Friday, 26 February 2010

Photo of the week: Prayer time

Reality hits and tigers hide!

We got back from our three day visit to the South West of the country on Monday evening. As we were reminded before we left this was not a holiday but a learning experience…and so it turned out to be – the whole trip was probably more successful in preparing us for our work over the next ten months than the previous 3weeks of induction have been. And apart from a pretty testing journey, and some bowel problems, I think that everyone enjoyed our escape from Dhaka.

We set off on Friday morning at 8am; eleven volunteers plus Suleiman (our driver) in a rather tight VSO mini bus. By 10am we were beginning to discover even more of the contrasts to life in Bangladesh. Literally hundreds of cement factories initially dominate an otherwise very flat countryside – their existence guaranteed by the infinite sand and silt reserves available in the river beds and flood plains. Though eternally present on our journey, soon their imposing and polluting chimneys gave way to an almighty see of green.

The impressive sight of hundreds of acres of paddy fields does not however mean that you will be overcome by a sense of peace or tranquillity. No, this is Bangladesh and I don’t know if I will ever be able to describe life here as peaceful. Instead, you cannot but get a sense of just how densely populated this country is, how perversely dependent its people are on flooding and how hard they work just to get by. Over the course of a 600km journey, we were possibly never alone on the road – never more than 50metres away from a rickshaw, bicycle, tractor, elephant or just simply random groups of people walking along the roads. If you can picture that, try adding in the absolutely mental driving culture here (a full post will be dedicated to this at some point) where abiding by the rules of the road is more likely to get you killed than keep you safe. To survive on roads with no white lines where the worse the bend the better the overtaking opportunity, where overcrowded non-roadworthy buses hurtle past without any consideration, you either join them in their recklessness or you shut your eyes and hope for the best – Suleiman did the former (amazing driver though) while we did the latter. Every vehicle is in a mad rush to get to the ferry-crossing before the next vehicle, why? Well I’m not sure. On our outward journey we ended up queuing for over three hours to get onto the ferry while on our return we skipped past 3 mini-buses to squeeze into the last spot after waiting for only 15minutes. In the first instance all vehicles were waiting for about three hours and in the second, only cars and mini buses didn’t have to queue. All the coaches and trucks probably queued for even more than three hours. As I say I’ve yet to figure this one out.

The madness of the roads really makes for a difficult trip especially when that trip is 15hours long. In deciding to go to the world’s largest mangrove forest we probably couldn’t have picked further away. Having said that at least now I know what the trip entails and what the village where I will be working looks like.

During our 3days in the region we were put up by a partner NGO in one of their training guesthouses – the place was pretty nice and the people very accommodating. From there we were brought along to witness some of the local democracy activities including the meeting of a youth group and a women’s group who’s Chairpersons themselves sit on the local Union Parishad Committee (lower level than county or city councils). Though a bit staged to impress the foreigners, it was great to get a taster of the type of work my own organization do as well.

As actual fun activities seem to have been banned from our induction, three days on the outer limits of the Sundurban meant only 3hours in the forest itself. As I think I mentioned, what makes this forest special is the fact that is a collection of islands, themselves submersed in water, and covers a total area of 10,000 square km. We travelled around the islands on a local boat piloted by boy about 9years old. While as ever with kids meeting foreigners here he was all smiles and jokes as his father snoozed, but I couldn’t help wonder why he wasn’t in school. We only set foot in the forest itself for about 15minutes so any chances of seeing deer, dolphins or tigers were pretty limited. From the boat we did see a few monkeys in the trees but I am still anxious to tackle the tiger and this trip definitely whets my appetite for a return.

So perhaps I was wrong – peace can be found in Bangladesh after all and thankfully I’ll be based only an hour or more away from this haven.

A final word about photos: I will upgrade my camera very very soon so I was grateful when my fellow volunteer Kevin lent me his Nikon D40 for the day trip to the forest. So some of the photos in the slideshow (I've moved from Flickr to Picasa) are my own and the rest are the work of Kevin and another volunteer Sanish.

