Unsung women: Nation Builders 2018
OUR VERY OWN - Lucy Helen Frances Holt
Catholic Sister Lucy Helen Frances Holt left her home in Britain in 1960 to pursue humanitarian work in the-then East Pakistan. Little could she have known that through war and peace, Bangladesh is the country that would win her heart.
“I worked as an orderly at the Fatema Hospital in Jessore during the Liberation War,” recalls Sister Lucy, who even attended civilian and freedom fighter patients on days when the hospital's doctors deemed it too risky to leave their homes. On occasion she treated bullet wounds.
She was asked to leave in 1971 for her own safety but refused. “I wanted to stand beside the freedom-loving people of the delta,” she says. “I was really fortunate to be able to contribute to the country's liberation.”
Sister Lucy wrote to contacts in Britain to plead the cause of an independent Bangladesh, in support of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Bangabandhu whom she greatly admired.
Now aged 87, Sister Lucy is still engaged in social work and teaches English for free at the Barisal Oxford Mission Primary School. In February 2018 the Bangladesh government granted her final wish: to be a Bangladeshi citizen so that she can forever remain in the land she loves.
FORGING A FUTURE - Arifa Akhter
When Arifa Akhter sat for her Secondary School Certificate exam in 2016 she didn't sit on the bench like other children. She sat on the table and wrote with her foot. Determined Arifa was born without the ability to use her arms.
According to classmates at Fulgachh High School in Lalmonirhat, although Arifa takes a little longer to write her answers with the pen held between her toes, the script is neater than what they can manage with both hands.
“Arifa was always interested in study,” says her mother Mamtaz Begum. “She keeps busy with that. I help her to bathe, eat and dress. Everything else she does herself.”
“I've never been able to provide the support she needs for her studies,” says her father Abdul Ali who works as a labourer. “But she never asks for anything.”
Forging her own path in a world that struggles to cater for children like her, Arifa has persisted and excelled. The most outstanding student at her primary school, she scored an unbeatable GPA 5 in her Junior School Certificate. In her Secondary School Certificate she achieved a GPA of 4.84. This April, she will sit for her Higher School Certificate exams. As for the future, Arifa dreams to be a lawyer.
FROM THE ROOTS - Naznin Akhter Nipa
Since the dawn of time, human societies have gathered knowledge of plants that heal. Much of that knowledge risks being forgotten. Some crucial species face extinction. Almost twenty years ago in Khulna's Katianangla village, Naznin Akhter Nipa established a garden that specialises in preserving and promoting herbal disease prevention and cure.
As it is with many good ideas, the garden was born of a crisis. Nipa was busy as a housewife then, caring for her two children. Her husband was a fisherman and the struggling family's sole breadwinner. When pirates attacked his trawler and stole his fishing nets, the future seemed lost.
On advice from a non-government organisation, Nipa decided to start a plant nursery. But she wasn't satisfied. “General nurseries are common,” she says. “I wanted to do something outstanding.”
In 2000 she decided to specialise in medicinal plants. The couple began to seek rare plants, with her husband travelling as far as India to purchase specimens. Over time, Nipa collected 81 books on the subject. “I hoped to increase community knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants,” she says.
Nowadays her garden features 50,000 plants from 2,000 species. Patients routinely ask her advice. She has inspired other village women to start their own gardens.
THE librarian - Safia Begum
In the slums of Narayanganj is the unlikely 'Shapla Pataghar', a library founded and run by 65-year-old widow Safia Begum. With the motto “Reading books enlightens, not reading them leads to darkness,” Safia established the library in 1990. She is intent on spreading knowledge in her disadvantaged community.
Born into poverty, Safia was married off when she was in class eight. She settled in Fatullah with her husband, and just when the weight of life's struggle appeared to be lessening, tragedy struck. In 1988 her husband died, leaving her with six children to care for.
She took a job in a towel factory. Her children were compelled to leave school in favour of employment. Two years later Safia attended a 'mass education' training programme at the directorate of children and women affairs. Then she started to teach several batches of up to 120 students each, in the slum.
