In previous posts I’ve looked at the Club foot work being done at LAMB by the Rehab department and the general kind of work it does out in the community. There is a third aspect I want to introduce you to now (although, no doubt, my wife would tell you there are many other things that happen in this busy department too). This area is that of working with a group known as the protibondilok – or severely disabled.
The kind of work I do in the school is nothing really groundbreaking. What I do, every teacher at the school does and when I leave, someone else will fill my shoes. This is fine and it’s just what I came to do. But there is, at the moment, a man working with the protibondi people who’s shoes I cannot imagine being filled when and if he finally decides to leave LAMB.
His name is Xaver.
He is a German Swiss man and he arrived at LAMB in November 2009 (about a year after my family and I did) along with his wife, Bea and young daughter Janine (who is just the cutest button in the world – she is seriously gorgeous!). Xaver I count amongst my good friends here at LAMB (I don’t have many) – despite still not really knowing how to pronounce his name. Every person you speak to about him says it differently! He is a dreamer, which is probably why he and I get on so well. I suspect he’s a nightmare to work with from an admin point of view because of his dreams (well – I am assuming seeing as I AM one and also dream) but there is no doubt his heart is in the right place. More than that – and I’m jealous of his achievements here – his heart and his dreams produce good fruit.
A Horticulturist by training, Xaver worked with disabled people at a nursery for two years before coming to LAMB. Before that he was a disabled carer. His heart for disabled people is not in doubt, therefore, nor is his love of gardening. Most of the time I see him out and about with hands deep in a pot of mud (my worst nightmare) and when I do see him inside I get this feeling he is a bit like a caged animal!
It was in June 2010 that Xaver started to work with the protibondilok here at LAMB combining his skills, experiences and loves into one big project – to train disabled men and women to plant, care for and grow plants that will produce fruit and vegetation that, ultimately, can be sold and earn them money. Once again, I have to stress – as I have so many times before in this blog – that the ability to earn money IS life here in rural Bangladesh. Someone who ‘looks funny’ and can’t move around easily, or who has limited control of their limbs find it all but impossible to find work. Xaver started with seven people. Now he has fourteen and it is time for some of them – the founders of this group to move on.
Moving on is an important part of the work Xaver is doing with this group. Firstly, dependence on bideshis, foreigners, is a difficulty we all face. Originally, Xaver tried to pay the group himself for the produce they grew but it became apparent that this just made him the financial centre of attention and he was never going to be able to supply all their needs – nor should he try. Instead, the idea of ‘graduating’ the older members, giving them a certificate of achievement (this may sound odd but you have to know Bangladesh to understand this is a vital part of any training here) and helping them to go out and grow produce which they can then sell on to the shopkeepers and locals to create their own income.
He works with them one day each week to grow their produce and, for this day, provides their breakfast, snacks and lunch. This, in itself is important as more than one normally begs at the local station as their main source of income. In this time he trains them and even ‘tests’ their work. When I took these pictures, they were all having a go at planting – carefully, neatly and without accidently hurting the roots – and then they all had to peer-assess one another and give a mark out of 10 for how well they did! I don’t think I could have done as well as any of them – it was quite amazing to watch a man with cerebral palsy leap off his wheelchair and dig furiously but accurately and plant something (I don’t even know what it was!) in seconds.
So…let me tell you about a couple of them. I won’t give names for the sake of their privacy.
This is the guy I just mentioned in the wheelchair. He’s a clever chap and lives with elderly parents. He worries about the future a lot because there is no one to look after him when his parents die. He has almost no speech though he understands Bangla. You have to work out his answers to your questions from body language more than anything else.
This man is very much Xaver’s assistant and often leads when the group is split into smaller working groups. His teenage daughter tragically died last year which must have hit him and his wife hard. Despite that, he continues to help out in the group. He only has a minor disability – a hand that doesn’t work – but it is enough to limit the work he can get. It doesn’t stop him talking though – according to Xaver!
The guy in the yellow and black shirt is new and does a little work at cafes (called hotels here). But his elephantitis is getting worse and finding any kind of work is difficult. It is a bit of a desperate situation for him really.
Many years ago I was privileged to work with and get to know a young man who had cerebral palsy. I counted him as a good friend and my heart was wrenched when he died too young about ten years ago. I still miss him. For this reason, I have a little understanding of what life is like for this group of protibondi and know that the work Xaver is doing with them is truly life-changing and challenging society around them. It is still hard in the western world to be disabled (though I’m not going to go down the politically correct route and call them ‘less-abled’) and accepted. It is nigh on impossible in Bangladesh.
Xaver is giving a little hope, a lot of training, a ton of encouragement and friendship and – most of all – acceptance. He’s doing something I could never do (and I’ll try most things) and I admire him for it.