This week, I officially completed the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme. That will confuse some of you because I got back from my placement in Bangladesh a couple of months ago, but this week I finally submitted my Action at Home report, detailing how I have continued to advocate for women’s rights around the world and promote volunteering. So as I join the prestigious ICS Alumni, I thought I would share some my favourite photographs from my placement. I love these pictures; I love looking at them because they instantly take me back to my host-family, to my wonderful team of volunteers, to the friends I made, and a time when I felt like I was really making a difference. These are memories, and photographs, that I’ll treasure for ever.
It feels like such a long time since I last blogged. To be honest, I’ve just been taking some out since my return from Bangladesh a couple of weeks ago. Things have been pretty busy with moving house (apparently one of the most stressful things you can do), looking for a new job and attending my Returned Volunteer weekend with VSO.
The RV weekend was a really good opportunity to reflect on the ICS experience and to think about how to use the experience going forward, both with work and for our Action at Home projects. More about Action at Home in a future post (once I have actually decided what I’m going to do – I’ve got some many ideas and I’m not quite sure where to start at the moment!).
So in the spirit of the RV weekend, I thought I would share some reflections on how it feels to be home.
The Little Things I Love About Being Home
Hot showers – I literally cried with happiness during my first one!
Being able to make a cup of tea whenever I want
The washing machine…it’s just so easy to have clean clothes now
Seeing friends and family (alright, not a little thing but important nonetheless)
Having some privacy and personal space
The sheer variety of food…no rice for 3 weeks now 🙂
The Little Things I Miss About Bangladesh
Saying hello to people on the street
My counterpart, who I’m hoping to see again in the new year at his wedding
Feeling part of something important and purposeful
Sunshine (summer will start soon, right?)
My team, seen here on our last day in Dhaka
Living and working with my team in Bangladesh has got to be one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have done. I have got some amazing memories which I will treasure for a long, long time. But I’m glad to be home. Having been away for about 12 months in the last 18, it feels like it’s time to put some roots down and invest in my life in London…for a while at least. I’m taking bets on how long it will be before the travel bug bites again!
So my volunteering journey is nearly at end. After fifteen weeks in Bangladesh, I’ve got mixed feelings about going home: on one hand, I am really looking forward to seeing my friends and family, not to mention having a few home comforts (I swear I will hug the washing machine when I see it!), but I am so sad to be leaving this wonderful country and all the amazing people I’ve met here.
I’ve been doing a bit of packing today, well more sorting out what I’m actually taking home – most of my t-shirts have seen better days – and it got me thinking about what you really need to bring with you for this kind of experience.
Mosquito Repellent. Lots of mosquito repellent. And bite cream. Those little guys are tough! And why do they always seem to bite my bum?!
Photographs. My host-family loved seeing photos of my family back home and it was lovely for me to see the faces of my family and friends. Definitely bring photos!
A Smile. It goes a long, long way. It transcends language barriers and brings you closer to people. Even on the hardest days, there will be something or someone who makes you smile.
A sense of humour. Because development work can be really challenging at times. Because life on a volunteering project can be intense and frustrating and there will be days when you just want to pack it all in. Those are the days when the only solution is to laugh.
Gratitude. It’s so much easier to appreciate the good things in life when you don’t have much. Maybe that’s why the people in our community seemed so content. Money, as the saying goes, does not buy you happiness. Happiness is your host-mother boiling water for you to wash with on a cold day when you’re sick or when one of your teammates sends you a minion gif because they know minions make you laugh. Be grateful for the small things, because the small things are really the big things.
Humility. From the hospitality I have been shown at every turn to the commitment of young people to their country’s future, I have been inspired and humbled by my time in Bangladesh. Being a volunteer doesn’t mean you have all of the answers but I feel incredibly privileged to have been one small step in Bangladesh’s path to becoming a middle income country.
Patience. People will turn up late for meetings. Hours late. In Bangladesh, five minutes means ten; one hour really means two. It can really wind you up, if you let it. But people in the community won’t work to your neatly drawn-up timetable; they won’t be bothered that you only have twelve weeks in the community and that everything needs to be done right now. For the project beneficiaries, this is about the rest of their lives so what’s the rush?
