About eight years ago, when Eid-ul-Fitr came quite close to Christmas, it was interesting to observe the joy of festivities with family and friends and the giving and receiving of gifts. The giving is, of course, related to ‘Zakat’ by which, as I understand, 2.5% of one’s ‘disposable income’ (e.g. cash, savings and jewellery) should be given away, once a year, to the extreme poor and orphans. As a foreigner living and working in Bangladesh, I see similarities between Eid and Christmas, such as the family coming together at a special time of the year, special food, the joy of giving and remembering those who have very little.
My work in 2004 was connected with assisting the very poorest in a government project, Adarsha Gram, which was assisted by the European Union and provided houses, homesteads and livelihoods to homeless and landless families, particularly those who had lost their homes through river erosion. Despite the many administrative and bureaucratic difficulties in managing such a project, the experience was enriching as well as humbling. Later on from 2006 until 2012, I continued to work with the same category of extreme poor people with the DFID and AusAID supported Chars Livelihoods Programme in the north west of the country.
Over those years with Adarsha Gram, I commuted from my comfortable apartment in Banani to the project’s office in Nilkhet passing the 5-star Sonargaon Hotel twice a day. At the nearby roundabout, two young girls with disabilities would greet me on most days with bright eyes and smiling faces offering bunches of flowers or tea towels in return for some taka. In a way, they became part of my extended family and part of my routine. The joy of giving clothes to them at Eid is difficult to explain. One of the two girls could see in one eye and the other could not speak at all. Their fathers abandoned the families blaming the respective mothers for giving birth not only to daughters but to daughters with disabilities. The two girls lived in very poor unhygienic slum dwellings, so their happy smiling faces were all the more remarkable.
The reader may be wondering where these rambling thoughts of the heart are going to take him/her! It was a coincidence that eight years ago I was taking part in Dhaka Stage’s production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” which was published in the week before Christmas in 1843. The book was written by Dickens drawing on his own experiences of growing up in very poor family circumstances. His father had been imprisoned for being in debt and Charles was taken out of school by his mother and was sent to a shoe polish factory at the age of 12 years and earned six shillings a week. The book was written at a time when there was much poverty in Victorian London, much child mortality and, until a proper sewer system was completed in 1875, there were frequent outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.
A Christmas Carol is about a businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is a penny-pinching miser in the first degree. He cares nothing, for the people around him, and mankind exists only for the money that can be made through exploitation and intimidation. He particularly detests Christmas which he views as ‘a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer’. Scrooge is visited, on Christmas Eve, by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley who died seven Christmas Eves ago.
Marley, a miser from the same mold as Scrooge, is suffering the consequences in the afterlife and hopes to help Scrooge avoid his fate. He tells Scrooge that he will be haunted by three spirits. These three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, succeed in showing Scrooge the error of his ways. His glorious reformation complete, Christmas morning finds Scrooge sending a Christmas turkey to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, and spending Christmas day in the company of his nephew, Fred, whom he had earlier spurned.
Scrooge’s new-found benevolence continues as he raises Cratchit’s salary and vows to assist his family, which includes Bob’s disabled son, Tiny Tim. In the end Dickens reports that Scrooge became ‘as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew’.
Dickens’ description of the Christmas holiday as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” should be the very essence of Christmas today, not at the greedy commercialized level, but in people’s hearts and homes.
As I have been associated with Bangladesh since 1971, my friends sometimes refer to me as a ‘Bangladeshi Foreigner’ and I hope that connecting all these feelings, observations and senses of my heart makes some sense and will encourage people to reach out to those who have less, not just at particular times of the year such as Eid and Christmas, but always.
Julian Francis, recently awarded by the Government with the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ has had a close association with Bangladesh since 1971, and has worked with many poverty alleviation programmes.