A UK volunteer tells his Bangladeshi experience
As my plane touched down in Bangladesh international airport on the 14th of august 2009, I felt a sigh of relief as I had finally fulfilled an old promise which I made about 15 years ago to a very close school friend of mine (Ali Kiaes) to one day come and visit him in his home country. I had arrived mainly for the purpose of continuing my aim of trying to do dental charity work in the most needed parts of the world every few years, and it was sweet to know that on this trip a reunion with an old friend was on the cards too. It was a very long night flight from London via Dubai and I was quite tiered and disorientated as I got off the plane, but at the same time I was filled with a sense of excitement and was ready to learn about this new place and it’s people. I was met at the airport by the charity Project manager (Enam AL-Haq) and my old dear school friend (Ali Kiaes) , who both took me straight to the Emirates Ship, that was docked on the Dhaka river. This where I would spend my first week in Bangladesh, on board this floating hospital where I would both work and live on.
I very quickly realized upon arrival that this would be no holiday, as I was almost immediately asked to see some of the staff who worked on the ship who had dental issues, as they had been waiting for my arrival anxiously to see if I could help treat them. What then followed was a very busy schedule of work for the rest of the week from 9am till about 6pm daily continuous treatments, with only an hour for lunch. What surprised me was the amount of patients that would start queuing outside the ship from 5am in the morning, in order for them to be seen by me for treatment. I would see on average 30-40 patients per day and with the help of my nurse who did all the translating for me, we managed to get through the tough first week. My dental clinic consisted of a very old and basic dental chair and equipment-but at least it all worked and was good enough to carry out my treatments! The ship was comfortable but very basic, the sleeping quarters were clean and the food was freshly cooked everyday and served to us at the captain’s table where he would join us for meals (Captain Qudous). The patients were very poor and uneducated people from the slums of the city, often coming to me bare foot and with no basic idea’s of what is needed to keep your mouth healthy-e.g. daily brushing and not eating lots of sugary food (basic knowledge that we take for granted in the west).
The Emirates ship, was sponsored by the Emirates Airline Foundation which in turn worked very closely a remarkable charity called ‘Friendship Bangladesh’ that made this trip possible (http://friendship-bd.org/). On my second day onboard, the charity CEO Miss Runa Khan (or the madam as she is called by staff), came to pay me a visit and to greet me and thank me for my efforts and hard work. She was a very well educated lady who has travelled the world trying to raise awareness of her charity and gather support for it. We clicked immediately and got on really well, we had spoken on the phone a few times before I came to Bangladesh, but this was our first face to face meeting. I could see the kindness in her heart and her strong determination to help her people. She was a very powerful lady from an aristocratic back ground who had dedicated the past 20 years of her life to helping the poor and needy. She was a strong woman who commanded respect from all around her, yet at the same time she was humble and down to earth.
During my first week I had a few afternoons where I was escorted by the staff who worked on the ship and allowed to wander around the streets and slums near the ship. These were quite dangerous areas and hence I was not allowed to walk alone here, and defiantly not after dark!
Many of the locals looked at me and stared heavily as I stuck out like a sore thumb with my western style clothes and looks. The inner city slums were very dirty and polluted with no clean drinking water supplies or proper hygienic sewage disposal. It was overcrowded and smelly with often an entire family living in more than one room of space. I was lucky to see the many garment factories that lined the river front as Bangladesh is one of the world’s most famous garment producers, manufacturing clothes for the likes of multinational companies such as Next, Gap and Zara to name but a few. Dakha was a strange mix of either extremely rich people with lavish life styles and immense wealth or the complete opposite poverty way below the red line. People who literally had nothing and were prepared to steal and loot to feed themselves and their families. I would say the split was about 98% very poor and only 2% very rich.
My first week was a real eye opener and it’s such a cliché but it really is true, that living days like these makes you appreciate what you have and be grateful for it. Even though my work schedule was exhausting with no or minimal breaks, deep inside I felt a feeling of pride and achievement that I could help bring a smile to the faces of these people and get them out of pain and treat them. On board the ship we had many times were the backup generator failed and cut off hence no fans would work and no water was pumped through the pipes making it very hot and uncomfortable, but this was all part of the experience!
