It’s not easy to make the transition from beautiful, safe Melbourne to witnessing extreme poverty in the most remote communities in the world. Working with Thankyou has given me the opportunity to work alongside passionate, world-changers who exhibit true resilience and strength and who are committed to transforming the lives of people in poverty through clean water, sanitation and hygiene education.
My first trip overseas with Thankyou was to Assam, India. I hit the ground running as a volunteer photographer and was beyond stoked to be travelling and shooting for a cause I cared so much about. Most of my colleagues would say that I was living the dream and I completely agree.
Eight trips later and having visited some of the most remote parts of the world in Nepal, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Thankyou’s chief impact officer Pete and I landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to document Thankyou’s longest water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project.
Bangladesh was new for me; largely untouched by tourism, it was an unbelievable place to explore. It has a population of 164.7 million people, spread across a diverse landscape of densely populated buildings in Dhaka city to the barren countryside that had suffered major agricultural change from a cyclone in 2009.
We arrived smack bang in the middle of Ramadan, a month-long religious festival that’s an integral part of the culture in Bangladesh. It’s a time where the city comes alive with lights and decorations on the street, late night shopping and celebrations everywhere. About 90% of adults will fast for a month, meaning that they will refrain from eating from dawn until dusk.
Tending to meetings in Dhaka was our first point of call — many discussions about making strides in health care, hygiene and water management were had with local government members, while also spending some wonderful time getting to know the local compatriots and learning some key Bengali phrases. lamalikum, kemon achhish?! to the Bangladeshis reading.
The next day, we caught a small plane down south to a community called Tiger Point. It’s a region that’s as rural as it gets — marked by lush greenery, small waterways, fertile plains and mangrove forests. With the humidity sitting at around 70%, sweat was developing in places once thought impossible as we proceeded to drive into the remote village of Gung Henchi.
To be welcomed into a community is one thing, but to be given the trust to be welcomed into someone’s home is far more personal. We were lucky enough to be invited to sit down with the president of the local WASH committee, Biti, in her home.
WASH committees empower communities with simple solutions to water, sanitation and hygiene on a large scale. They advocate for hand washing, educate their neighbours on drinking clean water, keep toilets clean and break taboos surrounding menstrual hygiene.
Biti was a softly spoken woman who described the positive impacts of a raised water point being installed in her community.
“Life before WASH was hard,” she said. “We had to line up to fetch water for over 4-5 hours, rendering us to be dependent on our husbands for income, because we couldn’t work and we had many household chores to complete. But now that we have more time, we have been able to start our own businesses and be financially independent.”
Biti described how happy she is to be able to invest this additional time in her tailoring business. She is now able to fulfil her dreams of improving her house and she takes immense pride in being able to fund her children's education and additional needs.
Over the course of three days, we spent time with a range of communities to discuss and document the advantages of having access to clean water and the learnings that have come from health and hygiene training.
These seemingly small adjustments to hygiene practices (such as always washing their hands before eating) have led to life-changing outcomes — not only in health, but socially and environmentally. Children can attend school consistently without sickness, and women and men can pursue their livelihoods and work towards a better future thanks to financial independence. Water is able to be filtered straight from the pump, rather than being purchased in a plastic bottle, leading to less waste in these remote areas.
When I leave these trips to return home, I am often left feeling overwhelmed. Our team are often exposed to both the most beautiful moments and also the most painful moments — yet no matter how exhausting, stressful or eye opening it is, it leaves me with a new perspective every time. It blows my mind that the seemingly simple act of buying a hand wash for your bathroom leaves women like Biti empowered with the opportunity to make more choices for herself and her family that she otherwise would not have had — and seeing the positive spiral effect this can have on an entire community.
I’m lucky that I can utilise my skills as a photographer to bear witness to these significant moments and in some way, influence my own community to make better choices.