Saturday, June 15, 2013

Day 447: A Beautiful, New, Sustainable School

For maximum effect, Chris led us by the old school first. There it was, around the corner from the temple, a tiny tin shack with the Coke-bottle light still giving some light, but otherwise dark and stiflingly hot. But not one child was there, no whites-of-eyes peering out through the darkness, trying to learn in those oppressive conditions. It had returned to what it should have always been--a storage shed. What we had come to celebrate, then, was the transformation of a place. We had come to celebrate a new building.

Transformation, however, is perhaps not the best word. For what we saw when we emerged from the tiny corridors of the Hindu cobbler village was really not much different than what I had seen at the same spot eight months ago. There was the small causeway leading to the site, the orchard of young guava trees beyond, and the storybook loaf of piled-up hay. It was still cool, damp, and quiet--insulated by the foliage from the noise of the village road. Shafts of sunlight, just as before, were breaking through the dense canopy of mango leaves above. And the two calves, who were once busily munching on a pile of water hyacinth, would have been there too (for their tiny feeding station was still there) if they had not grown up and moved off to graze somewhere else. And yet somehow a school was there too. A beautiful, new, sustainable school. I remembered wanting to linger and watch life grow out of this latent corner of the earth. And now the school was there, indeed, as if it had grown right out of the earth.

Ananya and Shareq
Shahed recognizing Marc
(currently in Dubai)
So integration seems a better word. Harmony is even better. This harmony with the trees, the soil, the light, and the breeze was achieved through the dedicated work of architects Shareq and Ananya Chowdhury and the ingenious builders from SAFE (Simple Action For the Environment). Shareq and Ananya were front and center at the ceremony--along with Chris and Shahed Kayes of the Shubornogram Foundation, directing the dedication--and they shared their vision with the small but diverse group of teachers and community leaders that had gathered to celebrate. In Bangla and English, they explained how they wanted to remain true to tradition, Sonargaon being the ancient capital of Bengal, where, in the ancient past, classes took place outdoors under the protection of the trees. In accordance with their vision, students will now learn as they did centuries ago: in the lap of Nature, our greatest teacher. Chris, keeping with the motif, presented a young mango tree to be planted at the site as an enduring symbol that the community and the new school will grow; but if the community commits to caring for the school daily, it will flourish.

Chris celebrating his partner
He was speaking of sustainability, and this is where the new building stands as a rare example. This is why we should take a moment to celebrate a mere building, letting the limelight linger for a while on the structure before the light inevitably falls on the dozens of precious young lives learning inside. Sustainability, in a word, is balance. It is harmony. Through harmony with nature, the new school is sturdy, cost-effective, comfortably conducive to learning, and aesthetically welcoming. It harmonizes in a way that suggests it may not even be there. That something as substantial as a new school is barely noticeable in its environment is a much needed example for our world. Too often development means obtrusive eyesores and disregard for nature, and sustainability seems to be measured by the amount of rebar one has sticking above the concrete columns on one's unfinished concrete roof. What's worse, this vision of "progress" in the developing world has been bequeathed to it by the "developed" world, and so the "have-nots" will likely always want to have their development the way we in the West have presented it: fast, ugly, and unsustainable.

But not this time. An American and an Australian have joined with dedicated Bengalis (and many others along the way) to present a new village school. One that defies stereotypes of progress and presents a new standard. The only true and lasting standard. So when these students sit down to learn, they will be doing so with a leaf-scented breeze brushing their faces, or the light green glow from the guava grove reaching their eyes, and they will be embracing a new standard, but a standard as old as nature. With hope and time, they will gradually see that one's degree of harmony with the environment is the truest measure of a successful life. It will be as subtle as the stirring banners of color over the stairway and as unnoticed as a light shaft that shifts a mood from bad to good. But it will be perhaps the most important education they could ever receive.

Monday, April 1, 2013

After meeting up with Kevin: the course

This is the course we will be taking this year. It is exactly the same as last year's run.  This map of course does not include the India side of things, just the ground we will be covering in Bangladesh.   It's a beautiful run, nice and flat. I am looking forward to seeing it all again this year.  Check out pictures from last year's run on our facebook page.  (like us too, we are trying to get to 1000 likes!)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

April 1st: Day 1 for Building

This is a 3D model of the school we are building.  The SAFE team is officially starting on April 1st and is going to finish the entire build in 61 days!  Stay tuned for more information on the progress of the school and the Bangla-Dash 2013.

