One of the things that really attracted to me to the ICS programme was the opportunity to live in a host-home. The chance to live with local people and to be fully immersed in local culture sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have done quite a bit of travelling over the years to many different countries but I’ve never seen behind-the-scenes, never seen what life is really like for people away from the tourist trails.
So here I am, living with a Bangladeshi family. I have a host-sister, Roshni, who is seven and is a charming little terror. I also have a host-brother, Horun, but he works in a bank in Rangpur so we rarely see him. My host-parents are lovely. ‘Uncle’ is in his late-fifties and loves to tease us, especially how over-polite we are. ‘Auntie’, who is now in her early forties, married at the tender age of twelve. She fusses over us and is always asking questions about what life is like in England. Finally, there’s Dadi – our paternal grandmother (Bangla has different words for maternal and paternal relatives, which can be very confusing at times!) – who doesn’t live with us but comes to the house every day to help Auntie with all of the chores. She is a tiny, very fierce lady; when she’s happy, she laughs and dances but she always seems to shout at us, even if it’s to ask how we are! The family are farmers; they have some land where they grow crops and employ labour to help them. The potato harvest is just coming to an end so we are literally tripping over piles of potatoes waiting to be sold; the village landscape is transforming in front of our eyes into paddy fields. So the family has a reasonable income but they are also subsistence farmers, fishing from the pond at the back of the house, keeping chickens, a cow and a goat for eggs and milk (and meat occasionally). They receive an allowance from VSO to cover the cost of the volunteers staying so we are not a burden on the family income.
It was pretty difficult to settle in at first. Normally, VSO try to place a UK volunteer and a national volunteer in the same house but we don’t have any Bangladeshi women on the team and the conservative culture here means it would be very inappropriate for male and female volunteers to live in the same house, even in different rooms. So, to start with, M and I were the house on our own (P has joined us since) barely able to speak any Bangla. Luckily, the national volunteers were really supportive and came round to visit every day to help us communicate with the family. Since then, I’ve been making a very determined effort to learn Bangla and it has made such a big difference to life in the home. Auntie told us, just the other day, that we are now her new daughters. I know she very much appreciates our efforts to speak Bangla and that we spend a lot of our free time hanging out in the courtyard with the rest of the family. I definitely feel like I have a Bangladeshi family, even if I miss my family back home sometimes!
Our host-home is simple, basic but comfortable. There are no mod-cons – no hot water, no glass in the windows, no washing machine, no oven – but, compared, to many houses in the village, our house is very comfortable. We have electricity (when there isn’t load-shedding!), running water and brick walls, although the corrugated tin roofs don’t quite meet the tops of the walls and they are really noisy when it rains! We are lucky that we have a separate washroom and toilet, as well as a little sink but there is no privacy; Roshni watches me with fascination when I put my contact lenses in every morning!
The house is very open; people are always coming and going. I started to get to know people after a couple of weeks but it felt quite odd to start with, having strangers come into the house after work and just stare at us! Now, we all chat and I get cuddles with the adorable babies. It’s still difficult at times; after a long day at work, sometimes you just want some peace and quiet. But I mostly love the friendly atmosphere and the people coming and going.
The thing people ask about the most – after asking what country you’re from and if you’re married – is what we had to eat. People are obsessed by food. What did we have for breakfast? Do we eat potatoes in England? And so on. The food is generally really good, if a little bit repetitive. For breakfast, we normally have roti with boiled eggs, vegetables and fruit. It’s my favourite meal of the day – breakfast has always been my favourite meal but even more so here as it’s the only meal without rice! It’s not that I don’t like rice but after eating it twice a day, every day, I won’t be too unhappy if I don’t eat rice for a while when I go home! So lunch and dinner normally consist of – you’ve guessed it – rice, eggs again (M and I are both vegetarian) with one or types of vegetables, maybe dhal or a curry. Auntie also gives us warm milk, fresh from the cow outside, in the evenings. I really struggled with how spicy the food was when I first arrived – one of our first meals left me with tears running down my face, much to Uncle’s amusement! But after asking several times for less chillis, and the fact that I’m building up a tolerance, it’s much better now, although I often spot Dadi sneaking a few more chillis in when Auntie isn’t looking!
One thing I struggle to come to terms with is just how much people eat here. I mean, I’ve never had a particularly big appetite (at this point, my dad would tell you that they had to force-feed half a Weetabix as a toddler) but my host-sister eats more than we do here. The Bangladeshi boys on the team regularly pack away two or three plates of rice every meal, more than enough to feed my whole family back home! I was quite surprised; I had a stereotype of poor people in South Asia as under-fed and under-nourished. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very skinny people in the village but most have little (or not-so-little) pot-bellies from all the rice. And that’s one of the problems facing this part of the world. People now have enough to eat but it’s not a balanced diet and the food is cooked with liberal quantities of salt and oil.
I really didn’t know what to expect about living in a host-home but it’s been such an amazing experience. I am very grateful to my host-family for accepting me into their home, looking after me and making such an effort to make sure that I am comfortable and happy. Living here has deepened my understanding and appreciation of Bangladeshi culture and the challenges faced by people in this community. It has really enriched my experience of volunteering and, even though I am looking forward to creature comforts and my mum’s cooking, I will really miss my host-family and my life here.