A willingness to learn. If you are open to it, you will learn so much through volunteering. From the other volunteers, from the community partners, from your host-family, from the beneficiaries. I’ve learnt more about myself in the last four months than I think have done in the last four years, not to mention what I learnt about development work and how to start a business.
An open heart. You will quickly fill it with beautiful people!
A camera, a diary, something to record your experience. Because you won’t want to forget a second of it.
A torch. For powercuts.
Lots of underwear. Because handwashing gets really boring and running out of clean underwear sucks (and because some of it will go missing – I’ve still got no idea where those red ones got to!).
A smartphone. Sorry! Maybe I should have eschewed technology for four months but smartphones are nearly ubiquitous here now. Strangers will ask you for your Facebook ID! And the ability to stay in touch with friends and family back home is just too important. There are some days when you all need is a text from your mum 🙂
This has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Thank you to everyone who has made it possible and who has supported me along the way – it’s one hell of a journey!
days away from home: 99
plates of rice: 198
community action days: 3
% population living below the poverty line (2007-2011): 43.3%
days in the field: 73
production workers: 14
% population aged under 15: 33.1%
hot showers: 4 (and they were the best hot showers of my life)
times i’ve done my washing aka how many times i missed my washing machine: 24
books read: 23
adult literacy rate (2008-2012): 57.7%
ambulance trips: 1 (thankfully, no-one was injured during the making of this project)
blog posts: 15
“hello, how are you, how is your name, bye bye“s: hundreds, maybe thousands!
= one experience of a lifetime! 🙂
statistics courtesy of UNICEF and the CIA World Factbook
This Friday, one of our host-sisters is getting married. She is the eldest daughter of one of the host-families, a family that I have grown close to over the past twelve weeks. All of the volunteers have been invited to attend and the female volunteers have been invited to participate in a pre-wedding ceremony that involves painting your body with tumeric.
This should be a cause of excitement and happiness for us all.
But Mukhti is under-age. The legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is eighteen for girls, twenty-one for boys. Mukhti is only fifteen. Despite our affection for the family, none of us want to condone what is an illegal marriage and something that goes against the very goals of our project.
Early marriage is a widespread problem in Bangladesh, which has the world’s worst record on child marriage: according to UNICEF, nearly two-thirds of girls are married before the age of eighteen. More than a quarter of girls are married before they reach fifteen. Poverty and a traditional patriarchal society combine, particularly in rural areas, to keep the rate of child marriage elevated despite national legislation. Young girls are often considered an economic burden to their families; prevailing cultural attitudes mean that it is still difficult for girls to work and earn an income. For families, marrying their daughters to older men in different families is often a family survival strategy. Dowry payments, which are a relatively new but growing phenomenon in Bangladesh, are lower when the girls are younger, acting as another incentive for families to marry their daughters at a young age. Such marriages are also a way for families to build their social status and to protect girls’ sexuality in an environment that is perceived to be unsafe – sexual harassment and assault are all too common and even the rumour of an inappropriate relationship can permanently damage a girl’s reputation, that of her family, and her future prospects,
Child marriage has serious consequences for girls. Marrying early significantly increases the chances that they will drop out of school, limiting their future choices. During a Community Action Day on the Importance of Education, a local primary school teacher told us that twenty-eight of her pupils had gone on the high school two years ago. After a year, fourteen children had dropped out: seven girls, all due to early marriage, and seven boys who had gone to find work in the garment factories. Girls who marry young face intense pressure to become pregnant; in Bangladesh, it is estimated that a third of girls aged between fifteen and nineteen are mothers or are pregnant. Early pregnancy carries significant health risks including higher maternal and infant mortality. Teenage mothers are twice to die in childbirth and babies born to mothers under fourteen are fifty per cent more likely to die than those born to mothers aged over twenty, a situation compounded by the poor levels of health care in the country.
