is Monday. A 5am start as the call to prayer echos across the city and for a while dulls the noise of beeping horns and construction. 
A chilli omelette at 7am and mango juice breakfast has me then running down the stairs and into the street to meet the driver taking me through the packed streets and onto the Chittagong Dhaka highway for 1.25 hours. 
Today I realise that life comes really cheap, and death is so much a part of life that really another one is quite normal, especially when there are hundreds of millions more. (So many serious accidents on this stretch of road, aka highway!)
We rocket down this "highway" at one point going 109km an hour in an older automatic "Noah" with unusual tyres and the driver has orange hair (to hide the grey apparently) 
We make it there and back but not before I have wondered dozens of times how difficult is it to get a body back to NZ and in fact maybe I would best be left here as garden fertiliser. They need lots!
We visit 2 "self help groups", both in very rural poor areas with Leprosy affected families. Courageous beyond belief. These have been cured from leprosy, overcome huge stigma and are part of a community again. (Albeit disabled)
I learned how to run a mechanical grain mill, make rice flour and fed the rice husks to the sheep in the new sheep breeding business. Some sheep only 2 days old! 
Have also played in a cow poo worm farm and harvested spray free tomatoes, fruits and chillies (dam chillies) 
And it's only 11 am as we head back to the city and straight into leading 2 sessions on business management and sustainability. The translator eventually understood me and even more important I understood how to speak so he could understand. Miriam is also an amazing translator. We did lots of small group work using SWOT and personal analysis, well all in simple terms. 2 groups of 25 in each so we swap them between us and teach the same things again. 
The training finished, we arrive back at hotel by 5pm so some down time before dinner and now bed. 
That's Monday and I feel like I have been here for ages, in fact I feel like I am “home”. These cultures have a special place in my heart and I wonder how much is inbuilt, God inspired or learned maybe. Today I feel that I learned more than I did in all of 2016.  And there is more tomorrow with 3 teaching sessions.

Just a couple of things I'm thinking about...
It is the women's job to collect the cow poo, spread it in the sun in lumps to half dry before loading onto sticks like kebabs to fully dry so it can be used to fuel the kitchen fire. No love gloves involved here!
While out driving this morning at great speed we were passed by a truck loaded with bags of something, maybe rice and several young men clinging to the top, one of whom had his feet tucked under a rope and was talking on his phone and smoking all at the same time.

Day 5

1 March 2017

It's always a dilemma as to whether I am boring everyone or do I just garble on, so have decided to garble on. I was awake at 4 so I was ready for morning prayer at 5 via speakers from the next door mosque though I am not sure why they just don't invite me in as it may save waking everyone.

This morning for breakfast I had a non-chilli omelette (yay), mango juice and a cranberry one square meal I had with me as today's alternatives were hot pickled vegetables, rice and fried roti.
Mere detail though in the bigger picture of the day.

Away to start at 8.30 on a full days training with 48 leaders. They are absolutely passionate and committed to seeing these 3347 businesses survive in the long term. We covered business plans, leadership, market research, disaster plans, problem solving and self assessment with lots of group work, whiteboard drawings to explain concepts and translated discussions.

These people travel for hours each month by motorbike to visit each one of the 287 self help groups. Incredible commitment to see disabled people enjoy life.

Have chatted (lots of signage and a bit of interpretation) several times with Mikan  who did not know he had Leprosy for years. It has badly affected his feet and legs. Imagine turning your feet outwards as far as they can go and then turning them as much the other way so technically they are backwards. That's him, he walks well, looks after himself and is a leader in one of the groups. He wears a special pair of sandals and it humbles me to think of the difference they have made for him. I am grateful that we give the " good gifts" through the Leprosy Mission that include sandals like this.

Simple and such effective solutions. Back home I think we complicate it all. We only need to simplify sustainability to achieve best practice and results.

The day ended with half an hour of chat about the Huka Honey Hive and what I have learned running the business.  Afterwards  I sat down and just wanted to cry. Such an interesting response to both seeing information being sucked up like a sponge and by sharing, realising how much I have learned.

We seem to have so much more than what we even realise.

This afternoon on the way home I was dropped off earlier to go to the "Chemist" for some eyedrops. The bottle was NZ$4! In the space of maybe a 300m walk I passed half a million people, 50 thousand tuk tuks, 20 thousand rickshaws and got quite angry for 2 reasons.

  • Why do men treat women so badly and,
  • How come when medicine is so cheap it is unavailable to the masses and why is it so expensive in the west? Do we subsidise it or are profits really the only driving factor?

