Be the Cause

Some Change

by Karishma Huda

“Some change, please.”

She extended a shaking hand holding a flimsy coffee cup. It was a Friday night. I was having a drink with girlfriends at a Soho pub, friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I was caught off guard.

“Sorry love,” my friend responded, with a shrug of the shoulders and a face riddled with regret.

“Sorry…” I followed suit, and imitated her look of penance. If I look apologetic, it’ll all be okay.

But she had one upped me on powerful looks. The woman shook her head and stared directly into my eyes with a piercing gaze – a gaze of a mother’s disappointment, a gaze of surrender and acceptance of the apathy that she was drowning in. As we all stood cozy under the heat lamps with our pints and glasses of wine, as she walked off into the frigid night air, in search of another group of disinterested pub goers – with the hopes that she might find one, just one, with a bloody conscience.

The Koran compares a person with no spirituality to an empty shell. The Koran speaks of ‘the awful void’ experienced by the Prophet (PBUH) when ‘the curtain closed.’ I stood there contemplating that sentiment, and embracing the emptiness I felt as I walked after her with a hand full of change, but she was already gone. Not sure of why I felt so forlorn, as the scene that just occurred happens to every Londoner at least twice a day, everyday. But it was different, because this time, I noticed.

My religious teachings have told me that being charitable is inextricably linked with being spiritual. As lame as the analogy might be, I think of the ultimate goal of being physically fit – when we Lose Weight Exercise, we are naturally motivated to eat healthy – the result is a sound body and sound mind. The same applies to the goal of being spiritually aware – perhaps when we reflect, meditate, pray, take time to listen to a deeper inner voice that so often gets drowned out with the hum drum of daily life, we become more perceptive. We can see and hear the opportunities around us everyday to be good universal citizens, to fulfill our duties and bridge (ever so slightly) that massive gap that exists between the haves and have- nots.

That woman with the flimsy cup was an opportunity – one that I had blatantly ignored, but in the pursuit of being more aware, one that I at least heeded. Previously, I had easily justified such missed opportunities, as many of us do. As an international development professional, I’ve ironically become more cynical about the solutions to poverty with the passing of time. As my professors and colleagues would reiterate, “if you give someone a hand out on the street, you’re not dealing with the structural causes of their poverty, and you’re reinforcing their supplicating behaviour rather than empowering them to make a change.” That development babble appeases the conscience just enough to walk away – if you don’t know how to contribute to that kind of change, its easier to do nothing. And that’s the bleeding heart, ‘compassionate’ perspective – no better than the right wing tycoon that walks past that same woman and thinks that poverty is self-inflicted. “Be a productive member of society and earn a bloody living. ” In the end, he too, walks away and does nothing.

The issue, in the end, for most of us, is mistrust. How do we know that if we stick a 50p coin in that cup, she won’t use it for booze or drugs? As a microfinance practitioner, I preach that the poor are perfect money managers – they do not need to be patronized and told what to do with their dollars and cents. Yet on this Friday night, I took a paternalistic stance and reinforced the unequal power relationship between myself and this individual. I didn’t say, “its freakin 50p – its no skin off my back, and you may use it to buy food, a hot drink, stick it in your coat pocket to spend tomorrow (believe it or not, poor people do save). Who knows. It’s your choice. Exercise your freedom.” Rather than redistributing a miniscule amount of wealth, I exploited my powerful stance and my ability to say “no.” I said no because I could, because everyone else was, because I knew that I would not loseWeight Exercise this tug of war. I would not be the one to walk on humiliated, dejected, powerless.

It’s not just 50 p, it’s not just a basic act of charity. It’s a moral stance. I’ve stood here on my soap box – knowing well that while I have the luxury to reflect on a mistake, nothing changes unless I act upon the reflection. As we justify inaction, someone out there is tallying up the missed chances. Sooner or later, that inner voice will speak – we will all inevitably notice the void that comes from the curtain closing, that feeling of being an empty shell.

