Hands-on humanitarian gems

Cathie Roy/Associate Publisher / Staff writer
February 22, 2013 01:00 AM

Recently I listened to a presentation by Canadian Gem Munro.

Who is he, you ask? That's a question not quickly answered.

Munro is a published author who, I dare say, boldly goes where few of us would. He's a visionary who took his dream of helping Bangladesh to a degree that most would find inconceivable. And he is that most priceless of human beings - a practical humanitarian.

Many years ago when Gem and his wife Tanyss were looking for a way to give back as thanks for the good life they've enjoyed, Gem chanced on a meeting with a Canadian diplomat who had travelled extensively throughout his career. When the Munros discussed their nebulous desire with the man and asked his opinion on where in the world to go, the answer was Bangladesh.

"Why?" the Munros queried.

"Because that is the only country that ever made me cry," he said.

So the Munros formed an idea, one they felt would make a quick difference in this country where 30 per cent of the population lives on less than one dollar each day, a country where the pennies we Canadians so arrogantly decided we could live without are considered a wage.

The beautiful and brilliant part of the Munros' plan was to change the literacy of the country. This they would do by going into the slums (basically garbage dumps) where huge portions of the people live. There the Munros would train mothers to become teachers and have the students pay their education forward.

When the Canadians had decided how their plan would work, they started going to foreign aid and various NGOs to drum up support and the needed cash. Their plan met with at best skepticism and at worst outright derision. Not to be deterred, the Munros decided to finance the project themselves with donations from family and friends.

Students were welcomed and soon changes were being made. Women (girls really) who had been married off at 11 or 12 began to realize that they were more than baby machines. The birth rate went down, and as was the agreement with the Munros, each mother would teach five other people to read.

An amazing You Tube video that Gem played at his presentation showed the stunning success of the program. In the video, a mother leads several children in reciting Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in English. And while the learning is impressive, it's the smiles and evident joy on the faces of the teacher and her students that make the biggest impact on the viewer.

Bangladesh is a primarily Muslim country surrounded by India on three sides. Women and girls are considered of less importance than the men or boys. The overall infant morality rate as of 2011 was 37.3 per cent. The country has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world. There an elder is someone who is in his or her 40s. Over half the population use straw, leaves or dried cow dung for cooking fuel and 75 per cent of them live with a mud floor.

Into that world the Munros have brought hope, education and a brighter future. There are no words to convey my esteem for these incredible people.

Gem's book is South Asian Adventures With the Active Poor. All profits go to the Munros' Amarok Society to finance the schools. For more information, seeamaroksociety.org.

© Coast Reporter


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