Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Village

We spent the last three days in some of the villages of the Rajshahi Division. This area is in the West of the country, with its western border being made up by the Padma River. This vast water is otherwise known as the Ganges in India, which could be seen as a distant bank, shrouded in dusty mists. The Ganges represents the furthest extent of Alexander the Great’s invasions from Macedonia, the grey-green expanse a fitting boundary to his intentions. At the peak of the dry season, smugglers cross back and forth with contraband – often beer – but during our visit the calm waters were in full spread and Bangladeshi oarsmen drifted slowly through the rushes as the low sun set.

Only two VSO volunteers are based in Rajshahi division, where 25% of Bangladeshis live. We were meeting Samson, a Kenyan who retired last year as that country’s chief economist. A fascinating but quiet guy, he showed us his sparse flat, working offices and some of the villages in which his organisation operates. He works with 5 different community based organisations as a strategic planning advisor, yet seemed deeply dissatisfied with his Bangladeshi life. Luckily, he was accompanied by a side kick – Sylvester – who was seemingly employed to do everything for him: translate, carry bags, organise tours, rickshaws, buses, lawnmowers for rides in the rice fields and anything else. Everyone needs a Sylvester in Bangladesh.

The journey to the main city of the division, also called Rajshahi, was fraught with danger. Local bus drivers showed their characteristic disregard for basic hazard avoidance as we careered along barely made roads at fast speeds, and surfaced roads at ludicrous speeds. Buses or lorries oncoming were not necessary something to avoid, with drivers taking up a position on the wrong side of the road for 20 minutes or more, and then seemingly perturbed to find anything coming towards them. Yet we did arrive in one piece some seven hours later, if not a little blustered.

Rajshahi was a bit of a non-event, with a university and the Padma being its saving graces. Yet the next day we took a local bus (same driving but much thinner roads) out into the countryside and it was beautiful. Rice fields stretched for miles, criss-crossed by small paths occasionally walked by farmers. The roads were tree lined like the best of Provence, and small groups of people walked or cycled along. Every ten minutes or so on our hour and a half journey the bus would stop at the smallest of villages and off load people, ducks, chickens, light bulbs and anything else that could be crammed into its dilapidated interior.

We eventually stopped in a small village occupied by some of the indigenous communities (ICs) in Bangladesh. These are the most marginalised and poorest of Bangladesh’s already poor population. Mostly they are Christian, and there was a small Catholic Church nearby that was sparsely furnished but brightly coloured. In the first village we visited the end of a school class for primary age children. In rural Bangladesh, only 25% of girls go to primary school, and then lessons are in Bangla. The indigenous communities are losing their language, land, culture and other rights, and so the local CBOs are trying to keep this alive. The kids sung us some songs and then we were forced to return the favour – the hokey-cokey is now well established in rural Bangladesh.

The villages are however, incredibly poor. Whilst they do have national grid electricity connections, life is hard for these people, working small rice plots and mango groves by hand, with children charged with sharpening knives and cutting bamboo or looking after animals, and women cutting and building and sowing all day. Houses are made of wattle and daub with straw roofs, with pit stoves formed from wetted mud. It is not actually much different to rural Ireland or England in the 1920s or 1930s, or Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Except this is today and there is no apparent way of changing this. On the other hand they were teeming with life – ducklings and piglets, babies and chicks, kittens and calves running back and forth – and whilst this existence should not be romanticised from what it is, there is a simplicity and connectivity that should be admired and enhanced.

We then took a strange ride back towards the main town on a cross between a lawnmower and a motorbike, with nine of us hanging on to the platform. I was only dragged through one bush, and was able to extract a couple of thorns from my bleeding foot before we squeezed between a pond and bus doing an impression of Colin McRae.

The sun was cool and the wind blowing a little which made the trip back lovely, surrounded by virtually no one but a few farmers and miles and miles of low-lying rice fields. In the hurricane of Dhaka finding silence in this country seemed impossible, but it is and it is beautiful.

No comments: