Debi and Joti
Walking into their house is like stepping down into a basement. I leave my shoes behind outside. Cold feet on colder concrete. The neighborhood is a cement compound of alleyways and narrow walls. The interior of the house is no different. Outside chickens peck at our toes. Dinner is cooked over fires on the front steps. Stray dogs slathered in mud and fleas sleep on piles of wet trash. Flies follow us everywhere.
Joti, a sixteen-year-old girl living in the slums of Dhaka welcomes us into her home.
“Joti means ‘Bright,'” our translator, Mizan, informs us.
“It fits you so well,” Lauren tells her.
From outside we enter a kitchen no larger than your average bedroom closet. The doors to these homes are never shut. Neighbors walk in and out without question or invite. We are followed by a small crowd eager to be seen by our cameras, and fascinated with our presence. There is no privacy here. Joti is one of four children and seven people living in a one-room home the size of a Freshman dorm.
We are ushered to the main room (the only room) where two rusted metal chairs have been set up. We are directed to take a seat on the king-sized bed, which takes up three quarters of the room. The mattress is as hard and thin as brick.
I hesitate. What I first mistake for a pile of blankets and pillows is actually an elderly woman made of skin and bones buried beneath an orange quilt. She stirs as we sit. An old coffee tin sits inches from her lips. She coughs wet and deadly the way water sounds escaping your lungs after drowning and being brought back from the brink of the afterlife. Her fingers, the only other part of her body we will see during our time here, creep out from under her chin, pulling the tin close to her mouth to regurgitate whatever her lungs have released.
All seven of them, including the sickly woman next to me, sleep in the same stone bed each night.
Joti takes a seat in one of the chairs. Lauren is to my right. Mizan to my left. Joti’s older brother comes in with a bowl of sliced oranges and water.
We’ve been warned not to drink anything that doesn’t come from a sealed bottle, not to eat fruit that’s been washed. Hepatitis A runs rampant through the pipes. But we’ve been graciously invited into this home. To refuse would be as insulting as walking in with our shoes on. Mizan is kind enough to tell them we’ve just eaten.
“Joti wants to know about your religion,” Mizan says.
“Christian,” I say.
“We love Jesus,” Lauren corrects. The Bangladesh population is 89.5% Muslim, 9.6% Hindu. Religion is engrained into the Bangali culture. It is a cornerstone, a way of life. It would be absurd for them to assume it is any different anywhere else. Because Christianity is a Western Religion, their association of it is left in the hands of Bill Clinton and Brittany Spears.
Joti doesn’t mind. She tells us she is Hindu. She points us to the shrine made up of red statues, bathed in gold light. She asks us to take a picture.
Joti’s day starts with waking up at 6 a.m. seven days a week. She brings water to a boil and bathes her grandmother – the sick woman in bed behind me – with a hot rag. It’s the only way she can get clean. There is no bathroom in this home. Nor in any home within this community. Afterwards, Joti cleans the home, goes to school, returns, and helps her mother prepare dinner. The family ends the night in bed together. They are fortunate enough to have a small television propped up in the corner of the room. Sometimes the reception is good enough to watch a show.
Joti’s mother, Debi, arrives home from work. She does not seem surprised to see us. In fact, she appears quite excited until she discovers we do not have any water, tea, or food before us. She begins apologizing, instructing her son to run to the market.
“She wants you to have some 7UP,” Mizan says.
I try to let her know it’s okay. “We just had tea.” I touch my stomach. “Very full.”
Debi calms herself, sits. The grandmother coughs, spits. I fight the urge to look, to ask if she’s okay.
“So tired,” Debi says. As she speaks, Mizan translates. He tells us she is a “sweeper.” Bangladesh is the size of Wisconsin with a population of over 150 million and counting. That’s half the population of the United States. The streets in Dhaka are littered with debris, dust, piles of dirt and trash and unidentifiable waste. As a sweeper, Debi wakes up five a.m., seven days a week, and is paid 5000 Taka a month to sweep the same street every morning. This amounts to $62.50 a month.
Lauren asks Joti if she works. She shakes her head. Mizan says someone in America sponsors Jodi through the organization Food for the Hungry. As a result, Joti does not have to work. Instead she can focus on going to University and becoming a math teacher. “Debi,” he says, “is forever grateful for this.”
“Is there an age you are not allowed to work in Dhaka?” I ask.
“There is, but it is not respected. Children are willing to work. They are a commodity. The same with marriage. You’re not supposed to be married until you are eighteen, but it is happening. A lot.”
Lauren asks Debi what her hopes are for Joti’s future marriage.
Joti laughs. Her mother smiles, answers.
“Her dream is that her daughter finishes her education before she even thinks about marriage,” Mizan says.
Debi’s oldest daughter was married by the time she was sixteen. “She married my husband’s sister’s son.”
I pause to work this out. “She married her cousin?”
Along with a young girl getting married between the ages of 13 and 18, this is also a common practice in Bangladesh. Girls like Joti are not forced to drop out of school to work or marry if they are fortunate enough to be sponsored.
Debi is so proud of what Joti is accomplishing. “Not only that,” she says, “but she is always helping out around the house, cooking, cleaning. She is so smart.”
Lauren asks if there is anything we can do for them. They are living in a generously proportioned prison cell. They know nothing of privacy. Their water isn’t clean. They share a restroom with an entire neighborhood. Joti and Debi live in a county oppressive to women who get married before they even get a shot at an education. Their needs are endless. What can we possibly do? Teach them English, fly them to America, build them a white picket fence?
When Debi answers, Mizan looks at us. “What does she want?” I ask. “She wants you to pray,” he says.
“She wants us to pray? For what?”
“Please pray for her,” Mizan says, pointing to the sick woman behind us. Her name is Roma. She is Joti’s grandmother on her father’s side. “Roma is quite old. She has many health complications.”
“Okay. Yeah. We can do that.” Debi smiles as Mizan translates. She closes her eyes. We enjoy an awkward silence.
“Wait. Pray now?”
“Yes. She wants you to pray here. Now.”
“So we are going to bow our heads, and, uh, just pray? Right here? Is that okay?” Hinduism doesn’t pray to just one God. They pray to millions. I don’t want to offend anyone by praying to the wrong God, let alone offend the wrong God.
“Yes. She wants you to pray to your Christian God.”
So we bow our heads. And we pray. We pray for a miracle. We pray for God, a physician greater than any here on Earth, to heal this stranger on a literal deathbed. We pray for his will to be done. We thank him for his endless grace and mercy. We love him. We love Joti. And Roma. And Debi. And we are floored to be Christians invited into the home of Hindus and asked to pray not to their Gods for healing, but to ours.
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