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.

Job Creation and Other Magic

International Citizen Service – Entrepreneur brings together young people from around the world to work on projects to improve livelihood opportunities for young people in some of the poorest parts of the world. Here in Bangladesh, we are working as part of VSO’s Women and Youth Entrepreneur Development programme to develop micro-enterprises to reduce unemployment in this demographic. VSO Bangladesh operates a ‘model village’ approach, working to improve life for a community across a range of projects to inspire other communities to follow suit. Our project is just one of a number that VSO and other development organisations are working on in this part of Bangladesh.

Our particular focus is two-fold. Firstly, we are working to create two profitable micro-enterprises to reduce unemployment, particularly for young women. The unemployment rate here is about 35% but is even higher for women, for whom there are very few opportunities. Secondly, we are working alongside two local ‘Youth Clubs’, young volunteers from the community, to build their institutional capacity to continue our work after the ICSE project has finished. The Youth Clubs are relatively new to this community, operating for only the last two or three years, so are inexperienced and in need of a lot of support to make them effective. Our primary tool for this is the Community Action Day – working with the Youth Clubs to address various issues in the community, from providing blood grouping to English classes, to raising awareness of environmental issues. We are the second of three twelve-week ICSE cycles on this pilot scheme; by the end of third cycle in July 2015, the two businesses should be up and running. Our focus is on developing the skills of the two selected entrepreneurs and a pool of workers, as well as formulating business and production plans so that production can start on the third cycle.

So far, so straightforward, right?

Except this is Bangladesh, where ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’ and tomorrow doesn’t always seem to mean tomorrow! Life here just has a different pace to back home; there’s a different sense of time and urgency. We tend to see things through the prism of our twelve-week cycle, especially as twelve weeks quickly become nine once you take out time for training, reviews and debriefs: we need to achieve this by that date, what’s our impact going to be? For the community, there are no such deadlines. This is meant to be a sustainable and lasting project so what does it matter if it’s done this week or next, tomorrow or the following day?

Our focus for the next couple of weeks is identifying which handicrafts the two enterprises will produce. But first, it appears that there was an incident involving one of the entrepreneurs at the end of the first cycle so we are now trying to understand what happened and select another entrepreneur. It’s a slightly strange concept, selecting someone to run a business as well as what that business is going to do; I’m still skeptical about whether the ‘entrepreneurs’ will have what it takes to run a successful business but I guess we will see how things develop over the coming weeks. We’ve not had a chance to have a proper discussion with the entrepreneurs yet so it’s difficult to assess their motivation. But this is my first experience of development work so it’s all new to me. I’m excited about the potential of the project; I guess I’m just trying to be realistic about what’s achievable in the short time we are here and within the framework of the local culture. It’s a great challenge to be involved in!

Village Life

The first thing that hits you arriving in Pairabondh from Dhaka is the sheer sense of space. Where Dhaka is congested and populated, Pairabondh is in the middle of a sea of green fields, stretching off into the horizon. As a result, it feels incredibly peaceful here; at night, the dark is impenetrable and the only noises are the occasional dog bark.

Pairabondh is a community of around 5,000 people in the north-west district of Rangpur. It is actually two villages connected by a small bazaar along a single partly paved road. We travelled here by air from Dhaka to Saidpur on a small twin-prop aircraft – the first flight for many of our Bangladeshi volunteers. The trip from the airport was long and rather uncomfortable; it’s only about 40km but on a little easy-bike, with a max speed of about 20km per hour, getting a face full of dusty air and feeling every vibration from the road, it took over two hours. It’s quite an experience seeing the city fade away to lush fields of rice, potatoes and yellow mustard plants, the little three-wheeled bikes teetering alarmingly every time a bus or lorry swoops past. But the excitement builds as we turn off the highway and down the track towards the village, where we were greeted warmly by the community, complete with little bouquets of flowers.

