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.