Doctors on the Deck

Impact Foundation Bangladesh funds a floating hospital which provides treatment to remote villages

Alice Cockerell

The Jibon Tari is a floating hospital, launched in April 1999, which takes medical treatment to the poorest people of rural Bangladesh. Though the statistic keeps changing, and is likely to change for the worse, it is estimated that half of Bangladesh is about six metres under water. 

The result is that tens of thousands of the country’s population scratch out a primitive, often nomadic, existence on flat silt islands known as chars that are often no more than a metre above sea level. 

The Jibon Tari is adequately equipped and staffed but it is the formidable efficiency with which it is run that keeps it afloat. The hospital travels down the waterways to moor at each remote village for approximately 12 weeks at a time. While it is docked, local islanders (many of whom would otherwise be incapable of reaching mainland care) are examined and treated. 

There is nothing picturesque about this floating infirmary: the boat is tied to trees along the riverbanks in an attempt to keep the operating theatre steady and to combat the ever-changing water-levels. A large proportion of the patients that surge on to the boat are afflicted with cataracts: they are instructed to mark the brow above the afflicted eye with a strip of surgical tape before meeting a doctor. 

The boat is funded by Impact Foundation Bangladesh, which is a branch of a London-based aid organisation specialising in helping to cure disability in the developing world. From the outset, it was important to Impact that the people to whom the boat would bring aid did not feel patronised. There is consequently no sense of a foreign boat hoving into view and doling out largesse. 

For what lies at the heart of the project is a belief that knowledge and education are the best cure. What this means, in practical terms, is that although some of the original medical staff were trained by Western volunteers, the current staff are mainly of Bangladeshi origin. This emphasis on medical education is pervasive and diverse. Seminars on topics such as ante- and post-natal care and safe motherhood are open to all. Community leaders receive training on nutrition and disability, and all local medical practitioners are invited to tutorials with the boat staff. Dr Hasib Mahmud, the director of the Jibon Tari, says: “The work that takes place in the boat’s operating theatre is more than equalled in importance by that of the onboard seminar rooms.”

Since the boat was launched, it has undertaken 39 projects in 18 different districts of Bangladesh and has treated — at the last count-262,779 patients. The Jibon Tari has “literally been a life-raft”, says Dr Mahmud. It costs £335,000 a year to run, a massive amount in local terms but a trifling figure in the context of the sums spent on health care in the West.

Although there is much that makes this charity unique — all medical staff are trained to deal with almost any conceivable natural hazard, from electrical storms to cyclones — it is the marriage of resource and resourcefulness that makes it so effective. And unlike much of Indian and Pakistani medical aid, it ensures that the benefits of this hospital are not confined to immediate outpatients. 

Its mobility is only one of the elements that make the scope of the Bangladesh boat so far-reaching. For to communities that are, in the very truest sense, crippled by their poverty and environment, the endowment of knowledge is one of the few things that has the capacity to liberate them. 

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