Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t written anything of substance in a long time. I’ve been pretty busy trying to settle in yet haven’t really achieved that. I finish work every evening around 5.30, go drink tea in a tea stall, wander around the market without buying anything (not because I know I’m being ripped off but because I might bump into some of our staff who’ll know even by looking at me that the poor ole foreigner has been made a fool of, AGAIN). Otherwise I cook, eat, wait for the electricity to go and then one hour later come back, sweat, shower and then sleep….so as you can see, I’ve hardly been rushed off my feet.

So what has been holding me back? Well, basically it’s Bangladesh: there are so many things happening - so many contrasts, so much poverty, discrimination, so many practical problems so many small problems, so many major political developments, so many conflicting values and views in society – that ultimately everything you know or believe in is challenged. And when this happens, you find that forming coherent and above all else balanced views, is pretty damn difficult. In short living in Bangladesh leaves you permanently confused (no change there I hear you say).

I’ve wanted to write about gender discrimination here for a long time but have been struggling with the idea that an honest assessment would either fall under the ‘patronising, righteous, domineering white man’ category or would see me question the so-called universal values I came here with.

I came here believing that though we have completely different backgrounds, religions and experiences, none of this can change the fact that ultimately we are all human beings who need to eat, drink, sleep, work, be understood and cared for. The idea was that above all else, we are all equal. But living in Bangladesh does force you to think again…

Let me give you an example.

Women here are frankly treated like shit. They majority do not participate in life outside of the home. They do worse than men in almost all key statistics such as education and health care access or income generation. They have little hope of justice before male dominated and class defined courts. They suffer violence inside the home, have ACID thrown on them or are simply tortured to death for turning down a marriage proposal and are often trafficked to an even more horrible existence because they bring shame on the family by being teased for being young, pretty and unmarried. Their dress code means they must always cover all natural bumps on their bodies even in 40degree heat while being treated by a professional medical doctor. Not only do women eat last in any family gathering but they consequently eat least also. The list goes on and on and on…

So I’ve been confused and struggle to see how the hell we can claim that Human Rights are universal when so many women suffer daily in just one small Asian country? You are left to conclude that either you were wrong and women are lesser beings than men and therefore have no right to be treated with the same respect as men …..


you conclude that the culture in this country is rotten to the core, that men are so driven by power that they will use anything including their faith to strengthen and monopolize that power; that the religious leaders have at worst used their faith to intentionally humiliate women or at best allowed their faith to be manipulated to do the same.

You either completely forget everything you were ever taught or you tell others that everything they believe in is not only untrue but archaic and unacceptable…..I don’t like either conclusion which is why I didn’t’ feel I could write about the issue.

But thankfully, it seems Bangladeshi’s are quickly coming to learn that their culture and country can no longer continue as it has been doing and therefore I can conclude that yes, it is the latter but only because it is a minority who really believe in that ‘culture’. The two leading parties are led by women, the parliament has reserved 30% seats for women; predominantly female garment workers are leading the countries biggest export industry and therefore leading independent if challenging lives. Microcredit, despite its flaws, is empowering other women to leave the grasp of their husbands; thousands of organizations all over the country are confronting damaging traditions on a regular basis; even Agrogoti Sangtha (where I work) are trying to ensure women’s participation in local politics and provide adolescent with girls the knowledge, tools and skills to protect themselves. So Bengali’s are challenging the romanticism which surrounds culture, traditions and religions and they should be mightily proud of themselves.

But, unfortunately the biggest challenge lays ahead…Soon the ruling party’s War Crimes Tribunal will start trying those responsible for war crimes during the Liberation War against Pakistan in the 70’s. Among the accused will in all likelihood be members of the Islamic fundamentalist party which alone will be dangerous. But more dangerous are the predominantly Muslim Party the BNP (claiming to be more moderate) and if they decide to play politics with this, to attack the current government’s efforts in the name of Islam….then the fireworks will start…and who will be the first to suffer…of course… women.

As I say a pretty confusing place.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Bedtime story for the kids

This is a summary from a Human Rights report I read today....tells you a lot about politics in Bangladesh among other things....imagine what Trevor Sargeant would say?

'Mr. Golam Reza was elected a Member of Parliament from Satkhira, some 400 kilometers from Dhaka. He was driving to the capital on the evening of January 24 to attend the inaugural session of the parliament. Upon arriving at the ferry pier at Daulatdia, on the western banks of the Padma river, Golam Reza did not want to join the queue of vehicles on the ferry. He tried to jump the queue and in doing so caused a minor collision with a bus. Golam Reza got out of his jeep, rushed inside the bus and beat the bus driver, Alal Sheikh, with a shotgun. It is not known whether the gun was licensed or not. Passengers on the bus and other staff protested and people in the vicinity pelted Golam Reza with stones.

