I wasn't ready for this. Zahin Ahmed, the executive director of Friends in Village Development, Bangladesh, popularly known as FIVDB, breathed his last in a Dhaka hospital on October 27. A cancer survivor, he unfortunately couldn't fend off the virulent infections that kept him in hospital for the previous ten days.
Zahin and I had known each other since we were students of class VI back in 1962 in Sylhet Government High School. Shortly, we had befriended Masrur Choudhury, who later went on to found the Nandan Group. Our friendship was so strong that some of our teachers started calling us “The Three”. Masrur passed away in 2013. The last of “The Three”, I now feel so alone in their absence.
We laid Zahin in his eternal resting place at the Dargah of Hazrat Shah Jalal in Sylhet, close to his mother and two brothers. The following day, civil society organisations of Sylhet organised a memorial event attended by people from all walks of life, particularly his friends and colleagues in the development sector. It was amazing to see how he touched the lives of so many people in so many ways.
As its founding executive director, he has been at the helm of FIVDB since its inception in 1980. Under his leadership, the organisation grew to be a foremost and influential NGO, not only in Sylhet but nationally. It worked for the poor and disadvantaged people, particularly women and girls. It has developed and implemented many innovative programmes in the areas of education, health, agriculture, poultry, and microfinance that touched the lives of millions of people. Perhaps two of the most important contributions of FIVDB are in adult education and duck rearing. The adult learning material that it developed are used widely by the government and NGOs. The landmark work of introducing new breeds of ducks (such as Khaki Campbell from Thailand) has had immense impact in improving the breeds and creating duck value chains in the haor areas of the country. FIVDB is now a large institution with a yearly budget of over Tk 240 crore.
His introduction to the field of development started in December 1971, well before my own entry into this field. The Manipuri community in Sylhet town was badly affected during the liberation war as their houses and properties were either looted or destroyed and most of them sought refuge in India. Barrister Viquerul Islam Chowdhury, who happened to be Zahin's cousin, had returned to Sylhet from Shillong in Meghalaya within a few days of the ending of the war. Staying at Zahin's home in Sylhet town, he, with support from his close friend Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, carried out a relief operation for the Manipuri community in which the young Zahin joined. They successfully rehabilitated many of the affected families. Sir Abed and Barrister Viquerul Islam were his gurus. He believed that some of the seeds for a future BRAC were sown in his drawing room!
Following a pledge made by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed at the Jomtien Conference on “education for all” in 1990, we started working on developing a simple methodology to measure basic education. The first person I talked to on this was Zahin. We quickly developed the outline for what was later known as the “Assessment of Basic Competencies” or ABC. Many other experts later joined the initiative, and this methodology quickly received wide traction and was implemented in many countries including Pakistan, India and Nepal. Zahin was one of the founding trustees of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). He was a prominent member of the Education Watch group.
Zahin epitomised a true “plain living and high thinking” character as iterated repeatedly during his memorial programme. Hailing from an illustrious and well-to-do family of Habiganj, he devoted his entire life to the service of the downtrodden. Not only was he revered by those around him, because of the simple way he lived his life, but they also benefitted from his deep knowledge of development, culture and history.
His interest in poetry and mysticism was enthralling. He was a proud follower of Sufism and the poetry of Tagore, Rumi and Hafiz. Mehdi Hasan was one of his dearest ghazalists. This part of his character was probably inherited from his educationist father Najmul Hussain Chowdhury who was a scholar in Persian language and literature. He was an ardent believer in the teachings of Paolo Freire, the celebrated Brazilian philosopher, which he internalised and exuded passionately through his work in FIVDB and in his writings. He was a prolific writer. His depth of knowledge and understanding allowed him to express complex subjects in terms that even the most common person was able to absorb them. It would genuinely be a collective loss for us all should we fail to preserve his contributions and carry forward his legacy.
Zahin Ahmed's passing has created a national void which will be difficult to fill. And for me personally, I have become a loner!
Mushtaque Chowdhury is Vice Chairperson, BRAC.