Volunteering in Bangladesh
When people travel abroad for missions or volunteer work, there’s this assumed expectation that the experience will be “life changing” and “transformative”. It’s almost become a cliche and, sadly, a negative side effect of my generation’s inclination towards social activism. If I’m being honest, avoiding that stereotype has been one of reasons this blog post is so overdue. I don’t want what I share about my trip to be taken at face value. I’ve taken time to reflect on it, so that I can share what I think is the most important story with the world.
While my trip to Bangladesh was, yes, “life-changing”, what I learned and experienced there was completely unexpected. In Bangladesh, I expected to step into extreme poverty. I expected physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual suffering. I expected racial (caste) discrimination and extreme oppression of women. I didn’t expect to encounter a complete lack of creativity.
A quick recap of what I was doing there: I went to Bangladesh with a team from Mosaic to volunteer with Speak Up For The Poor, a nonprofit organization working to end child marriage and sponsor girls in poverty to stay in school. Many Bengali girls drop out of school at 13, the average age that they typically are forced by their families to become child brides. Child marriage is a seriously huge problem in many developing countries, but Bangladesh leads with the highest number of girls married before the age of 15 in the world. 65% of Bengali girls are married by their 18th birthday and 29% by the age of 15. I would love it if you have a few minutes to watch this short video about child marriage in Bangladesh produced by my teammate Jake Viramontez.
I spent most of my time working with teenage girls at the Speak Up dorms. They have been born into brothels, rescued from trafficking, and exploited and abused by their own families and communities. They face social stigmatization and even violence for choosing to pursue an education, and as females at the bottom of the caste system living in an oppressive culture, the odds are against them. Speak Up provides them with a safe home where they can thrive and can finish their education while being protected from harm.
My team spent months planning activities and lessons for the girls. We designed our lessons around topics like using their voice, independence, courage, bravery, and leadership. Creativity is one of our core values at Mosaic, and most of my team grew up in Western culture that values the individual over the collective. So we based our lessons on these two foundations assuming the girls would have no problem grasping the concepts. We were wrong.
One of the first activities we led was a collage activity in which we provided materials to create a “vision board” to explore their dreams and futures. But the girls had no idea what to do with them. They stared at us, confused. They eventually did embrace and enjoy the project, but it did take them a long time to fully understand the concept of creating something from their own imagination. I later realized that they had probably never created, let alone seen, a collage.
During conversations over dinner after working with the girls for a few days, my team began to realize that we had discovered something unexpected and needed to adapt. So, we re-focused our activities on creative thinking, problem solving, and encouraging them to use their imaginations. One day we came armed with paper and markers, sat each girl separately so they couldn’t copy each other, and told them to draw anything they wanted. Anything in their imagination. 30 minutes later, the group reconvened.
They all drew the exact same drawing. A traditional Bangladesh village, with a hut, a river, and fields.
I was shocked.
Back at the hotel that evening, one of my teammates made an astute observation. On every floor of the hotel, there hung a painting: a traditional Bangladesh village, with a hut, a river, and fields.
The next day, my good friend and Executive Director of Freedom and Fashion, Laverne Delgado-Small went into the dorms to teach them something she is passionate about: fashion. Laverne led the girls in a basic model sketching technique and then instructed them to add clothes to their figures. We allowed them to sit together at the table enabling them to copy each other if they wished.
What happened next was simply extraordinary. All of their drawings were completely different. It was the art of fashion specifically that provided the girls with the freedom to think creatively and independently of one another.
The proof is in the pudding. We brought art supplies. We brought them drawing and painting and photography. We brought them collaging. But the transformation didn’t occur until fashion specifically was introduced. Fashion had a unique way of allowing the girls to discover inner freedom that gave them permission to create.
What happens in this country matters. Bangladesh has been identified as one of the Next Eleven (eleven countries identified by Goldman Sachs as having a high potential of becoming among the world’s largest economies in the 21st century.) It’s also one of the most oppressive countries on the planet towards women. If you educate girls, you’ll break the cycle of poverty in one generation, increase the GDP, and gain economic and social progress through a new cadre of educated women.
But change cannot be born from knowledge alone. We can’t just educate young people living in poverty in in Math and English and Science, send them on their merry way to find a job, and expect them to create change in their cultures. For the next generation to solve the challenges that their country faces, they must learn to provide unique solutions – and to do so they must be taught creative and critical thinking skills. From what we observed, these skills are simply not being prioritized in their current education system.
God was the first Creator (Genesis 1:1) and we were created in His image (Genesis 1:27), so therefore, the potential for creativity lives within all humans. But like a muscle, it atrophies when not exercised or given an outlet to be used.
If women in any culture want to rise to positions of power and become change agents in their society, they must also discover self-confidence and the courage to use their voice. They are facing giants in the forms of generations old traditions that value women as property and don’t allow them to experience liberation – economic, political, social… I could go on. If women in Bangladesh can discover their voice, their creativity, and freedom, then anyone on this planet can do it. They are the underdogs. And we know it is possible because we have seen it happen.
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:16 (NIV)