The First Black Foreigner
By Zim Ugochukwu
Nestled within a sea of its own decay, the school stands firmly, surrounded by the barren land of the southernmost Bangladeshi village. We zoom onto the school grounds on the backs of two motorcycles, inadvertently diverting the attention of 500 school kids—who all gather and encircle the motorcycles. This is the first time that many of them have seen a foreigner. My hair is kinky, my skin is dark, and I’m wearing skinny jeans and a parka jacket; my partner-in-crime, Jo Royle, is a fair blonde-haired, aqua-eyed English woman. Eyeing the curious but unsmiling faces of these children, we make our way toward the inside of the school.
We don’t know much yet about the small village of Gabura, other than that it is the victim of hurricane Aila—a devastating cyclone that hit the Bay of Bengal in 2009, leaving Gabura entirely uncultivable. The crops—once the crown of glory for the villagers—have been reduced to desert. The salt water brought in from the hurricane lingered in some places for over a year, rendering the ground desolate.
For a few years after the storm, there was significant help from the global community–but now, three-and-a-half years later all assistance has ceased. Although some small government funded projects exist, they are rampant with corruption. My experience in Gabura led me to believe that international aid is still desperately needed there.
As we make our way inside the two-story main building, we are greeted by school administrators and ushered into an empty classroom. We are not without company however; the hallway fills up with at least fifty children, eager to know who we are. The purpose of our two-week trip to various villages in the area was to listen to stories about villagers’ lives after the storm.
Jo is Europe’s leading yacht skipper, and was interested in exploring climate migration—in other words, studying the hurricane’s effects on families. Tens of thousands lost their homes, thousands of lives were lost, and hundreds of families were separated. Although I reflected on my lack of experience in this region and dealing with such a massive crisis, still, due to my own abundance, I desperately wanted to help.
Most children in Gabura could not afford uniforms, yet they were able to attend school. Although most couldn’t afford to pay their school fees, they were still able to participate in classes. (This had been true before the hurricane to some extent, but the disaster exacerbated it.) This school operated at the cusp of the bare minimum—outhouses with crumbling infrastructure, failed lighting, no lunch—and somehow made it work. We listened to the conversations buzzing around us.
The school had no funding, and there were no female teachers—to retain them was an immense challenge and adolescents had no interest in staying in community, creating more limited options for teacher retention. The lack of female teachers was a result of the fact that most women worked in fields as fishers and builders—anything that would allow them to make money to support their family. All around me in Gabura, I saw obstacles preventing women from taking on leadership roles.
Now, back in the U.S., Jo and I are in the ideation stages of planning small campaigns for our Bangladeshi friends. It hasn’t been easy thus far—we have to worry about cultural sensitivity, elitism, and a whole host of other things that accompany working cross-culturally—but we also have a genuine desire to see our Bangladeshi friends solvent and happy. Our hope is to be back in action in a few months, just in time to bring in the one-year anniversary of our first trip to Bangladesh. Traveling in Bangladesh has taught me so much about life and how we receive the good and worst of it. On days that have ended with nothing built and nothing moved, these thoughts keep us going.
Zim is an avid photographer, visual storyteller, classically trained pianist, junk foodie, vegetarian, and occasional building climber. She is the founder & CEO of Travel Noire.