Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas in Bangladesh

Christmas with the minaret towers blasting out Islamic prayer is a rather unique experience, as is the dust, heat and procession of cows dressed in flowers and hats ready for the Eid slaughter. All good Christmas stories start with Christmas Eve, and this one will be no different.

The build up to Christmas Eve is very different. There is no sense that Christmas is just about the corner – I could only hear Slade in my own room – but to engender some of the spirit, I had a small Christmas party at my NGO, and brought some Christmas pudding that they all could try. Most of the people there brought their wives and kids and also some samosas and home-baked cakes and I was able to tell a little about Christmas and how we celebrate it. The pudding went down well, though the kids ate only the ice cream and then stuffed their faces with samosas. But at least they tried a small bit: one even spat it out on the floor. I didn’t think it was that bad.

I managed to escape sometime around 6.30 and rushed back to our flat to collect the Muppets Christmas Carol (still highly recommended for those that have never seen it) before going to a Filipino Christmas Party at another VSO flat. There are probably more Filipinos than any other nationality here, and they celebrate Christmas on the 24th. So we had fish curries, noodles, cakes and all sorts whilst some others murdered songs on a kareoke machine. But by nine it was time to move out, a little full on rice wine, to midnight mass.

Bangladesh is a unique place where midnight takes place at 10 pm. Ten is the cut off after which you are likely to be mugged and attacked (one volunteer was mugged later that evening at knife point), so things are moved forward. In 2004, eight churches were bombed by fundamentalists of one creed or another, and so the churches have been guarded by the RAB (the special police force whose particular speciality is extrajudicial killings – see Human Rights Watch’s latest report). Tim and I rushed (in as much as this is possible in Dhaka traffic) up to Banani Catholic Church and met Georgia and her mum for the mass. And this was an experience not to be missed.

Firstly, remember that this is supposed to be a catholic church, or al that follows will not seem strange and wondrous. The opening ‘hymn’ – to which two priests brought in a plastic doll called Jesus and laid at the alter – was Johnny Mathiers ‘When a Child was Born’. This stupendous start was bettered when the next hymn appeared: Boney M singing their Christmas song, which I do not know the name of but has the video of them all in big Eskimo suits.

Already we had some level of sacrilege, but this was further compounded by the addition of evangelical tones. Through out we had to have open hands praying, alleluia refrains, Silent Night in millions of languages and other things not befitting Catholic services. There was no fire and brimstone, going to hell and general misery, but this horrendous fusion of the worst of all churches. One of the priests would not have looked out of place on Craggy Island. But once we had finished our singing of pop songs and one carol, we could leave and struggled back to our flat, where I finished watching the Muppets, for a more Christmasy feeling than the church.

Christmas morning in the bright, dusty sun was more than a little strange, with calls to prayer darting around and life for most being no different. Tim and I dashed up to the Mohammadpur Market to get new potatoes, carrots, beans, spinage, cauliflower and peas, and then topped this up with bombay mix, pringles, pistachios, milk and all else needed for a full blown dinner. By 12 or so we were able to start peeling vegetables for 15 people and then try to get the little electric oven that had appeared in the induction flat to roast potatoes and garlic. We had five ready roasted chickens to enable us to eat meat that was not boiled or fried or stewed, and then spent the next three hours laying out mountains of veg, grapes and oranges, dates and nuts, Christmas cake and pudding and mince pies. We also had chocolate and fruit pastels, jelly babies and After Eights so that by 4 I felt pretty sick (and I think most did). The assault of rich and sugary foods after the relative austerity of cooking here sent stomachs into freefall, but it was certainly worth it, even if I am now on antibiotics for dysentery.

We had a pirated copy of Casino Royal to for the early evening, and then finished off the wine, brandy, rice wine and some cheese specially arrived from England (you can’t get it here) and let the evening pass, interrupted only by more calls to prayer: if only we could get hold of the mike and play Wizzard through it.
Boxing day and Christmas was definitely over, though most Bangladeshi’s hadn’t noticed it had passed. We stumbled about Gulshan trying to buy a plane ticket for our Sundarbans trip, and whilst I got this, Tim decided that it would be a prudent time to learn to ride a rickshaw. We are pretty sure that the bloke sitting in his car that suffered the collision Tim engineered was not expecting to see a rickshawala being driven by a bedeshi, and this may have been enough to prevent him leaping out and adding a gash to Tim of the same length and depth as the scratch embedded in his paint work. It turns out that rickshaws are wider than you’d think, and worthy of more respect when being driven by the inexperienced. We got out of there as quickly as possible, and discovered the British High Commission Club is a lot cheaper than our own and has better bacon.

