Follow me.... a VSO volunteer in Dhaka.

Now read on.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Chicken Man

I love this photo, taken at the nearby market.  I had to show you.

Down to work

Good morning! This was the fabulous greeting I got on one of my visits. I felt like the Queen, except that I'm sure she wouldn't normally take photos of people saluting her. She's probably stifling a yawn.


People have been asking what I'm actually doing while I'm over here. No, I’m not teaching slum children to read or helping peasants to build floating vegetable gardens (climate change is causing arable land to disappear). I actually spend most of my time sitting in a tiny bunker sharing the space with my mate Karen and the computer server, where mainly I'm looking at a computer screen or on the phone. We are lucky enough to have air conditioning but that was installed not  for us but  to keep the server cool. Out of the window is one of the ubiquitous blocks of flats where every day I see, in each apartment,  the women who aren't allowed to go outdoors without their husbands. They spend their days cleaning and shouting down to the one of the bicycle-barrows that ply their trade around the streets (veg, bread, toys, household items) . They discuss the quality, agree the order and barter the price at the top of their voices, with an errand boy running up to deliver the goods. They then spend much of the rest of their days looking out of the window obviously bored, bored, bored. It's cruel.

The photo shows one of the veg barrows - and a woman! She's probably a cook/maid.

Back to work.  My job title is Corporate Engagement Advisor. Which means that I am working to persuade big companies to join in partnership with the 'charity' sector to help alleviate poverty. There is a long history of philanthropy in Bangladesh, but mainly in the past it's been the company chairmen who have given lots of money to their favourite school or good cause. My efforts are to help companies focus their efforts on more sustainable projects - on health, alternative livelihoods, education, climate change adaption, small business development, etc. etc. 

Why does Bangladesh need the support? To be blunt, 85% of the people live lives that would have fitted in perfectly in medieval times in the UK. Because of the need to be constantly concerned with where tomorrow's food is coming from people have tended to stick with what they, their parents and their parent's parents, know.  The farmers are completely non-mechanical. Everything is done by hand.  Produce is transported by carts pulled by bicycles, fertilisers are almost unheard of, cooking is done in clay ovens with a particular solid fuel - shit. Sorry, but animal dung is squeezed on to long twigs or branches and then left in the sun to dry out, these are then put on the fire as necessary. Many of the Development Agencies including VSO are helping villagers by installing village biogas plants with gas piped to each home.  (Biogas typically refers to a gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Organic waste such as dead plant and animal material, animal feces, and kitchen waste can be converted into a gaseous fuel called biogas.  Wikipedia) People also do their personal and household washing in the ponds where fish are grown for sale. I'm not exaggerating. Of course some of the big companies have bought up land and get their tenant farmers to use modern fertilisers but, because labour is soooo cheap, they just don't bother to think about tractors or other farm machinery.

The job. I  have what could almost  – but not quite – be considered glamorous job here. Apart from writing strategy documents, I take people out to dinner, have tea and biscuits with the wives of industrialists, go to Gala evenings to smooze with Chief Executives, listen to interminable speeches, organise business breakfasts, go on tours of factories and am generally wined and dined. Well, not wined. This is a Moslem country, which although very moderate in its religious practices is still dry. So no alcohol. Sigh

Last week I visited a very successful company in Bangladesh's main export industry - ready-made garments (known as the RMG sector). So I'm finding out about what goes on the the enormous places that make clothes for Asda, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Decathlon, H&M and many, many more. I visited a company called DBL Group which employs 14,000 people in their complex about twenty miles outside Dhaka. They pride themselves on the good conditions for their workers and have health care, a shop that sells household goods at wholesale prices, a free day-care centre for babies and tiny tots too young to go to school, a zoo (??!!),  a play park for the children, a fish farm where they sell the fish to their workers, etc. etc. They are now concerned, rightly, about conditions in villages around their factories, and we're working on developing a project to provide safe water, better sanitation and better conditions generally for their workers in their homes. The reason things are so poor is that most of the workers are very young and have usually come in from the rural areas. So they send all their money home to their families and don't keep much at all for themselves. DBL will provide the money and we'll organise the technical expertise plus health awareness workers (teaching things like the importance of hand washing before handling food).

 The day-care centre

DBL is one of the few garment factories that makes its own cloth from raw cotton. Usually it's imported from China or India.

 Workers coming back after lunch. At the factory gate they have to split up into lines of men and lines of women. So there is no 'trouble' (??)

That’s enough on my job for now.  More on the dinners, galas, breakfasts etc. later. I’m wilting as the electricity is off – again, and so the fans have stopped. I’m sitting here with my feet up in case any cockroaches come out to play.

