DCI Volunteer Jon Coleman Visits Bangladesh to Perform Social Network Research

Jon Coleman

Jon Coleman

I could never have anticipated that I would go to Bangladesh. There are many obstacles that would have prevented me from ever travelling to Bangladesh. I am Jewish, frequently travel to Israel, and have an Israeli mother. Bangladesh does not recognize Israel, and has punished travel to Israel as a crime. Still, for nearly a month, I found myself in Dhaka and Shaula Village, Patuakhali District. I was given the opportunity to go to Bangladesh as a representative of Distressed Children & Infants International (DCI). DCI is a child rights organization. It has many inventive programs, but my focus was on the Rural Health Program and Sun Child Sponsorship Program (SCSP). The SCSP is a unique sponsorship program in that it targets children who are taken out of school to work to support their families. In addition to clothing and materials given to the children, the families are also given a stipend and income generating materials to keep their children out of work. I had been involved sporadically with DCI for a few years. My family sponsors two children in Shaula, but visiting seemed like a far off idea.

My involvement in DCI started through my mother who, six years ago, sold a house to Dr. Ehsan Hoque. At that time DCI was an idea. As a Bangladeshi, Dr. Hoque saw children as the way to help his country. If the children are healthy and educated, they will be able to lift the country up. This is the driving force behind DCI. This vision was admirable, but it was the tireless work of Dr. Hoque and countless hours of work by his family and other volunteers that has garnered the support from diverse places such as Yale University and numerous health and child rights NGOs. DCI is now has chapters in multiple areas of the US with a constant stream of volunteers. The Sun Child Sponsorship Program now includes over 800 children in five villages throughout Bangladesh.

I was in Bangladesh to assess the level of hygiene knowledge and to try and use graph theory and social networking as a means of speeding up behavioral change and basic health knowledge. The driving idea is that there are certain people that are already sought for advice. If we target these people and give them knowledge to spread around, we will speed up the process of information spreading.

Bangladesh is a country of dichotomies. There are Lexuses, BMWs, and sports cars flying by bicycle-powered rickshaws and human powered “pickup trucks.” There are gated, expensive apartments bordering slums; the flurry of Dhaka against the tranquility of the villages. In some way, my mission was to reduce these disparities.

I arrived in Dhaka on March 24. After the glitz and glam of Doha, Qatar, Dhaka was a real shock. As I walked from the terminal to the pick-up area, I glanced at the ruby-red sun and realized that this was going to be a very different place. When I walked outside, the thickness and stickiness of the air felt like a wall. Still, I arrived to much fanfare and greeters who held flowers. Then my three greeters and I pulled out of the airport basically straight into oncoming traffic. Horns blaring on all sides, I had arrived in Bangladesh. That trip to Mohammadpur was a rush. The crowds, the heat, and simply trying to internalize everything. After rolling down the dusty, narrow street of Mohammadi Housing District, I arrived to a packed office to more flowers and a true feast.

I ate by flashlight because the power was out, which became something I eventually got used to. The next day, accompanied with Mr. Monaem, I took a short rickshaw journey – more for the experience than for practical reasons – to the Health for Underprivileged Program (HUP). I was met by an enthusiastic young doctor, Dr. Zaheed, sitting behind his desk and a large ledger, where all of the patients’ records were kept. The system was surprisingly sophisticated. Patients all carried a pamphlet with their identification and a brief medical history. Later that day, I visited the slums near the office. I tried to prepare myself for what I knew would an abject poverty I had never really experienced by looking at pictures others had taken.

The tightness – such that we had to side-step single file, the scent – a mixture of burning trash, food, and waste, and the maze of the slums was something pictures could not capture. It was my first full day in Bangladesh, and even if there was anything I could say, I did not know how to say it. I saw seven people, two parents and five children, living in a shack that could not be more than six feet by eight. We could see the smoke billowing from the room because the cooking was done in the same hut. I was seeing Bangladesh through the lens of public health, so I could not help but think about the respiratory ramifications. The huts are also a mixture of wood and tin, making them hot and very flammable.

The slums sit on bamboo stilts above wetlands. The toilet, a covered chute, empties into the same wetlands. The tube well spigot is about 150 feet from the toilet and maybe ten from the start of wetlands. As we made our way through the labyrinth of alleyways, we were met with houses stacked on top of each other, which leaned over the narrow streets. It was nearing dinner time, and we saw plates of rice covered with flies. It was unclear to me whether this rice would be eaten, or would be cooked again, but we asked one of the women whether she knew flies were all over her rice, and she replied, “Flies aren’t a problem.” In terms of public health, and in terms of emotion, this was overwhelming.

With this experience behind me, I spent the next day meeting with different representatives of different organizations. I was able to observe an Aparajeyo Bangladesh clinic, an NGO orphanage. After going through some of the most concentrated and incredible traffic, rickshaws on all sides and everyone jockeying for position, we reached Saderghat boat terminal, where I would take a launch to Shaula Village. The road traffic was only equaled by the water traffic. Hundreds of small gondolas crisscrossing the oil-black water of the terminal, with shipping boats so full their decks were below water, I just stood and watched.

By the time we started our journey, it was evening and the jetlag had caught up to me. I saw the fishing boats that checkered the night, and woke up at sunrise to another ruby-red sun. There were no buildings in sight, the water had turned a fresh green color, and the animals outnumbered the people. As the hours on the boat passed, the docks ended and the boat just pushed into the soft riverbank, and the villages grew less industrialized.

After arriving in Shaula Village, Rajen, the DCI Project Manager in the village, and I walked through the Bogi Bazar, the main market in town. This was my first experience with celebrity as everyone’s eyes followed me down that dirt road. This would be a common occurrence as the days progressed. The next couple of days were spent exploring the village, to get more acquainted with the people and the geography.