And this summarised quite adequately Christmas in Bangladesh, a hot, dusty and noisy one, but with a certain level of charm and a lot of fun.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Photos of the Rioting

I've finally been able to shrink photos and get them online. These show the rioting and protests over the last few weeks...
Police at Russel Square, near my office

Barricades against an Awami League Demo

Burning police car close to my office

Protesters on Pantha Path

Some photos

Finlay Tea Estate, Srimangal

Padma River, Rajshahi (Ganges in India)

Hindu Street, Dhaka

Tea Estate Worker, Srimangal

Putschka Perpared on the Street

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Catch Up...

I’ve not written in a while as it got surprisingly busy recently, but here is a few paragraphs as snapshots of what has been going on.

I’ve finally moved into my new flat, along with Elias and Julius, two Ugandans working on VSO’s HIV/Aids programme. We have a bedroom each, a very small squat toilet bathroom, a dining room populated predominantly by a table, a small living room and a kitchen. The kitchen gives room for one bin and half a person, and is also home to the largest colony of cockroaches in Bangladesh. I have been on a Fallujah style offensive over the last week, and can report that there are over 200 dead or wounded cockroaches, with little collateral damage. The combined forces of the UK and Uganda (the coalition of the less than willing and even less able) have suffered no casualties but a little too much insect spray in the eyes. We also have few lights, and the plug socked blew up my plug adapter. But I have bought a cheap rug to put on the wall, so it may soon become homely.

We had the VSO Christmas party last Thursday, which was enjoyable in its way. The Chinese cuisine was a break from more traditional Christmas fare, and the white wine was decidedly orange in colour, but nonetheless, with Band Aid and Slade playing in the background, it was as close to Christmas as Bangladesh can come.

The downside is that this meal rendered me incapacitated for the next three days, as it took its miserable toll on my stomach. I am still recovering and offer this passing but unpleasant illness as reason for a gap in the news.

Apart from that, I have four days until I finish for Christmas, and because of the Eid holiday where locals cut the throats of anything non-human that they can get their hands on, I am having 10 days off for the price of three, and will make a trip to the Sundarbans mangrove swamp for new year. It may not be Edinburgh, but there might be tigers...

Old Sonargaon

A couple of Fridays ago I made a trip with a few other VSO volunteers to Old Sonargoan, about an hour or so outside of Dhaka. This was the first capital of Bengal following the Muslim invasion in the 13th century, and site of some of the oldest buildings in the country.

The journey out was typically irritating, with buses and trucks attempting to use our van as a pinball to bash about the road. New highlights in Dhaka’s road management system were revealed, such as the policy of digging a big hole in a major routeway, and then walking away. Occasionally, our traffic jam was interrupted by open road, and suddenly we left the city and were into the countryside.

We arrived at a parkland area in which there is an old museum and a moghul palace. The museum has little to recommend it – the best stuff has long since found its way to London and Edinburgh. This was clearly collected from the ground after even the most hard-pressed antiques dealer had discarded it as junk. The grounds however, were really lovely, with lots of greenery and shaded walks, and a brown pond doubling as an open toilet. We spent a good few hours walking about the waterways and bandstands, and saw a few games of cricket being played, as well as arguing as to whether candy floss is called candy cotton or fairy floss. I won this, pointed out to the assembled Canadians, Americans and Australians that we invented this language.

We saw a few craft stalls and some people weaving silver and gold thread into long sari cloth, which was really fascinating. The looms were sunk into the ground with a foot well for operating it, and colourful threads handing from the top. This was formally a Hindu area and there were remnants of temples and colour to break up Muslim austerity.

In our strolling we managed to acquire two small girls who chased us for baksheesh the whole way round. Their efforts were rewarded with 10 Taka and endless photographs – climbing trees, climbing bridges, climbing more trees and hitting rival street kids moving in on their patch. They even sneaked into the old moghul palace (a grand building seriously suffering the effects of neglect) to harass us further. At the end, we each had a coconut from a stall. They pack them up high here when still green, and the end is hacked off. A straw lets you drink the milk from inside this huge cup, before they slice it in two and make a scope so that you can eat the flesh. The husks are then used to stuff pillows. We were able to give some to our little companions, who were decidedly disappointed that this was not more Taka.

