Monday, September 24th, 2007

Notes from Bangladesh, September 22 2007

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 05:47

My father is working in Bangladesh these days. This is his latest letter, published with permission.

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Dear family and friends,

I’ve been back in Bangladesh for about a month after three months away. Vivian and I had a busy summer. Happy times in Ottawa with Alison, M., Bertha, Matthew, Vivian’s mother, and friends… and a contracted version of the annual birthday barbeque. Short visits to Cortland – including the Port Watson Street Canada/USA Birthday Party. Two weeks in Vancouver and environs, welcoming Daphne (newest granddaughter). And two weeks in England visiting with friends, Vivian’s relations, and Danjuma and hiking in the Lake District. Busy, and rewarding.

My plan on returning to Bangladesh has been to spend as much time as possible in schools – assessing what government can do to support teachers’ professional development at the school level; and finding out what teachers and well-functioning schools can do to support their colleagues. This is paying off. The primary system has been in decline for the past several years, but now we are finding pockets of locally initiated innovation and collaboration (through necessity). Documenting this supports our bottom up approach in opposition to the top-down bureaucracy.

The attached photograph is from one of the school visits. The little girl was sitting inside the classroom door when we were ushered in for a ‘cultural event.’ She was so small, I thought she might be being baby-sat. Our first entertainment was an older girl who accompanied herself on the harmonium singing classical Bengali songs. Competent and affecting. Then the little girl took her place in the front of the classroom and waited for her music. She danced for a full ten minutes with sensitivity, variety of movement, and extraordinary skill. She never slipped from her program, as far as I could tell. She stopped when the music stopped and received her applause without changing her expression. She accepted the praise of the women in our group apparently without needing it. A tiny, confident, and accomplished artist.

girl in schoo uniform in front of blackboard

We are now in the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is all about fasting, and fasting is all about food. From sunup to sundown observant Muslims neither eat nor drink (even water). But there is makeup time throughout the night. The fast is broken around six p.m. with ‘iftar.’ I think iftar is supposed to be a light meal, but from what I see on the street the public face is about frying things in oil… mainly meat and vegetables. The iftar Beli [cook-housekeeper] serves is quite different. Tonight it was haleem, a mixture of pulses that she stewed in a beef curry. We topped it with cucumber shreds, ginger, green chilis, onions, tomatoes, and chopped coriander.

As iftar finishes, the faithful are called to pray. The men walk in hordes to the mosque wearing long white robes and prayer caps. Women stay at home. (Beli prays on a prayer rug in her room.) Following prayers, serious eating can begin… but last night we both agreed we don’t need a second evening meal. Beli was hungry a good part of yesterday because she had not had enough appetite to stuff herself when ‘suhoori’ came around. Suhoori is the last meal of the night, prepared from three-thirty onwards and eaten shortly after four (followed by prayers and then serious napping). We have our own rituals for Suhoori. Mullahs shout out the wake-up call from the microphone tower at 3:30 a.m. Beli has an arrangement with the guards to phone her and report the mullahs’ announcement. My task is to listen for the guard’s call and wake up Beli. Beli shouts that she needs ten more minutes’ sleep. I go to my computer and think charitable thoughts. By shortly after four, Beli has assembled suhoori, which she eats while I watch. Eating done, she prays and then goes back to bed. I may work for a while, then go out for a run. With everyone napping, the streets are quiet and the park is nearly empty. Beli gets up around seven to make my breakfast. Life is good!

This morning, there were Rapid Action Battalion police sitting around the entrance to the park on the embankment at the end of the lake and in inflatable boats on the water. This might have something to do with fundamentalist rallies yesterday… over a cartoon published in a satirical magazine. Maybe the police thought the crowds would try to drown the cartoonist.

The entrance to the park is the centre for another kind of action. A couple of weeks ago at around 5:30 in the morning I shuffled my way past a collection of young ladies trolling for rides home to finish off their night’s work. As I moved past them, the whole group rose like a flock of swallows and ran along beside me, touching my arms and shoulders and giggling in their saris. I picked up my pace and quickly outdistanced them. I am sure they would have done better with better shoes. Still, it was nice to see entrepreneurship combined with healthy living at this time of the day.

Affectionately, P.

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