It won’t change the world – but it’ll make a difference to one person in one given moment. And those moments add up. It’s worth the 50 p.

Her Name is Bangladesh

Her Name Is Bangladesh
By Karishma Huda

I call Bangladesh a woman. Media perceptions, which often shape our own perceptions and realities, call Bangladesh a tragic woman. As a child she was violently raped by colonization, and as an adult brutally battered through war. She was able to secure her own independence and freedom, only to be subjected to one violent relationship after another – one with hunger, one with famine, one with natural disasters, one with political corruptness, and the list goes on and on. One might even consider her to be a bit of a whore. As a result, she has millions of children living in poverty. Bangladesh needs to be rescued. Like a child, she needs to be cuddled, fed, clothed, have her hair stroked. She is too feeble to stand on her own two feet, and if the West does not save her, she will most definitely be left to die.

But there is a fundamental problem with the way Western media perceive, and therefore depict, Bangladesh. I mean, really, which woman is this one-dimensional and can be defined so simplistically? Have Western newspapers, magazines, documentaries, television, etc. only gotten to know one side of Bangladesh’s personality? Perhaps, or maybe this is the only side of her that they wish to portray. Perhaps this is the image of Bangladesh that they consciously would like to paint in the minds of their audience. Why? If Bangladesh is a basket case that is in dire need of help, this opens up doors of opportunities for Western countries to exploit. Researchers and academics get funded to ‘learn and explain’ Bangladesh’s problems, development consultants get paid attractive salaries to go fix Bangladesh’s problems, journalists and filmmakers’ careers are thriving on showing the world Bangladesh’s problems, NGOs and international aid agencies have turned into a very lucrative business that is sustaining on Bangladesh’s problems. As long as Western countries are ‘helping’ Bangladesh, their governments and corporations have their foot firmly embedded on her. They hold the whip, and have a strong influence on her economy, politics, and resources.

Interestingly enough, it is the same pictures of Bangladesh that you see over and over – the one on the World Vision commercials, most Americans know exactly what I’m referring to. With all of the thousands of media sources there are, is it not strange that the same images and stories are constantly recycled? Floods and poverty – really, can no one find something else to write about or show? From what I understand (based on conversations I’ve had with reputable journalists), this is because only a handful of media professionals have personally gone to visit her and gather her story. All the others pick up these stories, make two phone calls to people who can confirm them and throw in some statistics (probably a big shot academic or executive of an international aid agency), and voila, a new story is born. I’m no expert, but I get the impression that the objective is to maintain the status quo by putting in the least amount of effort. So there you have it – you are getting to know Bangladesh through the eyes of people who have never even met her themselves.

But this is not the worst of the problems. After all, who really cares what Americans and the British think of Bangladesh anyway? And in all fairness, Western countries have contributed to the steady poverty reduction in Bangladesh. More of her children are being fed. The conundrum lies in the way that Western media perceptions have drastically affected the way that Bangladesh views herself. She has learned to believe that she is weak. She has grown dependant on foreign aid, and she has taken on the identity of a pauper. She plays on her image as a tragic woman to pull at the heartstrings of Westerners as she holds out her palm. And it works.

But she and her children know well that her identity is much more complex than that. Bangladesh is not tragic and one-dimensional. She is as much about poverty and floods as America is about freedom fries and baseball. Reducing her identity to that is a disgrace, and the media’s ability to do so in the minds of millions of individuals is dreadfully frightening. Her reality is multi-faceted, and the various intricacies weaved through her make her fascinating. Her children are not dying, they are surviving. Among the constraints that they face they laugh, they play, they are creative beyond imagination, they live, they thrive. She has so many wonderful stories. Perhaps the current generation of Bangladeshis living in the West, such as myself, should take the responsibility of sharing them with you, so you can get a glimpse at who she really is: a beautiful, enduring, loving, passionate woman who will leave you inspired.

*This short essay was inspired by a fantastic talk given at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex by BBC journalist/filmmaker Esther Armah about her upcoming book “Can I Be Me?” regarding media perceptions of Africa.

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