A Trip to Barisal – Exploring the Villages of Benificiaries

As part of my placement in the IYIP program, we’re expected to be taken on “field visits” by our host organization/local partner (AKA the NGO that we actually work for on a daily basis). We’re given a budget for these trips, and it’s actually something I was really excited about, since it gives you more opportunities to explore the country, learn about new cultures, understand the projects that your NGO is running, and get away from the city. Unfortunately, these trips haven’t been very possible or plentiful for those of us in Bangladesh.

In late-October, at the beginning of the security situation, a few members of the “Jute Team” came to visit at the same time as a few other foreigners (a buyer and her friends from the UK, and an advisor from Switzerland). The Jute Team is basically the board of directors from Germany (TARANGO was founded by a Germany priest). They also sell TARANGO products in Germany, and generally support the initiatives of the organisation.

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Left: The view out the window of the compound in Barisal.  The area is mostly wetlands, rice paddies, and fish ponds.  Right: Jute sticks drying beside the road on our drive home.

Anyway, there was about 3 to 5 white people here for about 2 weeks, which was amazing. Foreign donors and other visitors are given special privileges in regards to security. Although they’re still not supposed to use rickshaws or walk around on their own, they are allowed to go to restaurants (with beer), shop for saris, and travel to other cities. Therefore, I decided to take full advantage of the situation!

On Saturday morning, I was to be packed and ready at 10. The night before, my boss was trying to make excuses why I shouldn’t go (maybe I was too tired, maybe the car would be too full for my comfort, it would be a long journey…) but I rebuffed them all! I was at my bedroom window when I saw the office van drive by. I headed to the office to find the others. The trip would include Kohinoor (TARANGO CEO) and her husband (Alim), Maung (TARANGO director), Ruth (Swiss advisor), members of the Jute Team (Martin, Bernie, and Valerie), myself, and the driver (Miraz). Of course things were running slow and we didn’t leave until almost noon – but I didn’t care – I was leaving Dhaka!

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Left: Myself and Valerie (we were all greeted with flowers and  bindis when we first arrived).  Right: Large amounts of food were served family-style at every meal, but you can always count of rice, lentils, and shobjil (vegetables).

The drive was pretty long, and not very smooth. We drove a few hours, then got on a ferry. Our managers had brought us some food to eat (I didn’t like it – of course).  Valerie and I went to go get water on another floor, and when we came back everyone was gone! Like everyone on the entire deck.  We thought we screwed up and went the wrong way, but apparently everyone had gone back to the cars.  We really thought we were going crazy!  Anyway, we found the car and all was well.  We drove another few hours and arrived in Kadamburi (a village in Barisal district) around dinner time.  They showed us to our rooms, and we had lots of dinner.  We went to bed shortly after to read and chill, it had been a long day.

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Left: Early morning at the water pump (no, I did not pump water, there was also running water…) Right: The boat we took on our early morning ride.

Sunday morning we got up very early for the boat ride to the market.  I protested getting up so early, but apparently the market is only open first thing in the morning.  So up we were at sunrise, shuffling our feet down the road to the dock.  Eventually we clambered into the boat, after some slipping and sliding in the mud.  We weren’t the only ones on the boat, there were also people from the local village with their fish.  I think we were all afraid of falling in the water (since you have to sit on the edge of the boat and it’s very low in the water), but we made it to the other side in one piece!

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Photos from the morning market.  There were fish of all shapes and sizes, and many different types of green herbs/vegetables that I couldn’t distinguish.

At the market there are many different things for sale.  Primarily different types of fruits and vegetables, plus animals (like chickens), and a plethora of fish.  These villages are all traditionally fishing villages, but fishing is a volatile industry in a country that is increasing it’s population, facing climate change, and increasing it’s pollution each year.  Fish which is not sold locally is shipped to markets in bigger cities, but the freshest fish can be found in these little fishing towns.

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Left: Colourful statues were on sale for puja (which was being celebrated at the time).  Right: We stopped by a tea stall after the market, where a crowd soon formed to stare at all the white people.

At the end of our little market trip we all sat down for tea at a roadside stand.  These types of stands are very common in Bangladesh.  You can choose from different types of tea, but milk tea is very common.  Many men sit in these shops and smoke or eat biscuits while chatting with their friends, their version of a coffee shop or local pub.  I try to avoid these places because it’s not super sanitary (although the water is boiled for tea, the cups are simply rinsed in dirty water between uses usually), but I made an exception for politeness.  We drank our tea, ate some naan bread, and headed back to the boat.

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Boat journey back to the compound!  I think the boat’s leaking… :s

After returning, we had a meeting with the ladies who were just starting their morning of work in the local production centre.  Many of these women have worked for TARANGO a long time, over 20 years, while some women are just starting.  The women mostly make baskets from jute (a natural plant fibre).  The jute is braided into long strands that are coiled and sewn to make baskets of all shapes and sizes.  We met and spoke (through translation) with the women about their lives.

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Watching the women in the production centre weave jute baskets by hand.

In the compound there are also offices and other rooms/buildings.  One of the buildings was sponsored by our donors, and is a clinic for the community.  It’s just one room, and the doctor is only there one day a week, but he is able to help people with chronic illness to access their medication (such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease), check blood pressure, give vitamins to pregnant mothers and their children, and refer others to necessary doctors or specialists in big cities.  Afterwards, we had a bit of a rest until lunch.

