It was one of the hardest mornings yet. My shalwar kameez (loose pants and tunic) smelled like day-old sweat, and the embroidery was chafing my heat rash.
I sat on a jolting, overfilled Bangladeshi bus. Watching carefully out the window, I saw my cue — a corner store — and heartily smacked the side of the bus to signal I wanted off.
I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for a six-week mission trip with a team of four other university students.
Off the bus, we walked the dusty orange road, skirting jackfruit pits and careening rickshaws, to the shelter where we volunteered. Inside the courtyard, the children poured out of the doors to wrap their arms around our legs and cry “Auntie!” It was our honorary title. Close behind were a group of about six women, who also greeted us with warmth but more decorum.
The women, many homeless, some from the sex trade, were staying at the shelter during their pregnancies and then for a few weeks postpartum to decide whether they would keep their babies or give them to the shelter for adoption. The children who greeted us had been left to the shelter’s care. If not adopted by their sixth birthday, the kids would be transferred to an orphanage.
The only way I could deal with the stories and the suffering was by fulfilling my small volunteer role to its utmost. Our job: to learn about the centre so we could tell friends and donors back home, and to keep the women and kids company.
I’d been sick for the past few days with the usual traveller’s plague. Feeling ragged, I hadn’t been able to plan any activities. My team was in similar shape. Embarrassment and dread crept up on me as we started our morning at the shelter. What could I offer this morning?
We sat in a circle with the women and played simple clapping games. We knew these women wanted more, but our limited Bangla meant there was only so much we could teach or learn. After a few rounds, everyone’s hands were stinging and sticky. So, we sat there looking at one another. I squirmed, ashamed that I was failing the staff and participants who’d invited me into their work and their home.
Then one young woman, energetic, extroverted and about 17, jumped up from the circle and turned on a cassette player. Bollywood music poured out from its tinny speakers. She walked over to stand in front of me and grabbed my hands. We would dance.
I am not a good dancer; she could do Bollywood cinema dance routines by heart. She tried to teach me where to put my hands and feet. I did my best but ended up looking like a misfiring robot chicken. But I don’t think we ever laughed so much. And in my sweaty, clumsy, gasping state, I knew I’d been given a beautiful gift for which dhonnobad (thank you) was not enough.
My dance teacher and I stamped onto the shelter’s concrete floor a wild, irrepressible faith in the future. In that moment, I realized God is not detached from life’s pain. Rather, we are all in this dance together, sweating, hopeful and defiant, swirling toward something better.
Bethany Van Lingen is a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program in Toronto.
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