Visiting Authoy on my 50th birthday

With children in Dhaka's Sutrapur area
Photo: Nusrat Amin

ActionAid Bangladesh arrived to meet us at 9am full of smiles and enthusiasm. Their obvious commitment set the tone for what was to be an extraordinary day. It was my 50th Birthday.

We picked our way across Dhaka’s busy streets. The sheer number of people and activity in Dhaka is overwhelming and hard to describe. The van could barely make it through the narrow streets of Old Dhaka but the driver was an expert and we arrived where we needed to be, unscathed and excited.

We arrived at a child space picking our way through the amassed onlookers in the street.

Inside we hear the babbling sound of children’s chatter – common across the world. There were preparations underway in the room next door and I was pensive – concerned to get it right for the team, the children and ActionAid. Children don’t usually come together in the child space on a Saturday and that they were doing so for me was humbling.

 After we were introduced to the team I was asked to lead the way to the room next door. Time slows down then. We’d been waiting because there was a power cut and, as with all the best “parties” the hosts wanted it to be perfect. The electricity supply conspired to confound the team but undeterred they’d gone ahead and adorned the room with balloons and decorations. As I made my way into the room as I realised that just inside stood the tiniest little dot of a child.

A beautiful, radiant courageous little girl with eyes like swimming pools. She stood fixed to the spot, her arm outstretched holding a card. I knew instantly who she was – she was Authoy. The child whose story, in the lottery of child sponsorship, has somehow become tangled with my own. I found my hand in hers and she, possibly the quietest, shyest child in a room of approximately 40, found herself with the job of leading me to a birthday cake, cards, a candle and some flowers.

 The room erupted and I found myself lost for words in the light and energy of the people celebrating with me. That it was too much for her goes without saying and yet still she stood giving everything she had to do right by this stranger.

There were photos with the cake, a sea of shiny expectant little faces , more help to blow out the candle than I have ever had and piles of tumbling, jostling little bodies all willing me to sit by them, to see them and to ask them their name.

20 teddies I had taken with me went out into the room in less than 20 seconds.

“Happy Birthday to you” broke out in English I was reminded that material poverty has nothing to do with spirit. Their spirit was abundant. Someone cut the cake and I planted the tiniest dollop into a never ending river of tiny hands and expectant faces.

 As the time came to leave many tiny hands held me tight, the electricity resumed and light returned. My memory is vivid, its bright and joyful. Amidst the crowd is Steve. His strikingly white face contrasting laughably with the sea of brown. The children are making him laugh fully, spontaneously and generously. His smile so full it’s preserved for the rarest of occasions, the happiest of occasions and then there’s Authoy with her mum.

A child space provides children with the basics to get into school. It is a space where children with responsibility get space to be a child. You can’t put a price on that.

The next hour we spent with a group of young journalists. They range from 10 to 18 and the issues that they write about includes child labour, sexual abuse, drugs, harassment and rape. We wondered both  how these young people are brave enough but rather than being afraid it’s clear writing gives them back themselves.

 Happy Homes is an Orphanage for girls. On the drive we hear the story of a young girl picked up on a train station. 5 years old and showing clear signs of the worst abuse she couldn’t speak.  Six months later she still doesn’t but she understands now that she doesn’t have to let people hurt her to stay alive. Money is tight and the orphanage lives with never more than 6 months certainty.

We climbed the stairs of stark concrete building that would render it derelict at home.  As we reached the 4th floor we almost drowned in pillar box red and emerald green salwaar kameeze – the colours of the Bangladeshi flag. The girls wore flowers and were  radiant with pride.

The girls danced. I watched them and wondered what would happen to these beautiful dancing girls if the money doesn’t come in. I asked and the reply was that the money has to come in. The alternative is unthinkable.

They talked proudly of their education. They asked us if we could offer any suggestions about how they might further better themselves.  All I could think about is the damage that material wealth does to children at home.

As we went to leave a flurry of little faces rushed forward planting a small kiss on my cheek. They wanted to thank me for coming. These girls, unwanted and unloved without their house mother, were giving me what without Happy Homes no mother was willing to give to them. That the house mother loves them was unquestionable. It shone from her face and her eyes. I just gazed in awe at these incredible people.

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On the journey back the country was preparing for a strike. It was hard reminder that the country is a tough place to live and the kind of reassurance we take for are few and far between. I gazed out from that car, warmly wrapped in the humour and care of the Bangladeshi ActionAid team sad that this hour was to be the last I would spend with them for this trip. It matters little. They don’t need to be with me physically. I carry them now in my memory and in my heart. I carry all that I saw and every child I met and if I learned but one thing from the time they invested in me it is that if I live to see another 50 years each day of it will be brighter and more beautiful for having met them.

My conclusion is this. The money goes far further than I could ever make it go at home. There are 730 children in this locality sponsored through ActionAid. There are 1300 ready to be sponsored. I can either try to live with the fact that maybe kids won’t get an education or the orphanage won’t last or I can do something small to change it. If I could take you to see what I saw, you’d tell me that’s no choice at all.