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     Volume 4 Issue 41 | April 8, 2005 |

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Bringing the World Together

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

The British Council has seldom been more lively. Debate, discussion, music and laughter of scores of youth filled its auditorium and grounds last week.

"We put henna on our hands, painted our faces and listened to baul music! It was a lot of fun!" says Sonia, a student of Dhaka University.

Sonia was one of many young people who attended the recent British-Council organised Connecting Futures Festival from March 25 to 29. Hundreds of youth from around the country -- as well as a handful from abroad -- gathered on the Fuller Road grounds last week to celebrate the common bond of youth, irrespective of differences.

The Connecting Futures (CF) programme was started in Bangladesh in 2003 by the British Council Bangladesh with the aim of learning as well as building mutual understanding and respect between young people from different cultural backgrounds.

Initiators of the CF programme believe "There is a growing need for societies at many levels to engage with and learn from each other. Bringing people together has never been more important or as necessary as today. Every individual's energy and ideas are needed to build a global community that solves problems together and respects and learns from the diversity of cultures."

In the last two years, the programme has built several networks between young people in the UK, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Last week's festival was organised in order to bring youth from around the country along with representatives of partner projects in the UK together to discuss local as well as global issues such as human rights, ethnicity, gender equity, democratic values and cultural appreciation. A variety of programmes, from discussions and workshops to debates and theatre were organised surrounding these and other issues.

Bangladeshi partners present were Working for Better Life (WBL), Centre for Communication Development and Policy Studies (CCDPS), Centre for Development Communications (CDC) and Democracywatch.

The UK participants included Changemakers and the Scottish Youth Parliament. Changemakers was started with the belief that students in the UK went through the whole education system without really learning much about the world around them. It aims to teach young people to tackle social problems and to help them lead the way to change. The Scottish Youth Parliament was started in May 1999 and meets three times a year to assert the collective voice of youth in Scotland.

After the inauguration of the festival on March 25, a Bangla debate by students of Dhaka University, Stamford University and Rajshahi University was held on whether "right now, true leadership is what is needed for a better Bangladesh". This was followed by "Adda" sessions on religious, political and social tolerance-- what they mean and how they can be brought about -- through education, knowledge-sharing and cultivation of an attitude of mutual respect.

"Adda", meaning an informal discussion in Bangla, is a unique concept in the CF programme, aimed at involving youth in dialogue where they can express their opinions on different social and global issues. Students from schools in Kuakata along with university students from the UK participated in the adda. They recognised the importance of diversity and, along with it, the need for tolerance between diverse groups in different societies around the world.

"Adda" is a young concept in the UK, said participants from the University of Bath. It started only last February, but members have been meeting up each week since, talking about things like religion, tolerance and immigration. The students from the University of Bath also expressed their hopes of getting a creative writing group to write up a script of their adda and turning it into a theatre production in the future so as to reach out to a wider group of people.

The second day of the festival, March 26, was dedicated to the Independence Day of Bangladesh, with presentations, film shows and a musical programme on the theme of the Liberation War, followed by a quiz and cultural programme in the evening.

The last three days of the event featured a number of discussions on different issues, a photography workshop and various cultural programmes, including dramas by the participating groups and a band show. A number of sessions were also spent in charting up future action plans for the CF project.

A session titled "Hard Talk" featured a live interview of two politicians, members of parliament from the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and opposition Awami League (AL) who faced a number of questions on politics and youth posed by interviewer Muhammad Jahangir as well as the young audience. All parties stressed the importance of free, fair and healthy student politics. The interview session showed that the youth in Bangladesh are a force untapped since the Language Movement and Liberation War of the nation.

Another interesting segment of the festival was the experience-sharing between the young people visiting from the UK and local youth. Differences were apparent when the two groups were made to write down their feelings on various matters. While the UK students finished the sentence "I am . . ." with phrases like "global citizen" and "agent of change", the Bangladeshi group emphasised their "Bangladeshi" nationality the most, along with "fighter" and "the future". Other such descriptions of the education system in both countries ("free for all until age 18" and "apolitical" for the UK group and "struggling for betterment" in the Bangladeshi group and family values ("moving away from defined gender roles" and "equality of adults and children" in the UK group and "vital" in the Bangladeshi group) made an interesting contrast and brought out a number of differences in the attitudes of the two groups.

The festival was a huge success not only because it drew huge crowds of youth but because they were able to express and share their feelings and perspectives on different matters and learn from each other in the process. The Connecting Futures festival showed that, by being allowed to freely voice their thoughts and opinions and to move towards change, young people can play a major role in bringing people together and changing the world for the better.

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