Saturday, July 25, 2009

Final thoughts

I cannot believe the ridiculous amount of negotiating that goes on in Bangladesh. Just in the past 24 hours I have negotiated the price of the following items: multiple rickshaw rides, a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a suitcase, and roadside tee-shirts. I even found a way to negotiate my meeting time with Professor Mohammad Yunus. Yes, you read that correctly. I made the ultimate negotiation! (I was invited to meet him on Thursday but was going to be in Nepal so I will meet him Sunday). I have been trying all summer to speak with him, as he and Grameen Bank are Nobel prize winners, and I really admire the lifetime of work that he has dedicated to eradicating poverty in Bangladesh. The irony is that despite my incessant emails and phone calls to the Bank all summer, I will be meeting him on my final evening (and hours) in Bangladesh. I am anticipating our one-on-one meeting very much.

Interestingly, Grameen Bank is far better known than BRAC on the world scale. Perhaps this is because Dr. Yunus has a very charismatic personality and happens to have a Nobel prize behind his name. For whatever the reason it’s interesting that BRAC was actually formed before Grameen (early 70s), yet the world knows Dr. Yunus, and only Bangladeshis and very interested others know who Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed is.  I marvel at the differences in branding, notoriety, and media reach. I also question how much the drastic difference has to do with management and a concerted, continuous effort to attract media attention.

For this reason BRAC has finally published a book written by Ian Smillie. It’s titled Freedom From Want, and it chronicles the entire history of BRAC, its most important players, and programmatic evolution. I think it’s very interesting that the founder and the majority of heavy-hitting original program directors are still on board. I am fascinated by what will happen to BRAC once the senior management retires and how succession will affect BRAC’s mission.  Grameen and Yunus himself have published very famous books such as Banker to the Poor and Creating a World Without Poverty, but up until one month ago, BRAC had not. Therefore, BRAC staff is hoping that students and others worldwide will read this book, and I attended the official book-launching ceremony last week. Acclaimed Bengali writers, economists and professors were present, and I was interested by some of the critiques of the book.

The book highlights some commonly raised critiques of BRAC itself. For example, some claim that BRAC’s primary schools are substandard in quality. Yes, there are 38,000 schools nationwide serving millions of children, but many question the rigor and quality of what’s taking place within the schoolhouse. Therefore, some critics argued that spreading “generalizing substandard education is doing no child any favors.” Additionally, the BRAC/Grameen competition in Bangladesh was raised, yet many Bangladeshis refuse to cede that such a competition or tension exists. The point that interested me most, however, was BRAC’s relationship with the often-criticized Bengali government. One scholar at the book launch said that there is a “peculiar tension between the state and the third sector” that is involved in a “clandestine state of cold war”. Both parties share a common goal to promote development that is serviceable to all, but constructing bridges between institutions has proven very difficult. He also said that the because Dr. Yunus and Mr. Abed are so well-known within Bangladesh and to varying degrees abroad, the government should use these great men as ambassadors around the world because they have access to kings, presidents and other influential world leaders. Instead, the Bengali government maintains a cold, calculated distance from the organizations when it has great potential to more creatively integrate these NGOs and MFIs into the development process.

I have tried very hard to understand how adolescent girls maneuver and are treated in Bangladesh, but I have realized that I need much more than one summer to do so. In the past two months I have sat in the offices of CEOs and Presidents, the floors of mud huts, the beds of many girls and mothers, overheated city buses and many a rickshaw and buggy in order to learn about the realities of life for young girls in Bangladesh. In this process I have also come to learn an incredible deal about myself and how I react to new, difficult, and often challenging situations.

I had the opportunity to speak with a very eager group of high school interns last week at BRAC, and I was interested in the questions they had for me. One girl asked me if I had plans to come back to Asia to work in the future, and prior to coming this summer I would have likely said “no” with unwavering certainty because my interest has always been Latin America. However, I took a pause and reflected on my answer. Bangladesh has introduced me to living in a Muslim Asian country, and I’ve found that while wearing multiple layers of clothing in the summer heat isn’t fun, it’s manageable. And even though I don’t speak much Bangla I can manage on my own. At the end of the day, poverty is a gripping need all over the world, and while the door to Asia for me is not swinging wide open, it has been cracked; if given a wonderful and meaningful opportunity to work in the region again, I think I would take it. 

I will miss the amazing curries and naan, mangos, women beautifully dressed in saris, rickshaw rides, trying to communicate in Bangla and laughing a lot while doing so, seeing lush rice paddies, interviewing the girls, interacting with the two beautiful maids at the house, being the only girl working out at the Bengali gym, thinking of new ideas for the project, seeing goats and cows on the side of the street, observing children playing and making toys out of very common materials, passing impromptu tea stalls with men crowded around, and being exposed to at least one new thing every day. Things I will not miss, however, include: the most insane traffic I have ever experienced, pollution, sellers attempting to charge me outrageous prices all the time, not being able to go out unaccompanied in the evenings, men spitting (and more) in every which direction, beggars and particularly child beggars who make me want to cry, and incessant sweating during daily power outages.

Bangladeshis on the whole have been a very curious people. The all typically ask me my country, and they are very eager to know how I like Bangladesh. I usually say that I like some parts and not others, and they never cease to ask me to elaborate on the parts I don’t like, but I just smile and say that Banglaesh is “khub shundur” or very beautiful. It is a gorgeous country, but it lacks development and infrastructure in some areas like I have never seen. I will jump for joy the day that BRAC has an interconnected internet network among all of its branch offices so that its staff doesn’t have to travel across the country to manually fill out spreadsheets of information. I will also jump for joy the day that “ready made garment” workers are paid a fair wage. (Note: the U.S. is the largest importer of Bengali-made garments, so I challenge you to do research on where your clothes come from when you buy them.)

Now that I am leaving in a few days a common question is “When will you come back to Bangladesh?”, and I hesitate to answer because the reality is probably never. Undoubtedly I have enjoyed my stay here but for reasons completely different from past travel. I feel as though I have better understood human suffering on this trip. I have talked to girls who no longer go to school because their brothers and fathers squander money. I have met women whose lives have been shattered by poverty. I have traveled the country on a research hunt only to be reminded that the wonderful young girl who works in the house I’m staying in, Parveen, is only 17 and has been working for the family for years. She has largely skipped any semblance of a childhood and is very busy ironing the beautiful saris of the 18 year-old daughter of the house who will soon start university study in America. Parveen only finished grade 5. Seeing the sadness in her eyes disturbs me, yet what shakes my core is that at 17 she is sending money home to her parents to live, and this existence is actually a blessing of sorts for her. What is her alternative? Living in a tin shack with nine brothers and sisters and parents who do not make money. There is a very strong part of me that would love to have someone iron her sari for a day.

