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News from Dhaka

25/01/2008: Bangladesh - Photo gallery

We have already been three months here in Dhaka, a city of twelve to fourteen million people, in a country of 150 million. The people live in harmony, follow a simple way of life and are very considerate all around. The language here is Bengali. A handful of the people speaks English or has a few words. The countryside is beautiful, especially because of the rich green color of the rice paddies; as a result, the general poverty is in some way less perceptible. For a good part of the year, great stretches of the land are covered by monsoon rains. There are many infants and young people. A high percentage of the population is young and poor; better to say, very poor. In fact, given that poverty is not limited to any one stage of life, you see people of all ages who survive by begging or by what they find in the streets or by some other means. . . . Some beggars on asking for something to eat address us with the word “Bhondú” meaning “friend.”

We are living in individual rooms on the first floor of a building belonging to the Marist Missionary Sisters. There are two common toilets, a small dining room, some housekeeping articles, and a few cooking utensils with which to prepare breakfast, the midday meal and the occasional snack. Supper we have with the Sisters. We go to Mass at the residence of the Xaverian Missionaries. The first floor of the residence is where we have community prayer.

When we arrived, we were met by Father Kevin, a Marist Father, who took us to see the H.P.D. (Human Development Programme), a center which receives young people who are very poor. The Programme is supported by the Marist Fathers in Australia. Father Kevin invited us to join him for some visits he was about to make. In three days, we visited areas very far from one another, places where the H.P.D. has been established. Accompanied by the people who founded these centers and by those who are in charge of them, we were able to gain some familiarity with the rural parts of the country.

The first day found us in the area called Bhaluka. There we visited Nolvakuri and Mymensingh, near Dacca. We called in at the Father Tonelli Health Center, where half dozen professionals are working, along with an equal number of para-professionals. They have X-ray and surgical equipment. Next to the hospital is a large hall where lessons are given: sewing, food preparation, vegetable nutrition, health care, and housekeeping skills. We took a look also at a thirty four hectare property set aside for cultivation. At this place are eighty one groups of twenty people each, as well as groups of people in formation. A small classroom is available for theoretical explanations.

The next day found us in the region called Shakipur, near the Tangail district. There we paid a visit to a professional-technical school where carpentry, electricity and tailoring are taught. The courses are six months long. The age of the students, who are Moslem, runs from fourteen to twenty two. Father Kevin was presented as a Christian spiritual guide – “Imam” to the Moslems and “Brahman” to the Hindus. For our part, we were presented as followers of Mother Theresa, a person known to all.

Our last day was spent in the Narayanganj district. There were visited Arthazar where the Social Forest School is located. This is a center for the defense of nature, for reforesting and environmental protection. The young people are very poor. In a rather small classroom there were twenty five of them aged sixteen to twenty five; they were having a theory lesson. We entered and were able to converse with them.

That evening we called in on the Don Bosco Centre run by the Salesians. The Centre is a boarding establishment for young university students with few means, aged sixteen to twenty six, managing for themselves. We had Mass, and then stayed for evening meal and conversation with the residents. We had been there three or four times before, the most recent occasion was a little before Christmas. We celebrated Mass which was followed by a Christmas Eve party and meal. In this milieu a very Marist spirit could be felt.

We have also made contact with communities of Sisters. We called in at a small parish centre where the Sisters work. Here they do physical rehabilitation for young children who are also educational assistance. About a dozen mothers and fifteen children are involved.

As one walks the streets and avenues downtown, one is struck by the teeming crowds, the sea of humanity which one encounters everywhere. Everywhere you encounter: the well off, the poor, beggars, those who extend their hand, tall people, small, the lame, the blind, those who do honest labor and those who run crooked operations, the homeless. You see everything. Considering a situation like that, one of such immense dimensions, you are overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness - How do we get out this? - And, at the same time, you remember Champagnat’s insight: the school.

A few weeks ago, the country was hit by the devastating consequences of cyclone Sidr, especially hard hit was the Chittagong region. The poor were the ones who bore the brunt of it. For our part, we were affected only indirectly, although a few trees were knocked down and some roofs blown off. Various actions by way of solidarity came from outside sources.

At the beginning of December, we had a visit from Brother Michael de Waas, Superior of the Mission ad Gentes district. He interviewed each Brother and gave us an overview of the various Ad Gentes communities. He offered some reflections on our presence here and some suggestions as to our future aposto- late.

Bishop Paulinus Costa, Archbishop of Dacca invited Brother Michael and us to his residence, a very simple affair. He gave us a warm welcome and made clear that he is very happy to have our presence in Bangladesh. Prior to visiting the residence, the Bishop had invited us to take a short tour of his native land by car.

Right now we are in two communities. The one which makes use of the SMSM Sisters’ residence is made up of Brothers Virgilio, Eugenio Sanz, Ewald Frank and Hilario. The community which resides in the PIME residence comprises Brothers Mark Poro, Martí Eric and Javier Peña. Brother Virgilio has been appointed to the first named community, but he is still in India waiting to receive his Bangladesh visa.

We take care of all domestic chores that pertain to community life: clothes washing, ironing, cooking, sweeping and house cleaning. . . . We will get back to our Bengali language studies in the first week of January 2008.

Just a short while back, we celebrated Christmas in a country very different from the countries where we were born. At midnight Mass, the church was packed, and not only with Catholic Christians. There were even Muslim families present, because they enjoy the Christian feast days. Their presence was not merely a novelty or a curiosity, but a gift from the Lord at this, our first Christmas in Bangladesh.

Bros. Mark, Martí, Ewald, Javier, Eugenio and Hilario

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