Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beximco and New China

Several weeks ago, the embassy took a field trip to Beximco, the largest private sector group in Bangladesh. The flagship platform now has operations and investments across a wide range of industries including textiles, trading, marine food, real estate development, hospitality, construction, information and communication technologies, media, ceramics, aviation, pharmaceuticals, financial services and energy. The Group sells its products and services in the domestic Bangladesh market as well as international markets. BEXIMCO is the largest employer in the private sector in Bangladesh and employs over 48,000 people worldwide. The Group’s global clients include some of the world’s best known brands including BT, BASF, Chevron, Calvin Klein, H&M, JC Penney, Macys, Zara, UNICEF, Royal Doulton and Villeroy & Boch. 
The factories are beautifully functional, organized and safe. The workers looked content, you could even hear laughter in some sections and the labor standards were very high. It was a nice change to the conditions most Bangladeshis experience in their work environment.
You can pretty much bet 99% of people posted in Bangladesh exit post with either pearls or china dishes (or both). The usually annual trip to the Beximco factories is educational and interesting, but it also offers great discounts on beautiful dinnerware. 

Though not formal people, we do love to have gatherings of friends and entertain. We've never seen a need for anything beyond our solo cups and melamene plates, but after over 2 years in the Foreign Service, nicer dinnerware and glasses were on our list for "to buy" items before heading out to our next overseas post. Check one off the list; I picked it up yesterday. We went with simple, as in 30 years I want it to still be in use. We can change the tablecloth to jazz it up or keep it in style. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ICDDR,B - Cholera Hospital

Earlier this week a friend at the embassy arranged a tour for a small group of us to ICDDR,B (International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh). Below is from their website's "about us" section. They are world renown in their research, development and success in battling cholera. They are also now assisting with AIDS and several other diseases. Their facility and staff were nothing short of amazing.

About us

ICDDR,B is the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh - an international health research institution located in Dhaka.
Dedicated to saving lives through research and treatment, ICDDR,B addresses some of the most critical health concerns facing the world today, ranging from improving neonatal survival to HIV/AIDS. In collaboration with academic and research institutions throughout the world, ICDDR,B conducts research, training and extension activities, as well as programme-based activities, to develop and share knowledge for global lifesaving solutions.
ICDDR,B has a mix of national and international staff, including public health scientists, laboratory scientists, clinicians, nutritionists, epidemiologists, demographers, social and behavioural scientists, IT professionals, and experts in emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, and vaccine sciences. The Centre has a cross-cultural environment, with 95% local staff including researchers, medical officers, administrators, and health workers, and 5% international staff primarily from academic and research institutions engaged in global health research.
Since 1978, the Centre has shared its knowledge with the world, training more than 27,000 health professionals from over 78 countries. Courses provide practical training in topics such as hospital management of diarrhoeal diseases, epidemiology, biostatistics, family planning, demographic surveillance and child survival strategies.
ICDDR,B’s activities are supported by about 55 donor countries and organizations, including the Government of Bangladesh, UN specialized agencies, foundations, universities, research institutes and private sector organizations and companies that share the Centre’s concern for the health problems of developing countries and value its proven experience in helping solve those problems. The Centre is governed by a distinguished multinational Board of Trustees comprising 17 members from around the globe.

The tour took us through the process of when a patient arrives until being discharged healthy. We also visited the ICU and cafeteria facilities. No payment is collected for their services, and any family members (1 per child patient) are fed and given a place to sleep until their loved ones discharge. People sometimes walk or transport days to reach this live saving facility. There are visiting hours and a long line outside waiting.

The hospital sees on average 400 patients per day, in all stages of illness. There is no limit on how many the hospital can service, as they will continue to set up beds in office areas, parking lots, sidewalks. Just before the monsoons or during outbreaks, their numbers jump drastically.

The majority of patients are very young children, accompanied by a parent, grandparent or family member who cares for them during their stay. The hospital is working very hard to encourage breast feeding of infants and toddlers, as there is not ample safe drinking water, people cannot afford to pay for water or for the fuel to boil water. But sometimes, due to other pressures on the mother (other children, spouse, work, difficulties) there are problems to continue breast feeding. Bangladesh society also values males as the most important family members, so when it comes to food portions, women are at the bottom. Already, the majority of Bangladeshis are malnourished, but pregnant or breastfeeding mothers are even more neglected. ICDDB, R is working to educate the population about this huge problem with proper nutrition and to explain that if they want to keep their children alive, they must change their mentality about men coming first during these crucial years of life.

By the end of the visit, the kleenex tucked in my pocket was tired. At least a half dozen times throughout the tour, I did everything in my power to fight the tears pooling in my eyes back into their ducts. On all but one moment, while in the Intensive Care Unit watching a teen aged mother at the bedside of her infant, I succeeded in holding myself together. There is no limit to the degree or sheer volume of disparity one sees in this country. The tour through the facility, though amazing and positive, was still also very somber and humbling. Most people here have seen so much pain, hunger or difficulty in their lives, that it seems they barely show emotion any more. Or they have just built up such a tolerance or realistically their lives just don't have the time or moreover the energy to waste on emotion.

