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.
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
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.
There is no such thing as a typical day in Bangladesh – every day presents new challenges and fresh fun. But I wanted to try to capture a “day in the life” of a team leader.
My day usually starts with a 5.30am wake-up call, courtesy of the muezzin. The call to prayer echoes through the pre-dawn stillness; there is a strange sort of harmony in the short chorus from the various mosques in the village. I roll over and try to go back to sleep but mostly fail. From 6am, the dawn chorus starts up, firstly with the birds, then the cows and finally the chickens join in, squawking in a rather alarming manner. I can hear Auntie sweeping the courtyard and Uncle chopping wood for the stove outside. I drag myself out the bed, creeping around dim morning light so as not to disturb my roommate, who is still sleeping. Four mornings a week, I do yoga and meditation; the other three mornings, I meditate and then do circuits with the other two girls in my host-home. We can’t exercise outside because of the local culture so we just do body-weight exercises for half an hour in an attempt to keep the “rice babies” at bay!
Showering afterwards, first thing in the morning, is a double-edged sword. I always feel invigorated afterwards, but the water is freezing and the mosquitoes are really active. The only sink in the house is outside so my host-sister, Roshni, and her friends stare at me with utter fascination as I put my contact lenses in! Twice a week, I do laundry in the morning, so it has all day to dry in the sun. I have to hide my underwear under a scarf so the whole village doesn’t see; although I’ve already had one pair go ‘missing’ so I’m waiting for the day when one of the children turns up with them on their head!
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day – mostly because I get a break from rice. We normally have roti with a boiled egg and vegetables, and chai. Today, we had a treat with “shemai”, a kind of sweet noodles with lots of cinnamon, served with puffed rice (think plain Rice Krispies!). Sometimes, we also get bananas – wrapped in a roti, it’s a delicious banana pancake.
In the Office
It’s only a short walk from my host-home to the office in the bazaar. We always walk past the same group of girls on their way to one of the local primary schools and we stop to say hello to “Nani” in her little roadside shop on the way.
We work from the offices of our partner NGO, PJKUS. They have been working in the community for the last ten years so are vital support for our project, as they really know the people here. Our project works with marginalised women and youth, specifically we are setting up two handicraft businesses to provide sustainable livelihoods, particularly for disenfranchised women,
All of the volunteers work together on the project every day, in sub-teams looking after different aspects of the programme. One of the most important jobs I have is coordinating all of the different activities between the teams, making sure we stay on track with our goals. Throughout the day, S and I sit with the volunteers to discuss their activities, helping them arrange meetings and working with them to problem-solve and so on. One of the teams has been organising basic training for 30 beneficiaries – we will sit with our entrepreneurs later in the week to select the final twelve production workers – so I reconcile their spending against the original budget with them and then filing the receipts with our Project Officer.
I always make time for a “tea date” with my counterpart, S. The relationship between the team leaders is vital for the success of the project but cultural differences and the language barrier often present make communicating difficult. S and I have had our ups and downs over the past few weeks; we now have a cup of tea in one of the little shacks in the bazaar every day to chat about work and, more importantly, our lives outside the project. We had a bit of a heart-to-heart recently ending in a very emotional hug; S said it’s the first time he’s ever hugged a girl and, apparently, he quite likes it! S is a lovely man and a fantastic team leader; I’m really lucky to have such a great counterpart, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues. We’ve been very fortunate that we complement each other’s strengths – I think together, we make one perfect team leader! Today, the tea shacks are all packed with people watching Bangladesh’s quarter-final match against India in the World Cup; the national volunteers keep sneaking off at various points during the day but cricket is important here, I can’t really complain! After Bangladesh beat England in the group stages, getting through to the quarter-finals for the first time, the village went nuts celebrating; the opposition party even suspended the national strike for twelve hours so people could celebrate. Cricket isn’t so much a sport on the sub-continent as a religion so everyone is a bit subdued later on when Bangladesh lose the match.
In between all of this, I work on the weekly report for the Project Manager in Dhaka to keep fully up-to-date on all of our activities and any challenges we’ve faced. I also start to put together the team plan for next week and make notes for our team meeting tomorrow – we get the whole team together once a week so they all know what’s going on across the project and what’s coming up next week. We suddenly don’t have much time left in the field and, even though we have achieved so much already, we still have a lot we want to do before our time here is over.
After lunch, I have an informal supervision with one of the volunteers. We do three formal supervisions for the volunteers throughout the cycle but I’m always available to discuss volunteers’ personal development and welfare. Today, we talk about what this volunteer wants to do after the project finishes. Many of the volunteers are still trying to get their heads around what they want to do when they go back home and I’m doing my best to help them; I’m empathetic as, at the ripe old age of 31, I’m still asking these questions myself!
Most of my afternoon then gets taken up by a meeting with the Youth Clubs – groups of young local volunteers in the community. One aspect of our project is to help improve the capacity of these organisations so that they can continue the project work after the ICSE volunteers leave. They also help with our community integration activities. We are planning an Active Citizen Day to celebrate Independence Day on 26th March and are trying to get the Youth Clubs to help out. It’s always a bit of an uphill struggle with the Youth Clubs but I think we’re making progress; the meeting seems to be successful but you never really know. These meetings always seem to go on forever. Everyone wants to have their say but relevance appears to be optional; even the national volunteers have trouble translating sometimes as some of the discussions are so off-topic. But we eventually agree on a programme for the day and they’ll work alongside the ICSE volunteers to organise all of the events over the coming days.
After work, I go to visit one of the host-homes, just to check on the volunteers and their host-families. This is the family I stayed with during my pre-placement visit and I get on with them really well. The oldest sister is getting married in a couple of weeks and they’ve invited all the volunteers so I gossip with the sisters and the host-mother for a while about what colour sari I should wear. It’s a perfect opportunity to practice my Bangla. One of the previous cycle’s volunteers lived with this family and learned some Bangla while he was here; when I first arrived, all I heard about was this guy’s Bangla so I am delighted (me, competitive?!) when the host-mother says my Bangla is now better 🙂
I get home just as it’s getting dark to discover that our host-mother has made delicious winter cakes – “peeta”. They’re piping hot and delicious; in fact, we end up eating so many that nobody can face dinner! This is a real treat – we don’t get much other than rice and vegetables normally – so feels really indulgent. It was Mothers’ Day last weekend and we gave Auntie a box of Bangladeshi sweet meats to say thank you so maybe she is doing something particularly nice in return.
The evenings here are normally very relaxed; we hang out around our “dining table” on the edge of the courtyard. Sometimes, one of the national volunteers comes over to teach me Bangla and we all end up chatting before dinner. We normally end up going to bed quite early, asleep by 10pm, mostly because there isn’t much to do after dark (about 6pm at the moment) – that, and the early alarm call. I’m going to miss being able to sleep this much.
And so ends another day in rural Bangladesh. Tomorrow will be same, sam
e but different. Every time I think I’ve got this figured out, something totally unexpected comes up. But that’s what makes it fun: new challenges, looking after people (the volunteers, my counterpart, the community, myself). Being a team leader enables me to make a unique contribution to this project and the journeys of all my volunteers, There is a lot of responsibility but I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding role.
Shuvo ratri. Goodnight.
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.