I thank the wonderful, hospitable people of Bangladesh for my enlightening and growing experience. I’ve been stretched to dimensions I never thought possible. I would again like to thank Harvard University and Nancy Klavans for their generous support in this adventure, which enabled exposure to and learning from a world I’ve never known. To my readers, thank you for keeping up with my blogs! I hope you’ve enjoyed, and I apologize for my lengthy entries. Brevity has never been my strong point, but I hope through my descriptions you have come to see the beauty, struggles, and potential of this diverse country. 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Queen of Awkward

I have been put in a ridiculous number of special, yet incredibly awkward events in the past week, but before I dive in I thought I’d mention a wonderful meeting I had with the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty. I have (thankfully) never been to a U.S. embassy while traveling abroad before (as this would signal a lost passport, etc.), but given my interest in foreign service and development careers, I persisted and asked for an appointment with the Ambassador. This was apparently uncommon, but the Ambassador liked the idea, so he contacted Grameen Bank and asked that they send all of their interns as well, which meant so long, private meeting, hello press conference! Regardless, it was a wonderful opportunity to ask questions about U.S./Bangladesh relations, his career path as an ambassador in Asian countries, and his insights concerning the future of Bangladesh. They were also nice enough to host us for a lunch with entry-level professionals, and I was beyond elated to have an American lunch (spaghetti!).

The next day I went back to the U.S. embassy because I had questions for USAID, the development agency of the U.S. Government. I am particularly interested in working for them in Latin America, and I enjoyed meeting with their gender expert. Because my project at BRAC centers around adolescent girls I had targeted questions about USAID’s involvement in adolescent development programs in Bangladesh. I was surprised to learn that there are in fact no direct programs for girls, and the assumption is that the girls will be adequately served as a by-product of USAID’s nutrition and other programs. I think this is something all too common. Girls are not necessarily being lifted out of poverty by learning about healthy nutrition. They need targeted, specific interventions, and they cannot be treated under the “womenandchildren” (yes, one word) bubble.

This past week was interesting in that I had experiences at the (cold) institutional level and also in a Bangladeshi home. I was fortunate enough to be invited to my boyfriend’s best friend’s engagement ceremony and party in Dhaka. His friend is Bengali, and they have been friends since grade school. I had been looking forward to this event before I even arrived in Dhaka, and it was nothing less that what I had anticipated. It was a particularly interesting situation for me to be in, for the wedding is quasi-arranged, I don’t know the family terribly well, and it’s quite rare for such a traditional process (i.e. Western Bengali returns to Bangladesh for his bride and has all of his ceremonies here) to take place. His grandmother, nanu, introduced the two of them, about a year ago, and next summer they will marry here in Dhaka. I don’t even know where to begin in explaining my observations because it’s an experience that was completely saturated with rarities, new experiences and extreme awkwardness.

The night before the engagement I was invited to the grandmother’s home for an exchanging of gifts. It’s customary for the groom’s family to send family members to the bride’s house to deliver the sari she will wear for the engagement along with a ridiculous amount of mishti (sweets) for the family. The mishti are fried dough balls soaked in honey/sugar water, and they are the sweetest things I have ever eaten. (I am also not permitted to eat just one.) Additionally, the bride’s family drives over and delivers the man’s outfit (in this case he decided to wear a suit and not a traditional Punjabi tunic) along with more sweets. I arrived and was ushered into a massive amount of people laughing, talking and eating a delicious array of food (with their right hands of course). Something I find very funny here is how people use beds here as additional seating space. There were fewer than ten people on the bed eating dinner.

Zuhair’s family is incredibly fun, and one of his uncles thought that having a quiet family dinner just wouldn’t do, so earlier in the day he went out a hired a Bengali band that apparently is famous in London with the Bengali community. They had beautiful voices and many members of the family also sang (many of the girls are trained), and it was beautiful.

The next day was the ceremony, but given our 3 a.m. bedtime, the stirring didn’t start until noon. I loved how so many people slept over at the grandmother’s house. Aunts, uncle, cousins, etc. all got up and couldn’t get enough of each other. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen so much love under one roof before. They didn’t have to be busy doing activities; they were content to just be with each other, and oftentimes they would all pile onto the family bed and squish to fit everyone. As there were many people and only one dining table (and two cooks), there was an unspoken rule of shifts of eating. As one group finished the other group would form at the table until everyone had eaten.

I don’t think the idea of nuclear family exists in Bangladesh. Both of Zuhair’s parents have multiple brothers and sisters, but I don’t think it would make much difference should someone be an only child. First cousins are seen as being siblings oftentimes, as many families live on separate floors of the same house. Additionally, the Bengali language is very rich in familial terms. There is no general word for “aunt” or “uncle”; instead, relational terms are very specific (i.e. “mother’s sister” or “father’s mother”) so that there is no ambiguity when describing someone.

Engagements are typically a close family affair, but because there were 200 invitees to this event, it closely resembled a wedding to me. In order to prepare for the event I went to a Bengali salon with Zuhair’s little sister and cousin to get our hair done (a.k.a. teased like in the 80’s and cemented with the stickiest hairspray known to man). The best part was wearing a sari for the first time, and one of the ladies at the salon intricately folded the seemingly endless piece of bright pink silk that surrounded me. (I have the most beautiful photos, but there seems to be a problem with my computer, so I hope to have them up soon.)

We got back to the house ready to go, but to my surprise, the majority of the family still wasn’t ready yet. Apparently it is customary for Bengalis to lounge around all day and then act as if a crisis has hit when it’s time to go. I observed the screaming and high tensions as 15+ people tried to get ready, but I smiled, as this happens in most families I think☺

The party was at the Sheraton hotel, and as soon as we arrived I found myself in a beautiful sea of saris and traditional dress. There is yet another exchange of mishti sweets at this event as well, and I was asked to carry a tray of sweets to place before the altar Zuahir and his bride would sit at. As I entered the room I saw the most incredible altar imaginable. It was nothing short of divine. For Bengali wedding ceremonies the bride and groom sit at the front of the room on this stage-like structure (which I think would be quite uncomfortable), and it was decorated with a dizzying array of beautiful white orchids, gladiolas, crysanthemums, etc. There were also soft golden lights hanging behind them and backlighting that lifted the stage into a heavenly glow. I have never seen anything like it, although those around me confirmed that similar arrangements are at most similar ceremonies.

The ceremony was remarkable, and it truly was a coming together of two families like I have never experienced. Both sides gave short speeches (although the grandma was unstoppable once the microphone was put in her hand), and the heartfelt and sincere love floating around was wonderful. Zuhair and his sister also made a hilarious movie/slideshow of the couple coming together in the past year, and it had the invitees in stitches. After the speeches and comments came what I’ve termed the “Parade of Jewelry”. Special friends and family approached the stage one by one and gifted the bride and groom with beautiful gold necklaces, bracelets, watches, etc. I later asked about Islam’s ruling on gold, however, because I thought that Muslims weren’t supposed to wear much gold. It turns out that there is a law or general understanding that you are not supposed to wear more than a certain amount (2.5 grams?), which I find interesting. During this gift ceremony I noticed that Zuhair and Mariam (bride to be) would kneel down to the guest’s feet, touch their shoes, and bring both hands to their chest two times. It was confusing to me because it appeared to be a form of extreme respect, and some guests allowed them to perform the motion, and others nearly wrestled them to the floor while grabbing their arms to disallow it. Apparently some people are very uncomfortable with the practice and think that the couple adequately demonstrate their respect in other ways.