Friday, March 29, 2013

And that brings us to where we are now, a few random thoughts from Chris.

Chris with his follower (note, not followers) on a run.
We are five days away from the start of the Bangla-Dash 2013 and I have so much to write about.  On one hand, so much has happened since last year’s run and yet so little has happened in terms of what we ultimately want to accomplish.  It has been almost a year since Marc and I did the run.  It has been about two years since Marc convinced me to jump on board with this crazy idea. (It didn’t take much convincing. Uh, okay.)  If I could have predicted the future, I would have told you that at this point we would have had two schools built and everything would have been wrapped up.  The reality of the situation is that development takes time.  In a country like Bangladesh it was probably na├»ve to think that we could have finished this project in the time we wanted to.  Who knows, but the reality of the situation is here is where we are. 
For those of you that haven’t followed us from the start, you should know that we set out to raise over 20,000 USD to build as many schools as we could through two projects.  We accomplished the goal of raising the money (ticked that box) with about half of it going to The Solmaid Community School and the other half of the money still being spent on building schools for the Shubornogram Foundation. 
In January of this year I was able to attend the opening of the Solmaid Community School in a slum area just a stone’s throw from the school I work at.  I was happy to see that all the money we raised for this school played a big part in taking kids off the streets and giving them an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. My heart raced and in typical Chris fashion, I teared up as the school was officially opened.  The school honored the Bangla-Dash project by putting a framed picture of Marc and I up in the school.  While I didn’t expect it, I was touched by the recognition and appreciation on the part of the school and relieved that the school was up and running.  Another goal of the project got ticked off at that point.
However, the original organization that we had targeted was still waiting for their schools.  Marc and I had visited Sonargaon (the ancient capital of Bangladesh) several times, had numerous meetings and conversations with Shahed Kayes (founder of Shubornogram Foundation) about how we would be able to implement our project and build new schools for at least two communities.  Somewhere along the way we ran into a woman named Marie Pierre, who suggested we contact this engineer from the UK.  This random conversation and suggestion would change the course of the project, ultimately (we believe) for the better.  At this point we were introduced to John Arnold.  John is a rather remarkable person.  He had been living in Bangladesh doing all sorts of work on both big and small projects around the country.  John was interested in our “little school building project" and made a suggestion that we team up with a local NGO called SAFE. (Simple Action For the Environment)  We were intrigued by the work they have done and after a site visit back in November of last year, I was sold on committing to them as a partner in our project.  John had also made the suggestion that we involve a local architect, Shareq Chowdhury in the process.  Shareq accompanied me on a trip to one of the building sites and has been a mainstay in the project for the last six months.  (Pretty much out of the kindness of his heart I might add.)  He had done work with SAFE to build low cost housing in slum areas up in Dinajpur and now he was on board with us.  As I mentioned before, he took me up to Dinajpur in November to learn more about the type of construction that SAFE does and to get to know the people that run that organization.  I was blown away by the houses and projects that they had going on.  I was truly inspired by the work that Azit (the head of SAFE) and his team do.  That November weekend was one of my all time favorite Bangladesh experiences.
At some point in January, I met up with Azit, Shareq, John, Ananya, Pulin, Parimal and several architect students from BRAC University to conduct a workshop for the first community we hoped to build schools for in Sonargaon, (a Hindu cobbler community).  You would recognize the school and the children from all the pictures on the blog, Facebook and our website.  The “Dream School Workshop” was a huge success!  In the morning we invited all the children from the school to draw pictures of what they thought to be their ideal school.  They all had a chance to get up in front of everyone and present their ideas while Shareq and the team took notes.  The kids seemed to find it hard to come up with ideas as they have never known a school to be anything other than the corrugated iron box they currently call a school.  We did get several ideas from them though and consequently put them into the design.  In the afternoon we met with the village elders to discuss their ideas and how we could integrate the community into the project.  That was also a success and we seemed to get quite a bit of support for our endeavors.  At this point we had partners, ideas, money and now all we needed was a design and a start date.
Shareq and his wife, Ananya (who is also an architect), came up with an incredible design that took into consideration natural light, airflow, community needs and our requests.  We now needed to run the design by SAFE and Azit to find out how much this was going to cost us.  When Marc and I had originally set a target for raising money it had been based on 7,000 USD for a school and we had hoped to build two.  We had slightly less than that (not counting the money we raised for Solmaid).  I was disappointed to find out that we would not have enough money to build two schools and torn because I felt that we were letting down the second community.  The bottom line was (and still is) we can’t spend money we don’t have.  We weren’t even close to being able to build two schools. 
The way that SAFE builds structures is with mostly treated bamboo.  This is a way that people can use local renewable resources that will last.  In addition, they train the community members to use these building techniques in order to make the project even more sustainable.  These two factors were significant reasons why we chose to go with SAFE.  We felt that if we build a school that promoted sustainability and we could potentially build the capacity of people within the community in the process then that made the project all the more amazing in the process. 
After agreeing on a budget, we set a start date of April 1st, which is in a few days I might add.  Azit would need time to treat the bamboo and do all the prep work in order to finish the project in 61 days!  That brings us to where we are today, getting ready for another Bangla-Dash and getting ready to build. 
I want to write more about a lot of things: the Dash this year, me not running, Kevin’s heroic adventure and incredible feat he plans to accomplish.  It is late and I need to get to bed.  I will update this blog as quickly as I can and keep you all posted on how things are going both on the big run and with the build.  Meanwhile, Marc is working on profiling all the key players in this project so stay tuned for that as well.  If you are reading this, you are probably one of our sponsors so I just want to say thanks again.  You have made this possible and your kindness, generosity and interest are helping to shape many people’s lives in positive ways.  So Dhonnobad (thank you in Bangla).

