A nonprofit group strives for zero hunger in Bangladesh

Children gather at a Mirpur site in Dhaka to collect meal packets from Bidyanondo helpers. For many, it will be their only proper food of the day. In the past three years the volunteer group has handed out more than 2.5 million meals. (Supplied photo)
Updated 18 October 2019

A nonprofit group strives for zero hunger in Bangladesh

  • Bidyanondo provides food to needy under-12 children and men and women 60 years or older
  • In the last three years, Bidyanondo has distributed more than 2.5 million meal boxes to the needy

DHAKA: The time was 2:30 p.m. Small knots of children were loitering around the main street in the Mirpur area of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Suddenly their faces lit up as a brightly painted rickshaw van appeared. The vehicle, bearing the words “Bidyanondo,” was stacked with food packets.

About 60 children from a nearby slum quickly formed a queue, each holding a one-taka coin that would enable them to buy their day’s lunch. For most, this was the only proper meal they could afford in the entire day.

“I come here every day so that my two granddaughters, Raina and Ranisa, don’t go hungry,” said Rajia Begum, 51, as she collected two food packets for the twins.




Volunteers distribute ‘one taka meal’ boxes to children in Dhaka’s Mirpur district. (Supplied photo)

“My son, who is a driver by profession, does not make enough to feed all six members of our family. So the children wait for their Bidyanondo meal every afternoon.”

A pioneer of the cheap-meal concept, Bidyanondo charges children under 12 as well as men and women older than 60 a token one taka ($1 is equivalent to 84 Bangladeshi taka) for each meal.

The volunteer organization, whose mission is “to foster philanthropy domestically and internationally by designing innovative programs,” spends 28 Bangladeshi taka to prepare the meal it gives away for one taka.

INNUMBERS

370,000 - Bidyanondo’s Facebook follower count

2,000 - Daily recipients of a Bidyanondo meal

84 - Bangladeshi taka equivalent to $1

300 - Total number of Bidyanondo volunteers

The “one taka meal” is the brainchild of 38-year-old Kishore Kumar Das, a Peru-based Bangladeshi who said it was his life’s dream to feed the poor in a way that, unlike begging, did not diminish their sense of self-worth.

“As a child, I had to face extreme poverty because my father could not manage to feed seven members of his family. I used to walk several miles to find free meals distributed at temples,” said Das, who is also the chief of volunteers at Bidyanondo.

“People from different corners of society take the same meal in a temple irrespective of class or caste. This unique idea inspired me to do something in the same way for underprivileged members of Bangladeshi society.”

Besides Dhaka, Bidyanondo — Bengali for “Learn for Fun” — operates the “one taka meal” program in four Bangladeshi cities: Chattogram, Narayanganj, Rajshahi and Rangpur. It also provides food, accommodation, education and medical care to about 300 residents of five orphanages.

“Charging one taka for a single meal is a symbolic approach through which we want to create a sense of ownership in the recipient’s mind,” said Salaman Khan, coordinator of Bidyanonodo’s Dhaka branch. “We want to convey a feeling that people are buying the food from us, not begging for it.”

Bidyanondo’s journey began in June 2016 when it began feeding 30 children in need in Chattogram, in southeastern Bangladesh.




Meals and food packets are prepared at the Bidyanondo Foundation office for distribution among Dhaka’s needy. 
(AN photo by Shehab Sumon,  Arab News)

Within a year, the group was providing food to 800 needy people every day. By 2018, the number of recipients had risen to 1,200. This year, almost 2,000 people every day across Bangladesh are receiving at least one square meal a day, thanks to Bidyanondo’s determination to “relieve the pain of hunger.”

“From cooking to distribution of food, we do everything by ourselves,” Khan told Arab News. “We have a special team of five or six members who cook. All of them are doing the job as volunteers.

“We operate our food program 365 days a year. Our volunteers work even on Eid days to feed needy people.”

Bidyanondo relies on crowdfunding for funds to support its programs.

“We have a Facebook group through which we organize the funding,” Khan said. “Bidyanondo has more than 370,000 followers on its Facebook page. All our benefactors are Bangladeshi and most prefer to remain unidentified.”

In the past three years, Bidyanondo has distributed more than 2.5 million meal boxes to children and older people in need. It has a workforce of 300 registered and non-registered volunteers across the country comprised mainly of students.