On the way home in the van, one of Zuhair’s 10-year old cousins asked me a question out of the blue that took me aback. He said, “Um, Lauren, don’t you feel, um, well, awkward with all of this stuff?” I indeed had felt incredibly awkward at the event, and appreciated his understanding. Leave it to 10-year olds I suppose. I asked him to explain what he meant and he said, “Well, everyone around you is different, you don’t speak Bangla, the food is different, and you are trying to wear the special clothes but you say you keep tripping”. I laughed. This child was way too perceptive. I found his question really refreshing, and the whole way home we talked about courage to try new things and what he could do to help people feel better when they feel awkward. I had found a new friend by the end of the night. In fact, as he left with his family (3 a.m.), he turned to me and said, “okay, you’re valid” and gave me a hug for the first time. I laughed again.

Zuhair and his family had beat us back to the house, and when I walked into the room, I noticed that he was laying on the bed falling asleep, but the most endearing part was that he was holding his grandmother’s hand. As if the day hadn’t been long enough, the family still sat with each other and chatted until 3 a.m. The prior night I had slept with two other people in the same bed, but that night there were even more people, so we slept five in the same bed! Personal space does not exist in this country. People would rather sleep under the mosquito net together than sleep on the couch by themselves. I don’t quite get it.

This experience made an amazing impression on me, and I feel so honored and thankful to have been included in it at such a personal level. I think my idea of love, togetherness, and family support has been deepened, if not somewhat changed. After seeing a scrapbook Zuhair’s little sister painstakingly made for her future sister in law (complete with personal bios and fun, quirky facts about everyone in the family) I agreed with the final quote she included: “There is only one thing in excess in this family, and that is love.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Give the girls a chance


I experienced a very humbling and rewarding two days in the field this week, and I often found myself smiling while marveling at the opportunities for ground-level interaction that had been laid before me. I interviewed many people from a village called Dhamrai. It was an exhausting process that involved a really sweaty bus ride there (gasp! public transportation is not for foreigners, let alone women!) and hours and hours of interviewing through my tireless translator, Galiba, a spunky 3rd year student at BRAC University who has really impressed me. Not many young women would do the translation work she is doing for multiple reasons (time spent away from home, the grit of the field, disobeying her mother to perform a typically male-dominated role). Galiba and I, along with a BRAC staff member, hit the road on rickshaws and interviewed multiple adolescent girls (both married and unmarried), shop-owners, community leaders, etc.  in an effort for me to identify the viable markets for income-generating activities for the girls. Sometimes I found myself sitting inside of a tin-wall hut with mud floors. Other times I was at a formal desk or sitting inside of a shop, and I politely accepted many a cup of very sweet tea. (I still cannot seem to sit cross-legged very well.) On the whole our interviewees were beyond gracious and inviting. They provided information about their shops, their friends’ livelihoods, etc., but it was really hard for me to probe into subtleties. I think it’s only human nature for people to report the good and gloss over the bad.

I enjoy interviewing the girls because their stories never cease to surprise me. One girl told me that “she might be 18” (she’s either lying or doesn’t know because she wasn’t issued a birth certificate) and works at a garment factory one hour outside of her town. She goes at dawn with the other ladies from the village and earns 3,000 taka, less than $50 a month for her work. Another girl’s father died in the army and she said that she can’t even remember his face in a very matter-of-fact way without a shred of sadness in her voice. Another girl is studying in university. Another girl married into an extremely wealthy family and just comes to the girls’ club for socialization. All is not perfect in her life, however, as her niece accompanied her, and the little girl has severely misshapen hands and feet and is severely disabled both mentally and physically. Some girls have completed grade 10, others have only reached grade 2 even though they are the same age.

By and large, the girls do not realize the amazing skills they possess. They embroider and sew with mastery, and one girl even insisted that she show me a dress that she worked on for a year. I later asked if we could take a group picture, and she insisted that she wear her orange masterpiece in the photo (see above picture).

I really wonder about what incentive these girls have to learn and advance themselves. Their mothers tend to work at home rearing chickens, ducks, and maybe cows. They are often uneducated because families tend to be large; not all children can attend school. I was particularly saddened when I sat with a group of 20 girls and asked them to individually close their eyes and think of a successful woman they know in their community. Nobody could seem to come up with an example. Then I asked them to think of any woman they know or have heard about regardless of where she might live. Only one girl raised her hand, and she told me that her aunt works for Grameen Bank and is able to use a computer.

These girls lack access. They need institutional and personal connectors to have even the slightest chance of success, and I am feeling more inspired and frustrated every day that I am with them.

During my trips into the market I stumbled upon a really interesting Hindu festival. Bangladesh is primarily Muslim, but there is a strong Hindu minority here, and they were celebrating in the streets with painted faces, statues and flowers. I know that there have been many clashes between the two groups, and I have read a book by Taslima Nasrin, a famous author who was issued a fatwa for her writings about the religious conflict. It was nice to see such a vibrant community thriving, and I was taken aback by how differently the people dressed and adorned themselves. Interestingly, dress itself is a modern source of tension. Most Bangladeshi women wear saris, which tend to reveal a lot of skin in the midsection. I commented on this to a Muslim friend here because I found this custom contradictory to the very conservative tunic and baggy pants ensemble I wear every day. She laughed and agreed that the saris are revealing. She blamed their presence in Bangladesh on the Indian influence and opined that Bangladesh isn’t really religious. Not religious?!! How is that possible when I hear the call to prayer five times a day and I observe women washing their feet every day in the bathroom so that they can pray? I thought her comment to be extremely interesting and provoked a lot of consideration. She seemed to lament Dhaka’s modernity and praised the rural villages and Bangladeshis who live abroad and, in her opinion, are often more observant than those who live here.

I also had an interesting experience today because I visited the “American Club” in Dhaka. I had heard a lot about it, but I was not ready for the perfect tennis courts, basketball courts, gym, pub, and multiple restaurants that I saw when I entered. I realized that I had never been to an expat club before. I have to admit that the ability to run in shorts and order lemonade and a chocolate chip cookie later was amazing and much needed at my half-way point of being here. I saw them assembling a huge red, white, and blue tent, and it took me a while to realize that 4th of July was the day after! I missed yet another 4th of July, but I hope you all enjoyed. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Highs and Lows

I officially had my worst experience in Bangladesh. I’ll keep the description short, but that in no way reflects how much the experience impacted me. I decided last weekend to make the best of a sunny weekend day and tour Old Dhaka. I went to a famed palace, then a beautiful mosaic mosque, and later found my way down incredibly gritty auto repair streets to find some rickshaw art that I love so much. Because I was frequenting areas where white tourists usually don’t tread, I was receiving far more stares than usual, which means constant starting and harassment by little children. At the end of the day I had simply had enough and decided to find a CNG buggy to take me back (about a 45 minute ride) home. I approached a CNG driver who was leaning against his buggy, and he told me that he’d charge me 4X the price I paid to get down to the area. I balked and said I’d pay a quarter what he quoted, and we did a price dance for a minute or two until a nearby cop decided to fluff his feathers. He forced the driver into his buggy by the neck, and the driver hopped back out. The next thing I knew the cop hit the driver with a massive bamboo stick and the strike made me scream. The driver fell to the ground, and the policeman struck him again. I cried out to try to get the policeman to stop, but he hit the poor man a third time. The man had nothing but fear in his eyes and scrambled into his buggy to shut the metal door. By this point I had drawn quite a crowd, as I couldn’t control my screams, and as I looked up, all I could see were a sea of men’s eyes surrounding me. Next thing I knew someone was helping me into another buggy, and on the way there I scolded the cop for needlessly beating the driver. I understand that he was just trying to help a foreigner in a difficult situation, but as soon as I was on my way home I couldn’t hold back my tears. I felt responsible for the man’s beating, and I regretted ever having balked at the price. It was only a few dollars after all. The policeman’s unchecked power infuriated me, and I wanted so badly to report him, but I knew even that wouldn’t matter. I vow to not argue about prices anymore.