While many scenes were difficult, there was not a moment I failed to notice the care given by the staff and especially the family members to the ill. We passed so many young mothers nursing their children, spoon feeding them medicine or porridge, rocking their babies to sleep or just sharing their beds sleeping beside their small children after hours of exhaustion from battling the illness or the journey to arrive at the hospital. There were mothers or grandmothers who shared smiles with us, children who cooed and leaned for a touch (that we HAPPILY returned), women who giggled and pointed to my nose piercing and said "like Bangladeshi". It was nice to have happy moments between the difficult ones.

If you have children, and you've spent even one night awake with a tired child, a sick child, fighting a fever, juggling a night of vomiting or diarrhea or teething, you as well as I, know how exhausted you feel. The daylight or the moment of sleep cannot come soon enough. You wonder how you made it, at times you feel hopeless or helpless watching your child in pain or discomfort. It is a feeling no parent wants to experience.

Now imagine, if you can even fathom it, that same sickening feeling, but to also combat it with hunger, you have little or no food to give or no good nutrition.

Now imagine it with unsanitary conditions, you have no running water or the water you have is unsafe to drink. You cannot afford the fuel for a fire to boil bottles, nipples or the water to mix with formula. You cannot even put a cool rag on their head or wash your child's face with clean water.

Now imagine it in discomfort, you have no fan, no air-conditioning, or you have no warm blanket to cover your child. You have no soft bed to lie them in.

No imagine you have no money, you eke by from day to day, but now you lose the little work you did have, because you must care for your sick child. But here, you have some hope, as though you cannot pay for help for your child, if you can just make your way to the ICDDR,B hospital, they will do their best to return your child to good health, help you support them and do so without payment.

They are helping so many, both here in Bangladesh and abroad in areas like Somalia and Haiti, to battle cholera and save lives. ICDDR,B is an amazing organization and one I feel fortunate to have seen first hand.
Above is the one photo I have of us before our tour. I would never have taken my camera out inside, 
as I cannot imagine someone snapping photos in my face if I were trying to save the lives of our children. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012


When we hired our househelper, she immediately called me "Madam". It made me feel uncomfortable, especially to be called it by someone more than half again my age. I actually felt ashamed; it made me feel like there was a hierarchy in our home, but I didn't want there to be one. But in the country, you can see a hierarchy still exists. And being a foreigner, I am called "Madam" by nearly every Bangladeshi that I meet.

The first time Mokta referred to herself by saying "your servant", it made me cringe. We talked that day, and I told her the word servant made me feel bad, that we were as happy to have her help us in our home as much as she was happy to have employment. That it was a partnership, and we needed each other. Since that day, I think we've both grown to know and respect each other very well. When I told her my name in the beginning, she had to pronounce it ten times. And when asked what she'd like to call me, she said "Madam". She explained that's what she has called all of her employers, and it's what is easy and comfortable for her.
Now, "Madam" no longer makes me uncomfortable or ashamed, as I know that she is happy in our home and being a part of our family. When she says "my Madam", it feels more endearing than before. Maybe when she hears us say "our Mrs. Mokta" she also feels that same endearment. I hope so :)

Mardi Gras!

Many moons ago, before children, we participated annually in the Soulard Mardi Gras festivities in St. Louis. We used to do a float in the parade every year with my sister, Debbie, and hoop in up in the Lou.
Last year, we decided we really missed the Mardi Gras festivities, so coordinated a party at our place for the embassy folks. It was a great success, and so we decided to make it an annual event for our family (at least during the overseas years, as when in the US we might actually be at Mardi Gras). 

Over the weekend, we hosted our 2nd Annual Mardi Gras party, but this year, we did it on the roof. Our rooftop is usually a garden, but on Friday night, it became a party, decked out with lights, a bar (from a leftover Tiki prop from the chancery), balloons, music, food, booze and friends. We covered the tables with newspaper, though no traditional shrimp boil. The lights were hung by a local company, all 15,000 of them, which made the scene. One of the embassy GSO guys does electronics after hours, so he brought in 2 ginormous speakers and about thumped us off the roof with Zydeco and dance beats. We also took up a projector and showed The Princess and The Frog on the wall for the kids.
Food... no shortage in that department. Most of the guests brought either a side dish or a bottle of wine. One of our Louisiana born guest, brought authentic jambalaya and gumbo, while I made shrimp etouffee, king cakes and some odds & ends. 

We were thrilled that many people dressed up for the occasion. Donations were made to Jaago school also, so we were happy that they could benefit a little from our festivities.

The weather was perfect, and we even had a beautiful moon for the occasion. The mosquitoes stayed at bay by the light breeze. For a few hours, we all felt that we weren't even in Dhaka.