language and perspective

In my last post, I talked a lot about the Bangladeshis that we worked with. I want to give the appropriate amount of attention and respect to the Rohingya, the whole reason and focus of the work being done in the camps.

The Rohingya have their own language, but it is spoken only. They have no written language. Think about that. Being illiterate is almost unimaginable; think of how many times each day we read something without even being cognizant of it. Food containers, street signs, etc. Even if you never open a book in your life, a large part of your day to day life is dependent upon your ability to read. Ok, now, imagine that the language you speak has no alphabet. You can’t write your name, you can’t put a sign on your shop, you can’t label items you are selling or keep track of what you sell. There is so much we could teach at the camp,Β  if only we were able to hand out a little flyer…”come get vaccinated at this location, at this time.” Or, “make sure you boil your water for x amount of minutes before drinking it or cooking with it.” Or, “if your child gets sick, bring them to clinic X, but if your child needs supplemental feeding, bring them to clinic Y.” Because there is no simple and effective way to communicate information to a large group of people, many of our patients walk a very long time to get to our clinic, only for us to tell them we don’t offer the service they are seeking. We tell them what they need is at a different clinic, in a different direction, and off they go, often times without shoes.

Our satellite clinics operated on a very irregular schedule. I had the idea to post a sign at each clinic site, so that people would know when we would be open and available to see patients. Then I realized even a simple sign that would say “this clinic is open every Monday and Wednesday from 10-4” would be entirely unhelpful. We had no good way to communicate that with the people of the community. Presumably, people walked a long time to come to the clinic every day, and 50% of the time they sat waiting for medical staff to show up, to no avail. I get mad if I try to get ice cream somewhere and the shop is closed. Perspective…

We (expats/westerners) are given a link on Google maps that shows every clinic in the camp, and can be organized by services offered. How ironic that we have this information, but those living in the camp do not. Even if we could print copies of the map and somehow hand deliver them to every family, how much good would it do if no one can read, even in their own language…

Often times at the clinic I would work as the triage nurse, which involves checking a lot of vital signs. Two vitals we check on everyone are weight and temperatures. We had standard-looking scales that patients would step on and we would record their weight in their chart. This sounds incredibly dumb, but I had never considered that people may look at a scale and not know what it was or what to do with it. I learned how to say “stand” in Rohingya (“theo”) and would indicate with my hand that I wanted the person to stand on the scale. Some of them just looked at me, like “what am I supposed to do with that thing.” This really drove home the isolation these people have been living in.

Same with the thermometer. I would hand it to people (all temperatures were checked under the arm) and they would look at me like “where do you want me to put it?” I would do my best to indicate that I wanted them to put it under their arms, and quite often people would put in under their armpit, but outside of their clothes. I hadn’t considered that when I handed someone a thermometer, they’d have no idea what it was. The struggle continued when I would hand it to women who put it under their niquab, but still on top of the shirts they wore underneath the niquab. It was quite a challenge to get someone who doesn’t understand what a thermometer is used for toΒ  put it up against their skin, under their niquab, with no privacy at all, in a room full of other people, while not speaking the language. If anything, I got some practice for my next game of charades.

Another eye opener was the lack of diapers at the camp. And I don’t mean, like, they’re aren’t enough. I mean, I never saw a diaper on a kid. Babies are carried wrapped up in a piece of fabric, and when they start to pee, the adult holding them just holds the kid away from their body so the pee falls into the dirt, and everyone carries on like nothing just happened. Very often, no one realized the kid is urinating until the pee begins to soak into the adult’s clothing. I have no idea how I made it 6 weeks without getting peed on. Every time I held a child so that its parent could step on the scale, I mentally crossed my fingers that I didn’t get peed on. Must have worked.

For anyone wondering about number 2, I only saw that twice. On my very first day, about 3 minutes into the walk to the clinic, I walked right past a toddler squatting on the side of the road, with probably 100 different people walking by as he relieved himself. Obviously, there was no TP, no hand washing, and no covering it up when he was done. The second time was one of my last days at camp, another young child was standing on the side of the road having diarrhea. Same story as above.

I share this not to gross anyone out, but in hopes that it opens someone’s eyes to what life is like outside of the bubble of a first world country. I also want to stress that I am in no way talking down about the Rohingya or their way of life. The “western” way of life is not better, and I think more often is worse. The Rohingya are a beautiful, strong, resilient people. I feel privileged to have served them.

I wish I had more photos to share, but my phone spontaneously stopped working 2 days before I left Bangladesh, and subsequently, I lost all of my photos. If I can find a way to retrieve them, I’ll post more.


Thanks for reading,

Kelli Wags

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