Last week, Room to Read held its annual Country Management Conference (CMC) in Bangladesh. The CMC is a time when Room to Read’s senior staff from our country, regional and global offices get together to share, learn, provide input and make decisions on important strategic and operational matters facing the organization and make plans for the year(s) ahead. Pierre Towns, Room to Read’s Chief Talent Officer, attending this year’s CMC for the first time and sent us his thoughts on the experience.
The hallways and common areas of our hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh, were filled with excitement and anticipation of the week ahead. As we gathered in the meeting room, I admit I felt a little jealous as I watched old friends and colleagues renew acquaintances and reminisce about old times at Room to Read. However, as with most Room to Read gatherings, it didn’t take long for celebrations and a festive atmosphere to break out—even during panel discussions.
As I surveyed the composition of my new colleagues, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the mosaic of ethnicities, nationalities, attires and cultures. I have worked in international companies most of my career, but this is the first international organization where the leadership is truly international. It is an extraordinary and uplifting sight that I can already tell is a real asset for our organization.
The energy, participation and commitment to our work was exemplified by our sleepless schedule which included working weekends and attending early morning, dinner and late night side bar meetings. Luckily, after three days confined to our meeting room, we had the opportunity to visit our Bangladesh projects to see the work for ourselves! I chose to see our Girls’ Education program in Dogachi Chor, one of the most remote chars (sandbar island) in Sirajganj Sadar. Eighteen girls from this char go to three different schools and if you can believe it, their only means of transportation is by boat—some of them travel several hours a day to attend school.
For us to reach Dogachi, we traveled four hours—first by van, then boat and finally by foot. The drive from the city to the distant Jamuna River was both harrowing and exhilarating! The busy streets were filled with transportation modes of every type: livestock, domestic animals, and people of every hue. Their colorful dress combined with the activity on the crowded street formed a collage of machine and humanity.
After a few hours of driving, the noise and activity succumbed to a lush, tropical and tranquil countryside accented by rice patties, wheat fields, a mixture of palm and hardwood trees, makeshift huts and dwellings, and the occasional roadside commercial establishment. It is as though we traveled back in time to a simpler and less hectic life. Out the van window I could see clay bricks being pulverized by man and hammer to form every size of gravel imaginable; wheat being cut in the fields by hand using a sickle, then separated from the shaft by makeshift bamboo pitchforks and man as it is tossed into the air; people bathing in the river and lumber being milled by hand. As I observed the people go about their day, I couldn’t help reflecting on how difficult their existence seems to me yet how determined, prideful and unaffected they were as they went about their chores.
By 6:30am, we had already been on the road a few hours and the initial van chatter died down and the quiet interrupted only by a cell phone ringing or a snore from a napping colleague. Determined to see everything, I stayed awake!
At the Jamuna River we left the van to take the naota (small wooden boat) to Dogachi Chor. With four of my colleagues I boarded the naota and settled in for the 40-minute trip to the river island, trying to enjoy the breeze, sights and sounds while watching our boat’s first mate bailing water out of the boat! I did a quick check for the nearest life preserver.
After arriving safely on the island, we braved the 35 degree centigrade (95º F) temperature and stifling humidity as we walked through sesame and jute fields on the way to the village. At last we arrived and were greeted with flowers by the villagers and the girls who are supported through our Girls’ Education program. With a “welcome” coconut to sip in my hand, we were treated to a dramatic performance of “The Tale of Two Girls,” a musical produced by some of Room to Read’s Bangladesh staff. The play, performed not only for us but in front of most of the village, was about two girls born into the same challenging circumstances and how each of their lives took different directions because one received an education and one did not. Following the performance, we had the opportunity to visit with the girls and share questions and experiences.
As we strolled back to the river through the sesame fields, all of the effort, heat and harrowing transportation experiences became a distance memory, replaced instead by fond recollections of a very inspiring and motivated group of girls with ambitious plans for their future!
Now, as I write this, we are back in the Dhaka meeting room wrapping up the final days of the conference. But, thanks to a little village on a remote sandbar, in the middle of a river, and 18 Girls’ Education program superstars, all of us here approached our work with a renewed enthusiasm and commitment as we planned for 2012 and beyond!
Learn more about our programs in Bangladesh.