The 40 full-time staff members are stationed in the nonprofit’s offices across Bangladesh. A small number of housewives also volunteer at local branches of Bidyanondo.

The idea of selling cheap meals has spread to other countries through Bidyanondo’s network of overseas Bangladeshi volunteers. Das said that pilot programs are being tried out in Peru, Italy, Turkey, Nepal and India.

“We want Bidyanondo to inspire others to commit some of their time and energy to social causes,” Das said. “If everyone does their bit, there will be no huge disparity in society.”

Among those doing their bit is Asma Akter, a 31-year-old physician employed in a government-run general hospital in Manikgonj, 40 km from Dhaka. On her days off, she turns up at Bidyanondo’s local branch to offer free medical consultations to the needy.

“I have my full-time government job for earning money. But I can’t have mental peace with the money,” she said. “Bidyanondo is a platform where I can look after the people who need my support the most.”

Akter added: “Words cannot express the kind of joy I get from performing this social service. It is a very good example of teamwork. Every day I learn from my colleagues here how to spend my time in the service of others.”

Back in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, among the children waiting to collect a meal box that afternoon was eight-year-old Mohammad Solaiman. “My father is a day laborer and mother works as domestic help,” he said.

“At noon they both are busy at work. With my two brothers, I collect food from the Bidyanondo rickshaw van every day. It is very convenient for us.”


Afghan prisoner swap postponed, confirms Taliban spokesman

Updated 23 min 31 sec ago

Afghan prisoner swap postponed, confirms Taliban spokesman

  • Zabihullah Mujahid tells Arab News the Americans had yet to free Taliban detainees
  • The Afghan insurgent group is holding two university professors of American and Australian descent since 2016

ISLAMABAD: Afghan Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Friday a prisoner exchange between the United States and the Taliban did not take place since the Americans had not released three Taliban leaders.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced on Tuesday that three Taliban prisoners were going to be released in return for two academics of American and Australian descent who taught at the American University of Afghanistan.
The Taliban have kept the professors, Kevin King and Timothy John Weeks, in captivity since 2016.
Ghani also named the Taliban detainees who included: Anas Haqqani, brother of the Taliban deputy chief, Siraj ud Din Haqqani, his maternal uncle, Mali Khan, and Hafiz Rashid Omari, brother of the Taliban’s political negotiator, Mohammed Nabi Omari.
Mali Khan was arrested by the Americans in eastern Khost province in 2011.
Anas, who was inducted in the insurgent group’s negotiating team in February, was captured by US security officials after he visited Qatar in October 2014.
He was accompanied by another Taliban leader, Rashid, who had gone to Qatar to meet five Taliban leaders who had been freed from the Guantanamo prison. They were later handed over to the Afghan authorities.
In August 2016, an Afghanistan court had awarded Anas a death sentence.
An earlier media report suggested that Taliban prisoners were flown out of Afghanistan and had reached Qatar, where they would be handed over to the Taliban political office.
However, Mujahid told Arab News on Friday that the swap did not take place and the Taliban prisoners were still in the Bagram jail in the north of Afghan capital Kabul.
“There was an agreement that the Americans will take our prisoners to a location and in return we will release the two professors later. But they have not fulfilled their promise by taking our people to that venue. Under the circumstances, we are still holding the American and Australian professors hostage. And there is no progress in the deal so far,” the Taliban spokesman said in an audio sent to Arab News.
Experts in Afghanistan said that delay in the prisoner swap was the result of deep mistrust on all sides.
Zakir Jalai, a television commentator and Afghan peace activist, said the prisoner issue was very sensitive and the Afghan government was under intense pressure not to release Anas Haqqani.
“I think the Taliban do not trust the Americans and will not hand over the professors unless they have complete trust that the US will free the Taliban prisoners,” Jalali told Arab News from Kabul.
“The Taliban will release the professors when their prisoners are handed over,” he said, adding that both, particularly the Taliban, were very cautious in view of their mistrust of the other.
A day after President Ghani announced the swap deal, Taliban leaders sent congratulatory messages to each other and a Taliban official in an audio message, in possession of Arab News, said: “Congratulations, as the plane carrying the freed prisoners has taken off an hour ago.”
A Taliban official earlier said his incarcerated colleagues were taken out of the Bagram prison but were then locked up again in the jail.