The skinny branches of life

April 15, 2011

Editor’s Note: G.E.M. Munro and his son Gabriel have, for the past two weeks, been speaking to Rotary Clubs in Saskatchewan and Alberta about their Mothers of Intention Literacy Program in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The following is a firsthand account by a Canadian volunteer who recently spent seven weeks working with the Amarok Society in that country.

By Jill Varley

Someone once told me that, now and then, it’s important to climb right out to the skinny branches of life.  I took this advice to heart this year and came to Bangladesh for a seven week volunteer experience with Amarok Society schools.

Nothing in my past had really prepared me for this journey.  My heart was pounding on the cold Montreal winter day when I made my way to the airport.  My only plan was to keep my heart and my mind open, and to contribute in any way I could.

Then again, can you prepare for a city like Dhaka?   The city is a five-alarm fire for all the senses.  As I perch precariously on the colourful but flimsy rickshaw behind the tiny rickshaw wallah, he drives right out into on-coming lanes of thundering buses, armoured SUVs and over-loaded trucks.  To defend us, he holds up a thin brown hand and rings a small bell.  I am sharply aware, for perhaps the first time, of the frailty of human life. Including mine!

Turning into the narrow alleyways of the slums, the rickshaw begins to expand in the narrow roadways lined with tiny shops selling vegetables or sacks of rice or hand-made luggage or plastic buckets.

No longer a delicate matchbox behind a bicycle, it has grown into a chariot with a most outlandish creature on display.  Every man, woman and child forgets the initial reason for being in the street, and turns to stare in shock at the unfathomable spectacle approaching.

The same questions are clearly etched on each face: what on earth can that be?  Is she lost? Can she really be so tall?  In my mind’s eye, I replay the moment of first contact from every science fiction movie I’ve seen.  My spaceship has indeed landed me in this slum in Dhaka; don’t worry, I am friendly!  And so, it turns out, are they.

Tanyss, and her daughter Grace remove their sandals and lead the way into the crowded, square little school room where the student mothers and their youngest children squeeze together on the mat covered floor.

As I settle onto the low stool at the front of the classroom besideTanyss and Grace, I look back at the dark, intelligent eyes before me.  They emerge from flowing colourful clothes that swirl around shoulders and over heads.  I am struck by the beauty of these women with their long silky hair arranged so carefully.   Later, it is their perseverance and good humour that win me over completely.

When we walk to visit the houses of a few mothers after class, we are chaperoned by a parade of children marching alongside us, vying to hold Grace’s hand.  I abandon my sandals and stoop again to enter a small, dimly lit room.  The large bed with a heavy wooden frame overwhelms the small space.

I sit on the bed and listen to the warm but impenetrable sounds of Bengali as the mother exchanges with her teacher.  I ponder the fact that this family of five lives together in this tiny room.  The two gas burners outside the door are shared among several mothers who must cooperate so that each can prepare her family’s meals.

Part of me still wants to look away from the gulf of poverty that we allow to exist between people in various corners of the world.

Later, I try to express my discomfort when I talk about this with my fellow Canadians.  Young Grace gently nudges me away from any angst-ridden inertia.  “I don’t worry much about how things make me feel.  I just focus on what we can do.”  Point taken!

The mothers in these neighbourhood slums have now been given half a  chance to receive the education they were denied as children.  And they are rising to seize this opportunity with one hand, while the other pulls a few children right along with them.

My volunteer experience with Amarok Society has given me an alternative to feeling hopeless in the face of the poverty of Bangladesh and the world.  I have seen that through Amarok Society, Canadians are making a direct, cost-effective and life-changing difference. I think that Grace is right.  Through simple acts of generosity, we can help these mothers create new worlds of possibility for themselves and their children.

Jill Varley lives in Montreal and recently spent 7 weeks in Bangladesh working hard for Amarok Society

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