Bangladesh USAID Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer assignment giving workshops on saving and storing vegetable seed for women small farmers.
Bangladesh email 1, Wednesday, Sept 19, 2012 – Kushtia, Bangladesh
Oh, my, where to begin. What a feast of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Bangladesh, which is Bengal State of historic India, is all I’ve thought it would be since studying Indian civilization in graduate school. I’ve always wanted to go to India. And now I’m here!
Bengal is one of 27 states in India, each with it’s own language. Bengal just happens to have been partitioned off at India’s independence from the British as East Pakistan. Then it gained independence from Pakistan as Bangladesh in 1972. Bangladesh is 80% Muslim, 20% Hindu. The language is Bengali with some people speaking English as well. But here in Kushtia just 40 km from the Indian border there are no international tourists and only the well educated speak any English. Each Indian language is written in it’s own script. Each script is a variant on the Devanagari script of ancient Sanskrit, which I studied in grad school, but have totally forgotten. People from one Indian state can’t necessarily read the script of other state languages if the variations are large.
Hopefully I’ll be able to see a couple of ancient Buddhist temples when I’m back at Dhaka, the capital, at the end of my assignment. There aren’t any ancient temples in this area. Buddhist I say? Yes, Buddhist. India once was a majority Buddhist country. But Hinduism with it’s caste system had a resurgence during 900-1200. Then Buddhism was wiped out in India during the Mughul (Islamic) occupation in the 1200-1500s. Bengal State has remained majority Muslim. Enough history, which for India is long.
It took three calendar days to get here, though it was really just a little over two days because I crossed the international dateline. It was Tokyo, Bangkok, Dhaka, Jessore, (four flights), then drive 2-1/2 hours to Kushtia. That’s a lot of travel to get me here to present a single three hour workshop five days in a row on saving seed for small scale growers who are members of the SETU cooperative association. SETU has 13,000 member beneficiaries and a staff of 1,000. So I’m traveling to a different part of the district each day. I get a couple of free days for sightseeing, which will be good. But I’ve already seen a lot in just two days.
Dhaka, the capital, has 15 million people in a country of 150 million. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries of the world. And Dhaka shows it. Flying out of Dhaka we flew over mile after mile of apartment blocks in the various sections of the city. The city could be Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania or Luanda, Angola with the choking traffic, roadside kiosks and small businesses in block after block of tall apartment and office buildings in a seeming state of perpetual construction or deconstruction. All with a patina of humidity induced black stains of mold. The roads are in equal condition. But that’s just the physical surroundings. The sea of humanity swirling through on bicycle rickshaws, bicycles, Tom-Tom battery powered rickshaws, battered buses, in trucks, and on foot is strictly Indian. The women are dressed in everything from Muslim dress or even strict coverup, to Indian saris, to familiar Western dress. Men are similarly in either casual Western dress or Muslim tunics and headdress. Startling is some of the older men with flaming orange beards and/or hair colored with henna. Many of the trucks are brightly painted with stylized Bengali letters, designs, or religious symbols. Scattered around are the ubiquitous billboards and signs for cell phone carriers, TVs, cars, and luxury items. Some signs are in English. But the majority are in Bengali. I’ll get a chance to explore Dhaka a little bit at the end of my assignment before I return home.
Jessore where I flew from Dhaka, and here in Kushtia are small towns surrounded by the rural areas of farms and small villages along the roads. Kushtia has a population of about 200,000. But it’s a farming town and fairly compact because the residents live in small apartments clustered in 5-8 story apartment buildings. There are few single family residences in the towns, only in the villages. The farm families live in their village, not in a farm residence like in the US. I observed this in Western Europe also. Farmland is too valuable to put buildings on. The buildings are clustered in the small nearby village and along the roads. The farmers walk to their farm plots. This is not an area of larger commercial farms, which apparently exist in some of the other districts. The farm plots are just a few acres or less. And a family’s plots may not all be contiguous.
Yesterday we drove the 2-1/2 hours from Jessore to Kushtia on the major road. It was a narrow two-lane road occupied by bicycle rickshaws, Tom-Toms, bicycles, and pedestrians, with trucks and large buses whizzing by in each direction. Because the bicycle rickshaws and Tom-Toms are three wheeled vehicles they are wide. So the two-lane road has really just one lane-width clear for traffic coming from both directions to share. People are apparently used to traffic passing by with as little as one or two inches of clearance on both sides. It’s a little disconcerting to have a big bus bearing down the middle of the road at us as we dart in between two rickshaws in our lane and the bus moves over just at the last split second while the pedestrians squeeze to the edge of the road. And of course the traffic moves to the left since the British were here and driving is on the left. At one point we had to wait our turn to move right to swing around two elephants being ridden by their touts along the side of the road.
The workshop today was at a regional SETU center in a nearby village area. This was my first chance to get out of town into the rural areas. Along the paved roads there are farm house compounds and small businesses. In the distance beyond the dwellings are the rice fields and scattered vegetable plots. Everything is a verdant green. There are tall bushes along the road or a tree canopy totally shading us. The rice fields are all green now at the tail end of the rainy season. Harvest is a couple of months away. The land is absolutely flat and everything is green. The temperature is about 90 degrees and the humidity is high. This is the Ganges River delta. There are waterways snaking throughout the area. Some of the rice fields have some standing water. Many of the farm compounds have a small pond. It is all just rain water. There is no irrigation here. The farmers totally rely on the monsoon rains for their livelihood.
