Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eid Holidays

My second Bangladeshi Eid-ul-Fatir has been and gone, and this year I managed to join the hordes leaving the city once again, making a return trip to Khagachuri in the Hill Tracts, where I spent a couple of weeks in May working on research training with the staff at Georgia’s organisation.

Planning for Eid is a momentous operation, requiring anyone wishing to leave the city to book bus and train tickets two or three weeks in advance. My original plan to visit the beach resort of Cox’s Bazar was scuppered by leaving only 12 days advance to book the bus (in normal times, a day or two is sufficient), so instead I managed to grab a last minute ticket to visit Khagachuri.
Buying a bus ticket in Bangladesh can be a hassle, as even if there is space, because often the guy selling the ticket is concerned that the seat will not be suitable for a bedeshi. The reality of course, is that none of the seats are suitable for a bedeshi, nor even a Bangladeshi, as most buses are a composite of welded parts, rust and broken glass, and have seen more battle damage than Stalin’s tanks did. It took significant debate to convince him that I didn’t mind not being at the very front of the bus (the perfect position to see the hurtling oncoming traffic and to fly through the windscreen after one emergency brake too far).

People pour out of Dhaka for Eid: at least half the 14 million people were expected to leave to go to their home villages, carrying enough luggage for a Himalayan expedition, and hampers of food for the (relatively) short journeys that they were to make. The consequence of this frantic exodus is, of course, that it becomes impossible to move in the traffic. Having boarded my bus at around 7.15 am, it was 10.30 before I actually left the limits of Dhaka, a distance equivalent to perhaps travelling from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street. It was then another hour to go two kilometres to the first bridge over the Buriganga, as this single span crossing was facing four or five lanes of traffic at either end desperately trying to force its way on. A year on, the idiocy of Bangladeshi driving still confounds me.

The route to Khagachuri is mostly along the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, the ‘M1’ of Bangladesh. This metaphor applies only as far as them both being the busiest routeways in each country.
The comparison stops there. The highway is mostly a single span road, at times the sides of which are crumbling due to erosion of the embankment it runs along. There are rickshaws, CNGs, cattle, people walking and the constant zigzag driving of daredevil bus drivers all going at their equivalent breakneck speeds. A journey in Bangladesh is typically periods of ludicrous speeds, whizzing past rickshaw pullers and paddy fields, interspersed with death-defying breaking and furious shouting by drivers, over periods of 6 to 12 hours. This is normally accompanied by the booming decibels of some ancient Bollywood soundtrack making even thinking hard work. My own bus managed to hit two other buses and smash into the side of a concrete bridge on its dash through the Bangladeshi countryside.

The journey gets worse, however, when the turn off to Khagachuri is reached. What starts is three hours of switchbacks up the hill sides, with the bus lurching from side to side and regularly taking corners at incredible, terrifying angles whilst trucks and other buses coming the other way at similar speeds narrowly avoid collisions. There are bridges to cross that are barely wide enough for the bus to fit across, but are negotiated at fifty miles an hour, and potholes three feet deep dismissed as if it were but leaves on the ground. Add to this the tendency on this particular journey for the Bangladeshis to be sick, often without warning even to themselves, and the relief at arriving can become clear. Having watched people staring out a window before vomiting suddenly and to their own great surprise, and others consume trolley loads of food before throwing the waste out the window, to get off (after the customary army check), after 11 ½ hours into the cool night of the hill tracts was fantastic.

The hills were so much cooler than Dhaka, capturing the early winter winds from the Bay of Bengal, but also the tail end of the monsoon: as I write today, the floods have returned to Khagachuri and are up to 12 feet deep in places. But on Friday evening, taking a rickshaw through the small collections of villages that really make up the down, the sight of fireflies dancing across the rice paddies as the last of the sunset glow vanished was a welcome sight after the dust and dirty grey of Dhaka.

On the Saturday morning, Georgia and I made a trip out of Bhoropara, the village of Kajen, one of her colleagues at work. Even to leave the town, bedeshis are required to inform the army, and on occasions require an enormous police escort. Luckily, this was not required for us, and we were able to take a ‘jeep’ out of the town. The hill tracts are some of the remotest parts of Bangladesh, and the village we went to was considered one well connected by our lack of need of a police escort; indeed our very permission to visit it was dependent on its proximity to Khagachuri. Yet to get there we were still required to take a journey along a number of smaller and smaller roads of similarly deteriorating state of repair for some 30 minutes. We were passing through the forest proper, with small clearings filled with rice paddy surrounded by thick vegetation and a low canopy. After yet another pot hole, the tarmac road gave way to a redbrick herringbone path, along which our jeep bounced and banged its way up the hill side. A short time later we were halted and out of the jeep, as the road came to an end.

Yet this end of the road was still not the village. We then began an hour long hike up hills, through paddy fields and along small streams to get to the village. By this time to sun had risen fully and the early mists had burnt off leaving behind an impressive humidity, making it not long before I was once again sweating gallons in Bangladesh. The landscape here is very impressive: the hills are not large, being just the products of the last ripples of Himalayan uplift, but they are so unusual for this delta country that the mere existence of topography is refreshing. The hill tops are covered in thick vegetation – banana trees, creepers and ferns, and through these well worn paths weave a drunken path up and down. Around the hills, the small patches of flat land have been cleared and cultivated for centuries, so that neat, green squares of rice fill all the space around: the rice paddies appear like green clouds hiding all but the tops of restful mountains, such is their uninterrupted spread. When the trail came down into them though, the squelching of the waterlogged fields was a quick reminder of our diminutive height.

On and on we trekked, until eventually we came to the hill top village. The indigenous people (of which there are 45 groups or so in Bangladesh) traditionally live in hill top villages, in bamboo houses. We stumbled, somewhat bedraggled by sweat, into the village. The isolation is quickly apparent. There is no electricity or water – a tubewell serves the whole village. Most of the houses are small, two or three roomed bamboo shacks much like can be seen in Southeast Asia, and sufficiently different from the mud homes of the plain land Bengalis.

We sat in the ante-room of Kajen’s family home and I watched fascinated as he distributed some gifts to his mother from England. I am sure that whoever packaged up that bottle of Nivea moisturiser did not expect it to end up in a remote Tripura village in Bangladesh. We were visited by a gaggle of children, a parrot with a small grasp of the Tripura language, a cat, chickens and ducks. It seems that in this house, anyone or anything was welcome to wander around, except when the chickens found their way into the rice sacks in the corner, at which point minor pandemonium ensued as they reluctantly fled the scene of their crime pursued by a (always) woman of the house.

The Tripura are in fact a matriarchal society, very unlike the man’s world of mainstream Bangladesh, and Kajen’s grandmother is the matriarch of the village. She is a Hindu widow and consequently cannot be given meat, eggs or liquid foods, though the exact reason for this, other than ‘tradition’ was not made apparent. We were able to go for a walk, and did a small circuit of the collection of centres that make up Bhoropara. We managed to walk into a funeral, a rather embarrassing event as we instantly upstaged the dead man’s special day as the kids left to follow us on our walk, and others sent their stares.

It was difficult to remember that this is not considered a remote settlement. Though Khagachuri was a three hour walk away, where goods could be sold at market, the people were quite well connected to what was happening in the town, and many were relatives of people I had met in my previous visit. But this doesn’t disguise the lack of services. Schools are run by local NGOs, there are no amenities, and the nearest shop is one hour away on foot. Access to healthcare is non existent. Though people seem to do very little, it is a hard life. The tyranny of village life seemed omnipresent.

The next day, we went on a picnic with some of Georgia’s other colleagues and their families.
This was my first Bangladeshi picnic, and will certainly be my last. As always in the Desh, it is important to expect the bizarre, and when Georgia informed me that a picnic committee had been formed, and there was a project co-ordinator, resource manager and so on, it was clear some trepidation was needed.

We managed to find our way through the rain to the house of one of the party (who are all Tripura or Chakma) from where we set off in convey. We had been told we were going fishing and having a picnic, so after a brief walk to a huge river, we assumed that this was the place: how wrong this proved to be. Instead, we all clambered on to a small boat and were paddled across the river in relay, whilst a small boy frantically tried to keep it afloat with swift bailing. It seemed appropriate to go Bangladeshi, so I abandoned my shoes at this point (later to be regretted) and we set off through the paddy fields. The early rain had turned the small paths into slippery, soft, muddy slides, and I spend much of the time dancing along the path desperately trying to find something to grip on to.

