Climbing the stairs to the ward at Addin Children’s hospital in Dhaka, it was hard to prepare myself for what I might see. Sick children I guessed, but already this was like no hospital I had ever been to.
We had wound our way here through the heaving Dhaka rush-hour. Brightly painted rickshaws and green tuk-tuks winding their way through the endless cars and battered, overcrowded buses, solemn faces gazing down at us as they passed. Horns blared almost constantly as we stopped and started our way through the city streets, with our vehicle surrounded as soon as it slowed, by the waiting beggars – from tiny white-teethed and bright-eyed children waving flowers and pointing to their mouths, to old crippled men, proffering a withered arm or gesturing to their club feet, many with something to sell which they persistently displayed through the windows till the traffic moved us on.
It was hard to ignore. The children were beautiful and charming (and knew it of course), and it was impossible to resist smiling and making faces at them. The gesture of the hand to mouth to indicate wanting money for food was one I was to become familiar with, but you quickly realised that giving money to beggars was in an unsustainable solution to poverty in the city. We were on our way to see a project making a difference to this city’s children’s lives in a much more sustainable way.
Aldin hospital was set up by Save the Children, providing free health care to the local area and with a reputation for high quality care and medical practise. Arriving at the hospital we were met by one of the doctors and taken straight to the ward where children were being treated for severe acute malnutrition (SAM), pneumonia and diarrhoea. The nurses with their long white saris and head scarves hung back shyly as we entered, the healthier children and their families quickly forming a crowd behind them as they strained to get a good luck at us and our entourage.
Within seconds I could feel my stomach twist and my head start to pound, met with the sight of children the like of which I have seen countless times on the news and documentaries but never with my own eyes. Their tiny frames and big eyes looking up from the metal beds as they lay or sat with their mothers, arms thin and legs stick thin and eyes large as they sat, so quietly. At first it seemed so intrusive to be there, we were reluctant to take pictures, but Anika, our Save the Children guide busied herself gaining consent from all the mothers there and we began to realise we had a story to tell and it was right to be there, documenting this. Some were too ill to photograph, it didn’t seem right. The mother protectively covering her unbelievably tiny, still, severely malnourished baby was one we kept a respectful distance from, and the sight of which I will never forget.
Eva and Sian and I, Liz from Save the Children UK, Anika and Kiran, our photographer, wove our way from bed to bed, learning names and stories…
Rahima and Wasiba
Like Rahima, 3 years old and lying limp in her mother’s arms. Her mother Wasima had originally given birth to triplets but only Rahima had survived, even then coming down with pneumonia and typhoid at only a month old. The resulting developmental problems had taken Wasima to seven hospitals looking for proper help and care for her daughter, until eventually she had been referred to Aldin. She said that finally Wasima seemed to be picking up and that this was the first time she felt like her daughter was being properly attended to.
Two and a half year old Shama was sat eating rice from a bowl as I approached, her mother Rupa smiling as the translator told her I had a son Shama’s age. Shama had
been admitted 8 days ago with pneumonia and although still struggling to breathe was responding well to antibiotics. The little girl in the next bed was a stark contrast, unaware of our presence and her chest heaving as she tried to take breath. Left too long before treatment the infection had taken a firm hold on her and her heart was failing. Her father had begun to cry as he talked. Her prognosis wasn’t good.
My instinct was to cry too of course. Tears coming quickly and hard to fight back. But Anika had said as we stood, helpless, “Don’t cry else you give them no hope”, a sharp wake-up call and one I needed, and I spent the rest of the visit smiling through tears.
For there WAS hope here. And life and vibrancy, and joy, even, in amongst the sadness.
Little Sangida represented all of that. 16 months old and everything you would expect of a mischievous toddler, full of fun and curiosity. Although severely underweight, admitted with weight loss and loose stools, life and spirit shone from her eyes and her attitude as she tottered around the ward after us, peeping out from behind the bed frames as she munched hungrily on an egg, getting in as much mess and under people’s feet as you would expect any other toddler to do. She held the entire ward captivated and entertained. These children were still CHILDREN, and despite the heart-ache you couldn’t help but smile and laugh, grateful that projects like this existed to put the spring back in her little steps.
Jasmine, too, 11 years old and riddled with a skin infection caused by a reaction to the antibiotics used to treat her, couldn’t help but inspire a sense of hope and courage. Surrounded by her maternal family, her mother having died, she came to life at our presense, the distraction taking her away from illness for a while, sitting up and drawing in the colouring books Sian had bought, and chatting to Anika, playing pat-a-cake and singing rhymes.
Anika and Jasmine
These children were receiving good care. The majority were going to be ok. This was a good place, however hard the images were, these were children, for the most part that were getting better thanks to this facility.
