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《The Dhaka Poor》__ Ernest Yau (65)

The Dhaka Poor

About one sixth of humanity, roughly 1.2 billion of people in the world, considered “the poorest of the poor”, live in the developing countries of the Third World, with the highest concentration in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. To the extreme poor, everyday living is a struggle, surviving on less than a dollar a day they make, battling the snare of human and natural disasters, deprived of basic human needs of food, health, shelter, education, clean water and sanitation. Bangladesh, infamously labeled “an international basket case” in the early seventies, is one of such countries. The remarkable sight of thousands of young women, unschooled and unskilled, walking early morning in single file for two hours to Dhaka from neighboring villages, then clocking in some twelve hours of sweatshop work in the mushrooming garment industry, is reminiscent of another era. Though less horrendous and hopeless than decades ago, the radical destitute still haunts the nation. Today urban migrants from rural countryside similarly throw themselves into arduous and strenuous work to improve their living conditions. People’s courageous and stupendous efforts to survive is captured in a snapshot on the pulsating street of the capital one summer day.

The congested, chaotic traffic, like a rolling, rising river between two banks, hustle and bustle, is a cacophony of sight, sound and smell, cocktailed with exhaust fume and human breath. A sea of humanity, practically all males, harness all sorts of vehicles, with a tunnel-vision direction and determination, crisscrossing each other, unapologetically negotiating and navigating a thin passage between metallic surfaces. Even more transfixing is the human traffic of flesh bumping into flesh, skin brushing against skin, on this hot and humid afternoon. Oversized goods or over-populated family crams into a small space of rickshaws that are paddled by bicyclists, some too young and others too old for the job, wearing rugged and worn faces, gray bearded and white turbaned, wearied body with sun-dried sinews, soaked and stained shirts with high definition sweats on the forehead befitting those in labor camps - sheer survival instinct on perpetual locomotion. I wake up from my front-row-seat reverie with the dawning of the reality of radical poverty. My saturated and flooded senses want to retreat to the refuge behind a tall metal gate on a side street just a stone throw away from the main thoroughfare.

My fourth tour of service to the poor takes me to Dhaka this past August. For the first time I am with poor infants and children who are abandoned or orphaned.  Shishu Bhaban, (“Children’s Home” in Bengali) of Sisters of Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, houses about ten healthy, adorable infants and half a dozen toddlers, waiting to be adopted, on the third floor of the building as well as nearly 20 handicapped children, with physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities on the second. These are the little ones that I interact with in the week though I greet many women living on the ground floor dormitories. The day to day care of children I serve is done by woman workers migrated from villages. The gate opens directly onto the narrow street lined with mainly wholesale fabric stores displaying dazzling sari and other garments. Life on this side of the gate however seems peaceful and secure with occasional surveillance by police carrying guns lingering in the courtyard.

I make a conscious choice to sit by the window of the guest room open to the courtyard, my portal to the outside world, allowing me to be a part of the physical environment, to face and embrace the sensory assault and to befriend the chaos around. I want to be nowhere else but here, taking in sounds blasting into the wee hours of the night, only to have the noise engine rebooted before dawn, animating the city life once more. I want my living space to be permeable to the neighborhood, as part of the fabric of everyday life. As expected, the Children’s Home is situated right in the smack of poverty, deeply penetrating into where humanity bleeds. The sublime and mundane clap hands and the sacred and profane tap feet together. During daily late afternoon Adoration and Prayer in the chapel, the call for prayer from loud speakers to the faithful from the mosques blends with our community singing, prayer book reading and silence, interwoven into one tapestry of human souls longing for the divine.

The First World is not without its woes, suffering a severe case of affluenza which feeds and breeds greed, leaving our souls impoverished and anemic. In driven pursuit of gratifying insatiable desire for materialism and consumerism, indebtedness and wastefulness at the expense of greater good of environment, community, family or personal relationships. At the heart of affluenza is a confusion between wants and needs, deceiving and deluding ourselves, not unlike the anorexic’s gross distortion of the body image.  When acquisition of wealth defines and confines us exclusively, we are vulnerable to a discontented, banal and meaningless existence. Beyond a certain level of wealth, more money does not mean more life satisfaction, whether gross personal or for that matter, national happiness. Such obsession and addiction by the First World contributes to apathy to and oblivion of the suffering poor of the Third World. In Dhaka I am graced with and humbled by the opportunity to experience simplicity of life and solidarity with the poor, practicing compassionate action grounded in contemplative prayer, in solitude and with community.