…on to greener pastures…

I have been making phone calls to directors and other NGO like my life depends on it, and I have learned how hard it is to arrange for meetings here. Things get canceled so frequently that I literally go hour by hour. I was able to meet with the head of BRAC’s microfinance programs, which was an extreme honor. I asked him a range of questions, as my expectations about microcredit before coming in large part do not match the reality I am seeing at the ground level. For example, many women aren’t starting business that they otherwise wouldn’t have without a BRAC loan. Instead, they are enhancing and growing business they already have, or more commonly, are giving the money to their husbands. I’m questioning why the women aren’t being more innovative. Are the loans really helping the overcome hurdles? It seems to me that BRAC is targeting women (for the most part) that have some sort of financial security to begin with.

I also had the honor of meeting with the director of BRAC’s education programs, and as a past teacher myself (briefly), I was full of questions. BRAC is in an interesting position because it offers primary education to millions of Bangladeshi children, and many argue that BRAC is a parallel government to Bangladesh. The BRAC schools teach children five years of primary education in four, yet there are no BRAC secondary schools (although BRAC does provide some training at the secondary level). I understand that BRAC is focusing on primary education for multiple reasons (i.e. meeting the Millenium Development Goals, raising all Bangladeshis to a minimum academic standard, etc), but I was left to wonder what potential could be untapped if BRAC created a gifted program for some of its students. The Director stated that he’d rather reach as many children as possible than provide extra services for exceptionally bright children, but again, this was an unpalatable answer for me. It seemed that he’d only be interested in developing costly gifted curriculum if a donor came to the fore and specifically targeted money to such a project. Any takers???

Today I had a very different set of positive experiences. Despite the torrential rains (yes, monsoon season has started overnight!) I was able to go to two other NGOs, and the meetings were incredibly valuable. I am finding that so many NGOs are doing similar work. In fact, my project here is almost identical to another that Save the Children is implementing. Why are they not communicating? Is there really that much competition for donor funds among NGOs? For this reason I have tried for weeks to arrange meetings with Save the Children and another organization called JOBS, and both meetings were today. I learned so much from the directors I spoke with. One was a Bengali doctor who is spearheading incredible programs targeting adolescent girls and the other was an American woman who is providing market assessment and job linkages for rural girls like I have never seen. It is a particular inspiration for me to see American women abroad making substantial, meaningful changes with an all-Bengali team.

Now my project will take me “to the field “ quite a bit because I do not feel as thought I’m working to the project’s potential in the 20-story, air conditioned BRAC Centre building in Dhaka. I put this in quotes because going to the field has typically meant an overnight or two to three day drop-in on multiple villages. We drive along in our fancy cars, stay long enough to do some interviews, etc. and take photos, but I desire to be more fully integrated as much as possible in the communities. Therefore, I am hiring a translator to go with me today, and I am going to throw embarrassment to the wind a bit and go on an interviewing frenzy. I plan on talking to anyone and everyone who will provide answers in a certain town, and I hope to report back soon with positive results! I fear I may be seen as a crazy foreigner, but in order to assess markets and start to devise livelihood schemes I need to get talking!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bengali whirlwind

I'm having trouble with the photos again, so I've put them at the beginning. The really long blog explains them:) 
This man is hand-weaving cloth. Can you see the other men peeking in to see me?
The persuasive cow owner is on the left!
At the morning money collection meeting
Me with the girl who insisted on picking me mangos


7-layer tea!


Bangladesh has not ceased to be a whirlwind for me. This past weekend I was invited by a BRAC volunteer (a British-Bengali who has been far too nice to all of us wee little interns) to visit his parents’ home in the Sylet district of Bangladesh. We left very  late at night to avoid the mass exodus of traffic from Dhaka on a Thursday night (the start of their weekend), so our van didn’t leave until 10:30 p.m. We arrived at about 3:30 a.m., and we were beyond delirious. The power was off (as usual) and all four of us ladies sweated profusely as we tried to fall asleep. His family treated us like kings and queens, and this experience really proved to me that Bengali hospitality is without parallel. They could not have been more welcoming or gracious. For breakfast they served us special vegetables, awesome flat bread, spicy noodle bowls, fruit, and special sweet desserts called mishti. It was ridiculous! It was warm outside that morning so two of his cousins even fanned us with hand fans. I t was too much. We quickly found out that “food” was the word of the day. We never stopped eating, and this, I came to find out, had really unfortunate effects on the tummy later. We literally had four full meals and couldn’t refuse any of them.

We started the day by  visiting a tea estate. What a treat! I have never been to an estate, and I was really surprised by how short, stocky, and robust tea plants are. Only the tops are a bright green, and this what the ladies pick for tea. Suhel arranged for a really nice man (I think he was related somehow) to take us around, and we walked in the sweltering heat, but we couldn’t handle it for too long, so we turned back. It was beautiful to experience the silence and beauty of the rolling hills. It was also nice to experience the fresh air after being in Dhaka for about a month now. The man touring us around didn’t say much, but he led us to his home and insisted that we sit in the parlor. I’m finding that most Bengali establishments and homes have a nice sitting room, and I kind of like this formality. Suhel had suggested that they serve us a light snack of fruits, but this turned into colas, the most amazing pineapple I’ve ever had, a mountain of french fries, roasted chicken and noodle bowls. I felt obligated to eat a little of everything because the food was beautiful and I questioned whether or not the family would have prepared such nice food for one of their own special occasions. I almost felt guilty taking such food from a seemingly humble family, so I think I ate even more than I should have to compensate.

