Sunday, 31 May 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: The Bangladesh Edition (Part 3)

And now, because I don't want to pretend that everything was rosy throughout my stay, the lowlights

Remember the operation I mentioned in part 2? Well afterwards, I was told that we students had to wash the bloody beddings and sterilise the surgical equipment ourselves, even though we had hardly any gloves with which to work. At first I was shocked, then I became sad when I thought about the exposure of healthcare workers there (and in many other countries), to blood borne diseases. I donated some money when I left, but I wish there was a way to ensure the constant availability of gloves and aprons, at the very least.

And on Sunday evenings, all those Indian movies we watched came with adverts about skin bleaching. They usually started with a woman whose life was going badly, usually with no marriage prospects etc., that is until she discovers "fair and lovely." Again, it made me so sad to see that the same disease that has unfortunately infected many people in Nigeria, could also be found here. The funny thing is that the girls went on and on about how beautiful my skin and my hair were, but then they all talked about saving up the little money they had to buy these creams. I really tried to make them see that this made absolutely no sense, but I knew it was a futile effort because I knew I was going against the tide, in a society where pale skin had been celebrated and the darker hues denigrated for generations.

Related to the colorism above, is the explicit racism I faced a few times, even though most of the people in the community took me as one of their own. I'll never forget the particular incident that happened as I took a walk with my (white) friend round the hospital one afternoon. A lady, seeing us, rushed towards my friend and touched her foot in reverence. Slightly bemused at the look of panic on my friend's face, I tried to distract the lady by saying hello, but she shouted out a few words, looked at me in shock and fled the area. Obviously with my extremely shaky Bangladeshi, I wasn't able to decipher what she'd said, until my Bangladeshi friend shamefacedly explained to me that the lady had been scared that I would touch her with my "cursed black devil" hands. I kind of found it funny that I was supposed to have that much power, but it also make me sad to think of how she thought my (white) friend could bless her while I'd only curse her, all this based solely on the colours of our skins.

Another issue that I discovered was how the people of that area, being ethnic minorities, were discriminated against. In an unfortunate echo of certain parts of the Nigerian society, I learnt that intermarriage between the majority and minority ethnic groups is severely frowned upon, and I got to know of a few people whose families had disowned them.One of my friends was a product of one such marriage and she told me of how she'd suffered and still continued to suffer for the "sin" of her parents. It really was hard to hear that love doesn't always conquer all. 

Having always thought that leprosy was a disease that had been eradicated, imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was a leper's colony on the hospital site. It really was shocking to see people disfigured, with noses/ears/limbs missing, but it was even more heartbreaking to hear about the huge stigma they faced. "Sufferers" are often ostracised and shunned by their communities, and even their children, whether or not they have the disease are banned from living with the rest of the population. This means access to healthcare, education, work and normal life are denied to these people, in spite of the fact that leprosy is a disease that is hard to contract, when one has a well-functioning immune system. Thankfully, the hospital established a centre where the people could find a community, live in peace with their families, learn a trade and even earn a living.

I realised that in many ways I had taken on the negative traits of the stereotypical "westerner".

I was a vegetarian for years, and I particularly hated birds of any kind as well as their eggs, so imagine how I felt being fed eggs trice a day, every single day. I initially just gave the eggs and daily banana offerings to my dorm mates, but soon noticed that I was the only one that got any sort of animal protein as well as fruits. It turns out that the monthly tuition and boarding fees of 1000Taka (equivalent of £10 at the time), was not enough to provide a balanced diet for everyone. Of course the school could have raised the prices, but many families in spite of being middle class, already struggled to bear the cost of sending their children to nursing school. Here they were offering me special treatment and all I could do was grumble about not having a more diversified diet. Luckily I realised this fairly early on, told myself off firmly and tried to be grateful for everything I was given.

Another #firstworldproblem for me was one of personal space. In Bangladesh for instance, it is quite normal for people of the same sex to hold hands, but I found it extremely uncomfortable whenever one of my friends grabbed my hands. I found the constant touching and the physical closeness very very hard to bear indeed, and at some point even began to feel like I was being constantly assaulted. The other thing that bothered me seriously was the hand-feeding that sometimes happened between close friends. Within that community, it is usual for one to eat rice and everything else with one's fingers, and it is quite common to use the same hand to feed a morsel of food to a close friend or family member. After dodging this so many times, it inevitably happened to me one evening as we had dinner.  A dear friend tried to hand-feed me a ball of mashed rice and curry, and I almost lost the rest of my meal in the process. I sha managed to overcome the sick feeling, and in the end, even I got used to the idea of hand-feeding.

In spite of these negatives, I really enjoyed my time there and honestly would go back in a heartbeat, if ever the opportunity presented itself again.

Have a lovely Sunday! 

1 comment:

  1. Na Clara,

    Thanks so much for this. This gives a very balanced view of your experience. To be honest I was wondering how they embraced you so well knowing their issues with skin color. I'm glad you had a mostly positive experience and you checked yourself for your #firstworld gripes. I think this was a great learning experience.

    I don't know how you didn't flip your lid with the feeding thing. I couldn't. I'm the nicest person you'll ever meet and I think I would have flipped out if one of my friends tried to hand feed me mush. I might have sat through it if it was something hard like bread or something.

    Gruß und Kuss,

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