I have over thought it but I am also tired today and with tiredness comes the deeper realisation of our “wealthy westerner's” responsibilities.

I find the limbless beggars very hard to refuse. I am overcome by the fact that on the spot I can do nothing for them. I need to follow the man I am with so I don’t get lost or accosted by even more beggars. So, what is more important, me being lost in Chittagong or these peoples’ open sores, hunger and the pain in their eyes? I am reminded constantly of the leprosy affected man I came across at the bottom of the market steps in Yogyakarta, Indonesia 10 years ago. We shared tears, pain and there was the passing of coins and a memory that is fresh everyday. Back to the ‘limbless” who are like footballs on the street teeming with people, ignoring them while they are being scuffed by the feet of the wealthy, barked at by the dogs and shouted out by the crowds trying to get by.

So, tonight I will sleep well, finally knowing and accepting at last that yes, I am making a difference being here and it is so worthwhile. Its’ like a mini revelation.

Well done, if you have reached this far and my hope is you get a wee bit of the "picture". Thanks for reading and being part of it

Day 6

2 March 2017

Today I had delicious curried vegetables, roti and dhal for breakfast.

Jumped in the van to get to training venue and watched sadly as a group of men were attacking drivers of tuk tuks. There is a bus strike today which caused chaos, impatience and desperation,  We wound our way around them with our hearts beating fast!

I am using " today" a lot as the reality I have learned in this place is that yesterday has gone. Who knows about tomorrow.  So today is the day. TODAY!

Today was a big training day.  Between us we covered program planning. We also finished a plan for disaster management within this project which covers thousands of people. We also had a big session on mentoring and the concepts of listening, asking questions etc instead of always giving answers and advice.  This was followed up with a group exercise on formulating a plan as a mentor to help business owners. I think I could be back again to continue this along with marketing, sales and cash flow, and budgeting, profit and costing! So much material uncovered and such a desire to learn.

I have undertaken an overview of last 3 days’ feedback so everyone could see that they already had the answers about the key issues.

I so wish the world could see this group of 9 field officers and their team of 4 who look after these approx 3300 businesses. They are so keen to learn, so want to do their best, have such high goals and are amazingly confident given what some of them have endured. The stories are beyond incredible.

One young field officer is only 22 years old and she is the sole family earner. She has a sick father and 4 other siblings, and wants to own her own business ( or come to work at Huka Honey Hive). She lives on her own in a room in the city on weekdays, and goes back to the family for weekends. She has amazing personality, belief in her dreams and hopes, and you couldn't imagine where and what her life had been like. We really do have an easier existence in NZ. The question here is what do we do with this “easier existence”?

I ended up going in a rickshaw twice today which is like putting your life on the line. Once the driver misunderstood where we were going and so we did the biggest spontaneous U turn in front of every other moving thing and went back through the intersection. And this is considered "normal".

I have stuck the phone out the window tonight at about 8.45 so I can remember what it looks and sounds like in the street all day and night as well as the motorway being built above the street.

Today has been a good day.  There are so many good people and good things even when it all seems like chaos.

I am still convinced that there is a whole lot more good in the world than bad.

DAY 7

3 March 2017

I am writing exactly as it seems and feels so I hope you get the picture.

Today I was up early and after my usual breakfast of roti, vegetables and dhal ( which had chillies in again today) we left at 7.20 for field visits.

I am not sure of the distance but we spent a long time travelling. I will never complain about Auckland traffic again. If I do you can make me put money in the Leprosy Mission boxes.

Today was so worth putting up with being in the van in the heat and the traffic in order to meet these people, and that's such an understatement.

One man, cleared of Leprosy but with deformed toes and fingers makes enough money to have good family care for his 2 sons and daughter. He has bought his own land and farms it intensively with potatoes, beans and ocra.He has a cow and also makes amazing compost in his worm farms. After talking with him for a while he wanted to honour us for our help, yet really he has done all the hard work. When he found out about leprosy he thought he was just going to die as who would look after him. That is the level of rejection by society and the biggest issue for leprosy sufferers.

Today we also visited a self-help group who have been going a few years. In the last year they have saved NZ$450 which is a huge amount of money. This is all properly recorded and banked and then loaned out again so that is one way they help each other. They talked today about disaster plans and business management. They are pros! When you think of their history and how they have "fought" to get there it is mind blowing.

Go the human capacity.