The next two weeks were spent collecting surveys. There are two government schools in Shaula – North Shaula School (KNS) and South Shaula School (KSS). Most of our first day was spent in KNS, where three classes all go on simultaneously in the same room and the classes only meet half of the day due to inadequate space. The kids were shy at first, and communicating that was very difficult, but the children and I started to understand one another. We played “head, shoulder, knees and toes,” and they taught me a few games. After a few hours, we made it through and completed more than enough surveys for the day.

Later that day, we went to KSS. This school also served as a cyclone shelter, and had two classrooms, so classes still shared rooms. The children of the South school seemed a little less nervous to see me. This may have been because we arrived in the afternoon, when the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes meet, or it could be their proximity to the main arteries of the village. Either way I was treated to some Bengali songs and dances, and tried to share a few American ones.

In the evening we started our social networking surveys. These were much more involved, took more time, and were hampered by the following that gathered around us. But in the next fourteen days we were able to complete over fifty of these surveys from all parts of Shaula, and an additional fifty children’s health assessment surveys. The other parts of the days were spent walking around and taking in all of the sights. I saw men climbing coconut trees, cattle driving, pre-industrial agriculture, and lots of fishing. Small boats that looked only big enough to fit one person were shared by entire families who lived on these boats year round. I was fascinated by these families. I could not imagine a life living on these tiny floaters. I was told of the danger of travelling by launch; how come the monsoon season, these ferries have a reputation for sinking. I wondered what happened to the fishermen during these times. I learned that it did not take a monsoon for tragedy to strike the fishermen. One night a one-year-old living on a boat with his family walked off of the boat and drowned. Every other night, the boy had been tied to the boat to prevent him from going overboard, but this night, the family had forgotten. They found his body that afternoon.

The people in the village were the most hospitable people I had ever met. The little they had, they were always willing to give; food, chairs, drinks. After a few days, I had learned enough to say ‘Hello,” ask people their names, and “Thank you.” After the initial shock of hearing me say “Bhalo Achen?” the villagers felt more at ease. Every day as I would leave TDH, one boy was always waiting for me at the gate. Our Bangla and English were at similar levels, but it was one of the things I looked forward to each day.

The two weeks I spent in Shaula helped me refine the goals of the mission. We were able to see quickly that certain people were clearly go-to people in terms of information sources. It was also amazing to see how different areas of the village had such varied social structures. For example, the area near the Bogi Bazar and the main market is denser, and people rely on neighbors for help and advice more than in other areas. As you move North in Shaula, the village becomes less dense, and because there is no quick communication, neighbors are relied on less and markets and other central areas relied on more.

I spent much of my time just trying to glean what I could to understand the life in the village that was so different from my own. I was helped in this by two English-speaking Bangladeshis staying at the guest house. Every night we would have an “adah,” and talk politics, share songs and philosophies. When he could, Rajen would join, and we would talk through the power outages and late into the night.

Two weeks and over one-hundred surveys later, I was back on the launch to Dhaka. I was excited to be able to communicate with my friends and family more regularly, but I was also sad to leave Rajen and the other friends I had made in the village. At a few points, between the celebrity-like stares, people came up to me and asked me not to leave, telling me that people liked me here. I was at a loss of what to say. I told them I would come back.

The launch back was just as interesting as the first. The moon was full and low, which lit up the entire river as we paddled down. During my time in Shaula, I was warned about the unpredictability of the weather and the poor record of the launch. I had experienced some of this in the days prior to my return to Dhaka. The days were more humid in Shaula than Dhaka, but there was some refuge in the shade of the trees. But after cloudless days, the winds would change in the evenings, and would pick up the dust and shake the trees. The rain never came, which I was thankful for, but a week after I left, a monsoon did roll off the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh has so much to offer visually and culturally. The rickshaws are just as much art as transportation. The sun has an intensity I have not seen anywhere else. The Bangladeshis I met, child to adult, had innumerable songs, dances, and poetry memorized, while I relied on my IPod. The culture is also painstakingly hospitable. But it is hampered by corruption, poverty, and party politics that I felt from the capital all the way down to the seemingly ungoverned village.

In many instances we were told that there were a few “elites” that the average villagers did not like in part because the people were different political parties, and this at times led to violence – in a 4000 person village. In the capital and in universities this is an unfortunate but regular occurrence. In many instances, including one of the families that I sponsor, there is only food if there is work that day. For the other child I sponsor, and in many such cases, children are left to friends or relatives for long stretches as parents go to the capital or cities in search of work.

Bangladesh has an untouched natural beauty and a friendliness that I have found in very few other places. When I said I had never had a coconut before, I could not leave one family’s home until someone climbed a tree and got me a fresh coconut. The people were also had an insatiable curiosity about the US. As we would walk around, someone would point to a tree and ask “do you have this in America?” This happened dozens of times each day.

The Bangladeshi people realize that there is a lot of work to be done in their country. Many people I met told me almost pleadingly that there is so much here, if only we fixed the poverty, or the health, or the corruption, etc. Solutions to these problems that have become commonplace and tacitly accepted, if not expected, will not come easily. Nevertheless, there are some very creative and selfless NGOs in Bangladesh making a real difference for the people. And while the environment is unique in Bangladesh, it is really the people that make Bangladesh special. I met many of these people on the ground in Bangladesh. The people who worked with me, worked tirelessly for the children. I came to recognize the power of providing small changes in poverty stricken peoples of Bangladesh, but also the power of one person’s vision to change the lives of thousands of people. Without Dr. Hoque and his family, there would be no volunteers, there would be no DCI, and hundreds of children would find themselves out of the classroom and in child labor. This is the power of one person’s vision.