Iâ€™d travelled through India many times before, and so I felt pretty at ease when I arrived in Bangladesh. Â As we roamed the streets amidst the buzzing rickshaws, overflowing gutters and oily food carts, it felt very much like the childhood trips weâ€™d make to Kerala. This time around, though, I was going to experience this part of the world through very a differentÂ lensÂ than which my upper-middle class background had provided.
The Kalyanpur Pora Basti slum is one of Dhakaâ€™s largest, housing over 20,000 people of the 30 million people living under the poverty line in Bangladesh. One of Jolkonaâ€™s earliest partners is Distressed Children and Infants (DCI) – an organization committed to providing basic necessities such as food, shelter and education to disadvantaged children around the world. Romel Nasher, the Executive Director of DCI and his warm staff greeted us at their headquarters, and took us to two of their projects â€“ their free health clinic and their girls orphanage.
Our first stop was the DCI health clinic, which offers preventative and curative healthcare including basic immunizations, health check ups for pregnant women, and health education. Although Dhaka has many modern clinics, the poor cannot even access their doors. The existing health support for them is minimal. The health clinic serviced over 3100 patients last year, with a staff of just 6 doctors, 3 social workers and a few staff working 5 days per week. The number of patients this small clinic receives in a day is a real indication of the need for these kinds of facilities in the slums of Dhaka.
The clinic was located in a corner of the slum, close to a sea of parked rickshaws (Dhaka is the rickshaw capital of the world, and many slum residents make their living as drivers). As we walked towards the simple concrete building, we were greeted by dozens of children. Some were shy, others were curious about our multi-ethnic group of volunteers, and others were bashfully waiting to take our picture. The smiles and joy emanating from the children – many without shoes and with ribs sticking out of their malnourished bodies – struck me.
The children followed us to the doors of the DCI health clinic, a building that is well known in the area since itâ€™s the only free health clinic accessible to the 20,000 residents. One of the staff members showed us an enormous, worn out book that was crammed with names of their patients and vaccination information. Forget about technology or computer access here â€“ this book with rows of handwritten information was the key to patient management.
We then had a chance to meet one of the 6 doctors. Dr. Majid, like the other staff doctors, splits his time between a government hospital and the DCI health clinic. When we asked him why he decided to spend time at a slum clinic, he repliedÂ â€œthe people at the hospital say thank you when I help them, but at this clinic in the slums I feel like they are giving me blessings. Thatâ€™s how grateful the people are here for this free clinic.â€ Dr. Majid explained that over 80% of the slum children are malnourished and that the most common types of medicines he administers are for fever, anti-diarrheal and pre-natal shots. In an attempt to help prevent such problem,Â the clinic providesÂ 5 pre-natal care and educational check-ups for mothers prior to birth.
Outside the window, we began to hear childrenâ€™s voices and soon a dozen or so were at the window, mischievously peering in at us. We went outside and were immediately surrounded by children, excited to tour their neighborhood with us. We walked through the narrow dirt streetsÂ amongstÂ the noise of rickshaws and motorcycles. Men played caroms, a local game similar to billiards. We got to examine the creative ways in which slum residents made their living – Â through small food stalls of poori and fried goods, and others worked on sewing machines, mending and making clothes for a living.
Where were the women residents of the slums, I wondered? It wasnâ€™t until we entered the â€œunitsâ€ that we peered down an extremely narrow pathway filled with rows of homes that we saw them in action.Â The women were busy cooking fish in clay pots outside their homes, tending to children, drying their clothes or watching TV on a small refurbished model. They smiled as we walked through their unit, and one kind young women in a green salvar kameezÂ invited us to see her home. The woman smiled at us and asked us to sit on the bed, which also served as her couch, in this dark, hot room with a small fan blowing in the corner. She lived in this room with her husband, 2 children and also her sister and mom. It was at this moment, as I sat on the bedÂ – Â in this home that was smaller than bedroom back in CaliforniaÂ – that I was truly hit by the magnitude of poverty here. I held back tears as the woman kept thanking us for visiting her in her house — didn’t she know that it was our honor?
At the very end of each â€œunitâ€ is a space of 3 toilet rooms that are shared by the residents. Slum residents donâ€™t have access to water in their homes, so water pumping stations throughout the complex are extremely important. We watched as young, muscular boys clambered over each other, laughing and pumpingÂ fresh water into buckets. Itâ€™s essential for the residents to get their water from these pumps rather than the polluted waters that surround the slum. We were happy to learn that DCIâ€™s health clinic also spends time raising awareness about hygiene and sanitation in order to reduce common waterborne diseases in the slum area.
My favorite part of the afternoon with DCI and the slum residents was when we got back to the health clinic after our tour. The children had followed us back to the clinic, and right before we re-entered the building, we felt the beginnings of rain. While the group of us volunteers were quick to get inside the building, shrieking and laughter ensued from the kids. As one of the DCI staff explained, it hadnâ€™t rained in the area for over 3 weeks. Our trip had corresponded with some good fortune for the community.Â Though I resisted at first, I soon joined a group of kids in the rain, slipping, sliding, jumping, even shampooing their hair! They played with us without a care in the world. I felt deep moved and inspired by their resilience and courage.
What DCI is providing for the children and residents of the slums is basic access to the healthcare, both preventative and curative. As a result of the work of this small, dedicated staff, over 3100 residents have received treatment, 48 pregnant mothers have received prenatal care, and 110 patients were referred to specialized hospitals for support. Iâ€™m so impressed by their work and proud to call them a Jolkona partner.
Weâ€™ve launched a campaign to support DCIâ€™s health clinic. Visit ourÂ campaign page for the DCI Health ClinicÂ here to donate and learn more about how you can make a difference by providing medical supplies to Bangladeshi kids.