VSO – Volunteers Suffering Overseas

I arrived back in Sylhet on Saturday night after three weeks of working in Dhaka and Dinajpur, and was immediately hit again by the contrasting worlds that exist in one small country. I had spent most of Saturday nursing a mild but unwelcome hangover, after a big leaving party on Friday for another volunteer. It was all provided by an extremely generous British expat, who actually earns a Western salary and so could afford western treats. We ate huge amounts of delicious Chinese food in a private room, amply washed down with a free and well-stocked bar, and even the inevitable kareoke wasn’t too dire, once you substitute in enough obscenities. So all in all, it was a fun night, which could have been enjoyed anywhere in the world.

 

And then last night it was back to the reality of being a volunteer in Bangladesh. I’ve written before how this country never seems to break things to you gently, or give you a bit of contemplation or a warm-up for what’s in store. Everything here is immediate, in your face and requires instant action. I got my front door open and it smelt as if I’d walked in to a pond. Sylhet is the wettest place in Bangladesh, with around five metres of annual rain, the majority in June and July. Although that makes it mercifully cooler than Dhaka or Dinajpur, where the temperature was hitting 40, the humidity is around the 95% mark, and the inside of my house, not being lived in for three weeks, was as if it had been wiped down with a sponge.

My posters and pictures had curled up and fallen off the walls. My wicker furniture had a layer of mould over it. My mattress and linen also had a layer of mould, four cockroaches nesting in it, and will have to be replaced as soon as possible. My best jeans were mouldy. My sacred lucky Spurs jumper was mouldy. My trainers were half rotten. Termites have half way eaten through my book shelf now. I went in to the kitchen and my wooden cupboard is almost off the wall, also due to being eaten away. Two spiders, the size of my hand in the bathroom. I tried to light my stove to get a bit of dry air in, but went through a whole box of matches before I could get a flame, because they were all so damp. My ceiling fan is knackered, spitting sparks out of its fuse due to the moisture. Essentially, the scene I came home to was not what I wanted at eight in the evening. My hangover suddenly returned. And I wanted to return to Dhaka. And then the power cut off.

 

Now I’m in my office and everything is equally damp and musty, especially as we have paper everywhere, and one of our two computers is playing up because the fan broke and condensation got in. Another volunteer, based in a different part of Bangladesh has already re-christened VSO ‘Volunteers Suffering Overseas’. And at times, perhaps more often in Bangladesh than other countries VSO works in, that’s a very apt description.

 

This is the pitfall of doing VSO. Bangladesh is in many ways a fantastic country. It’s also possible to have great times here. It’s just that most of the fun things you can do are vastly beyond our salary. Bangladesh is so unequal that most ‘leisure’ activities are unaffordable for the majority of the people, who when they’re not working long hours for meagre pay, tend to relax in the company of their families or friends, for free. I don’t have a family or many friends here who I can socialise with, especially given that I’m not in the capital (where more than half the 40-odd VSO volunteers work).

And so doing VSO, you get caught in a situation where you can’t afford to socialise with other expats (even Japanese and Australian development ‘volunteers’ here earn five times what we do), and it’s difficult socially and culturally to integrate with the local people. Or at least it is in Bangladesh. I am extremely glad that I’m not here as a diplomat (and so is Her Majesty, I should imagine), or in any other position where you live around the world in a completely separate world, independent of the country you reside in, working and socialising in gated communities, protected by guards, interacting almost exclusively with other expats and only not being able to experience the life and culture of the people hosting you.

 

But at the same time, I’m pretty pissed off about having a damp mattress, half my clothes being ruined, and the monsoon proper hasn’t even begun yet. Doing VSO you seem to get to experience some of the hardships of the ‘local people’ without getting to experience their pleasures. So at the moment, a life of private rooms and imported vodka doesn’t seem so bad at all. Even the kareoke.

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13 Responses to “VSO – Volunteers Suffering Overseas”


  1. 1 isabelleinnamibia June 11, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Volunteers Suffering Overseas indeed! I must say, you lot in Bangladesh do seem to get a harder rap than us over in Namibia aka “Africa for Beginners”. But I hear you on the intergration thing. Racial segregation is massive here still, and the legacy of apartheid makes most non-white Namibians incredibly wary, and fair enough because I’ve witnessed a vast number of white Namibians behaving as though they still ruled. Sickening.
    I do sadly live an existence behind electrified gates, and have recently acquired a moped as I just don’t feel safe walking or cycling anymore after a recent mugging incident.