This has not been my only experience of marriage traditions during my time in Bangladesh. My counterpart, S, is getting married. He dropped this little bombshell on me a few weeks ago, completely out of the blue. It’s an arranged marriage to a local girl of eighteen, whom S met once at a party a few years ago. It’s a good match for his family and for his fiancée’s. S’s father is a successful businessman and his fiancée comes from a religious family. S is the only son in the family so, once he is married, his parents will live with him and his new wife. With no social security or welfare, parents depend on their sons to support them in old age – just another reason why girls are seen to be a burden.
I’ve found talking to S about the marriage so interesting. S is well-educated, with a Masters’ degree in social anthropology, and generally seems to be modern and progressive in his outlook. So I was initially surprised when he said he agreed with the arranged marriage. But as he explained, I realised that family in Bangladeshi culture is so much more important than it is back home. To borrow from Jonathan Haidt, in Bangladesh, the ethic of community is dominant where as in western culture, the ethic of autonomy (the individual) takes priority. S puts the needs of his family above his own. It’s actually rather touching. S speaks to his fiancée for a few minutes every day, tentatively getting to know her; he blushes and goes all shy when I ask how she is.
This put him in a really difficult situation recently. His family were putting pressure on him to stop volunteering – he wants to continue on the next cycle and see the project through to its conclusion – and come home to get married right away. S wants to complete his volunteering journey and to find a stable job before he gets married. Bengali culture means that he can’t disobey his father, even if it means denying his own wishes. Luckily, S was able to persuade his father to delay the wedding until next year, giving S a chance to find a job that wants to do.
As an independent British woman, I found this whole episode really alien. Whilst I value my family’s support immensely, they would never dream of telling me how to run my life. So the idea of obeying my father seems incredibly strange. However, the more I talk to S, the more empathy I have for a culture that is less selfish and individualistic. Somehow, the ‘rules’ and expectations seem clearer here. Less choice, less freedom, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; people here seem to be more content with their lives. I’m not saying either way of living is better or worse. But living in a foreign, with a different set of norms and values, is really eye-opening. I think I am a more empathetic person now, able to see different points of view and opinions in a way I struggled to do before I came on ICSE.
This is my last post from the community. On Friday, we are going back to Dhaka for a week of learning visits and debriefing. I am definitely sad to be leaving the community that has been my home for the past twelve weeks. My host-family has been amazing; they have been so kind and welcoming to us. But I have to admit that I am looking forward to getting back to some creature comforts. The experience of living in a remote, rural community in Bangladesh is one that will stay with me forever. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I am a much better person for it.
I would like to introduce you to the old lady at the end of our road.
Nani runs a little tin shack shop; she sells all sorts of stuff, from little cakes to shampoo, from cigarettes to biscuits. Not that I have ever seen anyone buy anything from her shop, but the quantity of stock is definitely increasing, which I hope means business is doing is well.
Nani is normally in her shop in the mornings and evenings as we walk to and from work. We seem to have the same conversation every time, normally about what we ate for breakfast and her insisting that we take a little cake. Nani looks after us, tugging at our scarves and tops to make sure that we are properly turned out; she is always delighted when we wear salwar kameez or sari, saying that we look like beautiful birds. She holds our hands, strokes our hair and kisses our faces – I’ve not seen this level of physical contact anywhere else during my time here but it’s nice to feel that affection.
Nani doesn’t know how old she is – a very common phenomenon in Bangladesh – but I guess she is in her eighties. She is tiny, the top of her head barely reaching my shoulder, with a beautiful smile that shows off her remaining, beetle-nut stained teeth.
Her husband died about two years ago, something that still clearly upsets her as she often, and suddenly, breaks down in tears as we are speaking with her. She has an incredibly large family of daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. It’s actually hard work keeping up with all her relatives but there is normally at least one at the shop when we stop by.
The shop used to be her husband’s. When he died, some of her family members told Nani she should keep running the shop so she had independent income, to prevent her daughters-in-law, some of whom she lives with, from starving her. Apparently, this is a common practice in rural Bangladesh. It’s traditional for parents to live with their sons’ families and when the patriarch dies, the old ladies are neglected. There is a noticeable absence of old men in the village; I have met a lot of Nanis and Dadis (maternal and paternal grandmothers) but only one grandfather. Life expectancy for women is normally higher than men, especially in a country where the men have a life of hard labour. But old women are generally not respected or considered useful so are frequently neglected, especially when they become too old to work.