It is truly beautiful here. From the little tin shacks of the bazaar, to the pale green of the rice paddies, there are photo opportunities everywhere! But the poverty is stark. Most of the homes are made from corrugated tin, without electricity or running water. Children run around shoeless with faded, worn clothes and dirty faces. More than a third of the people here are unemployed; nearly all the rest work seasonally in agriculture, toiling away in the sun-streaked fields. The main road through the villages is paved, at least it was once but large areas are worn away leaving potholes you could swim in. Off the main road, the tracks and paths are all dirt; at the moment, in the dry season, they are dusty but you can imagine the mudbath they must become when the rains come.

But after just a week of living here, you almost start to not notice, especially with so many smiling faces around you. In sharp contrast to life back home, people here have very little but seem to be much more content with what they do have. I am learning a lot about gratitude and living in the moment; it’s the simplest things that make a difference.I had an absolute treat last week – hot water to wash! Words cannot describe how good it felt to pour warm water over my body – sheer bliss. We normally wash at lunchtime when the sun has had a chance to warm the water in the pipes a little and the air temperature is at its warmest but it’s definitely still a chilly experience.

I don’t think I have ever smiled so much. Yes, people stare out of curiosity at the pale, blonde girl but, unlike London, it’s perfectly acceptable to smile at strangers! The little children call out in broken English as you pass by, little cries of “hello, how are you!” ring out everywhere. The women smile shyly when you greet them in Bangla, while the old men beam with pride to hear you speak in their language, albeit broken. On Friday, we spent the afternoon visiting the houses of some our local volunteers, receiving warm welcomes from extended family members and several offers of small glasses of sweet tea.

My Bangla is improving, mostly from necessity as my host-family doesn’t speak any English and we don’t have one of the Bangladeshi volunteers staying with us. Cue a lot of sign-language and time with the dictionary! But I can make myself understood, which means the food is no longer laced with chilli, although I’m still being served way more food than I need. Our host-family, by village standards, is wealthy; the house is predominantly brick-built, although the corrugated tin roof doesn’t quite match the tops of the walls, with concrete floors and metal shutters over the open windows. The house is organised around a central courtyard, where the extended family congregate. At least, I think it’s extended family – people seem to come and go and I have very little idea who any of them are, which makes it interesting, then, when they come and stand in the doorway of our room and just watch us! In the centre of the courtyard is the ‘stove’, which is a small hole in the ground for a fire with a raised lip for the pots to go on – it reminds of a little volcano. As a result, all the food here is either boiled or fried with plenty of salt; it’s pretty tasty but I’m worried about what my cholesterol is going to be like when I get home!

It has surprised me how cold it gets overnight. With the room somewhat open to the elements, I am really grateful for the thick duvet and fleece blanket but still end up sleeping with socks and sweatshirt on and the blankets pulled right up to my chin. I can see my breath in the air as I clean my teeth at the only sink outside in the mornings. It’s hitting the mid-twenties during the day, which is very pleasant. Spring officially starts here on 13 February so it will start to get hotter soon.

Here are just a few pictures….

In other news from Bangladesh, the political situation remains tense. The opposition party has called two 72-hour general strikes in the last two weeks and I get the sense that it’s crippling the country. Last week, students were protesting about the strikes affecting their exams; here in the village, the potato harvest has taken place in the last few days and the villagers are worried that they won’t be able to sell them in the city, which means that they won’t have money to purchase rice seeds to plant. It’s hard to get news here but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the situation improving. It doesn’t affect us here in the village and we can carry on with our work, but it’s hard not to be a little concerned.

10 Years of Travel

My passport expired earlier this year.  Well, to be completely accurate, it had six months left on it but I ran out of pages to get my visas for my trip to South East Asia in the spring. That’s a good feeling – almost as good as taking my lovely new passport and getting lots of stamps in it straight away!

But I didn’t just want to put the old one away in a drawer to collect dust and be forgotten. That passport has ten years of stamps in it; all the independent travel I have done since I graduated university.  More than a dozen countries across five continents…and a hell of a lot of memories to boot.  So I had a chat with my eminently talented graphic designer of a brother about how we could create a display of the pages from my passport.  He came with the brilliant idea of merging the stamps with some of my favourite photographs from those trips.

