A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Bangladesh
Tags: , , ,

Often have I heard NGOs and foreign-run local charities criticised for meddling in other people’s affairs when they don’t fully understand the culture or the best way to get things done. However, less is trumpeted about the wonderful people and organisations that are making a tangible difference to the daily lives of the world’s least fortunate and most marginalised. One such place we visited is called Shishu Polli Plus (Village of the Children) and is located 2hrs north of Dhaka. For years Muneeza’s parents have financially supported the charity having first heard of it through a BA in-flight magazine. The work they did touched their hearts so they decided to lend a helping hand. As we would be visiting Bangladesh and Muneeza’s Mum has never had the opportunity to see where her money goes, we decided to plan a visit. The local contact in England was really helpful and put us in touch with Khadija, the lady who runs the project locally. A phone call later and she had organised a driver for the day at a pretty decent price and we were booked to meet them on Monday 14th Feb.

The project background

SSP is a non-government organisation based in the Gazipur District of Bangaldesh to the north of Dhaka and a charity registered in the UK. It was founded in 1989 by Pat Kerr, then a BA flight attendant. It was built with the support of BA and a large number of private donors, mostly from the UK. SPP was officially inaugurated by the President of Bangaldesh, Hossain Mohammad Erhad, and Lord King, Chairman of BA. Currently the village is home to 500 children and 150 destitute women who all live and work on-site.  The vision of the village was to provide long term rehabilitation for poor and destitute women with children who otherwise would be unable to escape the poverty trap and cycle of marginalisation and in some cases, severe abuse.

It struck a chord that an English woman should be so affected by the street poverty she witnessed on her frequent stop overs in Dhaka during her time as a BA flight attendant. As with India, the poverty is all consuming. To be poor here is to be invisible. You have no home, no shelter, no money, no food and no protection. There are millions facing this situation, so competition for meagre resources and the help of kind strangers is intense and, as we discovered in Kolkata, often confrontational.

A vision of beauty

Pat Kerr is one of the special few who don’t just talk about injustice, they take action. Initially she supported another NGO, Families For Children, that was based in Dhaka. It was one of the few places that recognised that destitute mothers were placing their children into care, often at considerable risk, because they were unable to care for them. She instinctively knew that the best way to end the vicious cycle was to provide support to the mothers so that they could pull themselves and their children out of poverty and regain pride and respect.

What we saw at the village blew our minds and dwarfed expectations. As with the charity projects in Africa, Nepal and India we had visited, we were expecting something low key with a handful of people working tirelessly to help the families. SPP is in reality an entire village with approximately 750 people, staff included. The scale of its operations is incredible and testament to the vision and determination of its founder and her wonderful team. Here’s a brief run down:

  • Segregated buildings housing dorms for boys, girls and their mothers
  • Children’s playground
  • Swimming pool (under construction)
  • Water storage tank to improve their self-sufficiency
  • Vegetable garden
  • Small farm with 10 cows
  • Classrooms to educate children up to Standard 1 (College age)
  • Computer room
  • English language learning centre
  • Factories for producing handmade material such as cloth
  • Paper recycling facility and printing press
  • Kitchen to provide food for the entire village
  • Dining hall to serve the food
  • Offices for the staff and reception room for visitors.

 

And I haven’t even done the village justice with this summary. There is much more to behold. We were amazed at how well stuctured village life was. The thinking behind the structure is also smart. They don’t just take people in and give them alms. They make sure they are an integral part of village life and have responsibilities, so people gain self-respect by contributing. The teaching facilities and factories enable the women to work and to make unique handmade products that can then be sold for a profit. Take a peek at the website to see the wonderful cards they make with some unique and highly creative designs – last year they sold 70,000 and this year they plan to sell even more. In this way SPP is encouraging entrepreneurs and equipping women with key skills for survival once they and their children leave. Nobody is abandoned and ongoing support is given to those who most need it.

There is a retired man in the UK called Peter Wilkes who has taken on the mantle of helping the women from Sreepur generate income by selling the handmade products. Most of the people who are involved do this for the love of the village and not for financial gain. It shows how kind the world really can be.

A feeling of happiness and a golden glow

Khadija and her team were the kindest hosts we could have asked for. She is an inspiring woman and her fluent English helped us to probe her on the outlook and plans of the village. She has an impressive background in the not-for-profit work having travelled extensively for charities across Europe and spoken to many senior figures in international organisations like UNICEF.

Her dissection of the political malaise that prevents social problems from being adequately addressed by politicians was astute, as was her evident innate grasp of how to work with and support the women in the village. She is unmarried and without children yet she is a strong mother figure and the people of the village are essentially all her children. She has a warm heart and cares deeply and that made us feel humble once more.

Before we left she did two things that left us incredibly grateful. First she took us to her house in the village and showed us around, insisting on feeding us with fresh fruit and telling us about her life and family. Then, with no need to do so, she got one of the men to phone the bus companies to work out how we could get to Shrimangal, our intended destination the next day. They came back with the information written on a piece of paper and Khadija spoke to our driver and made sure he took us to the right place to book tickets. Her kindness has been mirrored in many of the people we have met here; it seems that Bangaldesh has a kind, warm heart if you open yourself up to the people as Pat Kerr clearly did.

love jamer & muneeza x

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