Here’s a photo of a lovely monster. We sprayed it and sprayed it, but goodness they are buggers to kill. In the end it spent the night under the mug. The next morning, armed with the huge can of killer spray just in case, I moved the mug and then got rid of the dead bug. Yuk. I've just realised that bug is short for bugger. Well it is as far as these bastards are concerned.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Mani pedi heaven

Manicure and pedicure, for the uninitiated. I'm back home in my lovely waterless flat (apparently it's going to be off for a couple of days. This'll be interesting.) But I must be feeling better, I popped into the Beauty Salon to find out if I had to make an appointment and came out 60 minutes later all spruced up.

What an experience. Pay at the reception and then follow the ‘girl’ to the mani/pedi area. This walk took me past the hair cutting area, the hair colouring area, the eyebrow threading area, the facials area, the waxing area, the arm hair bleaching area, the make-up area, the henna hands area. Anything else? Probably, but I was too astonished to see much more. Each area had at least 20 girls working furiously on 20 different bits of at least 20 different women’s bodies. The place was a beauty factory,  humming with activity, talking, laughing at the soap opera that played continuously on the TV in the corner of each room and sideways looks at the bideshi – foreigner – me.

I joined the ranks of women sitting at little tables with their hands and feet in basins of hot water with their hands and arms, and legs and feet being worked on. Well, no wonder so many of the women in the street have wonderfully clean feet and perfectly manicured toenails. Count me in. From feet to knees, and from hands to arm pits I was scrubbed to within an inch of my life. Basin after basin of hot water appeared. I was scrubbed with soap and brush, had face-packs (Leg-packs? Arm packs?) applied, washed off, scrubbed off, massaged off. Then lotion was applied. Then oil. Then the nail varnish.

How much? £6.

But would I trust them with my hair – or hair colour? Now that’s a different matter.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Brahminy Kite

Look at this. 

I didn't take the photo but there is a wonderful one living the the palm trees next to the lake. He would spend half the day putting on a show for me almost within touching distance.

Bugs, critters and the lurgy

What did I expect? Cockroaches pouring out of cupboards the moment my back was turned? Battalions of flies covering every possible, including human, surface? Mosquitoes the size of fighter jets dive-bombing the enemy with malaria? The Deshi equivalent of Delhi-belly, dengue fever, dysentery, cholera?  Yes, all that. And worse.

Well, happily I can report that so far - there are mozzies but not malarial, just the usual type - bastard. Flies. Where are they? I think I've seen five. What's the story? Maybe they overwinter in Africa and are gathering at the border waiting for the rainy season. Cockroaches. Well, yes. I've seen one. That was in the induction flat after the guys we shared with kept leaving food out at night. In this flat - none. We clean for England - or rather Bangladesh. Every scrap of food is put away when not being cooked or eaten. Every utensil is scrubbed and polished and stored away. If any cockroach dared to show it's face in our flat I don't fancy its chances.

As regards the lurgy, I didn't have all those jabs for nothing. But I have just spent the last four days sampling the joys of private hospital care Bangladesh-style so I've got the I-was-sick-in-the-Desh medal big style. It's really embarrassing to say it but I was hospitalised for a sore throat. Damn. I knew it was my weak link health-wise but to be hospitalised! Anyway, for those who are interested in such things it was acute peri-tonsillitis with complications (an abcess). Not fun. I hadn't been able to speak, eat, drink or later breath (much) for a few days and had to be antibiotic-ed, re-hydrated, re-whatever-ed intravenously. What can I say, it was a great hospital so it reminded me of France rather than England. The bed was soft, there was hot water and a TV. As soon as I came back to my senses I felt as though I was on holiday. 

One interesting feature to compare with both France and England is the Deshi approach to personal hygiene - mine not theirs. In England it's my problem; in France I'm pushed into a shower with a bottle of antiseptic the second I am admitted, then the day after my op I'm marched into the bathroom and 'helped' to wash myself thoroughly, again with antiseptic. Here, there is a woman whose sole job is to wash the patients by hand. She arrives with a big bowl of warm water and half a dozen muslin cloths and proceeds to help me out of my pyjamas and then wash me down from head to toe. It's like being a baby and having mummy look after you. After the shock of the first time, it's lovely. Just don't even think about being coy. I had three washes the first evening first to clean me and then to help reduce my fever, then twice a day after that. Lovely.

The brain is such a weird country. During my first night I had a nightmare/hallucination sort-of thing. I was convinced there was a rice paddy growing under my bed and it kept trying to spread but that no-one must find out. So I had to wake up to keep pushing it back under the bed. I've heard of monsters under the bed, but a paddy field? Hmmm.

View from my 6th floor room - and yes, it's pollution.

Bath time & washing clothes in the lake above.