Bangladesh Email 2 – Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Kushtia, Bangladesh
The wonderful experiences just keep coming on this trip. Thursday was the second time I presented my seed saving workshop. It was received well. There were lots of questions and comments but a bit less interaction than the first one. Everyone was grateful to get information they didn’t have. Many of the farmers are illiterate. So workshops like this are a good way for them to get information. I’m told that the information will then be spread to their friends and neighbors. So the impact will be rather large in the area after I’ve done four such workshops.
Thursday evening was a real treat. I’m being accompanied on all of my experiences by Mehedi, my Winrock International guide and translator. They are my sponsoring agency for the Farmer-to-Farmer program. I’m also being accompanied by a regional director of SETU, the cooperative for which I’m presenting the workshops. He makes all the arrangements. They’ve been very attentive. That evening we went to Lalon Shah’s mazar. Lalon was a poet and folk singer who is revered all over Bangladesh. He is particularly the patron saint of the Baul people centered around Kushtia. The Baul are a group of singing, marijuana-smoking bards who espouse a love of the land while shunning the mainstream. Lalon Shah was a secular humanist of the last century promoting a tolerant mindset. Lalon Shah’s mazar is a mausoleum which contains his grave and that of others of the Baul people. There is also a large tile floored open air hall where each evening folksingers can come and extemporaneously play and sing Lalon’s poems and songs. When we arrived the power was off in the area. So there wasn’t much happening. There were a couple clusters of people just sitting and relaxing in the dark. At one end a carpet was laid out and a few instruments were sitting there: a harmonium and two tabla drums. There were some chairs stacked nearby. So we sat down to see if anything would happen. In a few minutes a tabla player, a harmonium player, and a singer sat down and started singing a Lalon song with instrument accompaniment. A few more people sat down to listen. It was all very informal. Eventually the power came back on. Then some more singers and players arrived and entertainment moved up a notch. For an hour there was impromptu sharing of the singing and playing roles. One man particularly was an excellent singer with powerful delivery. The instrument players were quite good. I recorded some of the songs for use as a soundtrack in a future slide presentation. I was particularly glad to hear the harmonium playing. The harmonium is a reed instrument like the accordion. It has a mellow and quiet tone serving well as a backup instrument. It was a great evening of Bengal Indian music.
Friday is the Muslim day of prayers which are usually at 1pm. Most shops are closed for the day. It’s the Muslim day of rest. So I didn’t have a workshop on Friday. But I wanted a chance to walk around and see things. So Mehedi agreed to accompany me in the morning before he went to prayers at 1pm. We set off to go to the “bank”. I couldn’t imagine why we would need to go to the bank. There aren’t even any ATMs here in Kushtia. Well, it was obvious once we got down the road and arrived at the “bank”, the bank of the Ganges River. There was a small passenger “dhow” style boat loading up to go across the river. So I said, “let’s go”. For 2 taka each (3 cents) we walked up the bamboo dock onto the boat. The boat is flat deck. All of the 20 or so people on the boat were standing up for the short ride. There were also bicycles and a motorbike on the boat. The banks of the Ganges out here on the delta are very sandy. There are huge sandy banks at each bend of the river that look like huge dredging spoils. The sandy silt is from the Himalaya Mountains which are gradually washing down to the Bay of Bengal. It’s this sandy silt that makes the Bangladesh delta so fertile from the periodic floods over millennia. As we approached the far bank there was a racing boat that started out on a practice run. About 30 oarsman were rapidly paddling in unison to move the boat at an amazingly fast speed. There was to be a race in the afternoon. So this was a practice run.