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Left: Kohinoor (CEO) praising the women for their great work. Right: The compound also has a small clinic for the local community.

After lunch we wanted to visit some of the surrounding villages.  Since much of the area is covered in water for some of the year, each village is like a small island of it’s own, with built up land, isolated from it’s neighbours, and often only connected to a main street with one small path.  The car had to go into another town to drive the doctor, so it dropped us off at a main intersection and we were taken on “vans” (which is basically a wooden shipping pallet attached to a tricycle, used mostly for transporting bigger objects, like furniture, around a city) to the village.  In Dhaka, I’m no longer allowed to ride rickshaws or even walk down the street, so sitting on the back of this as it drove down the road, with green trees all around, and the wind in my hair… it was just wonderful!  Such a feeling of freedom.

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Riding a Bangladeshi “van” – super fun!

We got to see some village savings programs groups. Basically, each week the women from a group all bring a certain amount to put in the communal pot.  An employee of TARANGO collects the money, notes it down in each woman’s pass book (and in the official ledger), and then deposits all of the money in a central bank account.  At the end of a certain period of time, the money is returned as a lump sum to each woman.  The larger sum allows the woman to make a bigger purchase, such as making repairs to her house, buying an animal, stocking a small store with goods to sell, or paying school fees.  These programs are very in-demand, and most groups want to enroll again for another cycle after finishing the time period.

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Women from one of the “Savings and Loans” groups (VSLA). I love the beautiful colours of their saris.

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Left: Awkward, mandatory group photo… Right: Children everywhere love having their picture taken, and seeing how they look on the screen afterwards!

We also got to meet some recipients of micro-loans for small business.  Cows (and other domesticated animals like sheep, goats, ducks, and chickens) are a popular type of micro-business for many families because they don’t require full-time work, and can provide a supplemental income (or food source) for the family.

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Left: A baby is left in a bucket by the pond while his mother washes clothes in the water.  Middle: Rice is apparently dried by putting it on the ground and spreading it around with your feet – doesn’t seem super sanitary!  Right: Baby goats!

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 Some cows even have their own mosquito nets!

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Left: You can see that people are now living in more modern houses, often two stories high, with western style furnishings.  Right: The front room of many Hindu households is filled with pictures of various gods.

In the afternoon, they prepared a “cultural presentation” for us.  They decorated us, and everyone sat in a circle while women sang, danced, and performed skits.  It was pretty fun, and the women obviously enjoyed themselves (they probably also liked having a chance to get a break from work for socializing).

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The women decided to dress us up for the occasion.  Valerie’s wrists were a bit larger than the typical Bengali woman, and it took a lot of effort to get the bangles off!

After dinner, Ruth wanted to visit a nearby village that she had seen on her last visit.  We all decided to join her.  People in Bangladesh are very generous, and they all wanted us to eat cookies, sweets, fruit, and other snacks at each house we visited.  People here also like it when you sit down, so we were constantly offered chairs, even though we were just on a house tour.  They were very proud to show us their houses, some even had a whole room just for storing rice, which is eaten at every meal of every day.  Originally, these women had lived in small houses made of tin sheets and thatched roofs.  Thanks to the income for TARANGO, they were now able to afford two story wooden and cement houses, with modern western furniture like beds and dining tables.  Some even had refrigerators (though they didn’t all have them plugged in – it was more of a status symbol).  It was during the puja Hindu festival, so we were able to see the women performing some rituals, and we could hear their loud calls late into the night.

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Left: Having a table and chairs (instead of the traditional practice of sitting on the floor), is seen as a status symbol.  Middle: However, cooking is still done in a large pot over an open fire outdoors.  Right: Hindus cremate their family members after death, but this small structure outside of their house is used to hold a small amount of those ashes.

On Sunday night after we returned to the compound, there was a crazy bug incident (you can read all about it in my last blog post).  Afterwards we chilled, read, and slept.  It was only 1 day but we had done so much!

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The bathroom situation…  Make your own toilet with a chair/toilet seat!

On Monday morning we got up early, packed our bags, and quickly rinsed off out of a bucket in the bathroom.  On the way back, we stopped at a tourist attraction.  It was the burial site of the “father of the nation”, who is credited with the birth of Bangladesh, after a war with Pakistan in the 1970’s.  It’s basically a beautiful garden, with ponds and trees and such.  There’s also some historic old buildings, and a museum with lots of pictures of the war.  There’s also an actual tomb.  Originally they weren’t going to let us in (because we’re white, or perhaps not Muslim), but eventually they did.  They said we weren’t allowed to take pictures, even though all the locals were taking pictures, and there was even a cameraman filming us as we walked around.  As we were leaving the police approached us and said we needed an escort.  They would bring us to a checkpoint, which is the end-range of their jurisdiction.  So, on the way to the ferry they had their sirens on and were driving quite quickly.  However, about 20 minutes later we were at the checkpoint.  Ruth decided to offer them a snack for “being so helpful”, though it seemed completely unnecessary to have their presence if you ask me, and actually drew more attention to us with the sirens.  But we were on our own after that, which was fine by me.

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Left: The front of the Mausoleum for the “Father of the Nation”.  Right: Maung offering cookies to our police escort, after they dropped us off at the check-point.

We were tired and most of us slept on the way back.  We took the ferry again (this time we stayed in the car), and were home by night.  It was a short trip (only 3 days), with lots of travel involved, but I am grateful that I got to experience something different – even for a few days!

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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