After hoping on the back of a motorbike at 8 in the morning after getting up from Bogra, being driven by the inspirational and exceptionally considerate and kind Salim, the project co-ordinator for Kurigram, the town from which the northernmost operations of the Chars Livelihoods Program is based, we arrived at the boat.
Crossing the wide gaping river was great, and I could instantly see how vulnerable these rural communities were to flooding, as the bank of the river only rose 2 feet above the water line of the river, which is currently low and greatly increases its flow when the monsoon coincides with the run-off from the melting Himalayas.
On the way, I had asked Salim if I could stop off to buy some gifts for the local community just in case they offered me things and I was stuck with nothing to give back. Salim suggested chocolate for the children, but I thought that tooth-paste and toothbrushes would be a better idea, not sure how chocolate would really benefit them. So we stopped off at a little shop and I eventually settled for some strips of shampoo and loads of bars of soap.
Once firmly on the Char, we rolled Salim's motorcycle off the boat and rode across 800 meters of sand, and a couple of kilometers of wet paddy field, passing many rural poor lugging heavy objects by foot giving me strange looks as we whizzed past.
When we reached the community, Salim talked me through the most visible parts of the project and took me to one of the 'plinths' - raised mounds of sand about 2 meters higher than the surrounding earth, with napier and long rooted grass planted in the side so that the sand mound stayed in place. The idea is that if you can stick the most vulnerable members of the community on the plinth and install a latrine and a shallow tube-well, then when the flood comes, islands with a toilet, drinking water, 5 households and a meeting point will be left for the people that need it most when they need it most.
Salim took me to one of the community teachings and sat me down next to the teacher, completely interrupting the session.
Basically, the community teachings accompany the other aspects of the project in an integrated approach to dramatically improve the lives of these people that are 'hardcore poor' and have practically nothing to their name, and live on flimsy structures built on moving sand in the middle of a very unpredictable river, with nowhere else to go and no-one else to turn to, no employment except the occasional bit of farm labour for the local despotic land owner, and sometimes a dependant or a disability to cope with on top of this, seasonal hunger and malnutrition, and unaccountable power structures in the rest of society, with no social safety net from the government etc. etc. Basically, imagine 1400 AD England with 6 times the population, regular floods and a volatile environment, and a feudal system that didn't even allow you a blade of grass, while the Baron is laughing away in a pile of gold, wearing some sunglasses and a gold watch - a completely corrupt legal system and no police or institution upon which you can rely.
The community teachings are delivered to groups of 25 or so women, usually with about 5 babies walking around the middle, and one 'community development officer' going through the syllabus with some pictures and a booming voice. The program is split into 7 sections and 52 sessions, with a final 7 session tag on about loans, microfinance and repayments if the community is ready for it. The topics start of easy with 'family, neighbours and society' and 'leadership' in the first section, move through how local institutional structures work in the second section (NGOs, local government etc.), Human rights and your responsibility as a citizen for the 3rd section, 'protection against social evils' for the 11 session long 4th, including 'early marriage' (which can happen as young as 9/10 years old), polygamy, dowries, divorce, and domestic violence. The 5th module goes through disaster preparedness, how to get ready for the Monga period of hunger and despair, prepare for flooding, river erosion, drought, heat waves, epidemics and who to contact in each case. The last two units cover health, the environment, sanitation, anti-natal care, and how the community can strengthen their sense of community and pull together for those who need it.
I sat down in front of the women and everyone stopped and stared at me.
This is one of the most obvious problems with Bangladesh - it's heavily embedded pyramid of hierarchy and deference. Had I been a Bangladeshi 20 year old getting experience with the program, there's no way I would have received the same response; people look up to you because you are white, and seek to put you in charge. Salim calls me 'boss' and 'sir' and jokingly called me 'team leader' today, even though it's me that's wanting to learn from him, it's me that is the underling shadowing him, who has years of NGO work experience.
They are interested in me and we share stories, I ask them a load of questions:
What was the best thing that you have learned during the course? (I had just found out that they were doing finance management - the add on week and had been through the motions of the community teachings for a year)
The response came back after a bit of group discussion that child marriage and domestic violence had been the best two sessions, Salim kindly translated one woman telling me that after the session she had gradually managed to reduce the number of beatings she received from her husband and now they were in a much better relationship. Another woman then told me that they had managed to stop two of the older girls in the community from being married until they were 18. All it took was a 2 hour session and you've addressed an issue and empowered someone to take control of their lives, fantastic! (I was very skeptical of the idea of a government funded organisation educating villagers on what is evil in their society, but it seems to have worked wonders)
How has your diet changed now you have benefited from the program
The response was that the children are starting to drink a bit of milk now and again from the cows that the programme had given to certain members of the community that were eligible, the vegetable patches that the Chars Livelihoods Programme had helped villagers start up with seed and natural compost from the cows and the latrines that they worked into the sand were now providing a balance to their diet and they were already feeling healthier, and put the near disappearance of frequent illness in the community down to the vegetables and sanitation. They were eating between 2 and 3 meals a day now, which which was really nice for me to hear, as I had been reading that the normal diet before was one or two plates of rice a day, usually without anything else except for some chilly which helped suppress the appetite, but occasionally with a few beans or leaves.
Are you happier now?
Yes, much happier, we feel a lot safer and we can think of other things than survival.
Have you had more children now that you are more comfortable?
No, no, no, we don't have to have as many now because we don't need the extra income. Now that there is contraception and we have enough food to eat, we can limit the number of babies to 3.
I didn't want to take up more of their time and felt that I had been extremely privileged to have this much attention and openness about their lives, so I tried bringing the dialogue to a close. Salim suggested that it was a good time to give out the soap. I asked him to ask permission first.
Something really didn't feel right about this.
Firstly, I wasn't expecting the attention and the deference, secondly, I wasn't expecting to be giving to 25 people simultaneously, but imagined that it would be one-to-one gifts after they gave me a meal or showed me their house or something.
They agreed but looked a bit puzzled. I then self-consciously opened up my rucksack and Salim, the community teacher and I handed out the soap and shampoo, one woman swapped a bar of soap for some shampoo strips and said that her daughter enjoyed shampoo. There was a weird atmosphere, and Salim told them that it was an English custom to give gifts when you are visiting, but the inappropriateness of the act just hit me!
They pyramid complex in Bangladesh is heavily related to skin colour, the darker you are being seen as more 'lowly' and paler as 'cleaner' - similar to the Dalits in India. Just to cite some examples, there's a skin bleacher advert that runs between tv programmes with a stick that has different skin colours from pale to dark with numbers on, and a pretty model's skin getting slowly whiter "because I'm worth it" - and when I went to buy a pay as you go sim card in Dhaka, the shop keeper who was about my age put his forearm next to mine and said "your skin is a nice colour, but mine is dark" - to which I said "Yes, your skin is a very nice colour as well" and he replied "no its not, it's dirty, you look like David Beckham" (which is a step up from "Harry Potter" as I was called a couple of times in India a couple of years ago). I hope I'm being over sensitive, but I am genuinely scared that some of the women in the group took the soap as a bit of an insult, like I was calling them dirty. One of them even asked "why did you give us the soap?" - to which I tried to reply that it's nice for me to give gifts...
I left to beaming smiles and I even got a quick round of applause (I hope you're starting to understand how deep this deference runs, and how aid potentially feeds it further).
After seeing one of the small one room, one bed shacks that the families live it, and the cookers that are built into the ground, I left with a strong feeling that I'd screwed up, and an even stronger determination to listen, think, consider, and find the fine line that I should walk that helps the communities in need as much as possible but without taking away any self-confidence or dignity.