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bangla-Dash 2013!

Kevin Tiller, "just an ordinary bloke doing his best", has joined the ranks of our "dashing" heroes. He will be running the same route this year for the same cause--by himself. Chris and the indefatigable Mofis will be his support crew. For full details and to donate visit Kevin's site:

Many thanks and best of luck, Kevin!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

And on the 209th day there was light...

As we walked away from the small plot of earth where a new school will be built over the coming months, I stopped and turned around to take in the view. Everything seemed miniature: the village behind me, the small causeway leading to the site, the orchard of young guava trees beyond, a storybook loaf of piled-up hay, and a squat bamboo storage shed. All was damp, dark, quiet, and insulated by foliage from the dusty chaos of the village road.

A single shaft of sunlight was breaking through the dense canopy of mango leaves above. It shot down to where two calves were busily munching on a fresh helping of water hyacinth that had been piled in their trough from the nearby slough. The stems, a tangle of shiny wet tubes, were a brilliant green in the natural spotlight. The black-on-white of the contented calves was brilliant too. Nudged by that sunbeam, I suddenly wanted to linger, to be welcome, to watch life grow out of this latent corner of the earth. This is what a small measure of light can do in a dark place.

(photo by Tasfiq of Change)
Back around the bend in the village is another miniature dark place: the school building currently being used by this Hindu cobbler community in Sonargaon. Building, of course, feels like an overstatement--this building is a four by six-meter tin shed. The only light is what comes through the door, two small windows, and the gaps under the eaves. But now there's another small source of amplified natural light. It's simple and sustainable, requiring only the sun's light to make it work. It's a two-liter Coke bottle filled with water poking through the tin roof. Even on this hazy day, it's adding light to the dark school. On a sunny day it may well brighten most of the space. Right now, though, it's difficult to tell how much real difference it makes.

It's difficult to tell. That's the tricky part about trying to do something worth doing in this world. How can we know that a "real difference" is being made? How does change actually occur?

(photo by Shah Shahid)
The desire to create change was certainly there on that day, as bright as any light can be. We were a potpourri of humanitarian intention: The Greenies, an environmental student group from International School of Dhaka (led by our own Bangla-Dasher, Chris Hesse), a Dhaka-based group called Change working in cooperation with A Liter of Light, and, of course, Shahed of the Shubornogram Foundation who is moving this school project forward with the help of the Bangla-Dash. We even installed a "Tippy Tap", an innovative hand-washing station promoted in Bangladesh by Helen Keller International. It's an impressive list of groups who care about improving the lives of people in Bangladesh and around the world. And most of them have very nice websites.  

