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.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Through the 10th, but still on alert

Without a doubt you will not heard of last week's bombings in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet which brought some islamic inspired terrorism back to the streets of Bangladesh. The bombs themselves were very small, having the explosive power of an overshaken bottle of lemonade, but they have been sufficiently high profile here to get some attention from the embassies and a few emails with lines like 'rest assured, foreigners are a target'. I think the meaning was intended to be different!
The group that planted these bombs also made a specific threat against an islamic sect that does not recognise Mohammed as the last profit, and NGO workers. What links these two is still a mystery, but the message they left on a piece of tin near the bombs was quite clear:
'Stop associating with nonbelievers. Stop working for NGOs by May 10. Or prepare for death. If Hazrat (Prophet) Mohammed is not declared the superman of the world by May 10, all non governmental organizations will be blown up.'
Unfortunately for them, the evidence of last week was not sufficient to suggest that they could bomb all NGOs (of which there are something like 20,000 in Bangladesh); furthermore they did not specify whether they meant those NGOs registered with the NGO bureau or any organisation which was not governmental. And the desire for the Prophet to be superman of the world is simply bizarre, but quite entertaining.
The 10th has been and gone and VSO and all other NGOs are still here, so unless they have a different calender, it seems that we have got through this crisis. On the other hand, we are restricted from using trains, and are supposed to vigilent, so its not entirely a joke. But as seems to be the case in Bangladesh, organisations talk a great deal without actually managing to do anything, and this includes their terrorists.
In other news, I have finally got delivery of our organisations brochure, only 6.5 months after I finished my work on it with the person responsible. I think that this means that I have actually achieved something. Remarkable.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Today in Bangladesh

… 100 children died from diseases relating to a lack of clean drinking water

… 3 people were killed extrajudiciarly by the Rapid Action Battalion in ‘crossfire’ incidents

… 5 children were killed in road traffic accidents

… the caretaker government arrested 1000 people with no hope of trial

… 30,000 new Bangladeshis were born

…. 2,000 of them will have died on the same day

… 120 of their mothers also died

… 26,000 of will have be born without the help of trained medical staff

… 16% of children will not have gone to school.

… 85% of people earned less than $2

… teachers taught 41 children in each class

… half of all children under five remained malnourished

… $5.5 million of national debt was paid off

… 160 women and girls were illegally trafficked out of the country to become sex workers in India

… 75 million people did not have a toilet to use

… 6 million people were more than 1 kilometre from any form of water supply

… 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted

… 2 people died from HIV/AIDS

Sources, UNICEF, UN MDG, UNDP, World Bank