My second week was planned so that I travel with the charity and with other doctors from the USA to go and continue my charity work deep in the country side or the chars as they call them. Bangladesh suffers from a lot of flooding and monsoon weather so many areas are only accessible by boats. We drove overnight for about 9 hours up north on a small mini bus along with other medical colleagues and staff from the charity, to a remote area called Guibander. We were accompanied by both Enam the charity project manager, whom soon became a good friend of mine on this trip and also by Naseeha a very pleasant lady from the charity. She was coming to carry out research on women’s health and conduct a family Planning survey along with teaching. In her team she had Dr. Gupta and Dr. Geeta from the USA.
The country side was something else, absolutely gorgeous scenery, never ending lush green rice valleys along the horizon and fresh clean air. The people were still the same very poor but you felt they were less desperate than the poor people in the city slums. Again here it was the same set up, but this time we had a separate house boat as our living quarters and a separate boat where we worked. Again this was like a floating hospital; however this ship was busier as there were many other international teams of doctors’ present working in ophthalmology/oncology and orthopedics. The queue of patients would again start at 5am and extend to hunderds of people long, some of whom would have travelled by boat and on foot for 2 days to get here for treatment and had eaten nearly nothing at all for those 2 days! It was overwhelming the response and greeting I had from the locals.
Here at Guibander we were providing basic medical services that were not present for something like another 100 miles. The main environmental challenge facing these poor areas of farm land is that every year due to the flooding more and more of the land gets broken off and lost to the rivers and so valuable farming land was being lost yearly along with the livelihood of these communities! The evenings here were more action filled as the locals and boat staff had set up a make shift volleyball court on the flood plains near the ship, and every evening the staff and villagers would play together and this always attracted a big crowd. I was invited to play once and then soon became addicted to the atmosphere and fun as it then became part of my daily routine!
On my third day in Guibander the charity CEO Miss Runa Khan paid us a visit along with his Excellency the assistant minister of NGO’s, they arrived by seaplane flying in from Dhaka. Their trip was to monitor progress in the area, and for the assistant minister to see for himself the work done by the charity. I was invited that day to tour the areas with them so that I could see the other activities provided by friendship, like schools for underprivileged kids, water pumps set up in remote villages and cloth factories to help financially sustain the local communities for the future.
As my second week of hard work finished, I had adapted to my new surroundings and environment and it was as if I had never lived in the west. I was use to my fan being my only source of cooling and using a bucket of water for showering and for using the toilet facilities. I had grown very fond of the local dessert dish called misty and that showed in my waistline! I felt sad to be leaving these amazing people behind and the simplicity of the county side to be going back to the hustle and bushel of the overcrowded city. But the prospect of seeing my old school friend ail kieas and spending the last few days with him was enough to put a smile on my face. Since my arrival I did not have any time to spend with my friend, so this was the only few days we had to catch to catch up properly before I leave. Me and Ali were best friends from boarding school days back in 1990, were we studied for 4 years together and shared a dorm in Bethany School (Kent) for 2 years.
Ali came from a wealthy Bangladeshi family and wasted no time at all showing me a different face of Bangladesh, one that was not obvious or easily seen on the surface amongst the midst of all this poverty. He treated me to a full five star haircut, massage and facial that was second to none and we dined with Bangladeshi ambassador the USA. We also toured the southern part of the country where his family business was located in Chittagong and Cox bizarre (which is the longest unbroken stretch of sandy beach in the world about 22km!). There we witnessed the filming of a new Bollywood blockbuster movie and were lucky enough to take pictures with the leading actress.
This left me with one last day back in the capital Dhaka to say good bye to all my friends from the charity before I flew back to London. As I finally left Bangladesh I had a huge smile on my face and a feeling that this won’t be my last visit to Bangladesh I had fallen in love with the culture and people of this magical land, an absolute adventure and an experience of a lifetime!
Dr. Wael El-Afghani
Cert. Sedation & Pain Management-Eastman