Last weekend I was finally able to get out of my office and go and conduct some field research, a Participatory Rural Appraisal, to use the technical name. My NGO got the funding from VSO, and we’re aiming to go to 15 indigenous community villages all around Sylhet division, which is an area almost the size of South Wales. It’s an essential survey for us, as it will able us to obtain crucial information on the situation of our beneficiries, so as to be able to design our projects better. I just wish it wasn’t during the monsoon.
My colleauge Rajesh met me at 6.45am on the Friday morning, as we had to use our weekend as that was the best time to catch the villagers. Two hours on the train took us well out of Sylhet, finally jumping off at an indiscriminate station seeminly in the middle of nowhere, but still a destination for half the passengers, which resulted in a typical embarkation of jumping down in to marshes (no platform) and then people running after the train as their bags were thrown at them from the windows.
Although I’d planned the research, I didn’t have any idea in terms of what to expect from the environment so was kitted out like the proverbial idiot Westerner abroad, with full waterproofs, torch, mini-mosquito net, laptop and tranquilisers for my back, plus an umbrella and even a clean pair of pants. We were off for two days after all. Rajesh carried a huge bundle of posters about sanitary hygeine and the methods of HIV transmission, so we were all set to leave the town and wonder off in to the rural countryside, doing the development thing.
A one and a half hour trudge through the rice-fields ensued. The paths were mostly mud, raised a few feet above the paddies but often deteriorating in to them due to the buffalows teathered up and idly churning up the ground. It didn’t rain too hard but because the land was so flat the wind ripped, making a low humming noise as it sped through the rice.
The hills denoting the Indian border lay in the distance, and occasionally we would pass men hauling back jackfruits from the fields to the market. Each jackfruit is the size of a large watermelon and heavier, so to see these guys struggling with six each hanging from a beam balanced across their slender shoulders whilst skidding barefoot through the mud certainly put our walking in to perspective. A decent sized jackfruit sells for around 80-100 taka, so their collasal efforts were bringing around 500-600 taka in to the Friday market, which is around five British pounds and twice what I earn a day. But even if they made three journeys a day, they themselves wouldn’t earn more than about 100 taka for their work, they were merely human cargo-transporters. This seems to be the attitude in Bangladesh, regardless of how difficult a job is, why get a machine to do it when you can use a human? Men, and sometimes women are cheaper to run and if they break then you don’t have to fix them, just get another one. The problem is is that there’s no other work for these people – if they didn’t do it they would starve, so if you brought machines in then it would actually make their lives worse, rather than improve things. In many ways the Bangladeshi economy functions well; the GDP grows around 6-7% a year. There just needs to be far greater redistribution.
There were no markings, but Rajesh knew the way so we found ourselves at the right copse of trees which denoted our first Manipuri village. By this point the rain was really coming down so we ran for shelter at the first building we came to, which was actually a small shop selling the usual biscuits and provisions. The guys looking after it greeted us warmly, not seeming to mind the wind or rain against their bare chests, making me think that possibly we’d stumbled across a very rare sub-tribe of Geordies. But a few women came out dressed in traditional Manipuri clothing, full of colour and not a Kappa tracksuit in sight, so we were definitely with people of Bangladesh rather than Newcastle.
We sheltered for a while whilst Rajesh made small talk, and I noticed that firstly, and refreshingly, despite us being in such an isolated and rural location, none of the villagers were staring at me – a constant occurrence normally in Bangladesh. Secondly, despite us being in such an isolated and rural location, linked by no paved road to a town in the middle of nowhere, Sylhet, Bangladesh, there was still a faded sticker of Hulk Hogan, an old American wrestler on the front of the shop. I’ve written before about the popularity of American wrestling, but I would never have expected to find its reach all the way here. Why does a society embrace wrestling, but reject toilet paper? It doesn’t make sense. But this radical cultural juxtaposition was in fact the first of many over the weekend.
The rain stopped soonafter and we went further in to the village and greeted a few of the elders, who were mostly pottering around their gardens just as you’d expect to find anywhere. The main houses wheret they lived seemed to be solid, made from concrete with shacks around as outhouses for their tools and equipment. A couple of perfunctionary cups of tea later we were taken to the main village centre, which had been recently built through donations from wealthy Manipuris abroad, and contained a tasteful memorial commemorating a leader of a farmer’s revolt some eighty years ago. Rajesh explained that this man had been a communist and the accompanying building housed a small library for the village, which contained, as well as a few Frederick Forsythes and Thomas Harris, a very fine collection of Marxist literature. All the classics were there, in English – Das capital, What is to be done? etc, plus plenty of commentary mostly by Soviet writers published before 1960, and some critiques of America, capitalism and the CIA for good measure. We had to wait a long time for people to arrive so I perused through the bizarrely titled ‘World’s Worst Genocides’, which was published in the style of the world’s greatest genocides, ever, with plenty of pictures, and a sister publication ‘World’s Biggest Crazy Despots’. I kid you not.
Just as I was enjoying Idi Amin we were finally able to start, so Rajesh spent nearly two hours with 24 men and women finding out various bits of information, such as education level, health facilities etc. We also got the villagers to draw a map of their village, including everything relevant to their lives, which in a strange way was quite a profound experience, given that it really displayed so much about their whole culture, livlihood and history, rather than simply being a cartographical document. Getting the villagers to map their society tells you so much more than some satellite pictures could ever reveal, so it was a crucial moment to our research.