You just wanted MORE for these children. Good work was being done here but you wanted more than the very few scant toys, more medicine, more trained staff, for these children to have been identified and treated quicker.
Making our way back to the car, just as the heaven’s opened and we got our real first taste of monsoon weather, water leaking through the entrance hall and the dilapidated building, it was hard not to feel shaken and raw. But we had gained a sense of the reality of the health problems facing children here and how crucial good medical care is.
Tomorrow we would be moving out the city and into rural district of Barisal to look at how Save the Children are addressing these problems on a larger scale.
It’s so easy not to click isn’t it? Or just to look away. Look at something else, something easier. I do it so much.
I’m suddenly realising that I’m not going to be able to look away in a week. And I’m also realising that for once I don’t want to.
You know why? Because yes, there is pain and suffering, almost too much to bear but there is also HOPE! There is HOPE.
So watch this. Even if it’s hard. Because sometimes tragedy doesn’t need to be depressing. Sometimes it can inspiring, and motivating and challenging. Sometimes it can make you proud to be a human being, because we carry so much power, we do. Yes, power to hurt, but more importantly power to heal and to love and to implement amazing change.
I am sat looking at a pile of stuff and to be honest? I’m a little bit scared. I have every kind of mosquito repelling product under the sun, a hat that Indiana Jones would be proud of and some boots to cope with the muck and rubbish of the Bangladeshi slums and mud. My arms are still a bit sore from all the disease-preventing injections and I have a big visa stamp in my passport.
One week today I shall be sat on a plane, along with Sian and Eva, half way across the other side of the world, flying to Bangladesh for a week viewing Save the Children’s work with mothers and children in one of the most poverty-stricken places on the planet.
This is really, really happening.
People keep asking me if I’m ready, if I’m prepared for my trip. And yes, I’ve been busy preparing, borrowing backpacks and clothes to let me comfortably sweat out the Bangladeshi heat, thinking about modesty in a strictly Muslim country, reading through my schedule and trying not to squeak as I read the words “sea plane”, “speedboat”, or let my breath catch in my throat as I read about the health care workers we will be shadowing as we visit children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. I’ve never travelled before so all the things I need to think about are new to me. I’m desperately trying to pick up lots of tips and get my head round all the things I need to think about (and if you’ve travelled in far-flung parts and have any words of advice to share I would really, really appreciate any top tips you can share.)
But am I prepared? For what I’ll see? For what this experience is going to FEEL like?
No, how can I be.
My world has always been so small up until now. I have lived in the same small town for over 20 years. For over a quarter of that time I could barely move a few feet, my world as small as one or two rooms, a sofa, a bed, as I struggled with illness and pain and restricted mobility. I didn’t get to stretch my wings and go across the country to University, or travel on a gap year with my friends, or go on exotic holidays.
I didn’t get to do anything really, except sit, and dream, and wait.
And yet, even though my world was small, it was a privileged world. Enough food, clean water, good health care. Stuck in, tired and hurting, it was hard to see sometimes, but I was so lucky. And when I got better and pregnant I got access to excellent maternity care. My baby was given the vaccinations he needed to stay well and, fed well, he grew big and strong. God, it actually hurts a bit to think of it already, just how lucky I have been, how lucky Kai has been.
And here I sit. COMPLETELY unprepared for what the next two weeks is going to do to my thinking, my emotions, my internal map of how I see the world and what I understand about it. All I know is that it is going to be big. My world is about to get so BIG.
Soon I am going to get to see the other side of the coin, see the reality for the vast majority of women trying to raise children in other countries. It is going to shake me and awe me and horrify me and delight me in equal measure.
I am not ready. But GOD am I going to do them proud. I am going to use my voice and my words and my heart to tell their story and lots and lots of people are ready and waiting to listen, more people than we ever could have imagined. Not just Twitter, not just bloggers, but the media too, in a big, big way.
My head may not be ready but my heart is. I have never wanted to do anything as much as I want to do this.
But I need you all with me ok? This isn’t about squabbles or competition or censorship or anything else that seems to concern so many bloggers right now, this is about real life. It’s about trying to make a difference, about ALL of us trying to make a difference. And we’re not going to know if we can till we try, right?
Something you can do RIGHT NOW is go sign our Facebook petition. It will take two minutes. Nearly 9,000 of you have already but we want lots, lots more. Tell Nick Clegg that nine million children a year dying unnecessary deaths is not right, and that we have the power to change it. There are other ways to help here, too, please have a read if you haven’t already.
And then stay tuned. Because I have an amazing story to tell you.
At the bottom of this post you’ll find the widget to link up your posts. It’s open till Sunday so don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to join in just yet – there’s lots more time.
