Just lying in my arms…
Today we are to visit the homes of two families whose children work in the local factories. It is exciting to be able to meet with these people and see how they live. The area we are going to is known as the slums by everyone, although very few of the people from Dhaka have actually been inside them. We are some of very few allowed to visit and film them.
Our trip really began when we reached the edge of the slums, the roads are so narrow that the cars cannot pass through and the only transportation is the rickshaw. As we go into the slums, it is apparent that these are not the roads but alley ways. There are no road surfaces, just mud and heaps of garbage. There are goats tied up, people trying to sell goods and flies everywhere. Also many, many children are running about.
The smell is something you cannot describe and is sickening. I try not to breathe through my nose. We bounce and swerve amidst the staring eyes of people who are unused to European faces. We are followed by a selection of children and adults eager to see where the white faces are going. It’s at this point we have to leave the rickshaw behind and walk instead.
I feel very vulnerable without the safety of the rickshaw, mainly because perhaps these people are suspicious of outsiders. I feel hot, sweaty and dirty as the pathways get narrower and narrower. When we arrive at the home of Jhuma it just looks like a doorway in a mud wall, but as we pass through a rabbit warren of rooms and make shift steps to different levels, we are greeted by Jhuma’s mother, Fatema, who informs us that her daughter had to go to work because it is Ramadan and she has the chance to earn extra money by working longer hours.
Once inside the home, albeit a small 3×3 box of one room for the whole family, we are invited to sit on the bed. It is the bed which dominates the room. There is just this room whose entrance leads to the path outside. By this time several families have come out of their homes to look at their strange visitors. The bed is just a square raised space made of wood, with a cover over it, this is where the family sleep; mother, father, baby and 4 children.
The baby is malnourished. Nearly half of all children under five in Bangladesh are underweight or small for their age and malnutrition is still an underlying cause in two thirds of deaths of children under five, this is shocking to learn. As I hold the baby, the first thought I have is of how light the child is; she just lies in my arms, never taking her eyes off her mother’s face, her tummy and head looking too large for her tiny frame.
The belongings of this family are virtually non-existent. I probably have more clothes in my suitcase than these people own. No carpet, no curtains, the room seems empty, yet for all the lack of basic essentials the floor is clean. I go outside and sit down to chat with the other people who have brought their children and their babies to check us out. It’s at this point that I try to bridge the gap in cultures and show some photos of my own family and friends. Their interest is aroused, and we communicate by using our hands. They love the photos and pass them eagerly around, asking questions and laughing at the images. If I have learned one thing on this trip it is that no matter how rich or poor we are all of us are inquisitive about how others live.
I am also very aware of how close this community is; many brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts all supporting each other and taking part in each other’s lives. Most of the children are very thin and unkempt but jostle with each other to sit with and touch the strange lady visitor. They are so proud of the children and when we show interest, one of the girls stands next to me and sings a song. This little girl is so pretty and is obviously thought of as their best singer as everyone stands quietly as she sings so prettily. I feel as if we are all beginning to build a rapport between us, but alas we must go as we are to visit the home of Rubel, the little boy of 10 who works in the steel factory.
To get to this other dwelling, we must navigate through the tiny alley ways; the smell and the heat are unbearable. Just when you think it can’t get worse, a small square opens up – possible 5×6 yards. There is rubbish everywhere and stepping stones have been haphazardly placed along the route. Sewage and water covers the ground and we make our way across this square. The stones are slippy and the smell which comes up from the mess is terrible. It’s at this point that I slip and fall and lie soaked in this foul mess.
My first reaction is to jump up; the germs in this filthy mess must be astronomical. As I got up I drip with the foul stenching liquid, all this to the horror of my hosts who are so concerned about me. They are proud of the way I brush myself off and very sad about my fall, but no damage is done, but this is the reality of living in these filthy slums.
Young children are living and playing amongst this filth; it is no wonder that diarrhoea amongst the children and adults is common, and one of the biggest causes of ill health. We meet Rubel, a small boy of about 10 years and his mother and father. As we chat, the people in the other dwellings fight at the door to see us; the open window is crammed with faces eager to see who these newcomers are. I sit on the bed and Rubel’s mum tells us her story; they have come from outside Dhaka, from a small village. After their home was destroyed in a flood they came to the city for a better life where his father and his brother can work. Rubel tells us he used to attend school in his village, but now works 12 hours a day in the steel factory to help support the family.
Rubel is a charming boy who is small for his age and like all the children we have met, just seems to accept his lot. This house is slightly bigger than the last, still very small but with another tiny room. The families’ possessions are very few, a small wooden table, a bed and a few shelves. Talking to these lovely people makes my heart break, the lives these children lead and the expectations they have. These families are just fighting to survive and live one day at a time.