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!