When US army dietitian Major Keith West took a posting to the island of Okinawa, Japan, in 1974, he had an ulterior motive. “While based at Fort Dix [in New Jersey] I had been moved by a short news article about amputee freedom fighters in Dhaka [the capital of Bangladesh] being retrained for careers in food service. So I sent a $5 donation to Concern and received an invitation to visit.”
Bangladesh is over 2,000 miles from Japan — but the enterprising Major West persuaded his commanding officer to let him attend a dairy conference in India and then make a side trip to the fledgling south Asian nation of Bangladesh. It was a journey that would have a profound and lasting influence on the young American soldier.
“It was the peak of the last great famine in Asia. I visited Concern’s feeding and food-for-work programs in vast encampments near Dhaka. I saw people eat famine foods — roots, barks, plants, flowers and leaves — and spent time with amputees (from the war of independence) as they prepared meals at the Sher E Bangla Hospital. It was a life-changing experience.”
“We just worked day and night.”
Within two years Keith had left the army, joined Concern, and begun a lifelong association with the nation and people of Bangladesh. “The need was so great, you could not stay up enough hours in the day to work. We just worked day and night. They taught us to learn from doing — to get out there and improve the lot of the people we were there to serve.” Keith worked with Concern until 1979.
Four decades later, Professor Keith West is a renowned expert in human nutrition, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and specializing in maternal and child nutrition. “My experience with Concern made me realize I had a lot to learn, and led me to apply to graduate school. My masters and doctorate studies were all driven by what I found I did not know. The real value in my life was that I needed to get a lot more skills and study Bangladesh for a long time to contribute back to this region.”
“I still go back twice a year.”
Keith West has visited Bangladesh dozens of times since 1979, relentlessly researching and advocating on behalf of its most vulnerable people. 40 years on, it’s a very different place.
“I still go back twice a year. The country has come on in leaps and bounds in the intervening years, and is now transitioning from a low-income to a middle-income economy. “It has 100 million more people than in the 70s, but you don’t see the extremes in poverty. This progress has been fascinating and wondrous to observe and study over time.”
World Bank figures show that the number of people in Bangladesh living in extreme poverty has fallen from over 80% in the early 1970s to not far off 10% in 2018, a stunning achievement.
Ironically, it was another of Keith’s interests — music — that would provide one of the most memorable moments from his time with Concern in 1970s Bangladesh.
“One of our volunteers, Elaine Lucey, had dinner with some UNICEF officers one night in January of 1978 and came in and asked me to guess who she had dinner with. I said, ‘Elaine, I don’t know… Cat Stevens?’ And she said, ‘that’s right!’”
At the time Cat Stevens was one of the most popular and successful recording artists on the planet. Hits like “Moonshadow,” “Peace Train,” and “Father and Son” had propelled him into the multi-million selling pop stratosphere and he traveled to Bangladesh with the aim of using that fame to highlight the plight of its people.
Man on a mission
“Elaine told me that he was flying to Chittagong the next morning on the first flight. So I went out on my motorcycle at 5:30 AM and sat there in Old Dhaka Airport, hoping I might see him.
“He walked in and then there were two of us in the airport, and we had a conversation. As we were talking, Alun Davies (Stevens’ long time guitarist) walked in — and I suggested it would be really wonderful to jam together some time. They were both exceedingly kind and said they thought that was a nice idea, but that they were quite busy, so would have to see.”
“It was just magical.”
“At 9 o’clock the next night, a car rolls up and out walk Cat Stevens and Alun Davies… and we sat there in the big Concern house on Road 28 in Dhaka with Aengus and a dozen or so volunteers and we had a phenomenal night of music, playing Cat Stevens songs and Beatle songs and so forth. It was just magical.”
The Aengus in question was Father Aengus Finucane, one of the driving forces behind Concern, who would go on to become a titan of the aid industry. The volunteers were mostly Irish — nurses, doctors, and engineers who had come to donate their time and skills to the cause. One photograph of the occasion still exists, a priceless snapshot of a precious moment in time.
“A couple of weeks later, he generously donated 50,000 pounds.”
Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, formed a connection with West, and an affection for the work of Concern. “A couple of weeks later, he generously donated 50,000 pounds. We wrote some letters back and forth and I had the privilege of visiting his family in London in 1978 on my way out of Bangladesh.”
For a music buff like Keith West it was a surprising and memorable bonus to add to the many incredible experiences he had gained during his time with Concern.
“It trained a generation of humanitarian workers.”
Reflecting on that time, he echoes the words of many others who served there in the 1970s. “We all took much more away from Bangladesh than we ever gave, in terms of how the experience enriched our lives. All you can do is continue to give back. It was a heady experience… and it trained a generation of humanitarian workers who have been contributing ever since.”
Concern Worldwide has been working in Bangladesh since 1972, and today runs a wide range of programs across the country, targeting vulnerable communities in both rural and urban areas.