It was pretty clear that the guys from Zabarang had not told their wives either about the trek that was to ensue, because they had come bedecked in salwar kameez and smart shoes, and were soon also slipping down the hillsides. On about our third descent, by which time my feet were a mixture of mud, straw and cow shit, we were stopped because there was a ‘small type of snake’. Upon clarification it emerged that the ‘small snakes’ everywhere were in fact large leaches. My bare feet seemed remarkably vulnerable at this point. Trying to walk down a muddy slope in bare feet whilst also hoping over lurking leaches is not an easy task, and it was not long before I had succumbed to gravity (though thankfully, not the leaches).

Finally, after a fourth climb and an hour and half of walking we made it up to a small bamboo shack perched precariously on the hill side. This was to be our picnic spot. I walked rather gingerly across the platform, as it seemed immensely fragile, especially with two bedeshis, 12 Bangladeshis and their food on it. The hill had more of these platforms sporadically spread across it. They are built by jhum cultivators whilst they tend their crop. The indigenous people are sometimes known as jhumvasis (in a slight derogatory way) because they practice the slash-and-burn agriculture known locally as jhum. Those who are too poor or too unlucky (and usually both) to own land on the valley floors grow rice, cucumber and tamarind on precarious slopes. They build these shacks to live in for two or three months whilst farming, and then move on to new parts of the hill side.

The longevity of their stay on the hillside explained why there was a small stove made of clay build into the shack, but also explained whilst there seemed to be an inordinate number of pots with us as baggage. Georgia and I were quickly inducted into the idea of a Bangladeshi picnic, which is really the transplanting of the kitchen to a new location. Everyone immediately sat down to peeling chillies, onions and garlic, trying to hack off pieces of frozen pork and chicken and lighting a fire. It was already by now 11.30.

Eventually some cooking was going, and it seemed that someone was responsible for each dish, meaning a coordinated game of musical chairs ensured as space was negotiated at the stove. When some cooking was eventually underway, it was time to go ‘fishing’. This involved sliding back down the hill side to the small stream at the bottom, which we walked along upstream towards the sound of a distant waterfall. Our hosts then proceeded to flick over large river stones and rummage in the water underneath, trying to find small river crabs. By the time we had reach the end of the watercourse, we had acquired a small collection of very small creatures. Some shak (spinach leaf) was washed in tiny plunge pool, and then the crabs were ripped open and their claws dismembered ready for the pot. We struggled back up the stream and then up the hill, were finally we could do a little eating.

The crabs were quickly cooked, and then banana leaves were laid out on the platform, from which we could pick spinach, fish and crabs. Then, the rice wine was brought out. One cannot drink this potent brew without food, which is made extra spicy in order to induce a sweat. This particular proof was apparently 90%, and had a kick like being hit by a Bangladeshi bus driver – it was lethal stuff, even when mixed up with some 7-Up, the half a cup I was served was too much. It was not long before Georgia’s colleagues were droopy eyed and slurred, and their good natured banter accelerated to bizarre degrees, with stories of some sending girls to the house of another to make his wife jealous, and others talking about a baby still not named after 10 months, and too much more besides. The naming of Tripura children is quite a ceremony. There are only certain letters that the names can begin with, and so a set of options are written down and attached to candles. The candles are lit and the last candle to burn down becomes the baby’s name. One of our two minor accompanies, Joshua, was named by another volunteer that left in August.

Sometime around 3.30 we finally had lunch, eating rice, chicken, pork and fish from huge deep green banana leaves spread out on the ground before we finally moved off the platform and staggered back to the main town, drinking some green coconut water on one stop, and waiting for Diman, a vivacious programme co-ordinator at Zabarang, to eat again at another house. With the rice wine, the falling light, constant food stops and the broken boat, it was a while before we got back to the flat. But, it was absolutely worth it. Though a Bangladeshi picnic is a troublesome affair, the trouble is worth it; the views and the food, the company and even the rice wine were elements of a very memorable, and special day.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

YfD Applications for 2008 open

If anyone is interested in applying to VSO as a youth volunteer, applications have opened and run until January 2008. It is a good opportunity to gain overseas experience in a manner which is not economically unviable, and also in general manages to avoid either taking up job opportunities locals could undertake or making frivalous contributions.
At the very least, my picture is advertising it...see www.vso.org.uk for details

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Curse of Cartooning Strikes Bangladesh

The political cartoon has always been a potent weapon, and the riots across the Muslim world over those infamous Danish cartoons is evidence of such, as well as suggestion that some can be a little over sensitive. Then there were the recent Swedish cartoons: it seems that Scandinavia has something to say to Islam that can only be done through pen and ink sketches. Bangladesh saw its fair share of rioting over the Danish cartoons (though some demonstrated outside the Norwegian embassy), but nothing compared to recent events.

A week or so ago a local cartoonist working for a Bangla daily – Prothom Alo – drew a small strip for a magazine mainly read by teenagers and young people. In it, a man asks a boy holding a cat what his name is, to which the boy replies. He is scolded for not adding the name Mohammed to his name, as ‘all Muslims should have the prophet’s name’. He is then asked his father’s name, and replies with the addition of Mohammed at the front. Praised by the man, the boy is asks the name of his cat, and like all good jokes, takes the advice innocently and adds Mohammed to the cat’s name.

Except, because this is Bangladesh, it was not interpreted as a joke and was instead the catalyst for enormous protests, as people poured onto the streets and marched towards the Prothom Alo offices determined to show their outrage to the cartoonist and the paper. Despite the ban by the caretaker government on protests and gatherings, offendees congregated, baying for the blood for yet another cartoonist.

Despite Bangladesh’s rather fierce secular tradition, the police were swift to act by arresting the cartoonist (a twenty year old) and charge him under a British blasphemy law that has been on statue for over a hundred years. Roughly speaking, his crime is to offend the religious sensibilities of the people. A difficult crime to define surely. Not content with the arrest of someone who amongst more nuanced opinion is seen to have made a mistake and misjudged his audience, the protesters did a little bit of bus burning (standard practice for a Dhaka protest) and demanded the government shut down the newspaper and arrest all the editors.

The media in Bangladesh is already under tight controls since the State of Emergency was announced in January, and some electronic media has been shut down whilst other editors have been warned to tow the government line on stories. Prothom Alo is the country’s biggest Bangla newspaper and has been respected for its comment and attempt to remain free in the tightening environment. It therefore seems incredible that protests, rather than complaining against the media crackdown and the decline of free speech and analysis, are actually calling for this to be accelerated!

It is of course true that Islam in sensitive to blasphemy, and free speech is not an excuse to cause deliberate, provocative offence, but in this case the cartoonist simply made a mistake, as many young journalists do. His joke was ill-judged. Yet he now faces two years in prison, and his newspaper is under threat from a powerful minority of professional offendees who manage to take offence at anything and everything.

Bangladesh at this time desperately needs a powerful and free press if the unelected, military backed government is to be kept in check in any way, and such protests are not helpful. Nor is it helpful or right to destroy a young man’s career and work without recourse. As always in Bangladesh, the marginalised and unpowerful can never make mistakes, whilst the rich and influential build careers out of doing so.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Bangladesh...Living on the Edge

I just read a small article from the World Bank which notes that Bangladesh is the most dangerous place in the world to live, in terms of natural disasters. On average, there are 6.14 natural disasters per year in Bangladesh, with Afghanistan a poor second with only 1.34 (though I am sure the Taliban and Nato can make life a little more exciting there if anyone is feeling a little humdrum). This is a little astounding, and more than a little worrying for those in the disaster basin that is the 'desh.
The range of disasters that Bangladesh can and does face are very numerous. Only last week was I awoken in the early hours to be informed of a Tsunami warning, though it proved to be a false alarm. Quick onset disasters are pretty regular - tsunamis are accompanied by earthquakes, landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, tornadoes and coastal flooding. This year, we have had a landslide in Chittagong which killed around 150 people, two cyclones that made landfall, a tornado in the south-west and many small earthquakes. In general, Bangladesh has not the resources to cope with these problems and as such many more people die than would in other places.
Slow-onset events compliment the quick disasters. River flooding is the main one, with this year's floods reaching the highest levels in 30 years and displacing millions. Round two of this episode kicked in late last week. Famine is also a regular event, as are droughts and insect infestations, all leading to crop losses and deaths.
Combined, these events do much to undermine Bangladesh's efforts to bring sustainable and long-lasting development, and this before the social issues of rising population, increased social tension and extreme poverty are added into the mix. All in all, it is easy to see why Bangladesh faces such challenges.
However, it also makes even more ridiculous the idea that is being floated around Bangladeshi policy circles at the moment, that what the country really needs is a nuclear power station! I would rather that Iran had nuclear power than Bangladesh - it would be in safer hands. In light of the 6.14 natural disasters a year (6 times the next highest!), is it really safe to build such things here?
Another article (on water policy and development in Bangladesh) can be read here