It’s a sad reminder of how women are viewed by society here. But it’s also a reminder of the tenacity of a little old woman, who is running a little shop on her own, who smiles so you can see her soul and who always offers cakes to the three ‘bidishi’ (foreigner) girls walking past.
26th March is the Independence Day of Bangladesh. It marks the proclamation of an independent Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, a proclamation that triggered a nine month War of Liberation during which more than 3 million people were killed, 10 million fled the country and a further 30 million people were displaced.
Independence Day is a source of incredible pride and patriotism amongst Bengali people; alongside International Mother Language Day, Independence Day is perhaps one of the most important national holidays in the country. In the capital, Dhaka, the day begins with a thirty-one gun salute and is marked by parades, fairs and an outpouring of Bengali nationalism. In our own community, the Bangladeshi national flag was all over the place as everyone celebrated the national holiday.
Our celebrations followed in the traditional vein with a cultural show of dances, songs and poetry, and a games competition including cock-fighting, pillow-throwing and, my favourite, torturing small children by tying lollipops to a piece of string which they are only allowed to take with their mouths then moving the string! Oh and not to forget, the speeches, a time-honoured Bangladeshi tradition. At least this time, my team gave me some warning that I would be speaking, which meant I actually had time to prepare and deliver a speech in Bangla. The crowd were are little less impressed than I had expected but it turns out that everyone knows I speak Bangla so expected it! It was a great day, although it turns out that wearing a sari is incredibly hot and hard work!
There is, however, something of a dark side to Bangladesh’s forty-four year old democracy. Political strikes and blockades have been a near-permanent feature of our time here; there have only been six days without a hartal (strike) since my arrival three months ago, crippling Bangladesh’s economy and preventing over 1.5 million students from sitting crucial exams. Estimates vary but at least 100 people have died in political-related violence, mostly from burns sustained in petrol bombings. There is little sign of the political parties relenting; both sides, the government and the opposition, blame each other and refuse to sit down to talks. All the while, it is the people of Bangladesh who are suffering. Farmers have been unable to take their produce to market, businesses have lost contracts, and ordinary people have had their lives disrupted. There is a strange sense of normalcy developing now; after three months, people are ignoring the strikes and trying to go about their business.
I think it is the young people of Bangladesh who are perhaps suffering the most. Public exams have already been delayed by several weeks; soon, a significant backlog will start to develop as more exams are scheduled for next month. But the students get virtually no notice that their exam will be rescheduled; the strikes are usually called about 12 hours in advance. Even though the strikes are nearly inevitable students still have to prepare, just in case, resulting in incredible pressure to revise. This could have serious long-term repercussions for these students; if they can’t sit these exams, they can’t progress from school to college, or from college to university. University schedules are in tatters, as many of the universities, like in the UK, are hotbeds of political activism.
Young people are the future of Bangladesh. More than one third of Bangladesh’s 152 million strong population (Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populated country and one of the most densely populated) is aged under thirty; this is forecast to rise to more than 40 per cent by 2025. This youth bulge represents both and opportunity and a threat to Bangladesh, which is trying to become a middle-income country by 2020. Disenfranchised and unemployed youth, particularly young men, are vulnerable to radicalisation. Sectaranism, which has blighted Bangladesh in the past, is not currently a problem but could rear its ugly head if these young men are not engaged in both the economy and politics.
But the entrepreneurial spirit is strong here, from what I have seen. We have met numerous business people during the course of our project, including women who have overcome the social barriers that surround them to become successful entrepreneurs.
There is also a strong sense of hope. Young people across Bangladesh mobilised during the War of Liberation and young people today are incredibly proud of that legacy. They now see their own fight, not one against oppression but as one against poverty. The young people in our community are determined to improve their own lives and the lives of their families, community and country. And that is the power of volunteering with a programme like International Citizen Service (ICS). By bringing young people together across the world, we can help give them a voice and support them in their endeavours. It is only a small step but it is a vital one. The fight against poverty could well be won or lost by this generation.