What I Learned In Bangladesh

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Ayesha in her tea shop

My trip to Food for the Hungry’s (FH) programs in Bangladesh marked nearly 20 years of seeing how God works in lives worldwide.  I’ve seen a lot in those years but I’m happy to say, I’m still learning.

Ayesha, in particular, taught me a lesson on this trip.

While we were filming in her lively market community in the Bangladesh’s Ganges delta, a confident, mature woman approached by pushing her way through the gathered crowd. She grasped my hand, welcomed me to the village and said, “Come see me at my tea shop.”

“Don’t pass that up,” one of my FH Bangladesh colleagues told me.  It’s unusual for a woman to be that forward, he said. There’s a good story here.

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Ayesha and I share a laugh

You’re a little white, I’m a little dark

The next day I went with my fellow female colleague Nahid to Ayesha’s tea shop, alongside one of the myriad rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The lively boat dock nearby served fishermen and river taxi pilots, and the strong aroma advertised the fish market sitting just a few hundred feet away.

Ayesha sold cigarettes, snacks, bread and tea to passersby as we talked. She greeted us warmly and I told her I was impressed by her bravery, to shake hands with a stranger.

“Why would I be afraid of you?” Ayesha said. “One God, one Allah created us. You’re a little white, I’m a little dark, but we’re all the creation of Allah, so I shouldn’t be afraid of you and I can talk with you.”

Wiped out by the cyclone

In between serving customers and dishing out advice to visitors, Ayesha told us she used to run a restaurant. But Cyclone Sidr wiped out her home and business in late 2007. Her husband is a fisherman who lost his equipment in the storm. Her daughters were married already, living in a community across the river, but they flocked home because their houses were wiped out too.

So with ten people to feed, she was desperate.

This is the part where I usually write, “FH came to the rescue with [fill in the blank].” And FH did help Ayesha. She joined one of our learning and savings groups, where in 2008 she was able to take out an emergency loan to get her business re-started.

Taking the lead: Responsible loans, keeping daughters in school

But Ayesha didn’t stop with one loan. She’s taken out responsible loan amounts every year since and started the tea shop from scratch.  She showed the other women in the community how to take responsible financial risks.  Her little shop is enough to support her and her husband, who suffers from cancer and can no longer fish. She became a leader of a learning and savings group, which teaches women everything from literacy and arithmetic to land rights law.

Ayesha also reveled in FH’s message to keep daughters in school and avoid early marriage.  Ayesha was married at age 12 but didn’t start living with her husband until age 16. She therefore survived her first pregnancy, unlike friends who died in childbirth.  Her experience motivates her to fight against early marriage for girls.

Why did she choose to join one of FH’s learning and savings groups? “I thought, ‘If I join with more people, I will join with a group, it will make me strong and I can recover more quickly. If I go alone I will become weaker,’” Ayesha said.

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The bonds of friendship in Ayesh’s savings groups overcome ethnic boundaries. Ayesha, a Muslim, is on the left; her friend on the right, as evidenced by white bracelets, is Hindu.

FH didn’t teach her this – she learned it from life. FH simply gave her the opportunity to showcase her God-given leadership talents.

Ayesha and I prayed together before I left. We grasped hands, bowed our heads, and prayed for vulnerable women both in Bangladesh and in my home of Phoenix, Arizona.  A spirit of peace and joy washed over me. It was just another one of those days with FH where the people we supposedly serve, served me with much more than I could ask for or ever imagine.