At the Grassroots
An International Volunteer's Experience
January 25, 2011: I stood in a small Canadian airport considering my options. I was sure at least one of my friends would offer me a couch to crash on until I got myself back together. I could get an apartment, look for a job, search out a daycare, start all over – but at least I'd have the community that I had become so attached to in my two years there. I honestly couldn't imagine why I ever decided to do this. And as Laila tugged at my trusty airplane cardigan and tried to convince me that she should be allowed to eat at least one more cheese croissant from Tim Horton's, I swallowed that big lump in my throat and got back in the Tim Horton's queue. Really, it will be two years before she gets another one of those – why not.
January 25th was the day I left my beloved Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada community and the culture I know and am comfortable in to do a two year volunteer placement through CUSO International. I am travelling with my wonderful, flexible and patient 3 year old daughter Laila – although I knew she had no idea what was in store when she asked me why I forgot to pack her snowsuit. I will be working in a field office of Jagorani Chakra Foundation, in South West Bangladesh. There, my colleauge Habib Rahman and I will work together to build the organizing capacity of 6 rural youth clubs. Really, we work as cheerleaders – encouraging the youth to be leaders and to demand the change they need to help their communities thrive.
Now a day at the office is certainly interesting. I wake up at 6AM with no need for an alarm other than the sounds of birds and women sweeping. I put water on to boil for tea and sit down to read until Laila wakes up. She eats eggs and ruti and asks me five million questions – “What kind of music is that?” “What does Hindi mean?” “Does Amber still live in Saskatoon?” “What is your favourite color?” – and then I send her out to play with Sheemul. I dress and greet Jasmine apa, the woman who takes care of Laila while I'm at work, and we discuss what she will do that day as best we can with no English and my increasing knowledge of Bangla. I run downstairs, brush Laila's teeth and walk across the yard to my office to meet Habib.
After meeting at the office Habib and I chat for a bit as we prepare for the day. Laila comes to the gate to watch me get on the back of the motorcycle (side saddle as no lady would ride any other way in Bangladesh!), my shiny red helmet gleaming, and she looks like she couldn't be more proud as I ride down the cobblestone walkway away from the house. “Buh-bye Mommy! Ami tomake bhalobasi ! (I love you!)”
And we are off.
The youth clubs that Habib and I work with take on local development initiatives and Habib's clubs have done great work before I came along. One club built a brick road that would withstand the rainy season. Another club is teaching illiterate community members to sign their names. One of the clubs has held 2 public education events to discuss the negative effects of dowry in their community. Another club is currently providing old age allowance to 3 elderly people in their community out of their club savings. Habib has also helped the club members to contact Union Parishad (UP) members and hold meetings with them. At the moment we are in the midst of an election period, so the UP members are more than happy to meet our requests for meetings. Habib has been working with these clubs since October of 2010. He has done some really amazing work.
So, yes, we hop on the motorcycle and we are off. We go to dusty villages in the most remote areas of Bangladesh to meet with the clubs. We listen to the issues they are facing in their communities and how they think they could create change. They tell us what kind of training they want and need – English language, computer skills, poultry rearing, tailoring. They tell us about the water rising in the Bay of Bengal (this is the reality of climate change my friends!) and together we research salt tolerant plant varieties and we are looking into building water harvesting systems (likely this won't happen before this rainy season, but next year).
It is all so immediate. It is right in front of me and the work needs to have been done yesterday. The women I talk to don't have enough clean water to bathe their children. Their shrimp are dying due to a virus that is caused by water pollution. The young people in these villages have gone away to school, but can't find work. They grow food in every spare piece of soil they can find, but as the soil becomes more and more saline (again, climate change!) they aren't sure what they can grow anymore. Even if they had a cow it would have nothing to eat or drink. One woman walked up to me and asked me if I knew of any way that her children could be helped – she has two children both born partially blind. The doctor refused to help her unless she could pay him. Like I said, the problems are immediate, they are overwhelming and yet Habib bhai and I head out again every day. The youth clubs are super excited to work with us to create change.
In the year that I've been here now I have worked with one club to build floating gardens. I have seen another club vote in a female club President. I have watched another club build a club room, two fish rearing ponds, 3 vegetable gardens, put in a fruit tree orchard and begin rearing their own rams. I have seen young women who had never touched a computer learn to use the entire Microsoft Word Program in the matter of 2 months. I have seen young men who are now experienced touch typist, averaging up to 40 words per minute. I have marched in rallies, enjoyed community sports days, cleaned a temple for international volunteer day and learned more Bangla than I would ever have thought possible!
And that is my work for now. I think it's really good work and I'm happy to be doing it. I'm comfortable with where I am and what I'm doing. I think my major goal in life is really just to be useful to the greater good and to dance a lot. This job definitely fits the first criteria. I'll try to work more dancing into this job I think.
Lawrence Toye is an International Citizen Service Volunteer, working with a local NGO known as Renaissance
(R) thedailystar.net 2012