I’ve chosen prompt number three – Pay attention to a stranger you meet this week or observe, and write about them.
This is actually a piece of writing I did a little while ago. I actually spent a month earlier in the year sitting on benches every Friday doing nothing but writing about the people I observed there. It was a great project, before a busy schedule got in the way. I should add some more to it really. I posted a few of them on secret out-of-the-way blog that was only read by a couple of people. This piece was my favourite. I think it deserves a second airing…
The man stands with feet planted firmly, swaying slightly as he sings. His unfocused, strangely wandering eyes, looking unseeingly at a spot in front of him, give away his blindness before the white stick does. Strangely not the long, thin cane you would expect, but a standard, wooden walking stick with the shaft painted white with house paint. The tip rests protectively in the large Tupperware box at his feet in which lie his collections for the day, to prevent, I guess, some unscrupulous person disappearing with his spoils. He is busking. Without soundtrack; without accompaniment; without explanation: just a lone, quiet voice in the winter afternoon.
He is, I estimate, in his early seventies: average build, average height, looking slightly huddled in his winter coat. His face is lined, his eyes dark and expressionless. He looks slightly lost, and very, very alone. His posture never changes: one hand on his walking stick, the other held stiffly at his side. He does not look unkempt or neglected, a hint of a shirt and tie peeping out over the undone button of his coat. He may not be able to see but he obviously takes great pains with his appearance. His leather shoes are polished; his hair combed and trimmed short; his face clean shaven. It is obvious to me that he is a man with pride, in himself and in his voice. His voice is not strong or impressive, but he holds the tune and sings with a quiet confidence, never faltering on a note or a stumbling on a word.
He is singing ‘Bright Eyes’ by Simon and Garfunkel, and the irony of this makes me want to weep. I wonder how he lost his sight: he strikes me as someone who was once a seeing man.
Passers-by largely ignore him; some risking a more lingering look and a puzzled, or in some cases, more scornful, glance. One elderly lady pauses in front of him, only to remove a soggy tissue from her sleeve and blow loudly and unceremoniously into it before moving off again. The occasional coin is thrown without comment into his collection box, the ‘clink’ causing him to stop and thank the empty air in front of him, before he picks up the thread of the song from right where he left off.
Verse flows seamlessly into verse, song into song, barely pausing between the finish of one and the start of the next. I faintly recognise some, but, for the most part, they come from a time long before my own. A time of 50’s glamour and music hall, of Las Vegas swing and rat packer’s croon. He is word perfect and sings, of course, from memory, without prompt or reminder: a seemingly endless repertoire.
Periodically, between songs, he pauses and breaks his pose to gentle tap his cane in the pot of coins, testing their number, before finding, it seems, their total lacking, and embarking on another song.
Why is he there? For the extra money? I wonder perhaps whether it is for an audience after an age of isolation, singing into unreciprocating emptiness of home. I wonder at his story, what brought him to this place and this time, to be begging for coins outside a gaudy department store window display. I wonder if there is anyone out there, thinking of him, worrying about him.
He seems immune to the cold wind biting at my fingers and finding its way under my clothes to chill my skin, his stamina far greater than mine as I pack up my notebook to find warmth and caffeine. His hands are bare and white and I am suddenly struck by the urge to go and buy the man a pair of woollen gloves and press them into his hands before rushing away. But I remember he is a man of pride, and a man of intelligence given his capability for memory, and I have no wish to offend, so settle with a dropped pound coin and quiet ‘take care’ as I move past, the sound of his song echoing after me in the fading light:
“There’s a high wind in the trees,
A cold sound in the air,
And nobody ever knows when you go,
And where do you start,
Oh, into the dark.
burning like fire.
how can you close and fail
How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?
So now it’s your turn. What prompt did you choose?
3. Pay attention to a stranger you meet this week or observe, and write about them. - suggested by Kate of the Five F’s blog who’s been guest posting over at The Blog Up North about a little girl she met.
4. Write about something you struggled to let go of. - Inspired by Mummy Limited who did something for the last time this week.
5. Lucky - Inspired by my friend Heather at Young and Younger and her awful scare this week.
Leave your name and the URL to your post in the MckLinky below (the URL should be to your post not just to your blog) and leave me a comment to let me know you’ve taken part. If you have the time it would be great if you could try and read and comment on at least two other entries. And be kind! It’s supposed to be a bit of fun – we’re not looking for the next Booker Prize winner here.
If you haven’t had chance to respond yet, then you’ve still got till Sunday to enter your link! Or just wait till next week, when there’ll be five brand new prompts to get you thinking.
This Writing Workshop is brought to you in association with Mama Kat’s Losin’ It – who’s lovely author came up with the concept and runs her own workshop over in the U.S.