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Making room for a pilgrim from a far land.

Every year Maryknoll missionary Fr. Bob McCahill writes a Christmas letter from Bangladesh to his friends, and usually NCR publishes it, as it does now.

After I had lived for 10 weeks in a rented cooking shed, Nizam, a cart puller and Golenor, his versatile wife, offered me their entire, wee garden space in which to build the hut of my dreams. I snatched at the chance to move to their neighborhood: poorer, more crowded and replete with children. Bengali children tickle me.

At the beginning of our construction work, Nizam measured seven hands (10 and a half feet) on a 15-foot bamboo pole, laid the pole on the ground as a guide and commenced digging postholes in the soft earth at 2-and-a-half-foot intervals. I scooped out the loosened earth with my hands and thanked God for the privilege of working closely with persons who know 50 times more than I about erecting a house.

Along with Nizam and his brother, Quddus, Golenor skillfully split shafts of bamboo into thin, flat pieces. Then they manufactured walls that "breathe." One variety of bamboo (called Sherpur) was used to weave the four walls. Another, thicker variety (Rail) was used for the roof. While we men were resting, Golenor dug up potatoes that would otherwise soon push up through my floor. "See how we are all working on your house?" she teased me in a voice that all the neighbors could hear. "It is because of our mahabbat (love)."

"We are poor," she continued, "but you will never lose anything while living among us." That touched me. They are right to give pride of place to virtues -- such as honesty and the protection of a neighbor's goods from theft -- and not to waste time or energy on mere fancy housing.

The skeleton of thick bamboo stems was lashed together with ropes. Nary a nail was used. The walls were raised and attached by baling wire to 16 posts. Then the, roof was fitted snugly onto the upper framework Not far away we located some earth for sale and used it to raise the floor a few inches above the level that water reaches during the rainy season. As our task concluded, strong wires were slung over both ends of the roof and anchored firmly to the ground on both sides of the hut. Those wires, God willing, will keep the roof from flying away during storms. Golenor added the final touch by hacking a hole in the eastern wall facing the breeze. Then, with a scrap of tin she fashioned a shutter for the exclusive window.

On the third day our work was finished. I'd become the satisfied owner of a home 80 square feet in area for the cost of 1,880 takas (nearly $50). Nizam proclaimed a welcome from the whole family: "You can stay 200 years with us." Quddus pledged that if I die while living among them he will personally carry me to the Islamic cemetery. I insisted, rather, to be placed beside the new house they had built for me. "That is better," Nizam enthused, "for it makes no difference at all where the body goes. The soul goes to Allah!"

According to the Bengali custom, I bought sweets for my neighbors on the occasion of building a new house in their midst. When I carried the three one-kilogram boxes home from the sweets shop, Golenor warned me to hide the stuff. "Don't show the children," she said. "They will eat everything you've got in the boxes and then start eating you!" She was kidding, I thought. But then Nizam informed me that he would be the distributor of the sweets -- and not I -- but not before it got sufficiently dark outside. After dark the kids would be in their homes and not prowling around. Surely there cannot be so many children in this small neighborhood, I protested. "Haaaayyyy, Brother! There are no less than 200 kids within 100 yards of this house!" Nizam set me straight.

Later Nizam walked door to door in the dark bearing a pan in which were 40 pieces of rassha golla (syrupy, supersweet balls made of sugar and cream). I accompanied him from behind and could only laugh as adults let him plop the sticky pingpong-sized balls into their bare right hands. By accepting them they accepted their new neighbor.

A proverb claims that Bengalis live for their children. Eight of these loved ones live in three of the huts facing mine. In one hut, Ratna, age 12 years, because of whose hip injury I first got to know the family, is an oldest child and knows how to give commands. Yusuf (that's Joseph), 9, enjoys streaking through the neighborhood clothed in nothing but mud. Rena, 6, their singing, smiling sister, has already learned to conceal hunger with cheerfulness.

In another hut, Kakuli, 9, a dark beauty, is usually elsewhere when her mother needs her. Sheuli, 7, protests every order and demands to know, "Why should I?" Rubel, 2, is a youngest child and only son, and therefore the dearest extended family member. In the last hut, Labhlu, 10, needs to be prodded to study because his mind is quicker than other kids' his age. Resma, 8, his sister, warmed to me slowly, but now follows me whenever I go to the tubewell, to take in the spectacle of my bath.

It did not occur to me until I'd been living with them for a month that this family and those surrounding us are Shandars, that is, gypsies. Perhaps by association with them, I'm one too.

Mahatma Gandhi empathized with the feelings of the Bengali Muslims. He urged the Christian missionaries to enter into their mentality by lives of "uttermost simplicity." My excellent companions on the path of simplicity and downward mobility are day laborers and cart pullers, their homemaking wives and irrepressible children. By attaching myself to them I seek to put on their minds. The pursuit of a Bengali Muslim mentality, like the effort to put on the mind of Christ, has something to do with solving the problems of the poor, but even more to do with sharing their condition.
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Title Annotation:Christmas
Author:McCahill, Bob
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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