The Story of A Blonde Bengali Wife
There’s a torn billboard along the urban sprawl that links Zia International Airport with the dusty clamour of downtown Dhaka; it has the tag line “Come to Bangladesh before the tourists do.” I, the so-called Blonde Bengali Wife did just that and in doing so framed the story of a three month journey through the landscape and culture, the people and places, the humour and highlights of a little-known Bangladesh.
Whilst the book invites you to swim at Cox’s Bazaar, the longest sea beach in the world; to trek rare tigers amidst the earth’s largest mangrove forests in the Sunderbans National Park; to refresh your taste buds beside Srimangal’s verdant, rolling tea gardens, and to watch the sun rise and set at the same most southerly point in Kuakata, it is so much more than a travel memoir because A Blonde Bengali Wife has inspired, and is supporting, a UK based charity called Bhola’s Children.
It all began with my first (of eight and counting) visit to Bangladesh as a volunteer for a Non Government Organisation (NGO) when I fell utterly in love with the country. Draft after redraft followed until it was read by literary agent Dinah Wiener. It wasn’t remotely commercial, Dinah said, but it made her want to visit Bangladesh, and that was enough for her to agree to represent it—and to make a trip to Bangladesh herself. By chance, there she met Howlader Akkel Ali. Ali, orphaned at the age of eight and with forty years’ experience of caring for disabled children, had a dream of a home and a school where children and young people with different disabilities could live, learn, and work together.
Ali comes from the Barisal district of Southern Bangladesh in which lies the island of Bhola, jutting out to the Bay of Bengal. In Bengali, bhola means “forgotten” and it was on this “forgotten island” that Ali had found the property that is now called Bhola Garden. Together with some orphaned and disabled children and staff, he carried out basic renovations, and then began encouraging families all over the island to send their disabled children to daily lessons. Dinah discovered that Bhola Garden took the traditionally grim notions of orphanages, third-world poverty and disability, and simply knocked them on their heads. Full of life, love, and colour, the word Dinah used to describe it was “magical.” Thus, the charity Bhola’s Children was established by Dinah and registered in March 2007 with a commitment from all of the Trustees, of which I am one, to nurture and progress everything that makes Bhola Garden what it is today and what it can be tomorrow.
Bhola Garden is now a home to about forty children and a school for another fifteen, with many more waiting in the wings. In practical terms, Ali and the children live in very basic conditions. They bathe, swim, do their laundry, and breed fish all in the same pond. Their staple food is rice, with meat or fish a couple of times a week; milky, sugary sweets are a rare treat. They grow most of their own vegetables. When they receive gifts, they are delighted with toothbrushes, plastic combs, and hair oil. There is little to spare for visits to the doctor, the dentist, or anything unexpected.
Outreach work, that is teaching the community about disability, is part of daily life. Ali oversees hospital arrangements in Dhaka for the many infants whose frightened parents agonise over cleft palates and club feet. Better, he says that these are prevented—and educating people about the need to reduce inter-marriage and avoiding very young pregnancies is the best way forward. Better, too, that families learn there is no stigma in their child being blind or deaf and sending them to school, rather than hiding them away, will significantly improve their life chances.
As well as the day-to-day financial support, the charity’s first purchase was a Toyota microbus so that, for the first time, outings and picnics and trips to appointments didn’t rely on public buses or rickshaws. The initial major project was to complete a properly-built, two-storey hostel for the children, staff, and Ali to live in year-round safety and far greater comfort than the tin shacks that barely protected them from monsoon, floods, and hurricanes. Two years on, the current scheme involves updating the equally primitive sheds in which carpentry and tailoring are taught. Proper workshops mean these will grow into businesses creating much needed income. Longer term, the grand plan is for a dispensary and health clinic that will meet the needs of not just Bhola’s Children but the surrounding community too. Ultimately, of course, it relies on successful fundraising and charitable donation.
All money earned from A Blonde Bengali Wife goes direct to Bhola’s Children. Not because Dinah or I are particularly generous or kind people, but because once you’ve been to Bhola, you just can’t not be involved. A Blonde Bengali Wife it isn’t about Bhola, but it is a tribute to my journeys into Bangladesh and all the friends I have made there. Most of all, it is the story of the country that inspired Bhola’s Children.
Between her travels, Anne Hamilton currently lives in Scotland where she is working on a novel whilst studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. Anne and her husband celebrated the birth of their first baby in August 2010.
A Blonde Bengali Wife is available in print and in several ebook formats. It can found at http://www.ll-publications.com, www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, as well as many other print and ebook retailers.
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