“It was only when I lost everything that I understood I had to fight, so that no one would have ever had to go [through] the same pain as me”
It is no news that Bangladesh is prone to flooding due to its geographical location and conformation, being one of the biggest deltas in the world.Climate change, however, is magnifying the factors causing floods, increasing the intensity and the surface of areas that are inundated as a result of these floods, as well as the number of people affected by them. Here is the story of one of those people.
K is a woman in her 70s, one of the many residents of Dhaka’s slums. Her story is not only one of the tragedies, but also one of strength and resilience.
When she was in her early teens, the place where she was living with her parents got flooded and when the floodwaters receded, not only was her family house destroyed and their land devastated, but her mom and her six year old sister were missing as well. The little girl had been rescued by another family in the village, who returned her home safely two days later, but K’s mom was never to be found again. The flood had left the family emotionally and financially drained, and K.’s father had no other choice but to get her married just a few weeks after the catastrophe.
By the time she was 18, she had become a mother for the third time, but her third child did not survive his first week, probably also due to a waterborne disease she caught in her late pregnancy. She and her husband were devastated by the loss, but in grief, they found the strength to keep going. Just a few months later, another flood hit the area where they were living and destroyed everything they owned. K’s husband decided that the family were to move to a nearby area, where his parents and his sister’s family were also moving. The family settled in the area, they built a new home for themselves, started cultivating the land and selling excess produce to the local market, made friends with the neighbours and helped to create a new and strong local community. Almost a decade went by until another flood hit the region. This flood did not spare her family, nor her house or her land, taking everything she held most dear away from her. She was left alone, with no one to look after or looking after her, in profound grief and deep sorrow, helpless, powerless, lost.
Days later, she decided to join some migrant workers from the area and moved to Dhaka, looking for a place to live. She found herself a shanty in one of Dhaka’s slums, and that is where she has been living for the past forty years. With the help of her new neighbour, she learned how to read and write, practising using the homework of her friend’s children, and has since never stopped studying.
Ever since she moved to Dhaka, she has been very active in her community, aiming at recreating the strong neighbourhood ties and the sense of community she had experienced in the last place she lived in, and that she felt were missing in her new home. She became an example for the people living nearby, especially for the women in her section of the slum, who fully supported her when she decided to start a self-help group. Involving new dwellers and helping them to adjust to the slum life and overcome the adversities that came with working and moving around in the capital. When I asked her why she decided to dedicate so much of her time and resources to her community and even to strangers, she looked at me as if I had asked the most stupid question and proceeded saying that when you move to Dhaka from rural Bangladesh, everything is already so complicated. There is no reason why you should make it more difficult. “I wanted [the now] me when I came here, I give me now because I can”, she stated, explaining that she is trying to be the person she would have needed forty years ago.
Eighteen years ago, she started collaborating with some local NGOs to bring WASH facilities to the area, a cause that is still very dear to her and which she still working on, always trying to improve the living conditions of the slum. In the past few years, with many more people moving into the area, garbage started piling up all over the narrow streets. With the support of some of her friends, K has organized a system for waste collection and management. Even though she now has some back problems that do not allow her to carry a lot of weight, nor move around comfortably, she is still running her shifts, because she believes in leading by example.
One thing K made very clear both during her interview, and during the focus group discussion she was part of, is that she is not a victim and she does not want to be portrayed as one, and I sincerely hope I gave her justice in that. She is a strong woman, and I saw that. She is making a difference, and I believe that.
Catherine Fogli is a Master Student at Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies and at the University of Trento, studying environmental security, climate change and development.