I had the honor of traveling to Bangladesh this time last year to see firsthand the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP)’s ongoing development work there.
As a second-generation Bangladeshi American, this was an especially meaningful trip for me. I’ve been to Bangladesh with my family numerous times throughout my life. In fact, my parents—who made the U.S. their home some 40 years ago—raised us kids in such a way that we’ve always felt connected to our roots, whether it was through language, food or family history.
This trip, however, was the first I’ve ever made without my family. It was the first time I was truly interacting with some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. It was the first moment I’d ever stepped inside a slum. Here, I found the opportunity to meet everyday people who have the strength and optimism to keep going no matter their struggles. I was finally experiencing the reality of Bangladesh.
I arrived in the sweltering August heat with my friend, colleague and editorial guru, M.J. Altman, and a film crew of three incredible visual artists: Jonathan Olinger, Ricky Norris and Daniel Johnson.
Our goal: To film, photograph and collect stories from as many of WFP’s crucial programs as possible so we could share them with you, our supporters. From the capital city of Dhaka to the remote village of Kurigram, from school meals to infrastructure work, we captured it all.
As expected, we were surrounded by people everywhere we went. Bangladesh is, after all, one of the most densely populated countries on earth. Pair that with the fact that there were five Americans walking around, and we were bound to get a lot of attention.
M.J. and Dan both practiced some Bangla with me so they could have small conversations. The key phrases: “My name is…” “How are you?” “Good” and “Thank you.” I’m proud to say they did a top-notch job.
We wrapped up our first day of filming in Bhashantek, one of the biggest and oldest slums in Dhaka… in the pouring rain. We were in the midst of Bangladesh’s monsoon season, when at any moment the sky can open up and release a sudden deluge of rain. We rushed to get our umbrellas, ponchos and rain boots. But alas, we got soaked anyway.
The boys and girls who lived in Bhashantek, on the other hand, had a completely different reaction. They didn’t run to take cover. Instead, we saw dozens of children run and dance in the torrential downpour, laughing and celebrating a sudden respite from the stifling humidity.
Here, in this rich land of rivers, the monsoon showers can cause destruction, but they are what ultimately keeps the earth growing. They are always welcomed with the utmost joy. It’s like the old song by Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh, which describes the beauty of rain:
Rimi rimjhim rimjhim namelo deya
Rimi rimjhim rimjhim, down comes the rain
Shuni shihorey kadam bidorey keya namilo deya
Hearing the rain, the burflower quivers, the screwpine bloom sheds its petals
Rimi rimjhim rimjhim namelo deya
Rimi rimjhim rimjhim, down comes the rain
Jhiley shapla komol oui melelo dal go mele lo dol
In the marsh, the water lilies burst forth in unison
Megho ondhu gogon bondho kheya namilo deya
Boats remain idle under the cloud-covered sky, down comes the rain
On Day 2 we began collecting stories, including my first-ever Bangla-language interview with someone outside of my family. We interviewed Shrity, a 12-year-old girl who receives WFP’s high-energy biscuits in the classroom.
Shrity, her mom and two of her sisters live in one room along a narrow alley in the Bhashantek slum. That same alley is shared by 17 families.
It took us some time to find the appropriate spot to film the interview. We propped up our camera and mic on the wet ground, and I sat on an overturned bucket beside it, facing Shrity.
I was probably just as nervous as she was for this interview, but Shrity was a trooper and we got through it together.
While inside the crowded home of a mother of twins, the heat started getting to me. I had to sit out from the filming with a large bottle of water, trying to cool off, worried that I might actually faint. Thankfully, two young ladies named Kookoochen and Tasnoor sat beside me and got my mind off the heat by insisting I sing a song with them. We settled on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
After a few minutes, Kookoo ran off to her chores. This included helping her very weak, elderly grandfather pour water over his head to wash up. This simple task reminded all of us about the deep sense of love, respect and duty Bangladeshi children have toward their elders.
As we traveled from Dhaka to the north, my Bangla skills became less useful as the dialect spoken in places like Kurigram was so very different from my own. But with the help of local WFP staff, hand gestures and smiles, we managed to have great conversations.
One of my favorite moments came during an interview with a woman named Moumina, who had purchased two cows using the tools and training she had received from WFP. She described the beauty of the fields beside her home, the greenery and the breathtaking sunlight beyond.
Another favorite moment came when Moumina’s mother-in-law came and stood next to her, without a word, hand on hip, in the middle of our shot, not quite understanding what was going on. It was hilarious and yet so endearing.
Jonathan and Ricky tested out their drone camera, flying it high above Moumina’s home to capture the community members who had stepped onto her family compound, prompting shouts and laughter from villagers — and myself — who had never seen such a thing. Within minutes, however, the drone crashed into a tree. With help from locals, our crew managed to get it out of the tree from a rooftop, but it was beyond repair.
The following day, when we really needed that bird’s-eye view, we had to get creative. Since the drone was no longer functioning, we worked with villagers to use rope and cloth to tie a camera to a long bamboo stick.
That bamboo stick was then carried across dirt and mud — the entire camera crew was barefoot—and propped up like a tripod so the camera sat some 30 to 40 feet in the air. The scene looked like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima and required several hands. With a remote control, we managed to capture some fantastic footage from up above of a raised embankment, which was being constructed by villagers with the support of WFP to withstand monsoon floods.
This whole process reminded me of the ingenuity and resilience of the Bangladeshi people. No matter what, they find a way to make things happen.
On our last day of the trip, we made a pit stop at the Masafi Bread and Biscuit factory, where WFP produces high-energy biscuits that are eaten by kids like Shrity in classrooms across the country. Before walking into the facility, we followed health protocols and suited up.
Seeing the cleanliness of the factory, the organized assembly line and the high-tech machines—along with a group of expert nutritionists and scientists—made me feel even more in awe of WFP’s innovative work to get families the most nutritious food possible.
I am still so grateful to have been a core part of this film mission. It turned out to be one of the best weeks of my life, and I think back on it almost every day.
Interacting with these people—my people—was one of the most eye-opening, humbling and reflective experiences I’ve ever had. It not only made me better appreciate WFP’s work, but it brought me closer to the beauty that is Bangladesh. It allowed me to bask in the brilliance that is the Bangladeshi people who so dearly love their land and their families.
It has made me even more committed to the people we serve. I mean, look at those faces. Those are faces of curiosity and happiness, and there is nothing better in the world than to gather around with them to tell an important story, a human story.
— Aliya Karim, World Food Program USA