    Contrasting to the Desh, Namibia is one of the driest countries in the world, and this year we’ve had a massive drought. Whilst I don’t have to put up with mould, most of my clothes have disintergrated (including my two favourite pairs of jeans) from being out in the sun too much, I have to moisturise 2-3 times a day to stop my skin drying out and cracking (so hot!) and most recently, I keep getting spontaneous nose-bleeds which are impossible to predict, incredibly embarrassing and are messing up the few items of clothing I have that haven’t disintergrated!

    I get the feeling that there isn’t any ideal country to serve in.
    When are you leaving? Are you going to the RV weekend?
    Take care and hope you get your bedding and house sorted! Can you get wellies there?
    x Isabelle

  2. 2 sowula June 11, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Hiya,

    Great to hear from you. You’re definitely right, there’s no easy country to serve in, or even live in regardless of circumstances, but as Spike Milligan said about being rich, it won’t make you happy but it can provide a more pleasant form of misery. You know what I mean.

    I will be going to the RV weekend, if only for the free chips and the chance to try take the moral highground over all you ‘part-time’ VSOers in Africa. But it would be great to see everyone, obviously.

    Assuming I don’t get wellies. You can buy them, but such is the flooding you might as well have concrete arm-bands.

    I hope everything is going ok for you though, I like your blog very much! Hope to see you at HH
    T X

  3. 3 isabelleinnamibia June 11, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I reckon I’ll swing by Harbourne on my return. Chips and carbs are one reason, another would be networking and hoping to get some contacts to help me get a proper job! I’m so sick of being poor (in Western terms obviously, relatively speaking). Wishful i think. But I’ll take you on for a game of pool over a pint! Ah…a real pint. In a real pub…..

    Yeah, all is ok here in Namibia. All my relevant news is on my blog – and thanks for the compliment, i too enjoy reading through yours when I should be working.
    Don’t get too wet over there, and steer clear of any potential mud-slide areas. Maybe invest in a dinghy?
    Love to Georgia and Tom.
    x Iz

  4. 4 wpalei April 18, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I wonder what a lose! VSo invested on some volunteers who just did not work for the real development but for themselves. this is for public viewing page why u hv to be so negetive when u write about where u worked in?

    Sorry to say I did not like the way u have xpresed ur ideas about BD, and the organisation u worked in.

  5. 5 sowula April 29, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    I think if you read other posts in my blog, then you can see that I’ve also written positively many many times about where I work and the people I work with.

    But I’m not going to deny that I found life in Bangladesh on a very small income, very hard, and I would prefer to live a life with certain conveniences, such as air-conditioning, 24hr electricity, clean piped water – as would nearly all Bangladeshis, or anyone else on this planet.

    Lastly, this blog is partly a record of my personal thoughts and experiences in Bangladesh, and key to that is that I’m honest. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that everything was great all the time, when it wasn’t.

  6. 6 roger adams November 25, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    hi I am a RV Bangladesh 20002/3 and 2003 and now might go back for six months.I read nothing new.I am only reminded that in my rural placement I was given the itmost care by my bosses wife and family living in a superb new build house in their compaound and thus felt a belonging which i treasure as the making of my placement.I spent 80 per cent of my allowance in Dhaka etc etc. roger

  7. 7 Emilian July 31, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Iam a returned Volunteer from Bangladesh 2007/2008.what has been written is not so new to me.If you want to become a volunteer Bangladesh should be the last place to think about.The program office is not helpful at all,its full of very un professional officers whose main aim is jast to make money on the expense of volunteers.The accomodation is not only poor but so wanting.In my life i have never worked with a dictator like the VSOB country director who is not only feared but taken as a small god.Instead of sharing skills in Bangladesh most volunteers share sorrows and change no lives.I wish Shahanah(CD)the best of luck as she strives to destroy the VSO image

    • 8 phyokamvula December 31, 2010 at 2:23 pm

      Hi Emillian,

      Inteested to take up a placement in the Capital City of Bangladesh, Dhaka. Would please help by shading more light about life in Bangladesh, i.e. how warm/receptive are the local people, how are work relations with staff at country office, etc.

      Regards

      Phyoka

  8. 9 MissD August 23, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Hi All,

    I just got my placement with Bandraban Hill District Council, in Bangladesh. Any comments? Just tell me the truth, I just want to weigh it and decide. Thanks,

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    YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

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