BBC's Journey of Discovery
When Eric Camara of the BBC's Brazilian service went ashore in Bhola, he was not surprised to see the relative poverty of the villagers. He was expecting that. But he was not quite prepared for the way villagers reached out to him and his colleagues from the BBC World Service.
The MV Aboshar. Photo: Focus Bangla
''I was surprised and impressed to find how friendly and peaceful the people are. They live in very tough conditions, struggling with poverty and natural calamities, but they are always smiling'', Camara said, while discussing his first impression of Bangladesh on board the MV Aboshar.
The vessel was anchored on the Poshur river dissecting Khulna and Bagerhat, watering parts of the mangroves of the Sunderbans. It was the end of the second week in the BBC's month-long journey along the rivers of Bangladesh.
Camara was not alone in being pleasantly surprised by Bangladesh. For Lily Feng of the BBC's Chinese service, this was also her first visit to Bangladesh. She knew Bangladesh to be a country of poverty and natural disasters.
Not any more.
Local fishermen busy mending their nets at Ilsha Bandar in Bhola. Photo: Focus Bangla
''I never thought the country would be so beautiful, with its green fields and rivers'', Lily said after spending several hours exploring villages on the Mongla side of the Poshur.
Camara and Feng were among a dozen journalists from the BBC's different language services who embarked on a unique journey on October 28. The journey on the MV Aboshar is designed to explore how climate change may be affecting the people on the southern coasts of Bangladesh.
Named ''Nodipathey Bangladesh'' (meaning Bangladesh by the Rivers), the month-long journey has taken the BBC from the capital Dhaka to the edge of the Bay of Bengal and into the heart of the Sunderbans, the world's biggest mangrove forest. Then northwards, up the Meghna, Jamuna and Padma.
Throughout the first week of November, the boat travelled along the southern coast which, according to climate scientists, is likely to bear the brunt of any significant rise in sea level due to global warming.
''This was the right time to come to Bangladesh'', said Feng. ''We always talk about theories of global warming. Kyoto, Al Gore, the IPCC and the rest. But when we came here we saw the reality of how climate change could affect ordinary people's lives."
According to Dr Atiq Rahman, a Bangladeshi scientist on the UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, a metre rise in sea level could inundate nearly a third of the country, displacing over 20 million people. Alarming though it may sound to some, this 'worst case' scenario is increasingly being taken seriously in Bangladesh as elsewhere.
It was a journey of discovery too for Mouna Ba of the BBC's Arabic service.
''I realise how floods, river erosion etc affect ordinary people, and how the poor villagers suffer most'', Ba said. "But I'm impressed by their ability to cope with the damages they sustain, and start their lives all over again. The world should take lessons from Bangladesh."
The journey took the BBC from Dhaka to Bhola via Chandpur, then to the beaches of Kuakata. Three days of meandering along the still and often lonely rivers of the Sunderbans ended at Mongla, where BBC Bangla staged its popular Bangladesh Sanglap debate programme in another open-air setting.
As in Bhola the previous week, the Sanglap in Mongla created quite a buzz in the locality, and thousands of men, women and children converged on the site of the programme to watch for hours, even if they could not fully hear the debate.
Along the way, the Sunderbans evoked different emotions. The sheer beauty of the mangroves, its river network, the animals and birds that inhabit its land and trees not to mention the dolphins in the waters provided enough inspiration for a whole host of stories in a dozen languages. But for Dmitry Shishkun of the Russian service, the Sunderbans provided a way to reach his audience.
''It's not easy to talk about climate change and sea-level rise to audiences in Russia'', Shishkun said. ''But when I talk about the possibility that the Sunderbans may disappear due to sea level rise caused by global warming, then our audiences can relate to it. Because the loss of the Sunderbans won't be a loss for Bangladesh alone, it will be a loss for the whole world."
For journalists like Siobhann Tighe of the BBC's Outlook programme, the journey provided an opportunity to 'connect' with people.
''It gave me an opportunity to speak to real people along the riverbanks. What was great was that people talked directly at me, and not through my translator, even though they were speaking Bangla. There was some sort of connection, it seemed they really wanted to tell their stories'', Tighe said.
Siobhann Tighe's walkabouts in the villages and interviews with people on the frontline of the battle against global warming have certainly been one of the highlights of the BBC World Service's English programmes. But not just English stories from the villages and communities of Bangladesh have now been told in more than a dozen languages, broadcast daily to countries in four continents.
BBC Bangla led the way for the rest, bringing to their programmes the voices of those who are often or usually unheard. Issues such as river erosion, environmental refugees, fishermen's livelihood, natural hazards such as cyclones, bio-diversity in the Sunderbans etc were explored through words of people of the region.
On three nights of the week, people from local communities gathered on the deck of the boat to discuss their issues in live discussions hosted by Masud Khan and Shakeel Anwar.
All along the route, the boat became one very busy broadcasting centre floating on water. Every evening and late into the night, journalists broadcast live on radio and television, produced videos and interactive maps for their websites. In Azeri, Arabic, Chinese, English, Bahasa Indonesian, Russian, Rumanian, Portuguese, Spanish, Somali, Pashto, Hindi, Urdu.
From Mongla, the boat travelled north, up the Jamuna river to Sirajganj, site of the largest road bridge in Asia. Then on to Rajbari on the Padma river, where BBC Bangla will explore the impact of the Farakka dam on the environment of south-western parts of the country, and how this has affected livelihood of villagers in the region.
But the beginning of this extraordinary and ambitious project was pretty tentative.
The idea was pretty simple: why not get a boat, sail down the rivers of Bangladesh and tell the stories of some of most vulnerable people in the world to the rest of the world? The idea was not merely to show vulnerability of a people battling against floods, river bank erosion, cyclones and tidal surges. The point was to connect with the people along the river banks and tell the stories of the survival, their hopes and aspirations.
It was 2005 when James Sales, a studio technician of the BBC World Service, first toyed with the idea of a 'boat show' in Bangladesh. Encouraged by the interest shown by various departments of the WS, not least by the Bangla service with its long history of close affinity with its millions of listeners in Bangladesh. But it would be two years before the idea and expenditure of a boat trip received enough nods to become a reality.
The reason was simple: the BBC had chosen to make climate change a constant editorial theme throughout 2007. Bangladesh is seen by the UN as being in the forefront of the battle against global warming.
The river journey helped in many ways, the journalists said. For instance, Mouna Ba felt the story of climate change cannot be told properly unless through the words of the people who face it.
''Best way to explain climate change to my audiences in the Arab world is through the experiences of real people'', Ba said. ''That's what I've been able to do in this journey, by telling the stories of the people of Bangladesh''.
But for Erica Camara, one of the more intriguing experiences was meeting a little boy in a village in Mongla. When one of the journey coordinators, Barkatullah Maruf told the boy that Camara came from Brazil, the boy turned around and, with a dismissive wave of his hand said '', I'm Argentina!'.' Camara was shocked to find the fable football feud between his home nation and neighbouring Argentina haunting him in far away Bangladesh.
The writer is Head of Bengali Service, BBC World Service.
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