Local police reportedly rescued Golam Reza and arranged for his safe exit. The bus driver was taken to a local hospital for medical treatment. Although the officer-in-charge registered a case against Golam Reza, which was published by the local media, no action has been taken against him. '

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Leitrim Observer: Learning from our pasts

In the title is the link to the second article published in the Leitrim Observer, a local paper back home. It discusses poverty in Dhaka and the role of history in it's failure to alleviate that poverty.

Unfortunately the editor cut an important paragraph which discussed the first 70years of Irish indepedence. But I can have no complaints; it was already a little too long and I remain grateful that they seem interested in such articles.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's day - the day Irish and non-irish people all around the world celebrate something which most of us would struggle to explain. It can be described in many ways: an excuse for a session, a celebration of irish culture and heritage, a day off work, a huge american party, a time for irish exiles to get together, the day of the All-Ireland club finals, a great day out or completely overrated.

Of course, the day itself is named after and is supposed to be a celebration of the patron saint of Ireland but while many still go to mass, shamrock somehow stuck to the shirt/jacket/dress etc, few would be naive enough to think that this is motivation for the majority of revellers all over the world.

So if you ignore the afternoon boozing aspect of it (at home and abroad) and recognise the limited role which the church now plays in peoples lives (outside of that 45minutes on Sunday), then you are left with the idea that it is a day during which we express our pride in our heritage and in our 'culture', past and present. People around the world join us in order to show their appreciation for our culture and for what we have brought to their country (not so sure about that one!). But, it will never cease to amaze me that a country of Ireland's population could have such a ridiculous hold on one day every year. It is incomparable but I couldn't be bothered going into the why.

Yet, at least in Ireland, what is showcased in parades and on platforms is not the dominant irish culture of the day. Floats and marching bands might well show off some of our finer artistic talents such as machnas or the talents of a new ballinaglera hiphop group.Trad music and dance will be for the older folks and the tourists as well as a few appreciative young people in the Gaeltacht regions perhaps!

But, most of these events will not really showcase the culture in which we, the inhabitants of Erin's Isle, actually participate on a daily basis. Traditions have been replaced by individualistic preference for X or Y sport, for excessive drinking, for a certain tv series or film. And today I reckon that most people, especially those in the countryside, will still go to mass/the parade, go home for the dinner, watch the gaa, and head into town afterwards for a few pints (or complete steps two and three in the pub).

This, I suggest, will be the dominant expression of culture in our country today. It is not what is showcased to the world in parades but it is what happens in every village and town all over the country itself. It is also what we are most famous for.

And I think it is also a culture which many people are content with. It is not extremely impressive, expressive, passionate, dark or carnival like. It is calm, good humoured and easy going until around 9pm (if all those who have been out since mass could just go home at this time, then those who haven't might actually enjoy their evening).

I, of course will not participate. I did grab hold of the closest expression of this culture available to me here by getting up to go to mass in a missionary orphanage at 6am. The mass itself was all in Bangla and was grand. No chairs and local music made you think you were in a temple of some kind though the priest's accent made me sometimes think I was in Napoli or Bari. So, yes, the orphanage is ran by two Italian and one local priests. Of course, I got the special treatment which included a nice breakfast with REAL ITALIAN COFFEE!

I actually really enjoyed it as the priests clearly posessed the Italian sense of humour, talked predominantly in Italian at the table and eventually spoke about Ray Houghton's goal in USA World Cup 1994 and Henry's sinful act! They were very nice people who have been in the country for over 30 and 20years respectively.

There were a few uncomfortable moments such as the joke that a hindu guy who left his wife and kids to join a muslim woman (a victim of domestic violence) who he had been legally representing, wanted to become a catholic!!! I smiled to myself but thought it was best not to ask if this was not just the expression of true love father?
The other was when I was introduced to a kid whose parents respectively eloped leaving their three kids to fend for themselves. In anyone's book this is pretty shameful (if not unlawful) behaviour but, according to our local priest, this was because they had no faith in the good lord....I understood his viewpoint but bit my tongue.

Overall though I am happy I least for the coffee. I'm also happy there was no, 'See you on Sunday?' or 'Come join us for evening prayer', instead I was just asked to drop by some time for some more coffee or maybe even a game of football.

So this has been my day so shamrock in my ear, no parades on the streets and no messy drunks....and it's been kinda good. Still though, I'd certainly enjoy a quiet one, in McSwiggins or in Conways.


ps bizarrely this is also a public holiday in Bangladesh to mark the birthday of the father of the nation...hip hip hurrah!

Friday, 12 March 2010

Photo of the week: International Women's Day

I attended a mass rally here in Satkhira to mark International Women's Day. It was a huge event but I think this photo, taken as the marchers assembled, says a lot but yet so little about the lives of women in this country. I'll write a big post on this soon.