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ramadan Is On The Way

Ramadan – Islam’s holiest month – is upon us once again, and like most of the Islamic world, Bangladesh’s 120 million or so Muslims are preparing to fast for the next four weeks. Ramadan sees a partial shut down of the country that makes the Christmas period at home seem like a Victorian workhouse. All the small shops close during the day, covering their entrances with cloth so as not to advertise that there is any food on sale. The shacks and tea houses that hug little street corners and are like miniature food factories stop their industrious production of samosas, shingaras, dhal puri and paratha and instead stand empty until around 3 pm when the production of Iftar food begins in earnest, ready for the fasters to descend at sunset as ravenous vultures do to a fresh corpse.

Ramadan is noticeable on the streets as well. Rickshaw pullers are prolific smokers, and can be found hanging around their rickshaws puffing away all day, but during Ramadan they are forced to twiddle their thumbs as they wait for passengers. Beggars flood into the city as most of the alms giving that is a requirement of Islam is done during this period. The VSO office is opposite a mosque, and getting in can be a bit a gauntlet of the lame, blind and homeless as these unfortunate people line the walls of the mosque entrance.

In the office, most of the staff will be fasting, and as a consequence work will probably end at three or three-thirty each day, as after this they have very little energy left to do anything. As I have only two weeks now to finish off the final bits of my placement work, it is slightly less than helpful! I have investigated the possibility of also holding the fast, but this gets mixed reactions. Some people are quite adamant that non-Muslims should not do it as it is associated with a certain sincerity and belief, which a non-believer would insult by participating. Whilst I think this is somewhat an overreaction (I know many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas), I can sympathise with the idea that the fast is part of a lifetime commitment. It is also part of the Muslim experience, whilst not necessary being part of the Bengali experience and hence is less necessary to understanding Bengal, Bangladesh and their complex history. I also get very hungry around one o’clock and don’t think I could make it through until five thirty without something – I’m still drinking three or four litres of water a day because of the heat, and couldn’t manage without that. I’m planning to through my hat in with the pregnant women.

You can see my latest article for New Age here

Friday, September 07, 2007

Goats and Gatemen

I’ve been away in Tibet for a few weeks, so hence this update is a little late. As before, this blog is about Bangladesh and so there is no space for recounting tales of the Himalayas, save on snippet that reveals the good nature of Bangladeshis and is a further lesson to how to have a genuinely inclusive society. Tibet is famed for its monasteries, but Tibetan Buddhism has its routes in India. One particularly notable pioneer in the second wave of Buddhist defusion was a Bengali scholar called Atisha, who amongst other things set up some monasteries and lived in a cave, as all good religious people of that era would do. He was originally from what is now part of Bangladesh.

Tibet, as you will know, has since been brutally inserted into the modern world through the Chinese occupation, and during the cultural revolution many thousands of monasteries were destroyed by the Red Guards. It is to Bangladesh’s eternal credit that it made a direct appeal to the Chinese government to ask for a monastery west of Lhasa set up by Atisha some 900 years ago to be spared the assault. This was around 1972/1973, when Bangladesh had just emerged from its war of Liberation and was coming to terms with the aftermath of the Pakistani genocide (at least 1 million people died, some say 3 million), devastating 1971 flooding, and the problems of establishing the rule of law in a new country wrecked by a year of conflict. However, amidst widespread hardship and suffering in a country where the form of Buddhism is of a different school and practiced by less than one per cent of the population, Bangladesh made efforts to protect a small part of Tibet’s cultural heritage. It is important that Bangladesh’s empathy is noted, especially in world we live today.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh today has many of the problems that other countries face and the rioting and curfew events of August 20th – 22nd was a rather different story, with a crackdown by the police on protesters, increased reports of police brutality towards those in custody and the arrest of former prime minister Khaleda Zia and her two sons. Bangladesh is entering a nervous period as it is uncertain where it will all finish – a full, overt military coup, or a renewed and deep democracy minus Hasina and Zia? Whatever road is finally taken, it seems unlikely that this cannot be traversed without bloodshed, as the prospective election is some way off and tensions are mounting.

Back in the more secluded world of my flat and its environs, I am having my sleep disturbed by a goat. Most housing blocks in Dhaka have a caretaker of sorts, whose job is to open up the doors, collect rubbish and other menial jobs. Usually they live in the garage on the ground floor, not a particularly pleasant place to have a bed and mosquito net, but that is the way it is – life is cheap, and many people will do this job for worse conditions.

However, despite living in the garage, my sympathy for Ali, our caretaker is rather limited. Not only does he seem incapable of completing any simple task without asking for a little baksheesh (he has at times asked me for baksheesh for work he has done for someone else!), he has now decided to by a goat that lives with him in one side of the garage. The goat is either quite young or quite astute, as its constant bleating is that of a creature missing its mother or knowing it is for the chop, but it is certainly incredibly annoying. It only whinges at night, and then deposits droppings around the garage and up the stairs to our flat, as well as generally making the place look miserable with its forlorn ‘soon to be slaughtered’ look – I’d rather it just got on with it and accepted its fate. Instead, it has made its bed directly beneath my window, which needs to be open to prevent the spontaneous combustion of me and the room in the early September heat. I have noticed with satisfaction its growing waistline, and am looking forward to its date with the halal butcher. The goat is less anxious for that day to arrive.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Call for Aid - The Bangladeshi Flood Situation Worsens

The situation for flood-affected people in Bangladesh continues to deteriorate even as flood waters receded. Up to 10 million people have been displaced across Bangladesh by the flood waters, and are living on embankments and roadsides in temporary, flimsy shelters. The floods have covered over half the country and in some places are the worst seen in sixty years. Many have died, and diarrhoea, dysentery and other water borne diseases are beginning to spread. In many areas, access is only possible by boat.

The long-term effects of this flooding are only just beginning to materialise. Not only have people seen all their possessions washed away by the floodwaters, but they know that under these new brown seas lie the remnants of this year’s rice crop. North Bengal, the area most badly affected (taking in the districts of Sirajangj, Kurigram, Rangpur and Gaibunda) is also the poorest part of Bangladesh. The only economic activity here is agriculture. Most of the land is owned by a handful of zaimanders, who employ the rest of the population as day labourers in the paddy fields. They can plant three crops a year in most parts of the north. The second was due for harvest around now. That has been ruined by the flood.

In normal years, the fields are harvested and then prepared for the next planting in late August and September. After transplanting the Aman rice crop in late September, the agricultural labourers face unemployment for up to two months as they wait for the crop to ripen and harvesting to begin in December. This has lead to the annual occurrence of Monga – a local, near famine condition – every year for centuries. Labourers have had to sell household possessions or their labour in advance at discounted rates to survive, whilst some move to Dhaka to ride rickshaws and others take small loans at extortionate rates. Many starve and malnutrition, particularly amongst the young and women is very high.

This is what happens in a normal year: indeed, this is something that local people try to plan for and which the World Food Programme and others have activities for to try to mitigate its effects. Yet this year, there will not be any field preparation and planting, meaning people will miss two further employment opportunities; this, and the subsequent harvest. This all adds up to an extremely desperate situation that people are facing in the long term, let alone the daily struggle to keep healthy, clean and safe in 4 or 5 feet of dirty, polluted flood water.

The scale of the emergency seems to have been downplayed by the government, and has not received the sort of coverage in the Western press that such an event deserves. This is mainly due to the slow-onset nature of flood disasters, with their protracted development that is less dramatic than the immediacy of earthquakes and tsunamis, which make much better infotainment. But whilst relatively few have died in the flooding, the after effects look set to be dramatic and disheartening.