And here are the results…

…pretty cool, huh?  I had these printed and framed in a mix of sizes and they are now up on the wall of my room as a beautiful reminder of all the amazing places I have been in the past ten years and inspiration for all of the places I still want to go.  I wonder what stamps and photographs I will have to add to the collection in ten years time?

My brother is in the process of redesigning his website but you can keep up to date with his activity on Facebook via AgentBright.


The Big Announcement

Drum roll, please…

I am going to Bangladesh for 16 weeks in January!

I am volunteering with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) on a development programme and living with a host family in a rural community in the northwest of the country.  I’ll be working alongside volunteers from the UK and Bangladesh on a project developing and strengthening women-run enterprises in the handicrafts sector.  I’m going out as a Team Leader, which means I’ll have eight UK and eight Bangladeshi volunteers to look after, as well as helping to run the project, alongside a Bangladeshi counterpart.

This is part of International Citizen Service (ICS) – a Department for International Development scheme which brings young people together to fight poverty and make a difference where it is needed most. ICS works with communities that have specifically requested their help.  It also aims to inspire young people in the UK and overseas to become active citizens who are passionate about long-term community development.

It has all been a complete whirlwind since VSO offered me the placement last week and I am super excited about going!  I think it’s going to be a real challenge – living in a rural community, looking after the young volunteers, being away from home – but it’s going to be so rewarding.  It might sound a bit naff but I’m really looking forward to using my experience and skills to help people in a really poor country as well as young people in this country.

I’ve got so much to do over the coming weeks.  I already have two training sessions in the diary and there’s all the usual pre-travel admin of vaccinations, visas and, of course, an awesome spreadsheet to track it all!  I also have to do some fundraising for VSO – I need to raise £800 which will enable more young people to participate in ICS on sustainable development programmes.  Any contribution you can make will make a real difference to the lives of people in developing countries – you can head over to my JustGiving page to find out more.

I’m not quite sure yet what kind of connectivity I’ll have once I’m in Bangladesh but I am hoping I will be able to blog all through my preparation and once I’m out on the project so please stay tuned!  I’d love to hear from anyone who has done anything similar – I’m (understandably) about 10% terrified and 90% excited at the moment!

One of my Favourite Pictures

New Zealand SurfersI took this picture on a beach on the South Island of New Zealand in 2005.  It was my first solo trip.  I had recently graduated from university and decided to go travelling for a few months before starting training in the RAF.

It was late in the afternoon and I was just sat at the top of the beach, not really doing anything, watching the world go by.  These 2 guys had been surf-kayaking, expertly manoeuvring the kayak to catch the waves breaking on the shore.  As the sun started to dip, they walked out of the water, dragging the kayak behind them.

At the time, I was using a really rubbish old 35mm camera (I hadn’t upgraded to a digital camera yet as they were still pretty expensive!) with a roll of black and white film in it.  I took a couple of snaps with no idea how they would turn out.

Remember that?  Taking your film to be processed, completely not knowing what you were going to get back?  Invariably having a few blurred or completely dark shots?  And ending up with random collections of negatives and boxes of actual photographs?

Completely by chance, I ended up with this shot but it is actually one of my favourite photographs from those I’ve taken over the years.  I had it blown up and it is still on my wall today.

Southeast Asia in Pictures

A few weeks ago, I posted some pictures of a recent trip in southeast Asia.  I spent 6 weeks travelling from Bangkok to Saigon through Laos and Vietnam but it’s not the first time I’ve started and finished in those cities.  Way back in 2008, I did a much shorter trip through Cambodia.

It was my first experience of the continent and I fell in love with the place, especially Cambodia.  I was incredibly moved by the horrors the Cambodian people have lived through and it struck me how positive and friendly everyone I met was.

This was also the first trip where photography started to become important to me.  All of these pictures were taken with a little Canon compact camera, back in the pre-SLR/CSC days!  I really enjoyed going through all my pictures and all the memories they invoked.  I guess that’s the point of travel photography in the end – helping you remember the experiences.