We drove around for a bit in the Sylet region that day, and I was  impressed by its beauty. Sylet receives the most rain of all of Bangladesh, so it’s especially green, and it has many wonderful ponds that the children play in. It also has beautiful, vibrant green rice paddies. It was refreshing to see such healthy fields of rice, and the varying fields of green were impressive. It looked almost like a patchwork quilt. I enjoyed looking out the window and watching the women, beautifully wrapped in their saris, maneuver enormous bundles of hay and keep a few goats and cows in line. They seem so graceful in the fields. Then men, on the other hand,  toiled in the sun with huge oxen mixed the watery soil. I really wanted to stop the car and run through the paddies barefoot, but we had a special tea shop to go toJ

I insisted that we visit a tea shop listed in the Lonely Plant book (okay, okay, I know), but I’m really glad we did. It is famed for it’s 7-layer tea. When we arrived we saw that they had a whole menu, but I stuck with the classic. Apparently  nobody is allowed in the kitchen to see how this mysterious tea is made, but all I know is that when it came out there were seriously seven distinct layers. The varying densities of the different teas allows the layers to form, and I could clearly discern five (sorry, not a strong seven) flavors: cinnamon, ginger, sweet ginger, a red tea taste, and a super sweet layer. Yum. Suhel later invited us to his cousin’s house (but everyone here is called sister, brother and cousin, so I never know exactly how they’re related). I find this really interesting in fact. Because families are usually really close-knit and cousins more or less grow up with each other and are always in each other’s homes, it really doesn’t matter if they’re a cousin or a brother/sister. It’s all the sameJ In any case, Suhel’s generous offer to go to different homes in the day was extraordinarily special, and I think they enjoyed it a bit as well! The evening visit was really funny in fact because one of the little girls danced away for us and seriously knew all the music video moves to multiple songs even though she was only four (or nine, according together).

Sounds like a peachy experience in the midst of beauty and wonderful people, right? Yes, but then my body decided to reject one of the many things I ate that day. Needless to say, I have never been so sick in my life, and I will never take Immodium AD again; it’s useless. Note to self as well: when feeling nauseous do not take a van on bumpy village roads to a waterfall. It will result in multiple stops on the side of the road, extreme embarrassment, and the general feeling of death for five hours until you reach home again. Suhel arranged for me to see a doctor on the way back, and we stocked up on serious meds, but I tried not to take them all. All I really wanted was sleep!

His family was so wonderful that I wish I could have spent time with them in a healthy state. It was quite funny though because as I was trying to sleep a parade of women came in and started talking. I woke up thoroughly confused, and the dehydration, fever, and inability to speak Bangla didn’t help. I honestly could only smile so much before I decided that I didn’t care if for once I offended a few people (it was the extreme sickness in me talking), so I simply closed my eyes and played deadJ They got the hint and finally left, and he later told me that they didn’t realize that I was sick. They, like the rest of Bangladesh, just wanted to see the foreigner I suppose. Despite my sickness, Suhel’s family did manage to teach me a very popular Bengali game (kind of a mix of pool and air hockey), and I thought their system of putting flour on the board instead of a fancy air system to keep the puck slippery was ingenious. When I also felt a bit better I went to their backyard, which is really an understatement. I should say “back garden” because they have their own man-made pond that they fish from. The little cousin hopped in to scare the fish (he swears it works) while the older cousins used a huge net. 

We drove back to Dhaka, and there was something really refreshing about glancing out the car window down to a lake or pond with some water lilies and seeing an older woman or some children playing or bathing themselves. The Sylet district was my first exposure to the beauty of Bangladesh’s rural areas, and I’m itching to go back. Suhel had a flight to catch to London that evening, so we left in due time, but blame it on the sickness gods that the fan belt broke.  I actually thanked the gods that this did not happen the prior day in my extreme sickness, so I stayed put and waited while men tried to prove their worth with the car. One hour turned into two, which turned into more, and we continued to wait. I kind of liked sitting in the car and watching the people go by me in the window. It was fun to just observe people coming and going. What was most hilarious to me though was the insane number of people who managed to stop by the hood of the car in the time we were there. It’s not as if they can help either; they just stroll by and think, “oh, a problem, let me go stick my nose in it”. So they come over and look, stand with their arms crossed, and act like they’re doing something. Or they just simply stand there. Regardless, once they’re done being bored, they move on, and the next wave comes.

Suhel finally gave up on them and found another car to take us to Dhaka, so we hopped in, got gas, and were off. By the way, Bangladesh uses Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which requires us to get out of the car when filling up to avoid being killed if the car blows up. Hmnnn. Just as we were filling up, however, the driver of the other car (the family car and trusted driver) called and said they had fixed the belt. We put our stuff back in the initial car and were off! The only problem was that he was short on time for his flight, so the driver thought it would be wise to take all back roads. Oh, silly driver. This meant a good hour of bat-out-of-hell driving and me trying not to hit my head on the roof during bumps in the road. (Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it was intense.) We finally reached the airport, Suhel went in, and…Suhel came back out. He missed his 10: 30 p.m. flight! They were nice enough to drop me off at my residence extraordinaire, however, and I had a few hours to sleep, wash laundry by hand and get ready for a 7 a.m. pick-up for a three-day field visit with my supervisor.

Going to the field for BRAC work was an extremely humbling experience, and I think this trip had more of an impact than others because I was the only Westerner on the trip this time, and I was only accompanied by my supervisor and a (wonderful!) translator. I went to two areas (Pabna and Rajshahi), and again, it was calming to see all of the goats, ducks, chickens, and cows milling around and the people tending to their fields. We had the opportunity to meet with BRAC personnel in different divisions, and having the translator help me during my supervisor’s meeting was amazing. I noticed that I was extremely nervous to ask questions, however, and I think I am in general more shy that normal in these surroundings. I’m not quite sure why, but this needs to stop!

We met adult female leaders of the adolescent development program I am researching as well as staff that helps in the adolescent microfinance program. We asked about the kids of jobs the girls have in the region, and I definitely have my work cut out for me. We also had a chance to meet the girls themselves at some of their club meetings, and yet again I was painfully shy in these clubs! I think it’s a mix of not knowing Bangla and the feeling that every single move I make is being watched. Imagine 50 pairs of eyes on you (constantly). Visiting the clubs always throws me for a loop. I’ve been to three such meetings now. The girls are usually extremely shy and leap instantly to their feet when we address them or ask them their names. We immediately have to tell them it’s not necessary to stand whenever we speak to them. The club meetings usually take place twice a week from 4-6 p.m. and about 30 girls show up. We arrived at 5 pm and only two girls were there. Within 5 minutes, the whole village was packed into the schoolhouse, and it makes me wonder how much the girls actually go when visitors aren’t around. I tried to divide the girls in two groups informally so that I could have more one-on-one conversations, but inevitably the other group constantly looked over and tried to hear what I was asking. I’m also realizing that I can’t just pop into a village and expect to sit down, chat for 5 minutes and dive into questions. There are too many people gawking to see me; people even stand outside of the schoolhouse and look in from the windows! I have to admit, at first I kind of liked the celebrity effect, but now it’s wearing on me.

One striking observation I had involved the girls’ eagerness to work in handicrafts but their inability to find suitable markets and interest to sell their goods. One girl showed me a beautiful pillow cover she had made and a small shirt with painstaking detail. As I handled the fabric I marveled at her skill, and I naively asked her where she sells her creations. She laughed and said that everyone in the village knows how to do this work and nobody would buy it. I then asked her why she doesn’t send it to a market, and she said that she doesn’t know anybody who could take it for her. I started to inquire about this and found that some very savvy businessmen in Bangladesh have tapped into this rural handicraft labor pool in some villages; they go to the villages, distribute the cloth, sequins, and thread and come back to collect the goods and sell them in Dhaka for quadruple the price. The girls are merely used for cheap labor. I thought this was despicable at first, but my mind is slowly changing. What’s worsea feeling of worthlessness and isolation from markets which leads to no productivity or being used for labor and not being paid fairly? These girls need to get their products to markets, and I’m not sure what had been done to help them. The linkage of labor and markets is so complex that different NGOs (including BRAC) are trying to solve this problem in a fair way, but only a handful of villages are being served. BRAC, for instance, has a retail chain called Aarong, which sells goods that are produced in certain villages, and the goods are sent to the main cities. The problem is that the quality standards are very high, and the reach is small.