INGOs and donors are working through local partners to distribute relief aid, but access is difficult and distribution slow. Clean water and shelter are the main requirements at the moment, as many tube wells have become contaminated by the flooding. Capitalism is making its effect known too: the price of water purifiers has doubled in Bangladesh, making them out of the reach (physically as well as economically) of those that really need them.

There is a desperate need for aid, and as a major INGO making a development contribution, VSO Bangladesh feels compelled to make a contribution. The north of Bangladesh is one of VSO’s strategic working areas and some volunteers living there have been flooded out of their homes, and witnessed some very distressing scenes VSO is not a relief organisation and would not pretend to be, but we do have the benefit of many volunteers with their own networks. Therefore, we are asking you, if you can, to donate a small amount to the VSO Bangladesh flood relief fund. All the money will be given to the Chief Advisor’s Special Relief Fund, which is where DFID and other organisations are channelling their relief support.

VSOB is only asking for donations for this one week, so that we can release the money quickly. If you feel inclined, please click on the link here, where you can donate through Paypal via our IT volunteer Mikey Leung’s account.

I have had limited water supply, infrequent power, knee deep filthy flooding and overflowing sewers where I live, so I can vouch for how the television screens do not capture the stench of the water, or the feel of sewage washing through your toes, or the bites of insects in the water on your calf. Yet I have not had my shack and all my possessions washed away, nor can I not access medical treatment, and I can buy a flight home if it gets too bad. The people of North Bengal are in dire need and face a very miserable and hard time over the next few months. If you can help in a small way, VSO Bangladesh, its staff and volunteers, will be very grateful. The money will be spent by Bangladeshis with the skills and experience in disaster relief, and will be put to good use, and not spent on campaign costs or publications.

Please click here to make a contribution.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Proposal to Alleviate Poverty in Bangladesh

This has been cross posted at Dristipat, a Bangladeshi human rights blog and forum. The full proposal can be downloaded here. Also see Progressive Bangladesh for two articles on the issue.
The challenge was to propose an idea which would have the greatest impact on poverty alleviation in Bangladesh. After nine months of living and working in the country as volunteers, my colleague Tim Sowula and I realised that the answer was all around us. There are many marginalised groups in Bangladesh; indigenous people, farmers afflicted by the Monga famines, HIV sufferers – but they compromise a tiny minority in a country of over 145 million. When the purpose of intervention is to reach as many people as possible at the lowest end of the social scale, the stand-out constituency is the rickshaw pullers. Rickshaw pullers are the essential cogs in Bangladesh’s machine. And they deserve better.

Therefore, through the nationalisation and rationalisation of non motorised urban transport, we propose to incorporate the two million rickshaw pullers in Bangladesh into the formal economy as public workers within a sustainable, pollution-free, low cost urban transport network. If the rickshaw industry were nationalised, passengers would not simply be paying someone to cycle them around, they would be contributing to Bangladesh’s biggest public service, a bigger transportation economy than Biman and the Railways combined. By formalising this enormous economy – 6% of Bangladesh’s GDP – we believe it would be possible to bring economic and social uplift to rickshaw pullers, bring better public transport to Bangladesh’s cities, and reach nearly 15% of the total population. Our proposal is sweeping in its scope but efficient in its implementation. It is a feasible and equitable way of bringing positive change to some of Bangladesh’s most marginalised communities

If an intervention wishes to make as large a social impact as possible then taking account the combination of the community size, and its economic and social contribution and position, targeting the conditions of rickshaw pullers has to be a priority. As bideshis, it seems to us that considering their importance to Bangladesh’s economic, social and cultural life and how hard they toil towards this, the scarcity of reward enjoyed by rickshaw pullers, their lack of rights and lowly status is astonishing. Our proposal would aim to raise their social status, increase their income and ensuring that this is secure, and rationalise the transport of Bangladesh so that it can be more efficient and effective, which is essential for any country’s wider development.
Crucially, the behaviour of users will have to change very little, and the economic cost to them of the change will be zero. Service users would simply find that what was once a private service is now a public one, and they would need to purchase tokens from local retailers, a viable and already tested system for other services. At the same time, every single person who uses a rickshaw in Bangladesh – almost the entire population will become a stakeholder; will directly contribute to the alleviation of poverty, disadvantage and inequity amongst the people of Bangladesh. The beauty of our proposal lies in its simplicity, and economic sustainability. After living and working here it is obvious that Bangladesh, despite the challenges it faces, has some of the hardest working, most patriotic and determined people in the world. It also has wealth, a fluid cash economy – but like most countries, too much cash ends up concentrated in tiny minority. We have tried, therefore, to devise a scheme that can harness that passion, commitment, and surplus capital with the minimum disruption to the cultural fabric of the nation. Nationwide approximately $4.1 million flows in to the rickshaw economy every day. $2.9m remains the property of the rickshaw pullers. The excess $1.2m is therefore money that, were the rickshaw sector nationalised, could flow back every day in to the Bangladeshi state - $529m per year. Given that the Bangladeshi national budget for 2007-2008 totalled $12.63 billion, with $3.83b allocated under the Annual Development Plan (ADP), our project would effectively introduce an increase of 14% to the ADP. And the cost of implementing our proposal? We estimate this to be around $160m, which set against guaranteed annual revenue of over $500m, is certainly justifiable.

This proposal’s five main objectives are designed to have as wide an impact as is possible without causing disruption to this vital transport network. It will bring economic security to the rickshaw puller with the creation of a regular income stream; it will facilitate the raising of rickshaw pullers’ social status by making them formal public workers with rights and responsibilities; it will generate substantial, sustainable capital for investment into upgrading rickshaw garage infrastructure, bringing health and other social benefits to rickshaw pullers; it will incorporate rickshaw pullers into society by making their garages centres of development activity and education; and it will improve the standard of public transport in Bangladesh’s urban centres.

Whilst an intervention of this scale would require careful management and meticulous organisation, we believe that it is far from utopian, or unrealistic given the challenges faced by the government of Bangladesh. On the contrary, an intervention on this scale could only be managed by an authority with the scope and power of the State, and the political incentives to the government for pursuing an eminently realisable goal are obvious. The legitimacy of any government, especially in a democratic system rests on how it manages the welfare of the people under its charge. We believe that our proposal clearly would make a huge positive contribution to the welfare of nearly 15% of Bangladeshis, specifically those who need it most, and the benefits of adopting our proposal outweigh any potential difficulties.

Our proposal aims to not just improve the educational standard and the physical well-being of the rickshaw puller and their families and dependents, but also socially and psychologically empower the rickshaw puller. They would be freed from their dependency on their mechanical master, the rickshaw, currently their only source of survival and also what entrenches their social immobility. Instead they would be lifted to the level of full Bangladeshi citizens, enjoying rights and benefits, providing a service and carrying responsibilities, paying taxes, and aiding the collection of a vast previously untapped revenue for their nation and its people. By empowering the rickshaw puller and also providing them with material and educational assistance, you are providing them with the opportunity to not only take pride in their work and their status, but also to change it.
Tim Sowula and Tom Wipperman

Friday, August 03, 2007

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

It has been observed for a long time that the beautification of cities has been a project driven by the rich against the poor. Engels makes a great deal of reference to it in The Condition of the Working Classes, showing how the bourgeois of Manchester were keen to remove the repellent and filthy working classes from their sight so that that could walk in cleaner, greener cities for themselves. The enclosure of squares and greens in 19th century London to be turned into gentrified parks for promenading by wealthy Londoners, free from the inconvenience of the poor. Whilst in early modern times this was driven by public bodies influenced by the wealthy, but it seems that in the early 21st century age of hyperinternationalisation and increasing disparities between rich and poor, it is the corporation that is taking the lead in what Engels called ‘Haussmann policy’: the rhetorical construction of the poor as agents of environmental degradation and decay, and their subsequent physical removal to ‘beautify’ the city for those sophisticated enough to enjoy it.

Before (left) people lived on this marginal land. It is not clear where they have been moved to (Right).

On Banani lake, a small stretch of stagnant water sandwiched between the wealthy suburbs of Gulshan and Banani, it is Warid Telecom that is taking this lead. Warid are a new arrival in the Bangladeshi telecoms market, having launched to much fanfare in April. They are a Dubai based company and have aggressively attacked competitors Grameenphone and Banglalink.