The next stop took us to the country’s oldest Mosque, built in 1509. Rather than the all powerful symbol of new rulers, this was a tiny box like building not much more than 20 by 20 metres, hiding away in low forest. Compare this to the grand churches and castles of Europe and it gives an idea of how much wealth Europe has had for so long, and how long Bengal has gone without. Again, this had seen much better days. We also visited what is now a small village but was once a compound of grand Hindu buildings. Today, these red brick and stone palaces are falling apart, crumbling at the base as more and more homeless families cram into less and less space. There is not enough money here to provide sanitation, so preserving buildings is way off the priority list: and hence these grand structures wear their decline as a sad badge of past glories. Out side the village, a large temple was more like the set of an Indiana Jones film – blackened stone fights with the jungle to stay prominent, yet even in this isolated spot, small children arrive to ask for money, and a family attempts to make a living in the bowels of the building’s dark spaces.

This little part of Bangladesh is a fitting metaphor for the poverty of the nation, where so much cultural wealth is being lost as the daily struggle to survive takes place over its ancient stones.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

World Human Rights Day 2006

This is my article published in Bangladesh's national New Age for Human Rights Day. Slightly strange editing which has left it a little confused at times. But if you are interested...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Charlands: a Dramatic Way to Travel

Over the last few days I have been in Kurigram in the very far north of Bangladesh, commonly known as North Bengal. It is the poorest district in Bangladesh, which being one of the poorest five countries in the world ensured that the people I met were among the most disadvantaged and destitute alive. Alive, however, is a tenuous adjective for this we were visiting at the height of the Monga season, cyclical famine that has occurred for over 500 years.

Monga is the local Bangla word to describe the situation. The vast majority of people in this area work as day labourers on rice farms owned by a small number of local landholders. Very few of the poor have their own landholding on which to grow any of their own crop, and so they are almost all entirely dependent on this work as their livelihood. In mid-September, the Aman rice crop is ready to be transplanted into paddy fields. Once this is complete, it then takes around two months before the crop is ready for harvest: the harvest has only just begun in the last week. During this two month period, there is virtually no work available for people, and a near-famine situation exists.

The government provides small quantities of rice through its Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme (VGF), but this is insufficient to give more than one meal of rice a day. The absolute poverty line (under which one receives less calories a day than that required for basic metabolic functions) is three meals of rice a day. There is relief organised by the World Food Programme which provides high nutrient biscuits in schools. A major impact of the famine is that children stop attending school due to health problems and the need to be active within the household coping strategy. The aim of the WFP work is to make going to school part of the strategy, and it has had success, though funding is being withdrawn rapidly, much related to the Tsunami of 2004 which has sucked money out of many other projects.

Men tend to leave the region to go to Dhaka, Khulna or other cities to work as rickshaw pullers, but do not necessary earn more than their own daily subsistence. Other families sell small assets, take out loans from local lenders at extortionate rates (up to 300% a day) or sell their labour in advance at lower than market price in order to obtain the money to live until harvest begins. These all contribute to maintain the prevalence of the Monga in the region on an annual basis.

My organisation is completing research work in the field on the impacts of DFID sponsored poverty alleviation project. This is a $150 million project and is the largest in DFID’s portfolio around the world. Its aim is to bring alternative livelihoods to char dwellers. Chars (for those that do not remember their GCSE Geography case studies) are small islands of shifting sediment found in the courses of major rivers in Bangladesh. I visited one char which sits at the very edge of the Brahmaputra River. In winter, as it is now, the river is dry here, only running through the deeper channels further west. At the time of my visit, the river, we were told, was four kilometres away, and was ‘only’ 6 km wide at the moment! This vast river that can swell within its banks to nearly 20 km is width, marks the border between Bangladesh and India. The char people are particularly vulnerable, even in the context of Kurigram district, because they depend on labouring and fishing. In the Monga period, there is no labour and the fish are at least 4 km walk away. The basin was left littered with small boats, useless until the waters return in March.

On this particular char, DFID had helped fund a local NGO to set up a fishing net craft factory. Around 20 women were making fishing nets to sell to local fishermen and market traders, and were managing the unit as a co-operative to ensure its sustainability. It was really quite amazing to see the reality of the development projects so often seen in glossy brochures. I actually arrived on my own because the local facilitator and my organisation staff went for prayer, so I had a strange experience at the hands of the local NGO staff. One made me watch a medical examination, and then handed me a piece of paper I later found to be a prescription so that I could give it the local woman he had treated. A camera was produced from nowhere to take the photo. It made me very uncomfortable, and made a bit of a zoo of these people, but I was unable to explain it. I managed to stop a photo to be taken with who one local described as the ‘mad woman’. In fact, it was just that she had lived on the char since 1974, and not left it. It was a beautiful spot – I can see why one would stay.