The longest post for the longest week yet

From leaving Dhaka to arriving in my placement village, from moving into my ‘apartment’ to starting work, from doing the shopping to not buying anything, it has been quite the week. To describe how I felt in the past week: overwhelmed, frustrated and completely disorientated. To describe how I feel right now: eager, motivated, relieved and relaxed.

I left Dhaka at 9am on the morning of Thursday 03rd March. The journey itself was not particularly eventful and even though the ferry crossing ran smoothly, it was 7pm when we arrived in Satkhira. I’ve added some photos of the trip in a new slideshow. Not that interesting to be honest (I’ve bought a big Nikon camera but haven’t really figured out how to use it properly yet).

On arrival at my organization, Agrogoti Sangstha, I was greeted by about 15people, given flowers and tea. Apart from shaking hands excessively, the funniest thing was that we had to do so with the aid of candles: ‘Welcome to the South West where every evening you will be without power on a regular basis for one hour intervals.’

After some pleasantries I was accompanied to my room/apartment which is on the second floor of the organizations building by half the team. Keen not to be seen as difficult or picky on the first night, I responded on sight with, ‘Oh, very nice, perfect, wow what a wonderful room etc’. To be honest I was never going to say: ‘Grand, yeah, grand but how come the kitchen consists of a hob on the floor and nothing else? Why is there no storage place what so ever in the bedroom? Why is their no actual window in the bathroom window? Ah come on, this is a joke, how the hell can I make tea without a kettle?’ No, I had decided to stay calm and not overreact hours before setting put in the apartment. And besides, I could not possibly complain with (queue the cliché) my colleagues all being extremely nice and helpful.

In fact, this is how it has continued; I have been invited to the executive director’s house for dinner three times, been introduced to key people in the market who will ensure ‘nobody takes advantage of the ignorant foreigner.’ I have been brought on little motor cycle rides around the local area and shown the best places to buy various things. Each evening at least two of them call me up and ask if I am ok. So even though their concern for my welfare is a at times way over the top and mostly a little daft, it is also welcome at well intentioned and is not creating a problem…for the moment ;)

But what did create a problem was the fact that I arrived in a very empty apartment. I had muesli but no fridge. I had bread but no butter; pasta no tomatoes. Then, tomatoes but no salt; salt but no pepper and coffee but dodgy water. I did of course eventually buy water and tomatoes but found my Bangla to be hopeless otherwise. I had a few lunches with staff or in the countryside but struggled to keep it down….rice (by the bucket) with mashed vegetables and extremely spicy meat of which there is more bone that meat….not the most appetising. I had brought some food from Dhaka but when your stomach is turning from the local food and water; and with the heat eating away at your appetite, you find yourself dangerously low on energy.

This is the period of disorientation that I mention above and I cannot think of another time in my life when I’ve felt so helpless.

But let’s not get carried away, fact is you always adapt to the circumstances around you and so it was here also. Three days in and the fridge, cutlery, pots and pans had arrived. By the times of writing, I had bought all the cooking essentials - I even have a toaster and natural yoghurt which means I can finally start eating breakfast (Fresh milk is nigh impossible to find and butter can only be found on the other side of town…logic?). The hob is now even sitting on a table! And I can also begin to eat a little like the locals by picking and choosing ingredients and cooking them to suit my rather uncultivated taste buds. In all, having survived my first week with the help of some wonderful colleagues who insist that I am no longer a foreigner but a bhai (every friend is a bhai here, or brother), I reckon the rest of the year will be a breeze.

Yeah right!

On another note, work seems really interesting. The organization, Agrogoti Sangstha, is a non-governmental organization working in Satkhira district. The District population is around 600,000 people and these are the main beneficiaries of the organizations work. Our (note…change not ‘their’) aim is to establish accountable and transparent local and national governance in order to realize human rights. In other words, AS tries to hold local political and bureaucratic institutions to account for the services which they are constitutionally obliged to provide to the people. They do this by raising awareness among the poorest and most marginalized peoples of their rights, by building local volunteer groups who participate in open budget and other sessions of the local government, and by building the capacity of the local councils and councillors to enable them to discharge their duties more effectively. The organization believes in providing a long term solution to the massive poverty in this country and not just plugging the holes… If all of this is true in practice and if the organization is not actually interested in securing its own survival than dealing with the most pressing issues, then I reckon that VSO will have found the perfect organization for me.

My role will be to use my background in Human Rights to assist with the development of the organizations 5year strategy, to ensure that the development process is participatory and thereafter to build the organization’s capacity to advocate at local, regional and national level for the protection of human rights by ensuring that their actions are dictated by the strategy and not by where the money lies. Otherwise, the ED and Programme Coordinator are good people and smart professionals who seem keen to hear my views on any subject.

So, the disorientation is over and the work finally begins… Exhale and inhale.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Photo of the week: Contrasts

The lady in the photo was not overly happy that I took it. The colours in this country are so bright, positive and expressive, yet the women who wear them are often shy and dominated by men. Many are expecially intimidated by foreign men.