If you want to see more of Kev's photos from our time here check out:

Ciao for now

- A lot of sad things happening in the South East of the country where indigenous peoples homes have been burned and I think 7people have been killed. I’ll go into this in more detail soon but our volunteers have been evacuated from the region. Thankfully I’ll be based very far away from this area.
- I’ve almost finished induction but for practical reasons I won’t be leaving Dhaka until Thursday. Really can’t wait to get started; a month of in-country training is too long.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


In other news we, the now ten volunteers on induction, are heading off on our induction trip out of Dhaka city this Friday. We get to enjoy a 10 hour bus journey as he set off in search of the Royal Bengali Tiger in the world’s largest Mangrove Forest- the Sundurban! I too see the contradiction in being afraid of a cockroach yet relishing confronting the great tiger but I guess this relish comes from the fact that we are highly unlikely to cross paths…..Anyway I’m really looking forward to getting away from the city and I’m sure it’ll be great fun.

Finally, Sunday is International Mother Language Day. This date was chosen to honour the lives of 5 Bangladeshi students killed by Pakistani security forces as they defended their native Bangla language on 21st February 1952– marking the beginning of the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence. Over 60years later, this remains an extremely emotional and important day for the state and peoples of Bangladesh (on the hypocritical attitude towards other indigenous languages here, I will return) and it will be great to mark it in a small town in South West of the country.

Photos will be taken, I promise!

Slán go foill

Mosquitoes and Cockroaches

Many good things have happened during the last three weeks but as good news rarely makes the front pages, this post is dedicated to bad experiences.

Now, I want to talk about mosquitoes. These creatures are the scourge of people all over the world as many of you will know from first hand experience. In certain countries, a bite from these little buggers can result in death but in Dhaka they do not carry malaria or any other major disease. Still, they are annoying and ultimately the damage they inflict is more psychological than physical. I have been bitten probably on average five times a day – my roommate Kevin can boast of double figures and bites twice the size but even he has not succumbed to the madness I experienced last night.

To fully understand this madness I need to talk about another creature which roams these parts at night: cockroaches. I grew up in the countryside, closer to a rather large mountain than a town - I’ve come across the odd rat, worked with farmers, been to slaughter houses, done a bit of boning and served my time in a chicken factory yet nothing I have experienced has enabled me to overcome a fear of large bugs of a black colour. I remember coming home from school once and finding around 8 large beetles barely moving outside the back door to our house; eyes closed I think I jumped over them on fear induced adrenalin. I am therefore fully aware that it is absolutely ridiculous to be afraid of insects which can do absolutely no harm to me. This is why I thought my flatmate Judy was crazy when she moved her entire chest of drawers out of her room because she believed there was a cockroach inside…oh but how wrong I was.

Last night I went to bed feeling pretty damn uncomfortable – it was a really humid evening and a tiring day, i.e. eating too many sugar, banana and nutella pancakes. To drown out the beautiful noises which a dozing Kevin makes with his nostrils, I prepared myself for sleep to the sound of Bon Iver (no not Bon Jovi). Yet I could sense something was wrong. I knew that because I had left my nets up that evening that the mozzies were more than likely inside my now hanging bad-net. So as I dozed I subconsciously slapped any area of my body where I felt a tingle – more often than not I was just slapping at nothing but of course within an hour I could feel at least five new bites; two of which were on my hands. Suddenly however I got one, smack, dead…so that’s it, end of story I can now sleep in peace – I wish!