Warid's new building

It is also apparent, however, that they are also attacking the poor of Banani who until very recently lived in squats along the edge of the lake. Warid has decided to do its bit – in the name of corporate social responsibility – and fund a beautification project for the lake. It has a new glass office standing on one bank, surrounded by nice shrubs and rock features, but clearly executives were appalled that their view was over a small family of informal dwellers huddled beneath an advertising hoarding.

The improvement scheme

Their solution has been to remove all those families living around the lake and replace them with much nicer herringbone walkways and flowerbeds, proclaiming the wonderful success of this urban ‘improvement’ terrorism on big billboards. Clearly the people whose entire lives were based on the small stretch of marginal land that they crammed into were not consulted, as they were hardly likely to suggest knocking down their shacks as a positive contribution to Dhaka.

So the story of urban environment improvement that has existed for some 200 years continues: the poor are blamed, removed and abandoned so that the empowered and enfranchised can enjoy the city that they see, forgetting about the increasing squalor and depravation that such actions bring about in the ‘insalubrious’ parts of the city. Warid, of course, seem to have no problem with this act of violence on the poor, just so long as they have something nice to look at in between selling sim cards to those very people that they have abanThe new improved lakeside
Of course, it could be worse: on the other side of the bridge, the RAB (notorious for their 3-a-day extrajudicial killings in the huge amount of ‘crossfire’ that characterises their engagements with the enemy) have their Gulshan check point. This consists of a bus shelter style construction in which lounge a number of this all in black, bandanna wearing paramilitaries. Apart from the RAB’s logo, proudly in the middle of the shelter, the rest of the shelter is covered in a huge advert for Nokia. Their slogan – ‘connecting people’ – is plastered across this building. A bad choice of sponsor, surely, for the RAB’s speciality is connecting people between this world and the next, or between a body and a bullet.

Perhaps this callousness is unique to the telecommunications industry, or perhaps its because whilst Nokia would not sponsor the National Guard in the US, or the Counter-Terrorist branch of the Met, it is much easier to be irresponsible in Bangladesh. After all, no one is watching, and no one need find out what you are up to. And seeing as the RAB stop everyone crossing that bridge to check them out, most will see the advert. When they have consumed that message, then they can admire the beautiful lake around them which Warid have created.

Bangladesh's independence

Hardeep Singh Kholi's programmes on sixty years of Indian and Pakistani independence has covered Bangladesh this week


look at the episode 'crossing the border' - August 1st 2007

Its a good summary of the liberation war and an introduction to the nature of Bangladesh and its fierce nationalism.

Have a listen...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Witchdoctors and Windscreen Wipers

TIB…This is Bangladesh...and its been ten months so therefore many things are no longer a surprise. However, the recent goings on at Georgia’s organisation have reconfirmed my faith the Bangladeshi capacity to be astounding. You may remember that I spent a couple of weeks there in May working on their research strategy and training staff in participatory techniques. The organisation is mainly staffed by and works with indigenous communities in the hill tracts, and has some serious backing from major institutional donors.

However it also, it seems, harbours a thief, for someone has purloined a laptop from the organisation. Apparently it is known for the police (who are Bengali and skeptical of the indigenous organisations) to pay members of staff to steal computers, and it is this that has been suspected here. The NGO is now undergoing an investigation.

The investigation so far has not yielded anything useful, and they are considering turning the matter over to a higher authority to find out the culprit. This is not the police, however, as one might expect, but instead a fortune teller. She ha put a curse on the office which gives all employees 72 hours to own up to the wicked deed, or she will reveal who did it in a humiliating or frightening way. The deadline is up today, so I am expecting show trials and burnings at the stake before long.

Back in Dhaka, the rain is posing problems for the taxi drivers. These cars rarely work in the best of times, being a mismash of other cars, buses and spray paint as they desperately try to get them to run without spending any money. Hence, the driver that took me up to Gulshan on Thursday evening had not invested in repairing his windscreen wipers. Clearly he felt he didn’t need them, despite monsoon rains lashing the windows and making it impossible to see anything.

Luckily, he had developed an ingenious solution – he had attached a small wire to the right hand wiper which was hanging down against the side of the car. As we drove along he had his arm out the window pulling the wire and thereby replicating a rudimentary windscreen wiper, allowing him a small patch to see out of which enabled him to continue to drive like a lunatic, the common state in Dhaka come wind or shine.

On the way back, our CNG was a large Indian one, the biggest I have seen in Bangladesh. Yet it was driven by a midget, the smallest CNG driver I have seen here. Though it might come out of a Dali painting, it doesn’t look out of place here.

TIB after all

Sunday, July 22, 2007


The latest round of flooding has hit us, and once more it was deep. I went out to take some photos and it was up to my knees, but I managed to get a few shots in between dodging floating chicken heads and bits of paper. We had to a take a rickshaw through to get back to the flat, a precarious ride as the drivers do not really adjust their driving approach despite not knowing what is under the water.

The scene above looks out from our entrance road across the green in January this year, when cricket was played in the evenings. Yesterday, the same scene was flooded, with boats crossing it, as can be seen below.

Some people seem to just take time out during the floods, as these guys did sitting and smoking in the middle of the temporary lake.

It had all gone by this morning, but more rain is on the way, so more wading through sewage to come.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Here comes the bride...eventually

Its wedding time again. There is almost always a wedding to go to in Bangladesh because everyone who attends is expected to invite people along, and they in turn invite further guests, creating extravagant 2000 person marathon eating sessions loosely related to the couple sitting in the corner looking glum. Glumness is in vogue in Bangladesh when one is getting married: it is very bad form to look like you might be enjoying yourself. That is reserved for the guests.

Last week I was out in Bogra, ‘a growing industrial town’ for the VSO conference which I had a hand in organising (see upcoming post) and hence this has been a little quiet for a while. Before that, I attended the wedding reception of the accounts coordinator here at Neeti Gobeshona Kendro.

I had actually been invited to the wedding proper (Sayeembhai is Muslim) but because that invite was delivered some 15 minutes before the start, it made my attendance a little challenging. The next day was the reception, and it was very similar to the Hindu wedding I went to earlier, hinting at a Bengali tradition spanning the two religions. We all turned up and sat around large tables, and waited for the bride to arrive. No sooner had she sat on the raised platform in the corner than the goat biryani arrived. All chatter stopped as the assorted guests raced to stuff as much rice down themselves as possible, stopping on to guzzle water. Bits of goat, bone, rice, cardamoms and cucumber littered the tables and the floor, as well as a fair few shirts, and then after pudding (sweet rice) everyone left. A few offered a swift hello to the married couple but ceremony was in short shrift.

I took a few photos and tried to hang around a little bit but my colleagues wanted to go and I was soon dragged out with a handful of pan to chew on the way back to Lalmatia.

Whilst it is still a struggle not to feel incredibly rude following this practice, the run up to the wedding is truly bizarre. Things are changing and the young middle class are marrying the people of their choice more and more, giving a signal to their parents to arrange it as such and therefore keep everyone happy. For those still arranging marriages, it is quite a process.

Another of my colleges, Swaponbhai (Livelihoods Programme Coordinator) announced today that proceedings for his wedding have just begun. It makes Posh and Becks looked restrained. Firstly, he has had to produce a marriage CV, containing biographical details (with a particular emphasis on education) for not only himself but his parents and as many male ancestors as he has the knowledge. This is over twenty pages long, has financial statements, landholdings, a description of his village and his own requirements for a wife.

These are actually rather unimposing given the hefty tone that the lucky woman will have to read on him. She must be over thirty, not from his village and have her own job. This then kick starts the next stage of the process, which involves a female family relative going in search of such a woman, and making contact with their family. Everyone then gets a say, making suggestions, assertions and all sorts of politically minded deals to work out how much the groom is worth, what his payment to the wife should be (as is required under Qu’ranic law) where they will live, respective social status and so on. This, remember, is before they even meet.

Luckily, Swaponbhai has this one sorted. When I asked if he would wear a tie, he replied no, but has promised to iron his trousers and shirt, and have a shave if he hasn’t had one in three days, a magnanimous gesture if ever there was one! She will be overwhelmed with such efforts typical of the Bangladeshi male.

This process has just started and so the wedding will take place (assuming that all the following manages to work itself out) in September or October, where there will once again be a chance to eat endless biryani and sweet rice. This is probably better though, as Swaponbhai himself says:

‘A bachelor lives like a King...but he dies like a dog’.

