Long time no hear

May 13, 2004

I’ve been back in Dhaka for 13 days after returning from Netrokona on 31st. To be honest, apart from lying beneath the fan, we didn’t do much these days; the heat and the humidity are paralysing by now. Today it had 40.5 centigrade and 78% humidity. And the climate in Dhaka is even worse since the city virtually is a concrete desert and heats up so much that you get roasted (or better steamed) from all sides. Last week we met Quaium Khan, the executive director of CUP with whom we want to do the relief work in Karail. We talked about how to turn the collected money into relief goods and how to distribute them. The biggest hurdle is transferring the donations from NETZ’s bank account to CUP’s account since it requires a lot of bureaucratic work. We agreed to carry on fundraising for another three to four weeks and then to transfer all the money at a time to save charges and office work. With the money we will then cover as far as possible the most urgent remaining lots of the relief programme.

Now about Netrokona: While Sarah was working for NETZ in Dorshona, Silvia and I went with ASK (another partner organisation of NETZ) to the north. After a chaotic taxi ride (we had to push the taxi from a quite busy intersection after it went belly up…) we reached the office of ASK and met with Niko, a NETZ volunteer, and Saba, the ASK worker who was conducting the project in Netrokona. From there we took a Rikshaw to the bus stand, sounding simpler than it was. Since there were four of us, we had to split up on two Rikshaws and quickly lost each other at the first intersection. While Silvia and Niko obviously managed to get to the bus stand without further problems, Saba and I ended up in a huge demonstration of the opposition party that once more had to vent its anger against the government in a tumultuous and deafening way. We didn’t manage to fight through this chaos until half an hour later when the bus was of course long since gone. So quickly into the next CNG (these small, green, three-wheeled baby taxis) and to the next bus stop, where Niko and Silvia persuaded the driver to wait for us. But since we lost more precious minutes in the obligatory traffic chaos, and since the bus driver – to prevent a mutiny – left at last, we finally had to take the local bus that stops in every small village between here and Netrokona. So far so good and after six and a half hours we finally breathed the clean air of Netrokona (of course not without having to look for the bus, which drove a few hundred metres from where I was taking a short bathroom brake).

ASK is working together with local partner NGOs all over Bangladesh to improve the position of women in the rural, mainly conservative society. They try to raise awareness for this issue through theatre projects and plays that deal on typical everyday problems of women in Bangladeshi society. Those plays are interrupted at key moments and the solution and further plot is then discussed with the audience. Theatre is traditionally a very powerful media in Bangladesh.

A second approach to improve women’s situation are law consulting groups that provide legal advice and help to the women. The Bangladeshi legal system includes so called village courts that – due to the bad accessibility of the rural areas – enjoy some legally and locally limited sovereignty. Due to the clan oriented power structures however, those village courts often decide in favour of the socially stronger party, regardless of the legal situation. Furthermore, capital crimes such as rape or murder often don’t reach the responsible courts; they are much more illegally tried in the villages, avenged with ridiculous fines and then hushed up. ASK tries to fight those grievances.

Actually we wanted to photograph the theatre workshops and meetings during the monthly monitoring, but since five days prior to our arrival a disastrous tornado devastated much of the area around Netrokona, the programmes were either changed or completely cancelled. Instead, we went to the affected villages to distribute some money and clothes which ASK had arranged for the participants of their programmes.

The sight of the destroyed settlements was heavy. In the rural areas, Bangladesh consists mostly of widespread rice fields with small assemblies of houses and farmyards in between. In this landscape, the tornado tore a trail of destruction. While some villages were hardly or not affected at all, others practically ceased to exist. Two metre pieces of corrugated iron were wrapped around tree stems like napkins five metres above the ground. That is, if there were any tree stems left. Huts and houses had been torn apart totally and their remains were spread in all directions, and on the fields, the rice grains had been sucked from the spikes so that the peasants not only lost their belongings but also their crops. 73 people were killed in the disaster. The wind even tore the saris off some women’s bodies, and since some of them only had one, they did not dare to come out of the remains of their huts because they were naked. Hence a lot of them missed their share of donations of cloths and food that were distributed by relief workers.

Despite all these depressing experiences we had the possibility to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the countryside around Netrokona. On eternal Rikshaw rides to remote villages we passed through vivid green rice fields with crickets chirping during the days and billions of fireflies shimmering like a sea of stars at night, and through far-flung farmyards silently hidden beneath palm trees and jackfruit trees. After two months in smelly and deafening Dhaka, the peaceful countryside seemed like the paradise to us. All the more I’m looking forward to fleeing this Moloch again and going to the south of Bangladesh for ten days, even if it is probably yet hotter there…

Filed under: Bangladesh

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