Deciding to stay

“I love it here. I can see why you decided to stay.”

The email I get from a new volunteer makes me smile. In a place like this, first impressions count: if you can see what Bangladesh has to offer straight away – the engaging work, the welcoming social scene, the buzzing energy and optimism – you’ll find your feet easily.

A new intake of Australian Volunteers has arrived, and the rest of us are moving aside to make way: April has rolled by and my assignment has officially finished. Which means we’ve been here over a year – and despite all the challenges that this crazy place poses, I’m still in Dhaka.

Out of the 13 people I arrived with, two had to go home early and two have now finished up and gone home, but the remaining nine are still here, either extending their assignments or staying for a job. It’s a common story: people linger here, unwilling to give it up. After one-year assignments, people say they just have one more great opportunity they want to see out before they leave – and then they stay for two years, then three, then four. So what is it that makes people stay?

The amazing job opportunities

This is a big one. With a huge development sector funded by various major national and UN aid programs, there are loads of jobs here, where you can be doing interesting, relevant work with some really smart, creative people. Bangladesh’s development sector is known for being at the forefront of new programming approaches and out-of-the-box thinking as much as it is for well-researched and established projects that make steady and positive progress. You can learn a lot here. For entrepreneurs, it’s a playground of opportunities, market gaps and enormous, growing potential. Social enterprise is booming, with small not-for profits and ethical businesses growing out of every over-dinner conversation.

With a relatively small local middle class and no tropical paradise environment to recommend it as a cushy posting for international workers, here you can really access amazing jobs that you would have to wait patiently for for years in other countries. In Bangladesh you don’t dip your toes in the water, you get pushed, head first, into the deep end.

You can do something really useful

The job thing is partly career growth, but a bigger chunk of it is the satisfaction of having something to offer. It’s hard to put a value on being in a place that needs your skills and puts you to work – and in a way that will make a difference to other people’s lives.

The social life

For a city of somewhere between 16 and 26 million people (depending on where you get your data), Dhaka can feel like a friendly little town. The same faces – both local and foreign – pop up wherever you go, and thanks to it being a fairly transitory crowd, people will welcome you with open arms. Bengali culture is incredibly hospitable and foreigners of all stripes are embraced in a frenzy of fried-in-turmeric food offerings and genuinely interested questions about family. You won’t be lost in this town.

Living as far out on the edge as you can without being bombed

Someone recently articulated this for me really well. ‘We love it here because it’s crazy. It’s unexpected and weird and challenging but it’s not really dangerous. Bangladesh is about as far out there as you can go without really going all-out.’ This is so true – it’s not Damascus, or Kabul, or Mogadishu, and not by a long shot. But you’re starting to creep out into the Big Unknown here. It’s not Kansas any more.

The plan

So where does that leave us? Ollie and I are probably going to stay for another year. I have a contract with CARE Bangladesh working on their Communications and PR until November, and Ollie’s still working at UNDP, rolling from human rights job to human rights job as they need him. We’re thinking about leaving in March… Unless, of course, there’s just that one last thing around the corner…

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Kawran Bazar

“So do you take a rickshaw to work?”

“No, I can’t, it’s too far. I work in Kawran Bazar.”

“Kawran Bazar? What are you, a fish seller??”

Often people assume that I work in the posh Gulshan-Banani diplomatic area, because that’s where a lot of the international NGOs are located. Sometimes when I tell them I work in Kawran Bazar, I feel like I may as well have said my office is on the moon.

The biggest wholesale market in Bangladesh, Kawran Bazar is a sprawling network of specialist markets, selling everything from vegetables (under the tarpaulin awnings), to fish (near the lake). Cross the road to the big buckets of ice and you’ll find the chickens and meat; walk around another corner and there’ll be blankets, then lunghis and children’s clothes; explore further and you’ll find the knives and oily rickshaw parts.

Some of the stalls are huge commercial outfits, with truckloads of produce coming in from the rural areas every morning in big jute bags and wicker baskets, while others are tiny, just a small sheet laid out on the ground with a few cucumbers and green chilis for sale, presumably grown on the vendor’s own plot of land. I’m told that almost all the fresh food that comes into Dhaka goes through this bustling hub.

Rising out of this labyrinth of markets is my office. Surrounded by delivery trucks in the morning and gridlocked rickshaws by mid-afternoon, CARE Bangladesh occupies five floors of a tall glass highrise with its head in the smog and its feet covered in slimy cabbage leaves. This is where I work.

Our offices, from the market below.

Our offices, from the market below.

It really is madness – picking your way through baskets of chickens and trying to avoid slipping in the squelching mud and vegetable mulch that covers the roads, on the way up to the front steps. A wonderful kind of madness.

Some of my colleagues do their grocery shopping in the market in the mornings before coming to work, and I guess I could probably take advantage of it more often, but I’ve been warned that it’s hard to tell the quality of the food apart, and it’s common for some farmers and distributors to inject fruit, vegetables and meat with formalin to preserve it during transportation. So I actually haven’t spent a lot of time exploring it all.

