So I left the best of my Bangladesh experiences till last. Actually it is quite hard to pick any one experience as the best because it was just an eye-opening, humbling, motivating trip.
But the two days I spent at the Baptist Mission Integrated School in Dhaka sneaked in there at the number 1 spot. For one very good reason…
Ok, make that 16 very good reasons. More really, but these 16 especially.
The school is the only residential school for blind and visually impaired girls in all of Bangladesh so the girls who live there come from all over the country. BMIS is also a day school for sighted children from the local community.
I spent Tuesday at the school, sitting in on all the classrooms, meeting the teachers and having lunch with them, seeing where the girls lived and chatting with some of the older girls.
I think the biggest thing I learnt that day is just how many misunderstanding I had about blindness. I was so amazed at how immensely capable they were at every activity they did. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The speed with which they could read braille took my breath away, and I loved learning about how they learn their maths and algebra. They spent a lot of their free time walking around the compound, arm in arm with their friends. And they knew their way easily, even running along the veranda occasionally.
Their headmistress Sylvia Mazumder is an incredible lady and showed me the warmest welcome I received in Bangladesh. She knows the girls well and they are clearly very fond of her. She takes time to sit with them and talk, and gives them continuous encouragement and support.
At the end of the day, Sylvia invited me back to her home, just around the corner, to meet her husband Peter who heads up the Bible Students Fellowship of Bangladesh (linked to IFES), and it was so fascinating to hear all about the work of that organisation (and see their wedding photos!). Then Sylvia took me shopping! It was something I had been dying to do, but without a woman to take me, I had no idea where to go. She helped me pick out some presents and we talked a lot more. I was so grateful to her giving up her free time to me in that simple way.
She invited me back to the school two days later to celebrate Bangladesh’s Independence Day with them. I was very happy to accept! Normally there are national parades organised for the day but this year the country is still reeling from the violent mutiny in the border guard in February so all celebrations were cancelled.
The school receives some funding from the Rotary Clubs in Dhaka, and the girls put on a cultural program for some of the Rotarians each year. There was lots of singing and dancing and a very comical sketch about the value of education. I was called on to give an impromptu speech – slightly nerve-wracking in front of a room of Dhaka’s most powerful business men and women… luckily the teachers had expertly dressed me up in my new shari, complete with bangles and earrings, so I at least looked the part!
They left after lunch and I went in search of the girls and spent some wonderful hours sitting on their beds, chatting, singing and giggling lots. They love having visitors and were very keen to practise the small English they know. They also asked me to sing for them every few minutes and I got a very undeserved round of excited applause after each badly-sung verse of a song! They admired my shari and loved holding my hands.
These hours were the highlight of my trip, and the perfect finish to it too. These girls are beautiful, intellegent, charming young women, who work so hard to study and learn. One of their predecessors went on to be the first blind student to complete a Batchelor Degree in Special Education at the Dhaka University. And another of their predecessors is now their teacher, an incredible woman who lost her sight in an acid attack by a man she had turned down in marraige.
The last two years of school they attend the local government school and it is great to see their diligence and perseverance and real enjoyment in their studies despite the big challenges they have to overcome to learn there.
I am so happy that BMIS is there to give them this opportunity to learn to such a high quality, because they have so much to offer the world.
p.s. because I know some of you will have read this and immediately demand evidence, here is the link to a photo of me in my beautiful shari (horribly blurred but you’ll get the idea!)