Dying to Speak

This Saturday, 21 February, we celebrated International Mother Language Day in our community.  For native English speakers, whose language is spoken around the world, the importance of this day might not be immediately clear.  But for the Bengali people, their language is a source of immense pride: their country is named after it and people have lost their lives defending their right to speak it.

International Mother Language Day was first announced by UNESCO in November 1999 and has been observed every year since 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism.  I have to admit, though, that this is first time I have heard of it.

The date, 21 February, is particularly poignant in Bangladesh as it marks the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka.  Following independence from British rule, the government of the Dominion of Pakistan announced that Urdu would be the official state language; at the time, even though Urdu had become the language of many Muslims in the north-west of British India, the people of east Bengal made up a little over half of the population of the new Pakistan.  Leading scholars had argued for the inclusion of Bengali as an official state language to no avail.  Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent with the new law, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21 February 1952, which was violently suppressed by the police. The deaths of the student demonstrators that day provoked widespread civil unrest.

The Bengali Language Movement, Bhasha Andolôn, catalysed the assertion of Bengali national identity in East Bengal and later East Pakistan, and became a forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements.  It ultimately led to the demand for an independent Bangladesh – which literally translates as the Country of Bangla – and the War of Liberation in 1971.

I felt very privileged to be able to mark today with our community.  We started early, with a rally through the main streets of the villages, music blaring, local volunteers proudly marching behind our banner.  Our numbers swelled along the way, as we were joined by villagers of all ages.  We made our way to the memorial in the centre of the village; it is a replica of the Martyrs’ Monument in Dhaka, where we laid our wreath, followed by two processions of school children, the mothers’ club, and an organisation for landless people.  As is typical in Bangladesh, this was followed by speeches.  Lots of speeches.  Anyone who thinks they are anyone in the village wants to speak at these sorts of events and the more senior you are, the longer your speech!  I’m getting used to being told at the very last minute that I need to give a speech on behalf of the volunteers, trying to say as much in Bangla as I can.

As I stood,listening the speeches, the crowd of children around me kept growing, as did the collection of flowers in my hands as the girls shyly offered them to me.  The older girls, around 14 and looking enviably stylish in their white uniforms, all wanted pictures, especially as I was wearing of my new salwar kameez today.

The whole thing reminded me of Remembrance Day, except in much better weather and a lot less serious!  It’s a national holiday too, which gave us a cheeky afternoon off work too.

It’s been a pretty busy week.  The volunteers have been working hard to get our project activities under way.  It’s kept me busy, managing expectations and mediating through communication breakdowns (mostly through language difficulties, as well as preparing plans and writing reports.  No rest for the wicked as we still have a lot to do before our Mid-Phase Review at the start of March.

As promised, the weather is starting to warm up.  It’s almost imperceptible day-to-day, but the sweatshirt and socks at night are no longer required and the sunny afternoons are glorious in the high twenties.  We’ve had rain for the first time – a huge thunderstorm came in overnight, the rain bouncing noisily off the corrugated tin roof.  It didn’t last too long but led to much scurrying around, trying to get everything undercover – all the cooking utensils and firewood normally sit in the open in our courtyard.  I’m pretty glad we won’t be here for the monsoon as the roads got quite slippy with mud after just one night.

I’m also starting to get to know more people in the community.  I can have a (very) basic conversation in Bangla now and, consequently, have been ushered into a few different houses this week to meet the family.  It’s a little tricky to keep up with exactly how everyone is related but it is not unusual to have an extended family of more than 10 living in one compound; grandparents traditionally move in, with various daughters-in-law and hordes of children everywhere.  Everyone is curious about us, especially me with my blonde, wavy hair and pale skin being so different from women here.  They ask about my family, whether I am married, where I am from.  Sometimes, they just stare!  The kids are the best; they learn English in school so we have broken English-Bangla-sign language conversations, which seem to work, just about.  Walking about the village now, I hear a little chorus of “Victorrrrrrrrria” starting up.  It’s delightful, although slightly claustrophobic at times; luckily, our host-family are very good about shooing people away when the crowds get too big.

The Bangladeshi people seem to really appreciate the effort I am going to learn their language.  My host-family gently correct me if I get a verb ending wrong; the children help me learn my numbers; and the national volunteers patiently sit and teach me grammar and vocabulary.  I have never spent this much time in a country where so few people speak English and it’s really highlighting the importance of learning someone else’s language.  Nowhere is this more important than in Bangladesh, a country founded on its language and the blood of its martyrs.


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