the story

Terry Pratchett says that “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. There’s a story that wants to be told; the triumph of the underdog, discovery of the unknown or finding of hidden treasure. I love stories but I think they are supposed to have a happy ending. So when a story deviates from that path, I get uncomfortable. When I think of the story of an MCC  term of service I think the plot is supposed to be that that one goes off into the wilderness, lives among a new people and while providing some long unmet need to that community, the one sent returns changed; with a new perspective and knowledge.

As a Mennonite, I feel like there are a few things we really like to focus on. The winning buzz word bingo card at a Mennonite event would probably contain the words missional, non-violent, community, simple and justice.

Things that connect to those themes make for easy and exciting stories to share about Bangladesh. Like the story of Probitro which means Holy in Bangla. This is an 8 month long training program for victims of Bangladesh’s sex trade and the women take part in job training as well as learning about physical and mental health. Some graduates from this program go on to work at Sacred Mark which makes handmade soap.  Maybe you’re familiar with it from Ten Thousand villages. The name Sacred Mark comes from a poem by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “O let me wear secretly…the sacred mark impressed by your own hand.”

Another story is of the Monga mitigation project which is a Heifer International project style which gives cows to families and then the first calf is returned to go to another family. In the last several years MCC has become the largest cattle buyer in Bogra and has given out over 2000 cows. These cows will ultimately translate into a financial windfall for the families involved.

But I only worked tangentially with those projects. My assignment with MCC didn’t fit into what I considered the expected story of an MCC service term, because it starts with technology, appropriate or sustainable technology, but technology none the less. Technology is generally not one of the things we talk about, because while it may enable the things we value; it isn’t really an end unto itself. I’m not sure if it exists in any official form, but one report I had to fill out described MCC’s mission as bringing peace, justice and comfort to God’s children. It seems to me that when we talk about bringing comfort to God’s children it give space to do things a little of the beaten path; which is hopefully what I did.

When overpopulation turns travel into acts of violence, advocating sustainable transportation can be justice. When the water you drink can poison you or sanitation is a health hazard, water purification and cleanliness is comfort. When overcrowding causes conflict over scarce resources finding efficiency can be an act of peace.

These things seem to be caring for others and caring for creation so maybe if we use the language of creation care we can find a place to put technology into our worship.

MCC in Bangladesh historically did a lot with appropriate technology but around 2000 that sort of all closed down. So this is somewhat of a new effort. The first thing I did was design and build a place to live and work in.  In Bangladesh there is an expression “mosha marte kaman daga” which translates as “firing a canon to kill a mosquito”. When I first talk to people about sustainability they often think of alternative energy; replacing polluting sources with green methods. This is a good idea, but might not be the place to start.

My colleagues and I would often discuss what was available and what should be available; one issue that kept coming up was hot water. At the core of the argument was whether it was a necessity or luxury. Obviously there are several options to produce hot water. In Bangladesh, it’s fairly rare for people to have a dedicated water heater, but if they do, then it’s probably electric. Bangladesh currently isn’t able produce enough electricity to satisfy demand which is the source of the rolling blackouts, and many people don’t even access to it at all. Running an electric water heater off photovoltaic solar electric panels would be very expensive, more than 10,000 dollars. Electrical power isn’t always the most efficient form of energy, we often don’t use electricity directly and it’s generally not produced directly and that makes it inefficient. However it is very convenient and flexible so we often look to it solve our problems. Aside from simply generating more electricity at a plant, another way to have more available is if people simply use it less. The simplest electric appliances are often inefficient. At one point the government of Bangladesh calculated that by simply replacing all the incandescent bulbs in with Compact Fluorescents, they could eliminate the rolling blackouts. In our example of hot water what we really want is heat so we could produce that heat directly with a solar thermal water heater and that would cost only a few hundred dollars. Another way to heat water would simply be over some sort of stove. One common fuel is dried cow manure, but not particularly efficient and means you can’t use it for fertilizer. One way to increase efficiency is by cooking directly of the methane. Bio-gas from cow manure is a technology that is seeing some limited success in Bangladesh. By using a biogas digester, more energy is captured out of the manure and the slurry left over can still be used for fertilizer. But all these solutions require effort and money and are dependent on a real rather than perceived need. Toward the end of my term we got an email from a Doctor with a list of issues relating to public health. The problem he was seeing is that infants aren’t bathed in the winter because the water is cold and as result, can develop health complications. One of the things on the list was for a cheap solar water heater.

In the west we talk about efficiency as creation care or reducing our carbon footprint. However, in places like Bangladesh efficiency is a matter of quality of life. Applying technology without understanding is like firing a canon to kill a mosquito.

I had a conversation in Dhaka with another Development worker who had been in Bangladesh much longer than I had, in which he said, “We can’t fix the problems here; Bangladeshi’s have to do it themselves.” It struck me as truth, but seems that it begs the question of well, why do we go? We hopefully bring knowledge and other resources, but I think ultimately we provide a different perspective. We bring a story. When I was in orientation, there was a quote that has stuck with me from Lila Watson, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.”

I can’t say that we’ve done great things in Bangladesh, but we are moving in the right direction. Maybe in time, some of the work my colleagues and I did will have an impact, but I felt like I walked part of the journey on the sustainable road toward better health and validation. The story I can tell is that I myself have changed and am still changing. I’ve learned a lot about how the policies and decisions affect people’s lives. I learned enough Bangla to get in trouble, and in many occasions enough to get out of it. I’ve learned how to make really great tomato lentil soup from local ingredients. I’ve learned to recognize local fruits and vegetables and a few local plants and birds.

It may be cliché, but as Orsen Wells said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” So I’ll stop my story there, but remember that the story goes on, and we’re all connected to it, whether through time, or money or simply in the hearing.

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