Enjoying the open air.
Photo: Andrew Morris
The young girl thrusts the exercise book into my hand and stands beaming to attention. She is proud of the picture she has drawn, depicting an idyllic scene in which children play freely, outside a brightly-coloured house, set among bird-dotted ponds and tall trees. Hills undulate in the distance as the sun sets in a blaze of yellow and red. It is an image characterised above all by its sense of space, of untroubled and unconstrained freedom. An unremarkable picture, you might think, for a child to draw: just what you might expect. Until you consider the task the children have been set, in which they were quite clearly told to draw what they dream of in their future life, and the fact that this girl is another survivor from the BNWLA Hostel, whose experience and inner life up till now have been a world away from this scene of bucolic calm. For her and her fellow survivors, this scenario is indeed nothing more, at the moment, than a distant dream.
As part of our campaign to promote the profile of the Hostel Appeal, and to raise funds for the proposed new shelter home, a group of supporters have travelled to Gazipur to see the site where it is to be built. We're accompanied by eight children from the existing shelter, an adapted old people's home in central Dhaka. With us are some of the BNWLA programme staff and a VSO Volunteer from the Philippines, Jenny Gevela, who has been the main force behind organising this day out.
We set off at 9am. It's one of those fresh, crisp days in which the dust bounces in the dense morning sunlight slanting down through the trees. Our convoy of two microbuses weaves through the traffic, mercifully light this early Friday morning. The four kids in our vehicle are soon dozing off, sleeping at those improbable angles (one of their heads resting, for example, on the door handle) for which I always think Bangladeshis have a natural talent. Any nation which can produce people who can curl up and fall fast asleep on the back of a rickshaw deserves wide acclaim.
A sense of space (?)
There is little let-up in the urban sprawl for at least an hour and a half. A jumbled tangle of buildings, rickshaws, cars, and of course as ever, crowds milling everywhere (at such times more than others it hits you what it is to live in a small nation with 140 million other people). Eventually we leave the land of concrete behind us and plunge into a more spacious rural setting. At last the natural green of Bangladesh reasserts itself over the greys and browns of urbanity. Narrow paths wind down between scattered village houses. Thin cows nag at stubborn grass, and a family of ducks files past, pecking at the dirt. Eventually we turn off the main road into a small lane, and soon reach the site.
There is little yet to suggest what the site's future is, except for the grey boundary wall built back in 2004. There are detailed plans for the complex, from the shelter itself to training areas, family accommodation for visitors, offices, outside learning spaces and workshops, but all that remains on paper until the capital can be raised. In the meantime, the land stays unused, inhabited by a caretaker in his hut, nothing more than an enclosed field.
Which doesn't trouble our children one little bit of course. Piling out of the vehicles, they scamper off amongst the trees, hungry for space. And it is precisely this need which lies behind the entire drive for a new shelter home. The existing hostel, while well-maintained and brightly-coloured inside, has no area for play, and there are constant security concerns even about letting children out into the narrow courtyard, given that their legal cases are all pending and they are still vulnerable to abduction from the accused.
But how do you kick a ball inside a building, how do you climb a tree, and how do you pick a flower or chase a butterfly? Looking around, that is exactly what these kids have chosen to do after arriving.
After a late-morning snack of sandwiches, the kids are sent off with their paper and crayons to draw those dreams. One boy actually sketches the envisioned hostel, named Proshanti, with himself as a proud guard. A girl has drawn a picture of herself as a police officer, complete with rifle. A third has herself as a teacher in front of a well-disciplined class. “In fact,” she admits rather sheepishly, “I want to be a lawyer but I didn't know how to draw one of those.”
Scrutinising these children's faces, you would never initially guess what traumas they have been through, although even in this perfect play space, one or two of the girls remain solemn and serious beyond their years, unable perhaps to shake off the deep-seated sorrow they carry within them: these young kids have variously been raped, trafficked as sex workers or camel jockeys, abused as home workers or abandoned by desperate parents.
There is a poignant moment during the cultural show following our picnic lunch. As well as the fine dances performed by the eldest of the girls, a small play takes place in which two of the girls, aged 8 and 9, act out a dialogue between an employer and her domestic help. Initially lured off the streets with the promise of food and shelter, the home worker is then abused for not being able to cook, for having broken a cup, and for being asleep on the job. There is such chilling conviction in the way these roles are performed that it's fairly clear these are actions based far more on experience than on imagination.
Eventually it's time to pack up and head home. By now the girls in our bus, initially shy, are positively garrulous. They've enjoyed their day out, and are aware that such open-air play is not likely to come their way again soon in the near future. Leaning over the backs of the seats, they playfully ask all of us how many children we have, a question I have of course come to love by now. Occasionally I've been tempted to say I have 6, just to see the reaction, but today is one of my honest days, and so I come clean: not a single one. Then, as a joke, and remembering lots of village scenes where mothers have laughingly encouraged me to take their kids back to the UK, I say to the youngest girl, “OK, you can come and be our daughter.” I think nothing more of it, and the giggly conversation moves on.
It's ten minutes before I realise this girl has gone quiet. Her friend asks me if I was serious earlier on, and with a gulp I have to admit that I was just playing. The silent girl sits and stares fixedly out of the window, and I realise just how big a mistake I have made. There is tacit reproach in her limpid brown eyes even when I finally get out. It's clear just how unattainable a vision of normal family life, of a home, is for these kids. But this is the reality, and as long as there is a need, then shelter homes which provide refuge and rehabilitation will be a necessity.
And in the drive to get this one built, another subplot is beginning to unfold: that of the young people who have joined the appeal. A journalist, a student, teacher, a bank intern and a film director have all offered their valuable time and support, along with a lot of awareness-raising and fundraising initiatives, and this in itself is a very positive outcome of the whole campaign. They are setting an example which many can follow. All you need is energy and a social conscience: the will to devote a small part of your time to making a difference in the lives of others. God knows there's enough to be done here, whether helping out at a local NGO, forming a social activism society at your university, or even joining us. The time is now.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007