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aim of the WFP work is to make going to school part of the strategy, and it has had success, though funding is being withdrawn rapidly, much related to the Tsunami of 2004 which has sucked money out of many other projects.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.


Mikey said...

God I was honestly scared as I read it---you didn't share that many details after you got back! Maniac drivers..

Clare said...

clearly muppet christmas carol is the ONLY film to watch on christmas. have a happy one and I'm very glad you didn't die - i'm still waiting for your socially aware plan of world domination.

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Maria said...

Are they celebrating Christmas?

Maria[big suit]