On my very first day, I have a special encounter with this one baby. As our eyes meet, I am totally captivated by the spark in his gaze, time standing still, which invites me to see him. Deeply moved by that innocent murmur for love, the naked need in humanity, I picture God gazing at this beautiful, tiny soul and falling in love with it, the apple of his eye. The whole world loves babies. The third floor draws me to come and to celebrate life that sings major keys, tugging at my heart’s string unlike the adult poor. I change cloth diapers that are hand washed and hung dry in the sun, feed the infants formula milk, hold and burp them afterwards and cuddle with the contented till they are sleepy. Then I gingerly place them in the cribs or bassinets, rocking them to sleep with lullabies in a male voice, a stand-in for a change. On another day, catching them during play time, I hold a walker’s hands, chase after a crawler, pull a climber up the slide and cheer an energetic jumper, offering abundant servings of touch and hug to all. 

I delightedly watch a tiny baby girl lying on her back visually tracking the mobile with curiosity and intensity. Equally fascinating, almost entertaining, is to be the exclusive audience of another infant struggling to keep her dopey eyes open but only feebly successful. Like curtains coming down, just as her minuscule eyelids are closing, I spot a gap slowly enlarging, half-drowsy and half-awake, helplessly announcing the show is far from over. Leaning over and gazing at this tiny bundle of life in the bassinet, I rock on gently, prayerfully holding before God her past abandonment, present safety and future uncertainty.

A day in the life on the third floor throws us a surprise when a comic relief is staged on the changing table. A baby boy pees unexpectedly, the puny firehose releasing a jet stream, and the caregiver ducks for cover, the rest of the cast bursting into laughter. Though the floor is busting with aliveness, death does creep into life. In this life-affirming ambience I hold a one-day old new born girl wrapped in a pink tiny blanket and also let go of a dying six-year-old boy who has suffered Hydrocephalus since child birth. Like many caregivers and Sisters, at his bedside I pray for and sing to him, tenderly whispering his name. Approaching his final hours, I kiss him on his cheek and rub it softly; holding his hand, I feel a weak squeeze on mine, perhaps his way of parting. I grieve not only death and dying but also the pain of living which is hard to watch just one flight down.

Descending to the second floor and entering the dayroom ushers in a gray reality, looking square in the eyes of human suffering, worse when embodied in children. With their delayed or arrested development in social, verbal and motor skills, I witness a boy’s body shrinking in fear when meeting me for the first time; a few children making sounds instead of speaking words to call attention to the adult world; and many simply lay quiet and still on the big floor mat. Taking a cursory look at them is easy to do but to see each, making the human contact with the little person inside, is painful.

Within one child’s frail physical frame is a spunky will. When I hold him up, his little fingers grip on to mine tenaciously, mustering every ounce of his strength to keep his tiny body erect. Succeeded, he stands tall, his eyes shimmer, face animated, celebrating his performance with pride and pleasure. Cheering his victory, I imagine him taking a bow with the national anthem playing. In the child I see life standing tall.

An older girl, crippled and confined to the wheel chair, bids me with her longing eyes and occasional shriek to take her for a walk. When I lift her up, planting her fragile feet on the floor, immediately her face lights up dramatically and charismatically. Ready to launch, holding my hands she takes each step haltingly yet heartily, beaming an irresistible smile that is infectious. Our eyes locked warmly, calling her name and rallying her every attempt, I peek into her window and see a soul larger than life dancing with God in Jesus. Walking with the crippled poor I stumble onto Life.

Self-absorbed and drooling, an older girl fiddles her fingers on the mat to an inner rhythm. Tipped off by a caregiver that she likes songs, I eagerly engage her in the language she speaks. Following her lead, I join her in making spontaneous sound and movement, throwing in a lyric line or two. As we warm up to each other, she expresses her delight by a subtle smile. Breaking out of isolation and misery, together we find a heartbeat, a pulse that resonates in her silent world, a song without words, rays of hope shining through dark clouds. Not quite drooling over her, I however grow fond of her, delighting in her sweet smile. In her pulsating beat I feel life like a gentle brush on the snare drum.