Makes me wonder how much of our capacity do we use in NZ. This would make an interesting discussion.

Another lady in a group we visited weaves the most stunning and intricate mats and was the first one I have seen who uses colour in them. She gets nearly 3x as much for them as the normal woven mat.

Cricket is played everywhere. Tyres and sticks are the "in" toys and the children are stunning. It is so so so good that the parents we have met have their children’s education so high on the priority list.

Beside a sort of "dual carriage highway " one boy had a car made of sticks which he was "driving" in the cracks oblivious to the dirt, pollution and danger only 20 cm away.

We lunched at a "cafe" just off the roadside where the boiled egg I had was a bit green inside when I cut it. I had to hide it in the rice which I left on the plate. Rice comes in one size; about 3 good cups per portion.

I will have to talk about the rubbish when I get back.  After the limbless beggars and the children, rubbish is the next thing that is near impossible to comprehend. Imagine it if you can the food scraps, nappies, containers, paper, plastic, bones, wind blown dust and dirt. Then add the crows, the dogs and even the free range sacred cows. Then add the heat and the rubbish may have been there some days.  

DAY 8

4 March 2017

Today has begun. The prayers were out of tune and very short. The street is still full of cars and they are all using their horns. It's 6.45 am and I am getting sorted as I have the first session today and then after lunch begin the 30 hour trip to Melbourne for a couple of days via Dhaka and Hong Kong.

Another culture brings so many differences but on the other hand  you realise so much is the same, just cloaked in a different way. We aren't that different at all. We are all humans.

Today will mark the end of my first Bangladesh visit and like all the other developing places I have been blessed enough to visit, it is sad to leave. What an honour and privilege to be here with these amazing people in an amazing country.

At times my heart has been stretched beyond imagination and other times I have laughed myself silly. Other times I have shed tears for being able to see such human strength of character, resolve and commitment.

Today I am reminded of one man l met who is healed from Leprosy and now making his way through life like the rest of us and he said with such feeling, "and now I can help others"

Later the same day:

Today I stood on the Bay of Bengal just south of Chittagong city and cried. My hosts did a side trip on the way to the airport after seeing the sea was so wonderful, even if it was dirty brown, full of floating rubbish and a quick count of the ships right in front of me was about 100.

I guess I am sad to leave, but bereft of words to explain the roller coaster of the last week so crying was an easy way out.

Today, I spent some time mid-session, while they worked in small groups, with the program manager talking about succession and forward planning to ensure sustainability. He quickly said come and so we jumped on a motorbike he took to see the sort of business he would like the project to run, selling some of the produced goods but mainly to make longer term profit to have more self help groups. No helmet, breeze flying thru my hair (not) we wound down the hill and into the traffic fortunately for only 5 mins, me clutching on for life but also cornering like a pro.

Today.  Life is for living today.

I am waiting at Chittagong airport to get to Dhaka. I am the only Western person and stand out like a sore thumb. I remind myself that this is how it is for refugees, the homeless, the disadvantaged or disabled in any culture

There is another good discussion.

Today is the "wait at airport" day. I am now in Dhaka waiting until midnight. I can't check in unit 9.30 which is 3.5 hours away and then there is a 3 hour wait to depart.

There is so much to watch and the mosquitoes are thick. I have been accosted by everyone under the sun. This is not the safest place to wait for a wee white boy.

I was totally sucked in by the bag wrapping boys for "safety" so now have a "mummy" bag.

If it all wasn't so funny I would cry. The toilets are almost unusable. It makes you want to throw up, but when nature calls it's amazing what one does and where one stands. No more details there.

After the last week I am sitting here a bit like a mummy myself so think I will sign out at the risk of boring you.

Guess what was on the menu today just before I go. The veges had chilli in it, the morning tea was a chilli chicken fried samosa, the lunch was chilli chicken and rice, the snack on the plane was a chicken chilli " burger". I have become a true Bangladeshi in a few short days and this place and people will have a special place in me for always.

Peace

Day 9

5 March 2017

I left Chittagong 28 hours ago and now look forward to a few days in Melbourne.

Today was a good day to reflect, enjoy and think over some of the issues I have left behind. I felt thoroughly spoiled and in total luxury when I found a shower at Hong ongK airport earlier and sat in a soft chair with background music and space.

The report writing over the next few weeks will be fun and challenging to get on paper. Words just don't seem to do it compared to the real thing but we will give it a good go

Imagine finding a wee quiet spot at Hong Kong airport with no one around. Bliss.