Beauty and Horror: Two sides to Bangladesh
Wednesday 1st September 2010
It’s been hard to find a way to write about today. Over and over I’ve tried and I couldn’t find the words. Couldn’t find the meaning and the feelings I wanted to convey. I think that’s because I wasn’t really sure what yesterday meant, to be honest, or how I felt about it.
Our schedule involved another busy day in the hot Bangladeshi heat, hours on the road moving from village to village, health centre to health centre. Apart from the odd scant bit of food before we left each day, proper meals were hard to come by on the road. It is Ramadan which means huge proportions of the population are fasting and food is not prepared until Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fast together. We got through each day on bananas bought by the road side, the taste of which will forever cause all bananas eaten back home to feel dry and powdery compared to their moist sweetness, snacks of sugarcane covered in sesame, and on biscuits and salty crisps. And water, of course, lots and lots of bottled, clean water which we drank by the litre as sweated in our heavy clothes and scarves.
Like the previous day, we continued to shadow Community Health Workers in the area, today as they visited children recovering from diarrhoea and pneumonia. We watched as Padma rani and Margia mixed re-hydration medicine to treat children with tummy bugs, carefully spooning medicine into large silver bowls of water that was patiently fed to each child, glass by glass. And we watched as respiratory rates were measured to check that children’s breathing levels were back in safe ranges after bouts of pneumonia – signs that the antibiotics administered had worked.
A visit to a health centre proved equally encouraging, once we had fought our way fast the crowds that inevitably gathered every time we stopped. This clinic sat in a market town and we had arrived in the middle of the cattle market day, the crowds soon thirty or forty people strong , standing and staring with a look that will stay with me forever – one of unabashed eyeballing that was equal parts bewilderment, unhidden curiosity, and surprise. The children scampered down ahead of us past the yellow flag that hung between two trees, the country-wide sign for Immunisation Clinic.
Here we had the chance to chat with more mothers and get to know their chilren as they waited to be seen by their Health Worker Rekha, there to carry out growth checks and talk mothers through the ‘promise sheets’ each woman commits to each month, focusing on key aspects of child care. Babies smiled and cried and fell asleep o their mother’s shoulders, protesting at being suspended on the hanging weighing scales, and crying with the same cries of shock and outrage I remember Kai emitting when injected with the immunisations that may save their lives. Children here looked healthy, for the most part, and the women were friendly and confident. A mother eight months pregnant with her second child arrived for her check-up while were there and proudly told us how she had breastfed her son for three years, his tall frame that he shyly hid behind her evidence of the extra nourishment he had recieved, and how much she was looking forward to her baby coming.
Each place we visited was different. From the bustle of the cattle market town, to the more sqallid shacks of one settlement, to the almost serene atmosphere of another laid out in an oriental style, with rice drying on huge mats on the floor, and brightly painted houses.
I think, if I’m honest, boyed by the positivity of the Community Health projects we had seen, I got swept up in the beauty of it a little. The bright, intense yellowy-green of the rice paddies and the blue sky, the laughing, clambouring children, the bright clothes, the patterns of the rice on their criss-cross mats and the deep crimson combs of the roosters as tiny chicks fell over themselves to follow their mothers. Right down to the calf suckling in a near-by stall. And the PEOPLE. The people are so beautiful here.
I think, to be honest, I forgot where I was. Or forgot WHEN I was, perhaps. The feeling of walking through a primitive, age old settlement from centuries past was hard to shake off. I kept having to remind myself, “this is NOW”. This place exists in the same time, in the same world, in the same political climate as my own. And suddenly your vision shifts and the charm disintergrates. You begin to see the rubbish lying in piles again. You begin to remind yourself that these shacks, of corregated iron and wood and thatch, are housing huge families. That the food laid out forms the vast majority of their scant diet. And you begin to remind yourself WHY you are here, that the children you are looking at are desperately vulnerable and horrifically deprived.
And these are the lucky ones. These are the communities that have access to Health Workers like Rekha, Padma rani and Margia. Many, many, MANY more do not.
It was confusing. And hard to reconcile. But reality would hit home in a big way as we finished with a visit to thepediatric ward of the local Government hopsital.
It is hard to find the words here. I didn’t take pictures. Just staying upright and breathing and not falling apart in the face of so much… so much horror, and horror it was, was the best I could manage. Sian shared a few photos today which will perhaps help to set the scene and I did take some brief video footage but that will have to wait for better internet connection.
How to describe it. Perhaps fix in your mind an image of the hospitals we have here back home. Imagine the sterility, the fierce control and monitoring. And then begin to replace the walls with horribly stained, delapertated structures. Instead of small wards imagine huge rooms, filled with metal beds crowded in rows. Filthy mattresses lay on the floor on the beds. And then fill with people. HUNDREDS of people. Mother’s huddled with babies, two to a bed sometimes, trying to feed. Babies and children hooked up to drips and blood bags. Often the entire family is there, camped out alongside and in corridoors,. Nursing staff are in short supply and the doctors here rely on them to care for their own children as they recieve treatment. There is noise and there is heat and there is crying and there is pain. How children ever recover seems extraordinary, the risk of infection seemingly so great that no sooner had they started to recover from one thing they woudl surely pick up something else.
I can’t talk about the neo-natal unit. That is Sian and Eva’s story to tell, of the babies we met there and the extraordinary work that the doctor we interviewed is doing. It is hard to keep sight of the bigger picture but it is important to register that the children receiveing care here, again, are the LUCKY ones. It is considered a good hopsital and there is no doubt that the staff there are skilled and committed.
But the shock, the shock was unexpected, and coupled with the sense of huge injustice, it was hard to bear.
These people aren’t living in the dark ages, they’re living NOW. While our children get the best medical care ever known, these children lie sick in squalid, cramped facilities. And although so many of the children we’ve seen do have access to good community health care, so many more do not. And even with good care, are stil upagainst sometimes insummountable odds in terms of santitation problems, infection risks, adequate food…
So let’s not get swept up in beauty. Let’s remember exactly what we’re looking at, see what’s right in front of eyes and what is hidden away. Let’s be thankful for the projects that our working but not forget what still needs to be done.
Because I don’t think I can live anymore knowing we’re not doing any where near enough about it.
I found this brick lying in the mud in one of the villages. Bricks are stamped with family names but this seemed so significant. It represents the health workers we have seen this week, doing extraordinary jobs in impossible environments. It will have to stand in place of all the pictures I didn’t take in the hopsital, and that I’m not sure you would have wanted to see anyway.
And it represents you. You who have the power to change things here.
Keep up to date with our Blogladesh trip by following my blog’s RSS feed and by following me on Twitter. Don’t forget to read my team-mates blogs too – Sian at Mummy Tips (@mummytips), Eva at NixdMinx (@nixdminx) and Liz from Save the Children (@lizscarff and @SaveChildrenPR)
And MOST IMPORTANTLY make sure you come and sign our petition and Press for Change.