I am sitting here at my laptop in one of the poorest countries on our planet, trying to make sense of the world. When I talk about poverty in Bangladesh, I am talking about the lack of economic development. There are some things in which Bangladesh is not poor at all. I have been greeted with an amazing generosity of spirit. I have been looked after as if I was an old friend, not as someone that people here first met in the middle of October this year. I have been taken out to see the country; I have been invited to festivals and a wedding. I have been taken into people’s homes. I have been welcomed.
One of the things that is quite striking about Bangladesh is the way that, if people see anything unusual, they stop and stare. Strangers are not that usual in Kakina, or in Lalmonirhat district. Everyone knows everyone else, and visitors are a novelty. So when Ishrat, Irene and I set off anywhere we are certainly of interest, if not actually the centre of attention. White people are definitely very unusual in Kakina, and they do not appear to have seen anything quite as white as me. People stop and stare, sometimes with their mouths hanging open. The less inhibited ones say “Salaam Aleikem” or “Pranaam” and shake our hands. Those without inhibitions are quite often children.
At Shueli’s wedding, the boys were very curious to see this white man, in a Panjabi shirt, who was allowed to sit on the bed with the bride for photographs. And so they came to take photographs, and then they wanted their photographs taken with me. After that, they wanted to shake my hand, ask my name and tell me theirs. They wanted to talk, and we managed that, although they had very little English and I have no Bangla at all. They went to get their friends to introduce them to me, and to have more photographs taken. They took my hand and led me to the food. Irene, who is well known in Kakina because she has visited so often, received similar treatment from the girls. The children played with us, and their parents looked after us. When we left the wedding, I felt a bit like the Pied Piper. The children surrounded the car to wave us goodbye, and then they followed us, waving, as we set off.
There has been another child who has delighted me. Shafiqul, one of the lecturers, invited us to his house for a meal, and it was there that we met Nishat, his three year old daughter. Nishat knew her auntie Irene and was delighted to see her, but she did not know me. She was not shy. We had no language in common, but Irene had brought balloons and a hand pump. We had soon blown up several of the balloons, and we hand-batted them to and fro until they burst. When it was time for us to go, Nishat came with us to wait for the motor-rickshaw, and I think the whole village came out to see us off.
If there is a lesson in all of this for me, it is that Desmond Tutu is right. Light is stronger than darkness, Love is stronger than Hate, Life is stronger than Death.
If we do not believe in our future, we betray ourselves. I am here to help deliver a library that is organised for use. We are here to deliver a practical act of solidarity for the people of Kakina, for the students at the college. We are here to help them to learn, and if they learn they can achieve, and if they achieve they can change the world. We must not give up our faith that this can be done.
And when I see the children, I have hope. They are eager, they are curious; they offer the hand of friendship without any ifs or buts. If we do not have hope, we betray their future. We may condemn them for no fault of their own.
And the whole community has offered us love. Without these three, we are useless. With them, we can take whatever blows rain down upon us. We can do anything with them; “Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is Love.”