The best experience I had on the trip was during a morning meeting to collect the girls’ weekly payment. There was a really persuasive and tough woman there among the big turnout, and she got laughter and fiery conversation going, so I was hooked. She was a rail of a woman, but I noticed how artfully she had tied her sari and how her smile seemed to light up her entire face. She let it be known that most girls went to school, which is a good indicator for me, and she tried to serve us water and mango, but due to my recent sickness I thought it best to decline.  Apparently I wasn’t getting out of these sans mango, so they figured that if I wouldn’t eat the mango they had so nicely cut up for me that I would just have to take whole mangoes, so a young girl sprung up into the mango tree we were sitting under and picked me two fresh mangos!

The pushy woman also was very proud to announce that she had acquired and now cares for 11 cows. I could see the cows, and one of them was honestly the biggest cows I have ever seen (and in Bangladesh many cows are quite skinny, so I was impressed). She asked me how I like them, but little did she know, one of my strange dreams is to milk a cow, so I really wanted to ask her. My supervisor thought I had gone completely mad, so she didn’t ask her, but I have promised myself that I will milk a cow before leaving Bangladesh!

Being in the field with BRAC also allows us the opportunity to stay at the BRAC Training and Resource Center (TARC) facilities, which is a gamble. Some are really nice and others not so nice. We had amazing luck, however, and the staff at one place in particular really made me smile. They immediately served us mango, tea, and crackers as soon as we walked in and insisted on treating us like royalty. There was this one particular man who made it his mission for the 24 hrs. I stayed at one TARC to make my stay perfect. It was so over the top that all I could do was laugh and constantly tell him to stop. I am eating with my right hand a-la Bengali, so it gets covered in food at the end of meals, so I like to wipe it with a napkin. This guy literally stood to my left during the entire meal waiting to hand me multiple napkins. On the way back to the room I told him everything I know in Bangla, which is a whopping five sentences, but one sentence is “I love mango”. This was a 10 p.m. mind you, and a half-hour later, he delivered three beautiful cups of mango to us! Then in the morning he saw us leave our room for breakfast and literally sprinted to the dining hall like his life depended on it to alert the troops that we were coming. Then he acted like nothing had happened and that he wasn’t panting. Too much.

During our time there we went to a mango market (yes!) because mangos are the particular specialty of the town, and you’d think I’d have a wonderful town strolling past countless humungous baskets of delicious mangos. Wrong. “Strolling” involves dodging careening buses with people literally hanging out windows, sidestepping rickshaws and motorbikes, averting TONS of piercing stares, wiping sweat off my arms from men bumping into me, and hopping over huge puddles of garbage. Combine all of this under 40 degree Celsius heat. As we were standing among the craziness at the mango bazaar my Bengali friend muttered “I wonder when Bangladesh will be a developed country?” and for some reason it made a strong impact on me and my way of thinking about my work here. I was surprised at my own thinking in fact. I realized I have been thinking that Bangladesh may never develop to first world standards. In fact, my fear is that the situation will only get worse as global warming worsens and as the 150 million- person country expands even more. Her comment has made me stop and think about my efforts, ambitions, and future work in development. I think I have been focusing too much on making the poverty more inhabitable rather than eradicating poverty. How many generations will it take to fully develop Bangladesh? Is this really attainable?

Another thing that really struck me was BRAC’s lack of Information Technology infrastructure. I am not a technologically adept person, but I could not believe that project managers seriously have to travel five hours to meet with another manager to exchange data. Why is there no inter-BRAC database? Why aren’t the spreadsheets of basic information online? It’s all about cost I think. So long as labor supply is in excess and people are comfortable with paper and pen methods, BRAC will not likely change its IT infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a village girl could Skype with someone from the Dhaka office? We shall see.

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Too much to keep track of

Before I begin the blog, I've included some photos below from the past weeks that I hope you enjoy!


This is a photo from when we left the small village after our "boat cruise". Throngs of children typically follow us around wherever we go. 
People making saris by hand. Most of the people here were adolescents.
I thought this older brother was very cute. Because there are so many children running around, older siblings take on family responsibilities at a very young age.
Me with one of the microcredit borrowers I interviewed. She isn't smiling on purpose; people typically don't when they're being photographed formally (nevermind the girl in the back:)
Inside of the BRAC schoolhouse I visited...the kids are writing on slates and are very organized little people!
Mother and child at a village organization meeting.
This was not posed. The rickshaw driver merely stopped and this many males wanted to look at me up close.
The kids here have the most beautiful, inquisitive eyes.
I feel like her some days:)

I realized that for some reason I have been painfully shy about introducing myself to higher-level program directors and managers at BRAC. I think I was simply reluctant  to impose on people’s time, but after spending the week with a Canadian family a potential BRAC Canada originators, I realized that I needed to meet people…and fast. The past two days I have shamelessly, yet as politely as possible, sat in many an office. I actually really went for the gusto yesterday because I knew that BRAC’s chairperson, Mr. Abed, would be leaving the country. I fervently asked to meet him, and low and behold the CEO and President of BRAC International gave the intern group a half-hour of his time yesterday, which was most generous of him. I can’t recall ever being so nervous to introduce myself to a person in my entire life. Here he was, a person who had been the mastermind behind a now 100,000+ employee operation that affected millions of lives in Bangladesh. The wisened, grey man sitting in front of me is the chief of the largest development NGO in the world. How could I possibly ask him something riveting or novel? I decided I was thinking about it way too much and asked him a capacity-building and organizational change question. BRAC has had many loyal employees who have stayed with BRAC since the beginning in 1972 after the Liberation War, and these people are gearing up for their retirement now. Therefore, I was wondering what his greatest concerns were now that the senior level management, including himself, will likely retire in the next five years. His short answer surprised me.  He said that he was most worried that the majority of BRAC’s staff sees employment at BRAC as a means to a salary. He noted that without a strong, cohesive sense of entrepreneurship shared among the employees, BRAC may falter. I thought this was interesting because naturally as BRAC’s employees pass the 100,000 mark I would assume that its core mission that’s carried them through for 37 years will begin to dilute. How much can one reasonably expect of normal employees? Is it so wrong to do one’s job, accept pay, and go home? Or is this BRAC’s critical linchpin? Has the entrepreneurial spirit been what’s allowed them to expand to multiple sectors (retail, agriculture, education, healthcare, etc.) in all Bangladesh. Perhaps it’s not too much to expect of employees.