“Not all of them could afford materials so I began to collect books,” she recalls. “I also bought books on topics like the Liberation War, novels and story books.”
Thus began her library. It currently has a collection of 500 books, most of which Safia bought from her own pocket. It is housed in the tin shed that also serves as her home. The library achieved government registration in 2012. For many of its patrons, it's their only chance to read books.
Education's champion - Protibha Sangma
Eighty-five years ago when Protibha Sangma was born in a Garo village beside Tangail's Madhupur forest, wild animals were common. Education was not. Thanks to her culturally-minded mother Protibha was enrolled in school. Thus began a lifelong journey dedicated to knowledge. In her community, many regard Protibha as education's pioneer.
By class eight Protibha was studying in Mymensingh, supporting herself by working as a tutor. She hesitated to visit home from concern her father might arrange her marriage in which case her education would end.
Protibha began her working life as a teacher in Mymensingh and Netrakona. In 1965 she returned to Madhupur. “I went house to house to motivate mothers to send children to school.”
In those days many children didn't attend school because they had no suitable clothes. A pant-and-shirt set cost one taka. Protibha bought as many clothes as she could. She also offered advice on infant health. “I enquired after babies, whether they were being breast-fed, to promote nutrition,” she says.
On the cultural front Protibha was likewise active. “I advised young people not to forget their roots. We may be Christian but we are also Garo. It's a matter of pride.”
After the Liberation War, Protibha took a lead role in establishing Madhupur Girls' High School, where she worked for the next two decades, until she retired.
Talented entrepreneur - Aklima Begum
Distant Malmolia village in Khulna doesn't have sealed roads or grid electricity. It does have a well-stocked agricultural supply store, belonging to self-made businesswoman Aklima Begum. Over the past decade, she transformed the circumstances of her once-struggling family.
“People used to ignore me for my poverty,” recalls Aklima, who used to work as a day labourer. In 2007 she decided to improve her lot by mortgaging fifty decimals of family land for Tk 80,000 to start her business. From a non-government organisation she took accounting training and her enterprise began to flourish.
Now her shop has a turnover of around Tk 17 lakhs per month from which she draws a salary of Tk 35,000. She has diversified beyond agricultural products to offer services such as mobile banking. Once forced to sell all the fish from her household ponds she is grateful to be in a position to cook some at home.
“Due to poverty and helplessness I had to give my only daughter for marriage at a young age, which is what happened to me,” she says. “Now I am more fortunate. I am determined to see my son complete his education.”
Aklima has become a community asset for farmers who often ask her advice. She is an inspiration to other women. “I'm really proud of her,” says her husband Abdul Halim Sheikh. “She brought such positive change to our lives.”
The children's therapist - Antoinette Termoshuizen
For twenty years Antoinette Termoshuizen, originally from the Netherlands, has provided therapy to Bangladeshi children with disabilities. She runs the Niketan Foundation, a charity she founded in 1998 that operates two centres in Dhaka and Manikganj which are home to more than 500 children.
In 1992 Antoinette was feeling dissatisfied with her job in the Netherlands and decided to take her bicycle to Indonesia and ride back to Europe. The epic journey brought her to Bangladesh for the first time.
Antoinette returned home but couldn't forget a promise to help Sayeed. She tried to raise funds but many people said they could only contribute if she personally returned to ensure Sayeed benefited. So she did.
Initially, many people thought Antoinette could give an injection or special medicine to heal their children. “I had to convince them I could help the children heal and flourish to some degree through games and therapies” she says.
In 1995 after being attacked by a schizophrenic man, Antoinette herself became paralysed. She underwent treatment in the Netherlands before returning. She looks upon that traumatic experience with positivity. “I think God gave me that experience to better understand the feelings of my children,” she says.
Antoinette, commonly known as 'Khalamma' or 'Aunty' in the community, considers Bangladesh her home.