If the mat were a map of archipelago, off the map somewhere is a good looking but lonely boy in somewhat of a fetal position. In the corner of human geography, physically alienated from everyone, he makes nonsensical sounds choreographed with repetitive, rigid hand and leg movements. Calling his name playfully, I lie down next to him for a little while before rolling him over gently to a sitting position, leaning against me. Stretching out the rest of his body between my legs, he is wrapped around in a human blanket. I imitate his hand movement before introducing a new one; likewise with the sense of sight and sound, intuitively trying to expand his sensory self-stimulation to include human interaction. I smell a fresh breath of life through our mutual play in an otherwise self-absorbed human shell.

Though each story of the four disabled children is imbued with life and aliveness, I am also keenly aware of the shadow in the reality: The resigned look on the tiny boy’s face as his wobbly legs fail him upon my release; the profound dark clouds cover the crippled girl’s face returning to the wheel chair; the older girl’s imaginary drumsticks playing funeral march and the lonely boy falling back into the human abyss void of warmth and touch. Many others like them may live a similar life for years to come with a gloomy future; some may even die quietly in this home.  I picture the four faces anew and grieve the good fortune or opportunity life never grants them. Because such children are born in the wrong matrix of longitude and latitude on this planet, their lot in life is determined, just like a dice is cast. A wave of hopelessness and sadness washes over me as I tear up while embracing the gift of crying for the suffering poor. I weep because extreme poverty is no longer faceless and nameless.

Before I am drowned in my own pool of tears, I notice a flickering light in my spirit, remembering the face of one caregiver, an abandoned child herself, raised in this very home during her tender years, and today a lovely young woman, a sensitive and beautiful soul, with an exquisite empathy, attending and tending another generation of orphans, especially loving towards the dying six-year-old. I feel the warmth of the growing and glowing flame that burns away despair, defies fate and decries fatalism. O, the mystery of suffering and redemption! The radiating hope awakens me to the immediate reality around me - children living in this clean and caring home provided by the loving hands and hearts of Sisters and caregivers - and quickens a sense of profound gratitude in me.       

Embracing reality as it is, I sit contemplatively with the creative tension of the paradox of life, holding both sides of human condition: Human brokenness and divine wholeness, pain and grace, ugliness and beauty, meanness and kindness, darkness and light, poverty and abundance, death and birth – represented symbolically and literally on the second and third floor. In contemplative prayer, a wave of hopefulness and gladness washes over me as I embrace the mercy of tears. I weep because of the extravagant love of God for the world, and even for me. Contemplative prayer graces me with extended and expanded human capacity to love, lifting my spirit up to soar with the Spirit like winds beneath the two wings, passion for God and compassion for others. Having plugged in with the Source, my burden is light and yoke easy, my soul finding rest in Jesus, expressing his love in compassionate action, serving the poor on both floors of life.

It is not only love but faith and hope too. Having confidence in God’s overall good governance in this world, trusting the Beneficent One, the author of all good, has already taken the initiative on the poor’s behalf, I therefore merely get in on the vehicle that has been on the road for a long time, and take the passenger seat. Fueled by contemplative prayer, I am simply invited to join others in compassionate action, a drop among many in the oceanic love of God, for the poor children in Dhaka in this season of life. One morning in prayer God fills me up to the brim, basking in his sunlit love, only to realize later in the day that I might not have enough compassion to spare had Jesus not satisfied my heart’s desire earlier, similar to receiving extra pocket money. Hope sings when I am surprised by mystical moments like this. Without trying to riddle out the mystery, I simply rest and nest in the Spirit, grateful to be a hole in a flute through which God breathes, making heavenly music on earth.

God of Trinity is a community. The Virtuoso Flutist relishes playing in an ensemble as embodied in the community of MC Sisters. From the warm welcome vibrated in our first phone conversation nine months ago, to the send-off infused with divine love in hymn and prayer in the courtyard in the final evening, and wrapped in between are showers of lovely memories of deep fellowship and praiseworthy worship as individuals and as a community. Such a surprised grace-laced present in the Presence to me through the Sisters by God! Looking back, it still amazes me how could someone be so loved who a week earlier was merely a stranger to the community. God is love. Having experienced this love before, I can recognize the divine light radiating by the Sisters beaming from God, the Host of all hospitality.

Ernest Ching-on Yau

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