Once on the other side of the river we set off walking down the causeway at the edge of the river. The river is diked on both sides. There are dikes throughout the delta moving rainwater gradually out to sea. All of the paths through the countryside and the little villages are on the dikes. We wandered up the riverside a ways. Out on the wide sandy beach women were forming balls of cow manure and placing them out to dry in the sun. The farmsteads in this area are quite leafy from extensive tree cover. So the beach affords an open area for such production as well as a soccer pitch and other recreational areas. After a bit we turned inland “to see what we could see”. At one point a young man we passed greeted me in English and wanted to chat. Eventually we turned around and began retracing our steps. I stopped to get some pictures of jute fibers drying on a bamboo frame. Surprisingly the young man who had greeted me earlier greeted me again and pointed to his house. It was right there. Then his younger sister came up and, in English, invited me into their compound to see the jute fiber they had processed. I was quite surprised to encounter English speaking young people. Once inside, Mehedi and I were ushered into their front room where much of the family and local children crowded in to meet the foreigner. We ended up staying over a half hour in their home and compound getting acquainted and taking many pictures. The boy and three of his sisters (or cousins) attend the international school across the river in Kushtia. They are in grades 7 and 6. They were all speaking English with me. They were excited to meet a foreigner and have him in their home. We were offered sweets to eat. An older boy prepared coconuts fresh harvested from their tree for us to drink the milk. Then we were given coconut meat to take with us. I’ve got pictures of mom cooking on the low fire and auntie preparing chapattis. I just love this kind of experience. The young people were sharing how they live and getting a chance to find out what I could tell them about my family. Regrettably I didn’t have my phone with me. I’d left it in the room to charge. I usually have it so I can show people pictures of our family and home. So I just could tell them about our lives. We finally had to leave so Mehedi could get to prayers. I would have stayed longer if I could have. We retraced our steps amid periodic “hello” and “how are you” called out by local kids. I get the stares and looks of curiosity. Everyone returns my greetings and is friendly.
After prayers we set off to the Rabindranath Tagore home at Kuthibari on the other side of the Ganges. Tagore spent ten years of his later life at the home writing his poetry and periodically traveling to receive various awards and recognition around the world including the Nobel Prize. The home and extensive grounds are out in a rural area. It’s a popular destination for Bangla families to come and enjoy the afternoon first touring the home where there are many pictures and a few artifacts honoring Tagore. Then families can spend time on the grounds and around the large pond whiling away the warmest part of the day in the shade of the large trees. We purchased local “ice cream” from a vendor. It’s made from milk, sugar, and cloves. The vendor serves it on a banana leaf after he has cut the small cylinder into bite size pieces. Included is a small piece of banana leaf to use as a spoon. Twice, young people came up and wanted to greet me and find out about me. Both are university students. The young woman who greeted me is studying business administration. She speaks excellent English and was pleased to meet me. The young man is studying English literature. His spoken English is more hesitant. He wanted to practice speaking and was nervous about it. I encouraged him as we exchanged pleasantries and family information. An older gentleman thanked me for being there. As you can tell I’m really experiencing the friendliness of the local people.
The workshop today was quite enjoyable. It was all women, 24 of them. They were quite animated with lots of comments and questions. They clearly feel more willing to express themselves when there aren’t men in the audience. They were quite appreciative of the information and learned a number of new things. Afterwards two of the women wanted to have their picture taken with me. They are both quite short. One is a Hindu, the other a very Asian looking Muslim. Both are bright faced and cute. So I was happy to have my picture taken with them. The Hindu woman is shorter standing than I am sitting down. I get a lot of comments and stares because of my height. I do tower over most of the people here. Though the SETU regional director is fairly tall, most other folks are more than a head shorter than I am. I have to wear my hat when walking through doorways and going up staircases to soften the blow in case I have a temporary lapse of attentiveness to headroom.
Tomorrow will be a dead day because my last workshop is being delayed. It’s all because of the ridiculously thoughtless producers of the anti-Muslim video that’s roiling Muslim populations around the world right now. There was a demonstration of 2,000 in Dhaka yesterday. A strike has been called for tomorrow in protest of the video. So I’m being kept at the hotel just in case. Winrock International can’t take any chances with volunteers. For Monday I’ve been asked to give a presentation on life in America to some school children that are attending an awards ceremony. I’ll keep it personal and hopefully geared to their age and interests. I never quite know what I’ll be asked to do when I’m on assignment. Luckily I bring a large selection of our family pictures with me on my laptop. So I’ll be able to put something together.
The light evening cooling breeze is starting to come in off the river. It’s now 8pm so it should start cooling down a bit from the regular daytime temperature of 92 degrees and 92 percent humidity. The mezzuin is calling for the last prayers of the day. Folks are out in the streets finishing up their evening shopping. It hasn’t rained since the day I arrived. The monsoon season is winding down. I saw the first rice being harvested yesterday. So life is good.
That’s it for now. I’ll probably have one more email. This is a short but experience packed trip.
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