Another remarkable person I met today is the head of the legal services division of BRAC. She has a very distinguished career in international human rights law (a field that very much calls my name), and she graciously invited me into her office. I asked her why she wanted to work for such a large NGO and work for women’s rights in this country. I loved how she phrased it. She noted that BRAC does wonderful things and provides ample goods and services. It is great at providing supply. What it had been lacking, however, was creating an informed culture that demanded legal rights and representation. While one can help an acid-throwing victim after the fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to create a structure in which women feel protected and know where to seek help to prevent, for instance, acts of violence in the first place? There was no need to convince me. I am on board with the idea of educating women about their rights, and I loved learning about her staff of legally-trained advocates who she calls “barefoot lawyers” who go house to house in the villages. So long as BRAC provides band-aid legal service, women will not feel legally empowered. 

I was also able to attend a fascinating press conference that left me thinking about the shortcomings of Bangladesh's legal system and government. A member of the Bengali supreme court, one of the country's highest ranking barristers, and a woman from a women's professional council held a "press conference" in downtown Dhaka. I put it in quotes because the reporters and cameramen seemed to be a rag-tag bunch who streamed in as the statements were being made. Also on the panel of speakers were the humble parents of a girl who had been beaten 101 times for having a baby out of wedlock. The conference was held in opposition to the issuance of fatwas, which have severely limited and violated many women's human rights. Fatwas are religious rulings made from local village religious leaders (called Imams), and in large part they are illegal. Many people say that they are just a way for the Imams to make money, as they charge sizable sums from people who want them to issue a fatwa against someone.  The panelists said that in a country with legal, secular, constitutional rule, there is no space for religious law. The problem is that these Imams reign supreme in very poor villages. The largely illiterate and poor populations look to them for leadership even though they have only little education themselves. Interestingly, once a fatwa has been issue and a beating is scheduled, hundreds of villagers are informed, and about a week later they show up en masse to watch the beating. The police obviously know this is going to happen, but they do nothing. They want the entertainment just as much as the next person. 

In the press conference case, the girl's father was first beaten, and his arm was broken. Then he was forced to hold his daughters hands as she was beaten unconscious. By this point it was midnight (this is done purposely so that police and medical help can't find her in the dark), and the father rode his rickshaw with broken bones to the hospital to alert them. Medical help came in the morning. 

Totally non-sequitur are some observations I’ve made about behavior and culture since I’ve been here…enjoy! 

1)     Some aging men dye their beards with henna (natural ground up leaves), and their beards are bright orange! This threw me for a loop at first, but I’ve been told it has religious significance.

2)   Men clear their throats here in the most ridiculously loud way. I always cringe.

3)   I was told at dinner tonight that Bengalis typically do not say thank you, but this is not because they’re rude. Instead, it’s best to catch the person’s eyes in a quick glimpse and express gratitude that way. Don’t tell American children this or it may cause mayhem.

4)   Knowing the cardinal rose directions and basic numbers in Bangla has been essential. I could not ride a rickshaw without it!

5)   Bamboo poles hold up construction everywhere. The workers typically have no safety harnesses or helmets on, but don’t fret, the one thing they do have is a dust mask.

6)   Most middle and upper-class families have maids. It is still very hard for me to get used to, and when I saw that the maids in my house slept on the kitchen floor I did not know what to make of it.

7)   Men and boys tend to hold hands here, which I find very endearing, but sadly it’s still taking me some time to get used to it. I like seeing the affection!

8)   Women are typically not in the streets, and it’s really a city of men primarily. I do see women of course, but it’s more rare, and I don’t really notice anymore.

9)   Traffic here is completely nuts. Between pedestrians, small buggy-like scooter taxis, rickshaws, and fancy cars with drivers, walking really is the best bet at times. I’m amazed that I have only seen one accident since I’ve been here.

10The people nod their heads here in the funniest way. I can’t quite explain it, but instead of saying yes, they kind of tilt/jerk their heads to one side and almost look as though they’re unhappy about saying yes but are doing so anyway. Bizarre.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Getting in touch with the community

I’m settling into Bengali culture more now, which means being okay with sweating profusely all day long, washing tons of clothes by hand in buckets, eating rice until I’m blue in the face, and saying “asalaam wailaikum” whenever I greet someone. I have been wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, which is a knee-length tunic and baggy (M.C. Hammer style pants) with an orna, or wide draping scarf, over my chest. I’m also consuming the most wonderfully sweet tea known to the earth, and I really hope my teeth don’t rot before I leave. It’s also fabulous how I am even served tea (twice a day!) while at work. Why can’t we have this is in the U.S.? Another funny occurrence is power outages. They happen multiple times a day at BRAC, and work stops until the generator kicks on. It also happens at home, and we’ve had a few dinner by candlelight, which has been nice.

This past week I spent considerable time in a village about three hours to the north of Dhaka called Mymensingh. It was really refreshing to leave Dhaka and enter such a nice, wooded area with deep green trees and (only half-way contaminated) ponds. We (intern group) took a city bus there, which was replete with spitting, sweat, relentless honking, and life-or-death swerving. I’m not sure if anybody was riding on the top of our bus, but I saw countless busses pass us where this was the case.

We stayed at a BRAC training facility, which means we were able to eat meals and interact with many people who were being trained as new employees for BRAC (primarily many new teachers), which was interesting. This also marked my first (repeated) experience with a squat toilet, and I learned to love them for good or for bad. During our week there we were able to observe Village Organization meetings, which is when the women borrowers come together (weekly) to pay their loan installments to the officer. We saw the lowest loan level, Dabi, the mid-level, Unnoti, and the highest level, Progoti. We were also invited into different people’s homes to interview them and learn about their fascinating life stories, which typically revealed some rather interesting information about how they came to be involved in BRAC. I was really glad that my na├»ve blinders were loosened a bit, as I learned that village loan officers have a 600 person quota (recently doubled from 300), and they also have to disburse 500,000 taka (about $7,400). No pressure. We heard some eyebrow-raising stories about pressure, corruption, and loss of assets; I am interested in continuing to investigate these issues further. If anything, however, I learned that asking questions and getting honest answers is not as easy as I thought it would be. The women are prepped and guarded in their responses; it’s only natural that relationships must be formed before I can begin to interview them in-depth. One woman, however, went into great detail about how she had felt pressured to buy a cow with a BRAC loan. I asked her how this generated income for her, and she said that it’s not right now. Her sons give her money to pay off the loan. I then asked her why she didn’t just buy the cow with her sons’ money instead of paying interest on a BRAC loan. The officer had blackmailed her.

Our trip also exposed us to a BRAC primary school, and I found it really touching. The kids use really old slates, and I could tell that the teacher was only having them do exercises she was sure they knew well in an effort to impress us. What impresses them, however, is song and dance, so before I knew it I was singing the 50 U.S. states in alphabetical order! They sang some wonderful songs, and I couldn’t get over how well-behaved these kids were (especially because it was a one-room schoolhouse and the kids were of varying ages). I assumed it was just for visitors, but the teacher informed me that being given the honor and opportunity of attending primary school is not taken lightly; they are apparently this well-behaved all the time! It made me really think long and hard about the K-5 students I tried to teach last year and the lawlessness that ensued daily.