Whilst this was going on, it made me think about my own map, if there was one, and what it would include. I’d probably start with some pubs, then put in the bike shop, bus stop, swimming ponds, a few trees for climbing on the park near my home in London, record shop, the offie where you can buy cheap beer after-hours, snooker club, the fruit and veg market in Camden…so many things that I use regularly without thinking, or just consume – whereas here, everything was not just used but owned, maintained and really a part of the lives of those people, not just in their behaviour but in their whole social experience of this world. If my favourite pub closed I’d be devastated but I’d find another one. By contrast the biggest meeting-hut of the village would never close, but if it were destroyed, then it would really alter the dynamic of the village society and given the isolation and self-sustainability, I don’t know if things would ever be the same. They might not change for the worst necessarily, but their lives revolve around their land and activities in a way that mine never can. And we had it all mapped out on a big sheet of paper.
Just to add to the sense of being somewhere very different, we got disturbed by a few children playing bows and arrows, which was nice to see given that kids in the West will probably be playing Marines and Insurgents before the decade’s out. There’s nothing like a volleyfull of arrows through the window to end a meeting, so we brought things to a close and went off to the main eating area, where we sat on the ground and all tucked in to a delicious meal of the usual rice and dhal and vegetables, but made with such fresh ingredients, and served on big green leaves a foot square. Whether this was the custom or just saving on washing up I didn’t ask, but it again added to my sense of being in a really different environment, given that I’ve now got totally used to the chaos of Sylhet.
Washed down with some more tea and then an hour’s rest, we left the beautifully tended gardens and ordered grounds of the village to once again brave the elements out in the open. After making it back to the same town we had arrived in, we waited again until about six when two friends of Rajesh’s came up on motorbikes, Manipuri social workers who still lived in a village, but with a professional job outside. They then took us back to their village, which was a fast but precarious journey slipping around the paths and churning the mud up, the noise of the engines shattering the immediate peace and making the buffalo turn their heads and perhaps wonder about their job security.
The people we stayed with were clearly highly educated, and I spent some time looking at one of their maps of the world which had India positioned in the centre, a nice change. But there wasn’t much to do except listen to the rain coming down again, although thankfully we were in a dry, secure room. What I loved was that other than the rain, it really was so quiet. I had no idea where I was, but I was very happy – and exhausted. I went to bed around 8pm when the power went listening to Nick Drake, and when I woke up it was day again, and the bird’s song had replaced the Pink Moon.
Our second day was more of the same; setting off around nine for a good 90 minute trek under the vast gray wet blanket of sky covering us, whilst we strode across the flat featureless landscape. We passed a few men sitting fishing, which involved casting huge nets strung along a bamboo apex, and bringing it up every five minutes to see if they’d caught anything amidst the sludge. The second village we came to was smaller than the previous day’s, without any capitalist shop or communist library, and we were ushered in to a small room to watch the rain come down and wait for people to turn up.
Despite it being a bare concrete room facing on to an old courtyard filled with hand-driven machinery protected by a bamboo/jute roof, there was a small black and white television in the corner, and some kids came in to watch a cartoon, barely recognisable through terrible reception. But it was a link again with the big wide world, when there was electricity, and again it made me think about how really connected our cultures can be now, and more to the point why they get connected. Personally I’m all in favour of it, but how and why did these people decide to buy a tv, against investing in something more practical for their village, or a fridge or other consumer device? Who benefits the most from these developments, the consumers or the suppliers? It all depends on what’s consumed, and what’s available of course, but if the right content is made accesible then these kind of communications link-ups could do just as much good as any projects that ECDO work on. And when the engineers can establish Wi-Max effectively, then we’ll all be online, and the potential opportunities and threats will be endless.
It finally stopped raining around mid-day so we went back out in to the village to wash our feet and legs down with some water from an open well, which wasn’t especially clean, especially as I noticed a condom floating in it. Half of me felt pleased to see that someone was using contraception; our posters had an impact – but we definitely needed to produce some posters about suitable places to dispose used condoms, with the emphasis being nowhere near my foot. Just another trial for your poor volunteer.
The research session again was similar to the previous day’s, and afterwards we had some lunch, although just Rajesh and I this time, rather than the whole community, and then we were stuck for two more hours whilst the rain hammered down some more and going out without flippers really seemed absurd. Eventually we made it back out and across the land to the main town. During a lot of our walking I had the image in my head of one of the last shots from Richard Attenborough’s film A Bridge Too Far, where the surviving characters are shown struggling across a desolate Dutch landscape. From a distance, Rajesh and I might have created a similar scene.
Except we certainly weren’t walking in defeat and despair. I had no idea where we were, and I wasn’t keen about the three hour train journey we still had to make to get back to Sylhet town later that night – but it felt like we were there for a good reason. Not strictly ‘sharing skills and changing lives’ which is the VSO mantra. But working towards that. And that’s what I was supposed to be doing in Bangladesh after all – so maybe, amidst the mud and the rice and the buffalos and psuedo-Geordie condom-slinging wrestling-obsessed communist villagers that I was working with that weekend, our little PRA field trip will achieve something positive. Ten more villages to go.