In Bangladesh, few live like kings, but the latter is certainly true for many, and so the investment in getting the right choice becomes a real matter of survival. Perhaps the effort is worth it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cambodia versus Bangladesh

I have just returned from two weeks on holiday in Cambodia, and whilst I could regal with tales of that small country caught between Thailand and Vietnam, but as this is a Bangladesh journal, it maybe more interesting to look at how the two compare. I did find myself looking at the development projects and policies, to see what Cambodian were doing differently. And some of it is almost amusing: in Siem Reap, the town from which one can see the temples of Angkor, JICA (the Japanese DFID) had installed rubbish bins along the river, resplendent with the JICA logo and the claim of technical assistance from the Japanese people – quite why Cambodians needed Japanese assistance to come up with the idea of rubbish bins is not explained, and it certainly cannot be priority for Cambodia, which ‘boasts’ the largest per capita amputee population in the world due to its millions of landmines.

But what is interesting is how much better Cambodia is than Bangladesh. Its major cities are smart, French like centres with proper paving, flowers, ornamental lighting, clean rivers, and subterranean drainage. There is poverty, but the rural houses are larger, the cattle look healthier, children manage to go to school much more often and gender equality and equity is in a better state. However, what is most striking is that whilst Bangladesh seems to be stagnating, and has ever since its conception, Cambodia really has a future. Possessing possibly the greatest temple complex that humankind has ever created is of enormous benefit and is a major global tourist attraction, but in addition the country has invested in upgrading its roads and cities, has discovered a major oil field of its coast and has a relaxed and welcoming attitude towards difference.

Tourism is a major part of the Cambodian economy, and it already received 1 million visitors a year, only 9 years after the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated and stability returned to the country. Given that Egypt received 8 million tourists a year and that Angkor is on a par with the pyramids of Giza, Cambodian tourism is surely going to rocket in the future. It is true that much of this business is foreigned owned – in Siem Reap it is big foreign hotel chains like Sofitel and Meridian, and bars and clubs owned by expats from Europe and Australia litter the major towns, but these are bringing jobs and development with them, as they require good quality electricity and water supplies, and many, many staff. Around the temples, the kids that sell books and postcards attend school in the morning and language classes in the evenings – many that I talked to already spoke English and German or Italian as well as their native Khmer, at only 7 or 8 years of age, and all wanted to be tour guides in the future. With visitor numbers increasing and groups from China, Korea, the US, Spain, and the Middle East, all of these children seem to have real opportunities: tour guides are well paid and their skills are sought after.

With this education – it can be hoped – comes further development as educated people are better placed to demand their rights and force their governments to be accountable. Corruption is a problem in Cambodia but it is being tackled heavily by the development partners, and with DFID and USAID putting lots into HIV/AIDS, this issue seems to be, at the surface, under control. Cambodia is full of adverts for HIV testing centres, billboards advertising condoms and giving information of HIV/AIDS, all of which are unthinkable in Bangladesh, which is still in denial about the realities of the disease within its borders.

Cambodia felt lighter, more optimistic, more hopeful. It certainly helps to have Angkor as a golden ticket to foreign income, but there is a more diversified economy than just tourism, and more people seemed to be getting a slice of the cake. Bangladesh, on the other hand, looks like it has nowhere to go. Its only real resource is its cheap labour (4-5 times cheaper than Cambodia), and manufactures only tolerate the traffic congestion, lack of infrastructure and poor export facilities because labour costs are so low. But, with tarrifs on textiles about to come down in the US, and Africa being opened up to investment (where labour is even more cheap and new infrastructure can be purpose built), it seems that rather than lift off, Bangladesh is about to face decline. There is no tourist industry, there is visible, widespread poverty (there are more Dhakaians than Cambodians), the cities are shabby and dilapidated, and the urban middle and upper classes engage with the public realm only when they can extract something from it. Cambodia and Cambodians are being exploited by textile manufactures, tourist industries, oil companies, development agencies, human traffickers, logging companies and many others. But Bangladesh is not: in a globalised world it remains the case that the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist, is not being exploited by a capitalist. This seems to be Bangladesh’s fate.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Driving with Dignity Launch Night

After six months of planning, proposals, field work, preparation, negotiation and cajoling, yesterday our rickshaw puller photographic exhibition was launched at the Russian Cultural Centre in Dhaka, and was opened by the Dutch and Norwegian Ambassadors. I am writing this entry from the gallery, sitting at a desk in an empty white room surrounded by 30 of my photographs hanging on the walls plus some of the rickshaw pullers own photographs, and the ten stories that they told us. It is very strange to have my photos on display for the Dhaka public to judge and debate, but so far today (and the day is nearly over) only four people have visited, so we are not at risk of being engulfed.

Yesterday was a long day, trying to ensure that everyone could attend, and would do on time. Bangladeshi time is about half an hour (or more) behind our time, and so whilst the two European Ambassadors arrived on time, the Bangladeshis were very late.

Then we had the ‘who are these people farce’. We had met the Norwegian Ambassador and so we were able to say hello, but we had not met the Dutch Ambassador before. He introduced himself to me and we talked a bit, but my ED and Chairman somehow convinced themselves that this was the Norwegian Ambassador’s husband (or someone else entirely), and so when we were sitting in the anteroom waiting to start, they asked me aloud when the Dutch Ambassador would arrive, despite sitting right next to him. Luckily, it seems that being an ambassador in Bangladesh prepares you for such incidents.

Our launch was attended by five of the rickshaw pullers that we had worked with, plus a load of VSO volunteers and some people from NGOs and multilaterals – Wateraid, Concern, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the British High Commission. It ensured that there was a good audience for our guests, and that we had avoided the risk of the ambassadors addressing an empty room full of pictures.

We had speeches from the editors of two national dailies, and also from my Executive Director and Kamal, a rickshaw puller from Mohammadpur who we had worked with. Kamal was incredibly impressive, given that he has never attended school and cannot read or write at all. We briefed him and gave him the microphone and he was able to talk and talk about the problems he faces. Although the long term impact is pretty minimal, at least for those few minutes he was an equal, with ambassadors, expats, development workers and government officials listening to him and being interested in what he had to say.

It was also very moving to take the pullers into the exhibition hall for a private viewing before we opened it up. I think that when, in February and March, we first met them and said what we hoped to do, they were not really certain and bit wary of us. They did not believe we would pay them 200 Taka (which we did) and they did not believe that they would get a camera to take photographs with (which they did), but to see their pictures handing in a gallery, and their stories on the wall was quite startling for them. Most had never been in a gallery before, as normally they are denied access because of their profession and their class. Rickshaw pullers normally drive wearing lungis, but they turned up wearing trousers and their smartest shirts- they seemed very proud to be part of the project.

Unfortunately, Anisur, the 12 year old who we worked with, was very ill. He really looked very drawn and was showing the effects of nearly a year of rickshaw pulling. The event really revealed the lack of knowledge that such people have: I put a little extra Taka in Anisur’s pay envelope and told him that he should buy an icecream to make him feel better; some of the other pullers then began to ask me how they could treat hepatitis, jaundice and HIV. The lack of education is very difficult to comprehend when even the most ill educated in the West know so much: it was incredibly sad that what I hoped would be a small treat for someone who cannot afford them was actually interpreted as a genuine medical treatment.

Overall my organisation should be very pleased with the outcome. We looked very professional, and lots of people came along. The television stations were there as were the newspapers. My article was published on the day in New Age (click here and scroll down to see it) and this attracted some people. I made the staff give out brochures and their business cards and to talk to people so that they could start to build up a relationship with different organisations.

The aim of the project – to establish my NGO as the leading authority of rickshaw pullers in the country, and to advocate for a respect agenda for rickshaw pullers – was in some way fulfilled. Our media coverage and contacts have ensured that some people are talking about it. The challenge now is to build on the momentum and really drive the organisation forward. I think there are about six weeks in which to do this, and afterwards this opportunity will be lost. So I am hoping that my NGO will start to take some initiative.

The rickshaw pullers, I hope, have valued being part of something and finding someone to pay attention to them. This time round they were laughing, joking and trusting, and there is a strong rapport there that can be built upon for future work. The biggest problem with development work, in my opinion, is when the poor and the marginalised are invited into a new world for a brief moment, then dropped back into their old one and forgotten. I hope that we can sustain the involvement of the pullers that we worked with, as they have powerful stories and are fascinating people.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Up in the Hills

I have very recently returned from spending ten days working in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts area of Bangladesh. This comprises three small districts squashed between India, Myanmar and the plains of the Ganges-Brahmaputra deltas, and is incredibly different to the rest of Bangladesh.

