Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Last night we visited a very poor part of Dhaka. In many cities, poorer people gravitate towards transport hubs where the constant flow of commuters provide a potential source of income. Dhaka is no exception.
Gaptoli Bus station is a hub for the hundreds of beaten up buses which brave the traffic taking people to and from work through the clogged streets of Dhaka. In my first blog I said there weren't the smells and litter that I had expected in Dhaka but, we found them tonight.
The station is a vast sprawling concrete edifice where bus company booths and traders battle for custom from the thousands of people trying to navigate this vast and clogged city. It is here you find the old and the young living and eeking out a living selling whatever they can or simply begging.
We arrived early at just after 5pm to join Potto Shishu which means 'Infant of the Street'. Potto Shishu is a simple organisation set up by a catholic priest which trains volunteers to play with street children. Whilst waiting for the volunteers to arrive, we met 4 children hanging around the bus station. Khadija acted as the mother figure who was clearly in charge. At just 13 years old, she had taken responsibility for the 3 others including Aki, who, we were told, was just 3 years old. Aki looked like a boy, wearing just shorts and with a shaved head and bare feet. Khadija was very serious and at first wary. She said she had a job helping in a school and looked after the other 3, one of whom was her brother. She explained they slept across the road from the bus depot.
Straight away Aki began to play with us - slapping our hands in 'high fives' and wanting to hold hands. She clearly needed the attention of a parent figure but Khadija explained there were no mums and dads at all - they had either disappeared or were alcoholics or drug users. All of the children were left to fend for themselves.
The Potto Shishu volunteers arrived and laid down some mats to cover the floor, right next to some of the busses backed up ready for passengers. We set about roping off a cordon to prevent on-lookers walking across the mats. Khadija helped us to round up a few more street children and then the session started with us all holding hands and introducing ourselves. In the end we had 6 children join in,
Each child was then given something to lean on and a box of colouring pencils and paper were handed around. The children set about colouring in pre-printed flowers. What struck me fairly quickly was all of the children struggled to hold the pencils properly and to colour within the lines. It was clearly tricky for them as they had never learnt those skills when young. When they had finished they proudly held up their pictures for us to photograph. They were beginning to smile.
We then played some games with them including matching pairs which was actually quite tricky as the monster images were very similar. One girl though, Borsha had an amazing memory and wiped the floor with all of us.
Shakil was quite a character - he was confident from the start. He said he was 15 but looked younger. His mother had left him and his father had remarried so he had been abandoned on the street. He made his living selling bottled water to passengers at the bus station. When some rudimentary 4 piece puzzles were tipped onto the mat he started to put them together - making pictures of a frog, seal, duck and penguin. They were the sort of puzzles your child aged 3 might try to complete but Shakil wanted to play with them. He struggled however to put them together quickly. Whilst leaning over trying to fit the pieces together, we noticed several keloid scars on his arm. Mina asked him how he had got them and he said he had been cut by an older boy. He then showed us another scar right down his back which was over 20cm long.
After a bit more playing, the children were invited to sing to us. Shakil immediately jumped up to perform his own compilation about how his home was on the street and ours were in houses but they were human too. The other children were hesitant to get up but after some cajoling, Khadija sang along with several of the others. When they finished we all applauded as did the small crowd which had gathered to watch. Khadija smiled properly for the first time and her eyes lit up. It was wonderful to see her transform before us from such a serious 'adult' back to being a child again.
We handed the girls some small dolls and the boys toy cars as well as toothbrushes and soaps. The mat was then put away and we said our goodbyes.
We then walked a short distance and got into an air-conditioned car which would take us back to our friend's flat and a hot shower. Khadijah and her group went back to the street, to nothing. The difference between our lives couldn't have been starker.