Ever since I arrived in March last year I’ve been planning to take some pictures of the place. In December, while showing Ollie’s parents around town, I finally got a chance to do it properly. Here’s a few from that little excursion…

Politics, politics…

I feel like I haven’t been to work much lately…  In fact, thanks to some pretty energetic hartals and riots, and because my office is close to the centre of the city where the action is, I’ve been working from home since the start of the year.

It’s all thanks to the anniversary of last year’s elections on the 4th of Jan. The ‘victorious’ Awami League has commemorated their ‘win’ by calling it a national day of ‘Victory for Democracy’. The understandably miffed BNP opposition (headed up by Khaleda Zia) is calling it the ‘Killing of Democracy Day’. It’s all a bit out of hand and everyone’s very upset.

Here’s just a little taste of what’s been going on: The BNP wanted to have a rally objecting to the day…

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia this afternoon announced an indefinite countrywide blockade to protest government restriction on 20-party rally.

“The programme will continue until my further instruction. We will set the next course of action at an appropriate time,” she said while speaking to journalists after law enforcers barred her from getting out of her Gulshan office this afternoon.

Here’s how a friend of mine described it (far more witty than I could muster):

Current state of play in Bangladesh in the two days since I returned to work… Opposition party threatens blockade of Dhaka. Police form actual blockade of Dhaka in order to prevent threatened blockade from occurring. Dhaka still blockaded. Opposition leader blockaded in her office for several days after police and 16 trucks filled with construction materials mysteriously appear outside the front gate, blockading all exits. Announces indefinite country-wide blockade as retaliation for personal blockade. International NGOs blockade themselves in hotels in order to keep safe from the impending blockade in response to the blockade which prevented the original planned blockade. My home and office are unaffected by the blockade so I’m effectively blockaded-in with work in response to the blockade, which others are unable to do because of the blockade.

It’s really worth reading the whole story. Cos, y’know. Bangladesh.

In the field: Kurigram after the flood

In September, the end of monsoon season, I went out into ‘the field’ (rural Bangladesh) to some of CARE’s beneficiary villages. Across Bangladesh’s riverine char regions, low-lying villages had been inundated by devastating flood waters. As the great Jamuna river swelled with rain and run-off from the Himalayan snow-melts, the farming community of Rahamatpur (in the Kurigram district in the northern part of the country) watched most of their land erode and disappear.

After almost three weeks of flooding, the waters had receded, leaving wide, muddy flats where there were once productive fields, grazing land and crops.  The high water mark is visible on the sides of flooded houses, and the crops that weren’t swept away show a deep brown line where the water has left them damaged.

I took a few photos while we were there. The villagers had been through a tough period but in between the short rainshowers, the sun was starting to show through the clouds.

NO ONE goes to Bangladesh

So I’ve settled into my new job, found a house (more on these later) and am finally writing.

After a few posts on facebook, the other day I got an email from an old friend I’d met while travelling in Tibet. He asked what the hell I was doing in the Desh. Apparently a few years ago he and a friend had a spare week at the end of a trip to India, and had stopped into a Travel Agent to sus out their options. Looking at the map, they asked, “Dhaka’s not far – how much for a flight to Bangladesh?”

The agent deadpanned:

“What do you mean? NO ONE goes to Bangladesh.”

Looking around, the dusty streets, the poverty, the ugliness, the sheer lack of stuff to do or see… I can see why tourism isn’t really booming in Dhaka. The traffic’s nightmarish congestion is famous for a reason, and after 4:00 in the afternoon it’s really hard to get around. Alcohol is illegal. There’s not much street food, and what there is will probably kill you. They don’t even do chai. (This has been a private pain of mine since arriving as I’d staked a lot of enthusiasm on spending a year consuming mega-sweet, spiced milk drinks. It’s my fault, I should have done my research.)

So it’s not exactly a backpacker heaven.

So why go to Bangladesh?

I’ve never had the fantasy of being a humanitarian, leaping into war zones to save people’s lives and rebuild a crumbling system. I thought Emergency Sex was kinda bullshit.

Being here is a chance to live differently, to learn, to be a new person, to value new things, to challenge new things, to contribute, give, take…  These are life lessons. But work is life too, and in many ways I ended up here because on top of all those other things, I want my work to be:

  • interesting
  • useful
  • true to my values.

The last one is, for me, very important. Knowledge, storytelling and the beauty of the written word led me to editing… Wanting to work for an organisation that produced writing that was socially responsible, meaningful and analytical led me to publishing non-fiction… An interest in health lead me to an NGO… A passion for women’s empowerment, and the writing that can help make that happen, drew my attention to communication for social change, to CARE, and a place where the skills I have could actually make that happen – Bangladesh.

Of course there were other factors involved in each of those decisions. I needed a job, I needed to move to Canberra, I wanted a payrise, I wanted to travel. But I believe in keeping your ears and eyes open and following your nose – looking for opportunities to grow professionally and personally, and using your intuition to know which ones are right for you, which ones you should grab with both hands. For me, being in Bangladesh and working on CARE’s projects was too good a chance to pass up.

My boss asked me the same question this morning. ‘So Heather, why did you choose to come to Bangladesh?’

‘That’s a hard question to answer, Monjur. But I guess… To learn.’