But for all that intention, what was actually accomplished "on the ground" that day?

-We spent about 6 hours enduring the chaos of Dhaka roads to go to a village that is only 33 kilometers away.
-We distributed sports equipment (that will likely disappear very soon) and school supplies. -Our visit and gifts brought a lot of smiles and excitement that may linger in the village kids' memories.
-We installed a light fixture that provides a negligible amount of light.
-We installed a hand-washing station next to the village well (making it arguably redundant) only to find that its most critical components, the plastic jug and the bar of soap, were already missing by the time we left, apparently confiscated by a villager who felt there were more important uses for such items.
-We helped the children from the school use the bar of soap to wash their hands before it disappeared.

Students line up for a hand-washing - photo by Shah Shahid
With such a list, one cannot help but wonder if we really helped anyone in the village that day. But instead of succumbing to my more cynical instincts, I will answer with a resounding YES. But it was probably not the lives of the village residents that were changed. Instead, it was in the lives of the visitors where a difference was made.

I'll explain by offering this more hopeful--and probably more realistic--version of what usually is accomplished on a trip like this:
Faiza teaches a little one to wash with soap - photo by Shah Shahid

-You go with the assumption that you will be helping the developing world.
-You are moved by the contrast between "your world" and "their world".
-You realize it's not actually possible to have two worlds in our one world.
-You let that realization evolve--perhaps subconsciously--into a more empathetic worldview.
-You then spend the rest of your life making instinctive decisions that are an outgrowth of this new way of thinking.
-With your influence on others, the amount of people like you increases.
-The world gradually shifts from its current unbalanced state to one where those who have too much have less, those who have too little have more, and everyone basically has what they need to live a healthy, happy life.

What does this look like in practical terms for the wealthy, educated, good-looking, conscientious, kind-hearted students who sat through 6 hours of the worst traffic in the world in hopes of "helping" some underprivileged village children?

It means they don't become the new generation of businessmen and women who get rich by exploiting the poor; they don't become politicians who care more about getting reelected than improving the lives of their fellow citizens; they don't live a life that prioritizes material gain and leads to over-consumption. Instead, they instinctively care about people and our shared planet, and they live their lives accordingly.

Two schools: a tin shed and a boat (photos: Shah, Tasfiq)
Before we installed the light in the cobbler community school, we visited the floating school of a marginalized river gypsy community. The boat-school is not very big, but it has its advantages; namely, providing a haven from the discrimination the students face on land, and, as one of the boys nonchalantly exhibited, being able to  step up onto the back deck and pee straight into the river. (I can just imagine the time that could be saved if I let my students open up my classroom windows, do their business, then get straight back to their essay writing.) So keeping the river clean may not be in the curriculum right now, but as Nafis Jalil (grade 12 "Greenie" and initiator of the light installation) noticed, they've got some things down pat--like being excited for school and getting up on time in the morning. It's a non-issue because they wake up with the sun. While presenting a gift of school supplies, he wanted to make sure his fellow ISD students were aware of this. So he asked the boat-school students, "...and, kids, is it hard to get up in the morning?" "Of course not!" they apparently answered. Nafis told me later that the only reason he asked them this was to prick the consciences of his schoolmates who find it difficult to get to school on time.

Indeed, consciences have probably been pricked in many ways. At the very least, smiles were exchanged and the beauty of human interaction was reaffirmed. Most significantly, small lights were turned on that day in the hearts and minds of several young people. They are lights that when turned on reveal that we're all in the same room. They illuminate our shared existence on this planet and they are difficult to put out. They might be miniature for the present, but the darkness of unawareness has been pushed back--and that will eventually make all the difference.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Days 3 and 4 - Thumbs Up and Other Non-Native Species

We can now verify that Bangladesh--despite its astounding population density--is largely an open, rural country. It has been about 210 km of mottled shade and sun patterns on country roads, pastoral islands of palms and farm shanties linked by a network of sandy footpaths cutting across a sea of green, and countless bridges over waterways choked with the soft purple blooms of water hyacinth. In fact, the only indication of a looming mega-city came as a distant cloud of smog on the horizon that steadily grew in density across the outlying plain of rice paddies. Then with the smog came the first roadside slums. They were a shocking contrast to the wide-open countryside our heroes had run through (I think it's not unfair to say that in their tiny roadside hovels, these people live worse than the stray dogs, who at least have the freedom to roam, find food, and a natural coat to protect them from harsh weather)...