The hill tracts are so named because they contain the most unusual of geographical features in Bangladesh – hills. These are not very impressive hills, being a sort of afterthought to the formation of the Himalayas when India crashed into Asia millions of years ago. Compared to the unending flatness of Bangladesh (a flatness that is almost unbelievable), however, these are starkly different.

The other noticeable difference comes with the people. Some of Bangladesh’s 50 or so indigenous ethnic groups live in the hill tracts areas, a result of centuries of struggle across the Bengal plain. Mostly these people are Buddhist, though some are Christian and there is also animism in remoter areas. They are also not Bengali, and instead are of Tibeto-Burmese or Mongolian origin, looking much more like Burmese and Thai people than the smaller, darker Bengalis. This contrast is really very fascinating, especially as the indigenous people are rarely seen in Dhaka. The groups, mainly Tripura, Chakma and Marma, but including Monipuri (in Sylhet) and Karsi (in North Bengal) also speak languages related to south-east asian or Tibetan dialects, and have their own scripts (though some are romanised as there was no written tradition).

The obvious question would be, why are they here? Bengal has long been a place to fight over, and the successive waves of immigration and invasion of the subcontinent has seen many dynasties fall and rise and fall again. Before the Muslims arrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, this part of India was Buddhist and then Hindu. As each new group came in, took over and began converting, so the tribal peoples moved further east. Eventually, the last of the Chakma moved into the hills in around 1768 after losing a fight with Muslim-Bengali armies. They have remained there ever since, the remnants of a once powerful and dominating culture.

Under the British, the hill tracts had a special status and only the indigenous people were allowed to own land, but when Pakistan took over, all this changed and Bengalis began to move into Khagachuri, Rangamati and Bandaban to settle. The result has been a few decades of strife, freedom fighting/terrorism and general misery for the indigenous people, from not being taught in their own languages at school, to seeing hunting and farming land submerged by the new Kaptai artificial lake in the 1960s. The long standing dispute was finally ended in 1997 with an ‘internationally acclaimed accord’ but implementation of that has been very slow indeed.

The oppression still goes on. Last year, in a major land grab, thousands of poor Bengalis were allowed to come off the plains and take land in the hill tracts, with out compensation to the indigenous people. The wounds of the conflict are still very much open, and the army and police presence is omnipresent. For foreigners, there are huge restrictions as to where you can go, and the general feeling is of a place under occupation.

However, the tribal people that I spoke to certainly do not feel occupied. They are definitely, passionately even, Bangladeshi, and see themselves as Tripura or Marma within a wider cosmopolitan Bangladesh. They are certainly culturally very different. The women were wrap around tube skirts, and colourful scarfs, and the food is much more Thai like – very spicy, creamy, lots of bamboo. They drink (a lot): mainly rice wine, the local potcheen, but also rice beer. The women smoke openly on the streets, and in general people are more relaxed. They do not keep asking you where you are from, what is your country, why are you here, what is your name or any other of the millions of questions Bengalis all ask bedeshis. Up in the hills – a little cooler, and a little remote – a very different culture is going on, and one which is much more similar to something that bedeshis come from. It is no wonder that the VSO volunteers here do not like leaving.

I was working in Khagachuri (mainly Tripura and Chakma), the most remote of the three districts at Zabarang, Georgia’s NGO. I gave training on participatory research skills, report writing, proposal writing and monitoring and evaluating research. It in general seemed to go down very well, and made sure that my short intervention (as VSO likes to call these things) got a good balance of work and play.

Some things were different. I had frog curry (or ‘Mr Frog’, as the office staff called our dinner guest), which was a bit of a non-event, given that it was small and quite tasteless. Seeing them for sale in the market was something else though. We also had pork curries, a real change, and I managed to avoid the napi, a disgusting dried fish. There was also rice wine, and copious litchis.

Walking out into the villages at the weekends was really lovely, the setting so very different from what the rest of Bangladesh has to offer, and so relaxing. I was able to clear out 8 months of Dhaka pollution from my lungs (it has since returned) and see deep green fields, towering clouds, rising hills. And of course, lots of army.

At the second weekend, Georgia and I made a trip over to Rangamati, the largest of the three hill tracts towns, where we were able to enjoy a boat ride along the lake, an indigenous meal at the house of one of her colleagues, and a few walks through this lakeside town. The first day was a bit of a washout and was enough to make us both sick of Bangladesh however. It all started at the gate.

Before you can enter the hill tracts you need written permission from the district commissioner who will then send you a fax to present at the gate. You could feel the other passengers on our bus grown when we got on, knowing it would mean waiting at checkpoints as the police confirmed our access. Arriving at the Rangamati district checkpoint, Georgia and I got off the bus and traipsed over to a little hut in which a big man was sitting. This guy was incapable of doing anything without shouting, so we got the ‘WHERE ARE YOU FROM?’, ‘WHY YOU COME TO BANGLADESH?’, ‘WHAT IS YOUR COUNTRY?’ spiel much, much louder than normal. A farce quickly developed, as it turned out that the guy at Georgia’s office who had arranged our permission had given us not the fax, but a copy of the original letter he had sent to them and so we could not get in. The guard thought we were asking him, but had to keep running outside because it seemed he was also directing traffic, he could only get reception on his walkie-talkie if he crossed the road, and he was supervising the digging of a big ditch.

One sullen, boring French Canadian turned up and grunted his way through a conversation, but we discerned enough from him that he had the correct form and though we had permission, we would have to write another request form, which we did. The guard got very exasperated: ‘YOU HAVE PEN?’, no, we replied ‘HMMPF!’ was his shouted, sighing response as he threw a pen at us, and then had to keep taking it back as he had a ditch to manage and probably sudoko to do.

After half an hour we sheepishly got back on the bus to carry on, along with all our fellow passengers who had spent their waiting time staring at us, and were able to enter Rangamati some time later. We went straight to the place we were supposed to stay (a Buddhist monastery) by getting ripped off by a CNG, and after 2 hours, were concretely able to establish that they had no space and that we had to travel back along the road to the other branch of the monastery where we could get a room, a little isolated from the main town, but at least surrounded by tribal monks.

The saddest thing about the hill tracts was that I found myself very resentful of the Bengalis there who had taken land and business and were making the money whilst the tribal people remained impoverished. Of course, the Bengalis themselves are the poor who have come off the plains when offered the chance of land. The Bengali experience of the last 200 or so years has been one of exploitation, oppression and aggression, but it seems that rather than develop a compassionate humanity, they have simply learnt how to do the very things done to them. Like the world over, oppression seems only to teach the oppressed how to oppress those even less fortunate than them. This is the sad reality of the hill tracts in Bangladesh today, and it will be some time before a harmonious situation develops.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Falling Down in Bangladesh

Many urban cultural geographers have used the Michael Douglas film ‘Falling Down’ as evidence of the cultural products of post-Fordist urban dystopia. Why they have had to use a film and not simply looked at Dhaka I do not know, but I finally think I know how the character Douglas plays feels. For those that have not seen it, a seemingly normal man is one day stuck in traffic, and it becomes the final event that tips him over the edge to pursue a gun toting spree through the streets of L.A. Ultimately, he is driven to despair by grim reality of urban life in L.A. Bare this in mind whilst reading the following tale.

At the end of next week I am going on holiday to Cambodia, via China. This is the cheapest way of getting to the former, using China Eastern Airlines to fly via Kunming where I get a free overnight stay each way. About two weeks ago, I went to get my ticket, and was able to make a reservation. I was told that the office needed my work permit and a copy of my passport when I came to pay. This seemed relatively easy, and so I was able to go to work in the Hill Tracts (see next post) happy in the knowledge that I had my ticket reserved.

Yesterday morning, I arrived at the Chinese Embassy first thing to get a form for my Visa. I went off to get some photos taken (1 hour) and then was able to return, a little hotter and dustier (it was 42 degrees yesterday) only to find that the minion on the front desk had given me the wrong form. I had already read that there were three forms – Bangladeshi, USA and others – and had repeatedly checked with him that I was not getting the USA form, or indeed the Bangladeshi one. Of course, I had the American version and had to fill it all out again and join the queue at the back. All in all, from arriving at 9 am, I was able to submit my visa form at 12.20, ten minutes before it closed.

