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    Volume 9 Issue 10| March 5, 2010|

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Biking Through the Green

A hut in the Ghughumari char.

Morshed Ali Khan

The difference between travelling on a motorbike and a bicycle is that when on a bicycle you can get the pulse of the people in the areas you visit. From Bakshiganj in Jamalpur to Balashighat in Gaibandha over 150 kilometres the landscape represented lush green paddy fields to desert like stretches. Roadside rain trees formed tunnels around the road where the Bangla month of phalgun prompted shedding of millions of tiny leaves.

Dried up rivers, canals and ponds, deserted chars with occasional twisters in the distance, eroded banks of the big river and migratory birds in the crystal clear stagnant water mingled with activities of thousands of men and women sowing boro saplings with tube wells irrigating the fields in the background.

As you take the earthen roads shortcutting through pristine villages, you cannot fail to notice the cleanliness of the courtyards of the houses. Children frolicking with rickshaw wheels and housewives toiling on the yards curiously gaze at the passersby.

A group of three bikers, men from the Garo tribe from Kamalpur, paddled in a file towards Roumari. Each man was armed with a shovel and a bamboo stick tied to his old bike that squeaked with every push.

Biking through the south of the country.

"We are going to hunt eels in the Roumari area," says a frail looking Garo man apparently the leader of the team.

"Where on earth do you find eels in this dry land? There is not even a water filled pond in this area."

"We know exactly where eels hide in muddy pockets underground during the dry season. We shall dig them out," replies the man and slowly vanishes from sight.

Near Roumari the fields looked greener than ever. On the main road, Afroza rode a bike confidently towards her workplace, the nearby BRAC school. "Why don't you visit the school?" she asks smilingly. By now two other male bikers joined the group. "This is a bike country, every household has one or two bikes here," says one of the young men.

During the war of liberation border town Roumari was always free. The occupational forces could never enter the town or exert their authority. Thousands of freedom fighters received training here on guerilla warfare and fought the enemy elsewhere in the country.

"Although we are separated by the Brahmmaputra river our district headquarter is in Kurigram, nearly thirty miles across," says Mohammad Razzak, a fruit vendor in Roumari Bazar. "This isolates us," he adds.

A makeshift bamboo bridging the Holholi River on Pakhiura, near Roumari.

The local Upazila Chairman, a nominee of the Manju backed Jatiya Party, Ruhul Amin talked about the necessity of developing the Roumari border port into a complete port with immigration facilities.

"The road along the border also needs to be improved to facilitate export and import. This would immensely help the country's economy," he adds.

Ghoghumari char, an island twenty kilometres from Roumari towards Kurigram was picturesque. Surrounded by a dried up sandy riverbed and ponds created by trapped water, its horizon was dotted with many other chars rising from the Brahmmaputra.

Abdur Rab is the veterinary doctor of the char. According to Rab, lifestyle in the char areas has changed dramatically over the last few years. "Only the other day we were vulnerable to flooding, diseases and poverty. Women were the most neglected, child marriage and dowry were rampant and we lived under the mercy of the local money lord," Rab says.

"Thanks to interventions by various NGOs now our houses have been rebuilt on higher grounds. You ask any woman in the village about her rights, hygiene, and consequence of child marriage, she has the answer, with income from vegetable cultivation, poultry and cow rearing she is often more powerful than her husband," says Rab.

A child wanders on an earthen road near Roumari.

The boat ride between Ghughumari and Kurigram, the following morning took nearly four hours. Deserted Chars, made of fine sand were everywhere. The huge chars rising up to eight feet above the water level created hundreds of channels in the Brahmmaputra that is nearly 20 kilometres wide. At places breathtaking lagoons attracted pairs of ruddy shelducks (chakhas). Soon a massive sandstorm shielded the sun above. Sandy particulates blew fiercely, hurting the eyes and bare skin. The boatmen and the few passengers quickly covered their faces with gamchas.

The landscape changed spectacularly three kilometres short of the river Teesta near Haripur. The sandy road, appearing from a riverbed bore the testimony of the river system in the area. At the end of the road, a badly damaged dyke continued towards what remains of the river Teesta. Two elderly farmers sat at a tea stall where a woman served tea, beetle leaf (pan) and bidis.

An old man took a deep puff from his bidi and complained about his ill luck in the boro cultivation. With a sickle on his lap his dirty hand picked up the teacup and took a sip.

"This morning I tried to buy some boro saplings but the seller was asking for 500 taka per pone (80 bundles). Last year I paid 100 taka for the same saplings. The unusual cold weather this year has taken away our livelihoods," he says with a sigh.

Sun setting in Ghughumari Char.

About a kilometre short of the Teesta at the Haripur Ghat the area looked like a veritable desert. The ankle deep white sand stretched for miles in every direction. The sun scorched the sandy landscape. The river at the confluence of the Brahmmaputra was hardly 100 metres wide with a maximum depth of three feet. The water was crystal clear and cool and it strongly invited the strangers for a dip.

Near Dharmapur village under Sunderganj thana of Gaibandha district, a man in his sixties sat at a roadside tea stall and murmured something to himself. He wore a dirty dhuti and kurta. The flip-flop he wore was so badly worn out that a quarter of his feet was on the surface. He said he was a freedom fighter and identified himself as Askok Kumar Roy.

"Some people are threatening me," he whispers, " they want to take away my land. But I won't let them do it. Pro-liberation forces are now in power, we shall resist these fanatics." Ashok runs a tailoring shop in the Dharmapur Bazar, where his son and grandchildren work.

From the tea stall Ashok picks up his old bike and says, " You know how long I have had this bike. I bought it when I was a young man of 15. It is still going."


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