I also had the opportunity to sit in on an adolescent peer leaders training, and it was a humbling experience. The girls were talking about menstruation and sexual harassment, which made for lively conversation, but after a while, they just wanted to ask me questions. They started with harmless questions, but then they moved for the big one: “Are you married?” Mind you, I had spent almost a half-hour talking about my family, my studies, travel, etc., and I had an unimpressed audience. The moment I said I have been dating someone for six years, thunderous applause and beaming smiles showered me. I was taken aback by their enthusiasm and brushed it off lightly, but I later got to thinking about just how important marriage is to Bengali women and girls. I had only been validated by a man’s presence in my life. Ouch.

Something I find interesting is that two out of three women get married before the legal age of 18 here. Sixty percent become mothers before reaching 19. Maternal mortality for adolescents is double the national figure. The kicker is that in rural communities, girls cannot leave the home unaccompanied after puberty begins. Basically after puberty hits they are very protected and pass from the hands of their family to the hands of their husband’s family. Something I find interesting is that men can technically have up to four wives here (someone told me this was extracted from a story in the Koran, but I have yet to do more investigation on this one). In addition, men can initiative divorce very easily, but this is not so for women. Therefore, if two young people get married and there’s no dowry involved, the husband may (later) beat her excessively so that she will leave on her own will. This frees the husband’s family from having to pay any money to the girl, and he can remarry and receive a nice dowry if he didn’t get one in the first marriage. Interestingly in 1980 Bangladesh saw the Dowry Prohibition Act, but it has been largely ineffective. Dowries still cause grave problems, and sadly, women are at the losing end.

As I mentioned before, the girls won’t let you leave unless you’ve sung or danced, so this time, I decided that Twinkle Twinkle wouldn’t cut it, and I decided to teach them what I know best: salsa dancing. I hadn’t thoroughly thought through the cultural ramifications of this action, and I soon realized that the idea of dancing with a male counterpart would be extremely taboo, so things became very interesting…quickly! The girls loved it, and I reveled in bringing some Latina spice to the hills of Bangladesh☺ Nothing wrong with dancing with the air!

While at the BRAC training center I heard some interesting music one night, and I stumbled into a really fun dress-rehearsal for a theatre performance. I sat down to watch, and everyone stopped to introduce themselves to me. After about 30 people spoke, it was my turn, and they skipped me! I cleared my throat and asked to introduce myself because my beginning Bangla class had at least taught me this! I said, “Hello my name is Lauren, and my country is America. I work at BRAC and I am very happy to be here.” I was a bit nervous to say this, so my eyes were fixated on the floor, and the room was S-I-L-E-N-T. I looked up to see what I had done wrong, and as soon as I made eye contact there was an exuberant, unending outburst of applause and smiles! It was awesome! I laughed like the giddy teenage girls I had seen earlier in the day, and I was happy that my little effort in Bangla meant so much to them.

The next day we traveled with the performance group to site of the play in a nearby village. Because we got there so early, things were quite strange, as everyone just gathered ‘round us and stared as usual. I was incredibly uncomfortable with this cold, fish-bowl-esque (non) interaction, so I drew a hopscotch board in the ground. Everybody looked at me like I was nuts, and they were further confused/shy when I jumped around on it. I thought the 40+ kids watching would want a try at it, but most Bengalis, I have learned, are painfully shy. I finally got a man in the “audience” to try it. Everyone cheered, and then he chose the next person. (Tricky of me, I know!) Then we passed more time playing the Bengali favorite: cricket. I had a great time attempting to “bat”, but it was really hard, as the bat was made of the heaviest piece of wood ever.

The performance was wonderful, and it was BRAC-sponsored. I thought it was really interesting/questionable how BRAC brings the idea of microcredit to villages through multiple media. I think performance theater is an ingenious idea because both kids and adults turn up for the free event, and microcredit is presented in a fun, comedic vein that piques the non-borrowers’ interest.

The crowning even at the BRAC center, however, was our last night. I saw some girls outside playing volleyball (which was shocking because I haven’t seen girls playing sports at all). I immediately jumped up from the table to join them. They tenderly and artfully tied my orna (huge scarf) around my chest so that I could be covered and not worry about modesty while playing. The moment you have multiple white girls playing volleyball, however, a crowd forms, so our fun little game soon grew into a really competitive game with men, but I stuck in there! I also played Frisbee with some of the small kids, which was even more fun because they had never seen a Frisbee before, and it was a good (not high energy) activity that the girls took to more.

The trip to Mymensingh had its low points as well. I did my fair share of interviewing, and one young woman really put me in my place. I saw her overlooking a VO (Village Organization) meeting, and I went up to her with a translator (which I also don’t like using, but we’ll see how that goes). I asked her if she currently participated in an income-generating activity. She said, “No, I’m married.” I asked her if she had other married friends who were involved in an enterprise. She replied, “yes, but they have to work, and I don’t .” Okay, fine, I thought, so I asked her if the idea of having her own funds to buy extras or surprise her husband seemed appealing. She looked me square in the eye and said, “Listen, I am happy how I am, and I like my life. My husband takes care of me completely, and that is all I need.” I don’t know why I was so shocked by her answer, but I thought to ask her one last question: “What happens if, G-d forbid, your husband dies?” She had had enough. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” she said.

Other young women blew my socks off for opposite reasons. One 20-year old I met went to university, taught classes part-time, and had a small sewing business that was beginning to boom. She had thought through a marketing strategy and had gone to fancy stores to eyeball the most recent designs so that she could later replicate them! Talk about keen sense of supply and demand! Some of these young girls have amazing energy and innovation, and I am really excited to work with and learn from them more. An interesting roadblock I have confronted, however, concerns fear of loans. Some of the better educated girls are afraid that loans may take away from their studies, and really poor girls are turned off by the idea because they’re frightened that they will not be able to pay the loans back. Therefore, the target populations BRAC works hardest to reach shy away for different reasons, and part of my goal while I am here is to help think of ways to combat this problem.

On a different note, my host family invited me to go on a “boat cruise” on one of the rivers near Dhaka lat night, and I jumped at the opportunity to go. I was sorely disappointed when I realized that they were not in fact going with me. The ticket was also quite expensive, so I assumed that it would be a very interesting glimpse into the life of well-heeled Bengalis. Instead, it was an overpriced tour on a fishing boat for Westerners. We made the best of it, however, and the tour actually took us to a very interesting riverside village. When we got off the boat and started to enter the village, a friend of mine here asked me if I thought we would see child laborers. I said with 100% certainty that we would not because this village was used to inviting tours in, etc. I was really surprised to see many adolescents painstakingly make saris by hand. I asked how many hours a day they work, and first I was told 9 hours, then I did the math with miniscule breaks, and it came to 14. As if that didn’t have my reeling, I entered a really loud umbrella factory, and a young boy was working spools of string. That factory honestly sounded like a train barreling through my ears, and I can only imagine working there all day long.

Being on the river was really refreshing, and we were able to see many children joyfully playing on the banks, swinging from trees, and waving their hands like complete hams to try to get us to wave. Women washed clothes on the steps and stones, men tended to the animals, and others repaired boats. It was a peaceful end to a really hectic, enlightening week, and I am thankful for the opportunities and growth it provided.

On a much sweeter note for those who know me well, don’t fret, I am yet again eating my body weight in mangos!! They are hands down the best I’ve ever had☺