I then immediately set off on the 2 kilometre walk in the hot midday sun to Banani where I hoped to buy my ticket. Being prepared, I went to the bank and took out 10,000 Taka, only to find that it would not issue more than 5000 and then broke and refused to give money. I crossed the road to more banks, and after standing in queues and trying different machines, on the 8th go I was able to use my card three times in order to withdraw the 37,000 Taka I needed. Resplendent with more taka than most people here will ever see, I was able to trudge back to China Eastern and try to buy my ticket.

Firstly, I waited, and then had to remonstrate with a Bangladeshi attempting to queue jump (seemingly the national hobby when cricket is rained off) before finally being able to sit down and spend ten minutes trying to spell my name because the guy at the counter refused to let me write it down and make the job easier. Then we had the work permit saga.

I explained, as I had before, that as an NGO worker I was registered with the NGO bureau and not the Board of Industry, and therefore my letter was different. This seemed not to wash, because as well as cricket and queue jumping, the other pastime for Bangladeshis is never being wrong and always doing what they think is best for you, regardless of what you want. I got them speaking to Saifullah, VSO’s admin support and general fixer who explained in Bangla the issue. They had a long debate which ended in Saifullah saying to me that ‘probably they did not understand’ and then hanging up.

After about half and hour I was able to convince them that I could not provide the work permit they so desired, and so I then agreed to pay. This is where it got worse.

It emerged that having my 37,000 Taka in hand was not good enough because I needed to bring an encashment certificate with it to show that I had brought it into the country. ‘But I got it out the ATM said I’. ‘Get a certificate’ said they. I went out to the banks to find that they could not do it as for ludicrous reasons, all the banks close at 3 pm (which was by now the time). Resigned to a second day of misery, I set off to return today.

So came this morning, when I arrived at HSBC at 9 am to get an encashment certificate. They could not do it, but suggested that I go to the Standard Chartered ‘up the road’. ‘Up the road’ turned out to be about 3 km in a steady 40 degree, 98% humidity day and so I arrived, not 3 hours from waking, looking like I had crossed the desert to get there. The woman at the counter was immediately rude when I said I needed an encashment certificate, telling me how could she give one if I did not give her cash. Resisting the urge to explain that this was a ridiculous system anyway, I replied that I intended to give her cash, and I had the taka already. It was at this point that I discovered that the China Eastern office had misled me. For an encashment certificate, one must provide dollars in order to get Taka and a special receipt. The fact that I had not dollars (the currency of a foreign country) but did have ample taka (which Bangladesh issues) was immaterial. Dollars I needed.

I began my trapsing once more, heading up Gulshan avenue and along Kemel Attaturk Avenue to where I had seen an American express sign and hoped that this could be of use. Unfortunately, only the travel arm of Amex is in Bangladesh, not the useful travellers cheques side but the guy jumped on the opportunity to take China Eastern’s business from them, saying he could help and match the fare.

The farce then became more farcical. I would have to change my taka into dollars so that I could change them back into taka and get this bloody certificate and so buy my flight. The banks could not change my money so I had to use a money changer who saw a great opportunity to rape a debeshi, but by 11.30 I had $600 in my hand. I crossed the road to the bank to try to get my certificate. The first bank had exceeded its limit of dollars so could not change them. The next required that you have an account. Another would not accept my passport photocopy (because I had put my passport in the Chinese Embassy) and so turned me away. Yet another was an Islamic bank and had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually I was able to go to Standard Chartered and get in a queue (with some fighting for my turn) and change my dollars back into the taka I had had one hour before (minus various deductions) and get the prized certificate to take to the travel agent. This only took about 40 minutes, so was relatively quick by the day’s standards.

Finally, with a second wad of taka I entered the travel agent and after 20 minutes of fumbling about I was able to leave with a ticket in hand, and can, after a day and a half, go on holiday (assuming that the Chinese give me a visa). After this ordeal (for it was that, on my patience, temper and general disposition towards Bangladesh) I celebrated by sitting in a traffic jam for an hour. I no longer had the Douglaseque urge to leap out, grab a rifle and beat up some Koreans, but as Elias, my Ugandan flat make likes to say in a broad East African accent: ‘If I had a mask, I would kick them thoroughly.’ Quite.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Just Not Cricket (As We Know It)

Even if religion, caste, class and culture continue to divide the subcontinent, one thing is bound to continually unite them: the love of cricket. The opportunity to go to see a game between India and Bangladesh was too good to turn down, and so I was able to have my first real day out in Bangladesh.

India arrived in Bangladesh late last week for a three day ODI series and two tests, to be played in Dhaka and Chittagong. Cricket relations are tense: Bangladesh’s win against India in the world cup sent them out (and also upset many of the betting scams, or so rumour has it) and so the Indians have come over with an air of intent, determined to inflict retribution on their upstart Eastern neighbours.

The first ODI – last Thursday - was a close Indian victory: they scored the 251 they needed with just one over to spare, so for Saturday’s game there was eager anticipation as the whole country debated whether the Desh were up to the job.

Matches start early and we arrived just before 10 am to hear the roar of the stadium as the players took the field. In the belly of Mirpur Stadium the noise that we heard was immense: drums, whistles, shouting, horns, more drums. The concrete shook with the bombardment of sound.

When we entered the stadium, and as we fought our way through 55,000 Bangladeshis, the place was awash with green and red. Some were wearing four or five flags tucked into bandanas, others had small flags painted on their faces. Others carried inflatable tigers (Bangladesh are known as the Tigers for their ODIs), whilst one guy had painted his entire upper body in green with a big red sun on his chest. The game had attracted some real characters, showing early enthusiasm for the match.

Once the game started, the noise rose even more and did not stop for the entire day. The contrast between watching cricket at home and cricket here could not be more stark. Two lads in front of us banged on a snare drum non stop for about 10 overs, others were dancing and waving flats for ball after ball. India batted first, and every time a player fell the stadium left two or three feet into the air, flags and whistles were flung, and all the Bangladeshis were screaming. When Dravid and Dhoni, the two Indian stars that came along went, the celebrations borders on the violent.

The life of the stadium was fantastic. Ice-cream sellers picked their way among screaming supporters to flog chemical-flavoured and luminous green coloured lollies, whilst water sellers lobbed bottles across rows of supporters and money wrapped in paper bags was thrown back. The heat was also incredible – nearly 38 degrees in the shade but we were stuck in the sun, roasting on the hottest day I have felt since I arrived, and slowly burning as the rays beat down upon us. Simply sitting was sufficient for our t-shirts to turn sodden, holding enough sweat to be rung like a wet cloth.

The passion of the supporters was fascinating. The Bangladesh captain, Bashar, is under immense pressure at the moment, mainly because he is quite hopeless, and every time he fielded the ball or failed to stop a boundary he was jeered and whistled and booed. One guy proudly held his sign saying ‘All are Tigers but Bashar is a cat’ for most of the day. Bashar later went on to make a good forty or so runs and got some cheers, so the support was certainly fickle!

Any bedeshis in the crowd were wildly cheered, and Tim and I gained some kudos by having Bangladesh shirts and flags. They also picked us out on the television, as we have been told since. What was most interesting, however, w
as the openness and liberality of the spectators. Some had take of their shirts, others were dancing and singing, some women were smoking, other women had painted their faces and were wearing flags – it was as if this was the only place in Bangladesh were people could be themselves and really not worry about social pressures. Others took great delight in making us drum, shouting Bangladesh at Tim as loud as they could and generally fooling about. Inside the curved walls of Mirpur Stadium, the rules did not apply.

The game itself petered out a bit. At first India accelerated away, but Bangladesh were able to take a few wickets late on so that the visitors were restricted to 285 for 8 of 49 overs. This was to prove to much for Bangladesh, who started reasonably promisingly, but once they lost star man Ashraful cheaply, the run rate plummeted and though they batted out their 49 overs, they lost by 46 runs. India were never really troubled. It means that the ODI series is lost even though there is one more game to play, but there are still the tests, so hopefully Bangladesh can achieve something there.

For us, it was strange to able to have a real day out, to be able to do something entirely different and actually with a purpose. The noise and the passion of the supporters was incredible, the atmosphere alien but enchanting. Sadly there are no more series until South Africa come in January, unless the perennial opposition of Zimbabwe are invited (again). Until then, we will just have to hope for some more.