Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Driving with Dignity Launch Night

After six months of planning, proposals, field work, preparation, negotiation and cajoling, yesterday our rickshaw puller photographic exhibition was launched at the Russian Cultural Centre in Dhaka, and was opened by the Dutch and Norwegian Ambassadors. I am writing this entry from the gallery, sitting at a desk in an empty white room surrounded by 30 of my photographs hanging on the walls plus some of the rickshaw pullers own photographs, and the ten stories that they told us. It is very strange to have my photos on display for the Dhaka public to judge and debate, but so far today (and the day is nearly over) only four people have visited, so we are not at risk of being engulfed.

Yesterday was a long day, trying to ensure that everyone could attend, and would do on time. Bangladeshi time is about half an hour (or more) behind our time, and so whilst the two European Ambassadors arrived on time, the Bangladeshis were very late.

Then we had the ‘who are these people farce’. We had met the Norwegian Ambassador and so we were able to say hello, but we had not met the Dutch Ambassador before. He introduced himself to me and we talked a bit, but my ED and Chairman somehow convinced themselves that this was the Norwegian Ambassador’s husband (or someone else entirely), and so when we were sitting in the anteroom waiting to start, they asked me aloud when the Dutch Ambassador would arrive, despite sitting right next to him. Luckily, it seems that being an ambassador in Bangladesh prepares you for such incidents.

Our launch was attended by five of the rickshaw pullers that we had worked with, plus a load of VSO volunteers and some people from NGOs and multilaterals – Wateraid, Concern, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the British High Commission. It ensured that there was a good audience for our guests, and that we had avoided the risk of the ambassadors addressing an empty room full of pictures.

We had speeches from the editors of two national dailies, and also from my Executive Director and Kamal, a rickshaw puller from Mohammadpur who we had worked with. Kamal was incredibly impressive, given that he has never attended school and cannot read or write at all. We briefed him and gave him the microphone and he was able to talk and talk about the problems he faces. Although the long term impact is pretty minimal, at least for those few minutes he was an equal, with ambassadors, expats, development workers and government officials listening to him and being interested in what he had to say.

It was also very moving to take the pullers into the exhibition hall for a private viewing before we opened it up. I think that when, in February and March, we first met them and said what we hoped to do, they were not really certain and bit wary of us. They did not believe we would pay them 200 Taka (which we did) and they did not believe that they would get a camera to take photographs with (which they did), but to see their pictures handing in a gallery, and their stories on the wall was quite startling for them. Most had never been in a gallery before, as normally they are denied access because of their profession and their class. Rickshaw pullers normally drive wearing lungis, but they turned up wearing trousers and their smartest shirts- they seemed very proud to be part of the project.

Unfortunately, Anisur, the 12 year old who we worked with, was very ill. He really looked very drawn and was showing the effects of nearly a year of rickshaw pulling. The event really revealed the lack of knowledge that such people have: I put a little extra Taka in Anisur’s pay envelope and told him that he should buy an icecream to make him feel better; some of the other pullers then began to ask me how they could treat hepatitis, jaundice and HIV. The lack of education is very difficult to comprehend when even the most ill educated in the West know so much: it was incredibly sad that what I hoped would be a small treat for someone who cannot afford them was actually interpreted as a genuine medical treatment.

Overall my organisation should be very pleased with the outcome. We looked very professional, and lots of people came along. The television stations were there as were the newspapers. My article was published on the day in New Age (click here and scroll down to see it) and this attracted some people. I made the staff give out brochures and their business cards and to talk to people so that they could start to build up a relationship with different organisations.

The aim of the project – to establish my NGO as the leading authority of rickshaw pullers in the country, and to advocate for a respect agenda for rickshaw pullers – was in some way fulfilled. Our media coverage and contacts have ensured that some people are talking about it. The challenge now is to build on the momentum and really drive the organisation forward. I think there are about six weeks in which to do this, and afterwards this opportunity will be lost. So I am hoping that my NGO will start to take some initiative.

The rickshaw pullers, I hope, have valued being part of something and finding someone to pay attention to them. This time round they were laughing, joking and trusting, and there is a strong rapport there that can be built upon for future work. The biggest problem with development work, in my opinion, is when the poor and the marginalised are invited into a new world for a brief moment, then dropped back into their old one and forgotten. I hope that we can sustain the involvement of the pullers that we worked with, as they have powerful stories and are fascinating people.


Mikey said...

Dear Tom,

I've said it several times already but I think your project with NGK was absolutely fantastic. You have stood out in your work with an organization that has tested your patience and your ambition, and exceeded all expectations.

More important, of course, is the profile given to these hardworking men who barely even receive dignity, let alone taka, from their passengers. Anisur's face and his story are one I will remember absolutely.

When you are back from Cambodia I would like to talk some more if/when you have the chance. I'd like to discuss if you're interested in contributing to the book.. entirely up to you, of course. More soon!


Mikey said...

I have finally put the photos online as well at this link.

shuwaib said...

hey tom

nice blog... its a good read

hows things??


jessiekays said...

Did you ever get around to making the book you talked about in your earlier posts? I would love to buy one