I did my bit for participatory research and tried to show set an example by sitting with the people working on the nets and not standing amongst them as I was being encouraged to do. I also was able to persuade the NGO to let someone try to teach me to make a net: her hands moved incredibly fast across the tiny pieces of thread. I simply couldn’t do it, it was far too hard. But it did get some laughs from the local people and had the local NGO people also sitting at their level, so perhaps I was able to share a few skills. Changing lives will take longer.

Walking through this part of the world is like stepping back in time and moving to a new planet all at once. The way of life is so alien to anything that takes place in Britain, and the reverse is the same. The chasm between the realities of life for so many people in the world, and that of the privileged few is incomprehensibly deep. It makes Madonna’s adoption idea even more perverse and arrogant. North Bengal’s dusty white skies and dry, desolate plains perfectly capture the ephemeral nature of our existence.


The bus ride there and back, however, embodied the crushing mortality that we hold, and is not a journey I would like to repeat. I was highly sceptical when I was told that the bus ‘was not a good bus’. I’ve been on buses described as ‘excellent’, ‘first class’ and a host of other superlatives, and they have generally been death traps of one form of another, so not a good bus in Bangladesh could mean anything. I received my ticket. Every company in this country adds a motto or tag line to their products, often in ludicrously exuberant English. For this bus company, it was ‘A Dramatic Way to Destination’. Having swallowed my immediate sense of fear, I was able to ponder alittle what this meant, trying to work out how bad it would be. Would this mean dramatic in relation to National Express in the UK, or in other words, normal for Bangladesh, or was it referring to the Bangladeshi standard and hence likely to be even more dangerous than normal? Before I had a chance to change my mind I was on the bus. It was 11.30 at night: it turned out that not seeing was more reassuring than the return leg.

We swerved in and out of buses and rickshaws, zoomed along single lane roads in thick mist that would stop one driving at home. In the early morning haze I saw us push two separate cyclists off the road: one hit a tree, the other a river. The horn was a permanent battering ram, serving as stern warning to all oncoming that a madman was coming and he was not stopping for anything. At one point I was thrown against the ceiling as the bus seemed to leap from the road, and someone I was travelling with told me the huge thump that we got as rounded a bend was the inside wheels retouching the ground. This bus was being driven like it was a Bond car.

But the return was worse. This time, I could see what was happening. I saw at least three rickshaws hit the bank, water or forests along the road, saw buses miss by centimetres as they swerved towards each other, and people fall from the bus as he would not even stop to let them off! However, the crowning achievement was the secret behind the bumps of the journey two nights before. I could see us approach at breakneck speed a thin looking bridge. A sign depicting something like ‘no buses’ flashed past my eyes as we headed out across a river. The bus was bouncing up and down, throwing things around the interior. I could not understand the haste until I saw the road ahead. It was not a road. Two train tracks ran out ahead into the distance, surrounded by sleepers and bricks that were the cause of our jumping. It really left me speechless. It turned out later that the road bridge added an extra hour to the journey so it is better to use the railway. I failed to see the logic of this in retrospect, but at the time I was looking about wondering how I could get off if a train came hurtling along. Train drivers here have similar disregard for the laws of physics to bus driver: it would be like one of those cheap films that pitch evil creatures from different franchises together. Except with real terror.

That I am writing this entry should be sufficient evidence that we did in fact make it, swerving off the bridge to avoid a another bus about to make its approach from the opposite end. A cloud of grey sand hid any look back, but within ten minutes we passed a train hurtling along the track in the direction from which we had come. A near miss or ‘just-in-time’ traffic planning? That last word has no place in the Bangla language, so I have instead ticked off another life, and now look with some concern on the dwindling number I have to call on.

I have made a Christmas pudding, Bangla style. I managed to find Guinness after weeks of searching, and substituted prunes, plums, raisins and currents for lots more sultanas, cherries, jackfruit and dates. It feels heavy enough to be a pudding, and should make do for Christmas. I also have been able to buy the Muppet Christmas Carol, and so have everything required for a real Christmas day.