Last time I visited Dhaka I had to travel everywhere in an ambulance. This was because of the daily ‘hartals’, a uniquely Bangladeshi strike where some people work, some people don’t, a few people torch cars and parents get frustrated that their children can’t go to school. Apparently ambulances are not usually attacked during such strikes and therefore they are seen as a safe form of transport. The fact that there are many more ambulances on the roads during hartals appears to have escaped the notice of the demonstrators.
This time the situation is much calmer. I was told this was because politicians needed to sit in parliament to get paid, rather than stirring up trouble. I can’t say how true or untrue this is, but Dhaka is a quieter place whatever the reason. And so I was able to visit Jheelpur slum today without any worry of trouble.
The first thing I notice is the lovely new concrete pavement which the local council has provided. Gone is the muddy main path, even though it was raining heavily last night. I was told that such things will continue to be improved as there are local elections at the moment. The opposition is winning many seats but I am sure the number of votes in any particular slum has no relationship to the meters of concrete path laid.
The path somehow makes me feel sad. It is definitely an improvement but it also legitimises the slum and not in a good way. It says living in tin shacks, that’s fine and look, your children’s bare feet won’t be so muddy at the end of a day playing in the street! Of course when they go home to the tin shacks, the children are ankle deep in water which has just drained off the impervious concrete path, with the water nowhere else to go but the low lying homes. So much for improvements.
The clinic is much as I left it. Today there is no power. Unfortunately nothing unusual about this in Dhaka, but today it is so very hot and humid that just breath of air from the ceiling fans would be refreshing. Instead the lovely ladies of the slum, including Rahima, one of the community leaders, wave bamboo fans as if our lives depended on it. It’s also very dark, the grey sky threatening to open at any moment and very busy, hot bodies everywhere.
I feel lucky. I am not wearing a headscarf like Misty our wonderfully devoted doctor. She looks ready to collapse as she dabs at the sweat forming on her cheeks. I know she has been unwell and I ask how she is feeling. ‘Oh’, she says, ‘not bad, but I can’t take time off as the people in the slum need me. It is the time for seasonal illness as the wet season is coming and when I came back last week I have more than 30 people waiting. I can’t leave these people’. The seasonal illnesses are rashes, infections of the skin, respiratory problems all connected to the ever increasing temperature and humidity. The wet season cannot come too soon. I explain to Misty that she won’t be able to help if she is ill, but her commitment means others always come first.
One reason I am visiting today is to present a set of baby weighing scales, donated by a supporter in the UK. Misty is almost overcome as she thanks me. She really needs to keep an eye on the weight of babies as malnutrition and infection can cause weight loss very quickly, often leading to severe problems and sometimes death. Again I feel terribly humbled that we have created this little clinic and are able to change people’s lives.
My discussion is cut short with Misty as she explains the queue is growing and if I don’t mind she needs to see them. But I am happy to see the clinic thriving and send a text to the UK, where a fund raising second hand sale is in progress, to tell them my resolve is renewed – we have to, we must continue to support this little clinic. I think theirs was too.