Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rural Bangladesh

Upon arrival to Dhaka, I called up a professor at BRAC University where he informed me that a group was heading to a village to build a demonstration project. He said it was only four hours, so it didn’t seem that bad. It ended up being about 9 hours, and I had quickly developed a killer chest cold. Regardless, we arrived in a very rural area to commence with a demonstration project that would rebuild the house of an “ultra poor household” to better withstand cyclones. Unfortunately, Bangladesh may be most famous for its natural disasters and the massive casualties they cost. One reason for this is that the homes in the most vulnerable areas are built using traditional ways, which often do not withstand heavy wind or rain damage.

The introduction into village life was fascinating and a bit rough, considering my body was feeling worse and worse. Still, many found great interest in me, and I in them as well. We were working in one particular homestead with three houses and a whole crew of rambunctious and really fun kids. Things happen slowly here. Lots and lots of talking. The carpenter crew didn’t show up. The wood took an extra day to get cut. Fortunately, the second day offered me a chance to rest under the palm trees with a gentle breeze flowing through. It was blazing in the sun, but very comfortable in the shade.

In many ways, it seems as if time is perpetually in slow motion. Electricity has not yet reached the households we were working with. They didn’t even have a toilet, or a latrine. It was open air. At night, we would ride the rickshaw back to where we were staying. The driver would hang a lantern from the bottom to cast a glimmer of light on the otherwise pitch black road. The stars, as always, were timeless and extraordinary. In the mornings, we would get breakfast at one of the little “restaurants” in the neighboring village. You walk in and it feels like the old west or something. Only men. The TV is blaring some cheesy Bollywood movie, but everyone seems transfixed. The naan is being cooked right in the back room over an open fire, and the smoke finds its way into the whole place. People are moving in slow motion. Their faces are worn. Their bodies ripped, every muscle exposed. It is a surreal scene. Life is hard, raw, and real here. Kids crap in the front yard. Bricks are hammered into small pieces to make road base. Everything is done by hand. The reality, though, is anything but slow motion. People age fast. A 20 year old looks 35. A 30 year old looks like he is 50. Time gets turned on its head.

Even walking around or traveling on the rickshaw, life almost seems in full motion. Until someone sees me. Then, it is as if everything stops. It is like I keep going in full speed, but everything else stops. People stop, they turn, they stare. Everything they are doing slows down, eating ice cream stops. The guy with 50 pounds of mud on his head stops and turns and stares. The girl walking to school is briefly interrupted by the dinging of the rickshaw bell. She stops, turns her head as the rickshaw passes, and then she smiles slowly. It is crazy. It is one of those movie scenes where you keep moving, but the rest of the world stops.

Riding down to village on the bus, I was sitting in the front seat. There was a family directly in front of me sitting on the cushion directly over the engine. There was a beautiful little girl. She started throwing up. Bad. Of course, the bus driver continued barreling down the road like he was driving a sportscar. I was waiting for it to flip, or at least have a head on collision. Somehow, the dance of the streets continues to work under some higher power. Anyway, she kept puking, and all they had were bags. I offered my seat, at least it had a back rest. After making a scene as the driver turned on all the interior lights, we switched seats. The guy in the seat across the aisle said,” You know there is really nothing you can do. It is a common problem with women and little girls: motion sickness.” I just kind of shook my head, hoping I didn’t just make a cultural taboo or cause an incident on the bus. Then, the husband turned and thanked me, and I remembered throwing up in India right before I got on the bus.

Yet, it was a clear indication of the status of women, especially in rural areas. I would almost not know there were even women around here. Most of Bangladesh is Muslim, and especially in rural areas, women maintain very traditional roles. They are especially shy, even more so with a foreign visitor. Of course, they prepared beautiful meals twice a day. But, it was always in a different room. Their faces were always covered. They would always be curious, though, and I would often see them glancing around doors, or the walls of the outdoor kitchen. They faces were raw, beaten, strained, but gracious and steady . It seemed they were always in the dark, even during the day. At one point, after a lot of them got really curious and wanted to talk to me, I asked what they liked to do for fun. They answered seriously, “Nothing, we do nothing for fun.”

I guess they leave that up to the kids, because they are having a blast. Or at least seems like it. Everything is a game and fun. At one point, we were resting under the trees as the wind was blowing through. One of the boys, about 12 or 13 all of sudden made a windmill out of a palm leaf. It was crazy, and worked amazingly. And it was beautiful. So, why aren’t there real windmills everywhere here? Because they will get blown away by the cyclones.

Fortunately, they had a tube well. I am thankful for that. Even the women knew nothing of America. How rare is that? Well, they knew something was good about it, as they wanted me to stick around and marry a Bengali woman, or take one kid back with me. First they thought I came to give all of them houses. I wish I could. I felt bad. But, that wouldn’t really do any good. Talk about non sustainable. And that seems to be the norm of many NGO’s here in Bangladesh and the rest of the world. Give, give, give. And then what, how do people continue to develop and grow and solve problems for themselves? Most of them have the capacity to do just that. Fortunately, this particular project is participatory and training based, working with the local people as well as the craftsman so that they can build better homes for others as well. One solid house won’t do much come cyclone season if people keep the status quo. Most of the initial training seemed to be the architects learning from the carpenters.

The carpenters were a sight to see as they rolled in with their planers, saws, hammer, and chisels. It seemed most of the time, as least one of them was sharpening one of the above. All by hand, baby. And boy, that wood was crooked. The most crooked I had ever seen. I thought #2 SPF lumber in the US was bad. No difference. They worked with what they had, and had plenty of techniques of straightening it all out. It was pretty fascinating to watch.

I am reminded of the importance of such quality homes upon my return to Dhaka. In evening, a strong wind storm developed with flashes of lightning in the sky. A big guest of wind just blew of the roof of the shack across the street. The people are scrambling to get it back on. How do they do it.??? How do they manage during the monsoon season? The people here are incredibly resilient, living against such tremendous odds, day in and day out, yet they remain humble steady.

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