So Dhaka steadily crawled in around us on Day 4, and Chris and Marc ran the last kilometer together, celebrating a strong finish on the China-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge high above the inky Buriganga. And once urban Bangladesh sets in, the rural dream one passes through is just that--a dream that, like all good dreams, seems irrecoverable once you've awoken to reality. Even in the smaller town centers, urban life seems to be sheer madness. It is the congested conglomeration of the same spirit that frequently interrupts the bliss of the countryside: the frantic spirit embodied by the Bangladeshi public bus. Like wild rusty bullets, the buses speed violently from town to town. Though all manner of humanity protrudes from the windows and is sometimes perched among the luggage on top and is therefore the source of his income, the driver pays no heed to human life along the road. He just blows and blows and blows his horn. He slows for nothing except speed bumps, and this only because no horn, however deafening, could rouse the asphalt bump and make it scatter to the edge like a chicken along with everything else.

But amidst it all, in the urban chaos or pastoral calm, the people of Bangladesh spurred our runners on with a well-known gesture: the "thumbs up". At first, Chris was using it as a game to distract him from the heat during their 64 km stretch from Gopalganj Junction to the Mawa ferry. He figured he would give an exuberant thumbs up to all passersby and see how many returned the gesture. We were surprised to find, however, that many offered the gesture unsolicited.

According to Wikipedia, perhaps the first use of the gesture was in Roman times to determine the fate of a gladiator: up meant live, down meant die. Now it can mean different things in different countries (not always positive); it's also the name of the best-selling cola of India (without the "b"). But my point here is that it is certainly not of Bangladeshi origin. As the signal of exuberant affirmation we know it to be, it must be originally a Western thing. But these past two days it seemed to be thriving in a foreign land. In terms of the Bangla-Dash, it's interesting to think what the thumbs-uppers might have meant by it. "Exercising is good for you--keep it up!" or "Wow, you're white as a cloud, tall as a palm, and as fit as an ox: you are looking very beautiful!" or, as we heard several times, "It so good to see you!" Regardless of exact meaning, it was a familiar gesture in an unfamiliar land that spurred our runners on toward their goal.
Marc crosses a canal covered with water hyacinth.

The water hyacinth we saw blooming by the thousands in light lavender across western Bangladesh is another non-native--a foreigner that happens to thrive. A tourist guide on the Meghna River once told me that they are an invasive plant from Latin America that was first introduced when a powerful woman in colonial times thought they were pretty and had them brought to northern India. Now, though beautiful, they are ubiquitous and a nuisance to the native species and agriculture of Bangladesh. As negative as they might be, the people of Bangladesh know how to use them for their benefit. They dry the long tangled fibers in the sun and use it for fire fodder. On the rivers they corral it with bamboo fencing to form shade where fish like to gather and are easier to catch. The hyacinth is foreign, but no one would ever know it. Just like the thumbs up.

I'm not sure how the thumbs up gesture reached Bangladesh, but things like this evolve and spread silently, almost secretly it seems, over long periods of time and then, almost suddenly, we notice that they just are. I don't know who dropped the first hyacinth stem into a river in India, and I don't know how the thumbs up went from "Live, you valiant gladiator!" in Rome to "Go, you crazy white men running through our country!" in Bangladesh. I do know that big things start in small, very specific times and places. So from discrete, impoverished corners of Bangladesh, quality education can spread quietly and steadily across generations for the betterment of our entire world... Chris and Marc have completed the run and over $20,000 has been generously given, but now it's time for what might be the more difficult work: converting money, passion, commitment, and goodwill into something tangible. But for now, let's give these extremely non-native looking men (and Mofiz, The Man) a hearty thumbs up.

Memorable quotes from the last two days:

Chris (in the predawn): "Is that a child or a monkey or a dog?"

Marc: "You feel the van approach. You think it must be time. And then you just wait. Wait for the sound of the sliding van door opening. The pop of the latch and then the smooth sliding sound. It's like opening a beer can--and just as welcoming."

Chris at the finish, staring into the black murk of the Buriganga: "Hey Marc, I'll give you $20,000 if you jump into that right now."