Despite the urban behemoth that is Dhaka, Bangladesh is still overwhelmingly a rural country, and a few weeks ago I finally got to leave our office in Sylhet city to go out and visit one of the villages my organisation works with. ECDO currently operates in two districts of the main Sylhet division, and we 22 villages are involved with our projects, over a very wide geographical area.
Our purpose of the visit was to set up a new Education Support Centre in the village of Guabari, where we have already done a few smaller interventions, including the building of a Rain Water Harvesting Plant last year. To get there was a real mission, step by step extracting us from the modern world; taking first the bus for an hour, then when the bus could go no further we took a rickshaw, and when the rickshaw could go no further due to the deteriorating road, we simply had to walk out of the town and continue two miles across a dried-up valley towards this little hamlet tucked away on a hill. It was virtually on the border with India, and you could clearly see an Indian border post high up on the top of a larger hill-side, gazing suspiciously at Bangladesh below.
In this wide open space, standing in the middle of a sun-scorched paddy field, I suddenly felt extremely cut off from Bangladesh and all its sounds and symbols, and had this sense that we could almost have been anywhere. There was no one about, no farmers or livestock, and with just a border post watching over you, it seemed like it wasn’t just the border to the State of India, but also the border to the modern world, with bureaucracy and technology and uniforms denoting hierarchy and status and wealth, and weapons. And there we were walking right next to it, but with not any of those concerns. We’d left that behind once we’d gone to the limit of where a wheel could take you, and now we were free.
Of course this was merely a sensation, because obviously a decent four-wheel drive could have powered us along. But no-one in the area had access to a 4×4, and no one would need to except for extraordinary circumstances. It wasn’t so much that we weren’t in the modern world, or Bangladesh, which I knew was a falsehood – but more that we were going to a place where this became more irrelevant, just an other environment, rather than the all-consuming, all-enveloping reality that dictates my normal life whether I like it or not.
Myself and my colleague Rajesh trekked across the parched valley, with Rajesh saying that in two months time all of it would be under water. And then we came up to a smaller hill, with almost a conveyer belt of ten women picking up crumbling bricks from a huge pile, placing them on their head, and trudging up a rudimentary road that was slowly being constructed with the bricks over a sandbank. This was one of the little things that we’d organised, so they would eventually be able to get carts up there, although it still appeared ludicrously steep and unsteady even with the bricks on it. The modern world was encroaching, becoming more possible, but was still held back.
We scrambled up the dirt and walked out on to clearing, the village square, and there was the newly installed Rain Water Harvesting Plant (RWHP) that my organisation had provided, essentially a huge concrete tank where they can collect water that isn’t contaminated with Arsenic, which affects much of
Bangladesh. The village was small, maybe only 20 mud-huts, and there were a couple of old blokes sitting around on the ground having a cigarette, and two others helping a really old man wash. You could smell some cooking going on from somewhere, and hear a few chickens, but otherwise it was gloriously silent.
We went to the school house, which had been built by some Catholic missionaries – this being an indigenous people’s village, they weren’t Muslim. But there was a true symbol of both being in Bangladesh and having some international development workers visiting, in the form of an old English-made Gunn and Moore cricket bat lying around, which I’ve never seen in the shops here. The meeting was late so Rajesh and I scrunched up some paper and we played a little until eventually women started to arrive.
Rajesh got on to the business of setting up an education support centre, which would provide the children of the village with a teacher who could speak their language to help them with their school-work from 7-9 every morning, so they would be less intimidated by the Bangladeshi education system and more motivated to continue. It took a while to organise a committee of villagers to regulate and manage the centre, but Rajesh got the main points in place and would return later to arrange the details.
There was nothing else to do or see in the village, so we began the journey back in to the outside world. This village had no electricity, or a generator, or gas, no running water other than from the RWHP, and before that they’d had to scramble down the sand-bank to collect it from the Arsenic well. What shocked me most though was that apparently a few of the villagers had never been outside of the village before – their lives were centred around their small-holdings and family, they only spoke their native language so couldn’t communicate with the Bengalis, and felt intimidated and patronised by them. Some villagers would go out to the markets to sell their produce or their labour, and bring things back in to the village, and they were occasionally visited by missionaries and development workers, and the children went to the nearest primary school in town – but for others, particularly the older women, their entire world was within maybe half a square mile of mud huts on a little plateau.
I still can’t really get my head around this – my Grandfather, for example, lived in a very rural area for 80 years and died never more than five miles from where he was born, apart from four years in Europe during the war – but he still went to Spain for his holidays, and read books and knew about the outside world beyond his field. Personally I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in London other than where I’ve grown up. But that’s based on me knowing most of London fairly well, and not liking it as much. But to only know twenty odd huts and the families that live in them, and to have only seen, in your life, a view of scorched/flooded fields, green trees, thick shrub and a few hills under a big sky. It’s just astonishing.
And when Rajesh and I were walking back, I really did have this feeling of being in a totally different place, environment to anything else I’ve ever experienced, not so much physically, but the geographical awareness of the people I was with, the culture that we came from couldn’t be more different. The villagers were of course fundamentally the same as you or I, with the same rights and needs and base desires – they were hardly ‘savages’ walking on all fours and chewing rocks. But I feel like I had visited a completely different place, on the same planet, separated only by a few miles from a normal town, but with a totally different sphere of knowledge and imagination. I feel pretty privileged to have witnessed that, and for the first time had this sense of what doing VSO can give you – it’s not all about tearing your hair out at incompetence in a sweaty office. Having said that, I bet that if I’d asked, at least one person in that village would have said they supported bloody Man Utd.
Some photos of Guabari are available at ECDO’s Flickr photo page, which you can access here