About two hours later, I was awake again as I could feel a mozzie on my chest, then later again on my leg. As it happened Kevin must have woken himself with his snoring and we exchanged words about how bad the mozzies were…two minutes later I was on my feet going reasonably berserk…the mozzie I was trying to kill was actually an enormous cockroach…a horrible blackey red colour over an inch long, he was clearly lost and in need of directions. After receiving some advice and calming words from the snorer, I went to the kitchen in search of an instrument with which to remove the beast from my mosquito net! On return I came across the deadly creature’s sister but sensing my distress she diplomatically waddled under Judy’s door. Turning on the light in the room, I prepared myself psychologically for what was to come but to my disbelief the cockroach had disappeared….where to I wasn’t sure. Coward like, I nervously pulled off and shook the duvet, sheet, pillow and mozzie net in a frenzy…still nowhere to be seen. About 15 minutes later I was back in bed trying to drown out the sound of my own fear but sadly my MP3player was on strike. Eventually I guess my fear succeeded in tiring me out and I drifted off.

There is no more to add to this story thankfully but I hope that by sharing it with you, you will be able to understand the massive challenges facing volunteers. Do I feel stronger for my experience? No, in fact I know that if the beast returns tonight I will meet him with the same hysteria, once again wake my roommate and, embarrassed, wonder what, if someone so big is shitting it when he meets something so small, must the poor ole cockroach be going through as he realizes I’ve lost it.

Best that we avoid eachother though and tonight would be a good time to start.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Initial impressions from the inside of a dormant volcano

1. If History was ever tried in a Court of law it would surely be found guilty of almost every offence found in a standard criminal code. At this stage, I can’t help but think that the greatest impediments to development in Bangladesh are not the flooding, population growth or the lack of funds but rather the legacies of its own past. From colonial plundering under the British Empire to the war of independence with Pakistan; from the ongoing battle between secularists and Islamises to the fight for the protection of minorities; Bangladeshi history has much to answer for.

Given that the country only achieved independence in the early 1970’s, it is not surprising that it is really struggling to move on from and deal with its past. But what is clear is that there can be no sustained development or widespread poverty eradication in this country without stability and there can be no stability until all the peoples and faiths of this country actually figure out which identities they are willing to accept as those of the state of Bangladesh. In which case, it would seem that the volcano will either reerupt or become extinct…for the sake of the 155million people of this country I really hope it is the latter but sadly fear it could well be the former.

2. Linked to this issue is the fact that under a constitution proclaimed 'in the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful' and based on the high ideals of Nationalism, Socialism and Democracy; one small country is trying to manage these four issues within a global context of the ‘war on terror’ and Islamic extremism, climate change and globalisation.

3. Middle class Bangladeshis love to explain that it was the peasant, the rick-shaw pullers and the poorest of the poor who, of their own free will, joined with the middle class intelligentista to sacrifice themselves for the love of their Bengali language during the war of independence. Yet, though I am still only learning the basics of this language, I find it pretty shocking how middle and upper classes treat those peasants today. This is not to say that the average Bangladeshi does not care for the plight of the poor but rather that class is actually much stronger here than progressive Bangladeshi’s would wish to believe. So yes we want all garment workers or rick-shaw pullers paid a little more but she/he better not question me when I speak! On the other hand maybe it’s just ‘a cultural thing’.

4. Dhaka is a difficult place to live in – crazy traffic, so many people, dust, humidity, overt poverty, rubbish and endless noise. Let’s hope living in a secluded village will be a little easier. It's saving grace is it's people whose hospitality is almost embarassing.

5. Share a flat with 5 people of different nationalities, cultures and personalities on a monthly salary of €110per month in this difficult environment and you are guaranteed fireworks. :)

6. All of the above have made the past few weeks very interesting indeed.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Leitrim Observer

The link in the title is to an article I've had published in the Leitrim Observer this week (local Irish paper with a small readership of around 30,000). I'm very grateful to them for supporting my proposal to print at least four or five articles over the course of the year. Each article will focus on a particular development issue and apart from being an interesting exercise in itself, it is also part of my VSO 'Global Education Project' which I will develop in more detail over the next few months. Any views/tips/criticisms on this article and future articles would be greatly appreciated.