This afternoon after the workshop we had a chance to visit one of the participant’s farms. This is one of the great benefits I get by volunteering in this program. I get out in the rural areas away from the highways and get to meet farm families and see how they live. Everyone is always so friendly. They’re happy to show me their homestead and farm fields. And I can freely take pictures so I can share what I’m seeing with you later.
I don’t usually get very emotional about what I’m seeing. But today it was magical. We were in the middle of a farming way of life that has been going on for centuries. Everything is done by hand. Land is at a premium so every square inch is used for some purpose to support the family. The small farm compounds along the dirt tracks have modest red brick dwellings. The compound walls are mainly jute stalk woven panels with bamboo ridge poles. The farmsteads each have a small pond or share a larger one with a few other families. I saw a young man washing a young cow in the pond just outside the workshop building. There were young kids fishing in a pond and netting fish in a drainage ditch. A boy scampered up a tree to pick a pomelo for each of us to take back with us. Cow dung for cooking fuel was drying in small balls on a woven fence or skewered on poles leaning against a wall like giant shish kebabs. The hard woody core of jute stalks stripped of it’s fiber is dried for cooking fuel. Rice straw is stacked in conical or bread loaf shaped piles for animal fodder. Young cows lounge in the shade along the path to the farm fields.
In the family plots are gourds and long beans growing on flat horizontal trellises 3-4 feet above the ground. The fruit then hangs down in the space below the trellis for easy harvest and protection from mold due to ground contact. Betel leaf is growing under high horizontal trellises to protect the leaves from sun bleaching. Single squash plants were spread across building roofs. Taro plants grow along the walkways. The eggplant plants were large bushes about four feet high. The chili plants had all been recently harvested. I have to watch for those little green devils in the food. They are H-O-T hot.
Everything is well ordered and well kept. Out here in the farm areas there’s no trash. Even in the towns there’s little. Along the highway we passed some small plastic recycling yards. There were big bales of plastic sorted by color and type. I found out that people are paid a small amount for plastic trash they bring in. So even plastic bags were opened up and stacked in piles in the small collection yards. The recycled plastic is made into new items that don’t require high strength. I’m impressed.
The food is spicy and tasty. Just like in Africa it’s mainly starch with a bit of meat in a sauce and some vegetable. The starch is of course rice. Along the roads we passed concrete rice drying floors. To remove the hull from rice seed it’s first boiled and then dried in the sun. Then when the seed is milled the hull easily comes off and can be separated from the rice kernel. The milling takes the bran and germ off the kernel making it white rice. Everyone except me and the other volunteers eat with their right hand. In Africa with the more glutinous starches of corn, millet, and plaintain you can form the starch into a ball and dip it into the meat sauce. Short grain rice doesn’t ball up. I find it more of a challenge to eat rice with my hand without making a mess. So I stick with a utensil. Breakfast is chapattis with some mixed potato and peas in a spicy sauce to use for a filling. And there’s eggs. Lunch and dinner are the same with rice, spicy meat sauce with a bit of hacked meat. And either cooked greens or the potato – pea medley. Tea is served with sugar. Of course alcohol is not served except in tourist places.
Yesterday another volunteer and I had a chance to wander around Jessore with our Winrock guide. There we saw fruit vendors selling various varieties of apples, oranges, green mangos, and watermelon. All except the watermelon is imported fruit. Mangos are out of season – darn! Imported mangos are the same price we pay at home. I’ll have to go back to Mali for premium mangos. Street sellers had a local orange sized fruit with a hard greenish tan shell that has a softer inside and is apparently sour. For a young customer a vendor used a sharp tool to poke into the fruit and break it up inside to release the juice. Then he poured chili powder into the hole. Then he gave the girl a straw to suck the juice out. It would be sour and hot. I’ve never seen that fruit before. We purchased green coconuts for drinking the liquid with a straw. When harvested green the coconut milk is clear and not so milky as from mature coconuts. And there was a lot of liquid in it as a thirst quencher on a warm day. The flower sellers and flower shops had bouquets of tuberoses and gladiolus with a couple of bud roses at the front. Marigold flower heads were woven into long garlands At the SETU office my Winrock guide/translator and I were each given one of such bouquets as a welcome. To get back to the hotel we each rode a bicycle rickshaw. The cost was 12 cents. The pedaler had to first push the rickshaw a bit to get it moving. There were two of us in mine. So it was heavy. Then once moving he started pedaling. It’s a one speed bicycle. So it’s tough pedaling. The rickshaw drivers are all very slender. There are frequent rickshaw traffic jams in the narrow streets. The drivers have to try to keep moving and weave in and out so they don’t stop and have to work to get the rickshaw going again. Near the hotel a kindergarten class was getting out. The mothers were all meeting their uniformed children. Many left in rickshaws joining the traffic of older couples also traveling by rickshaw. Some rode in Tom-Toms which can be jammed full of more people because they are electric motor powered. When we were touring the market area the other volunteer and I were gathering quite a crowd. Tall foreigners are an oddity in the small towns. We were greeted by smiles and looks of interest. It’s a friendly atmosphere though we were not able to communicate more directly in the local language. The ability to talk with strangers met on the street is one thing I really enjoy in Ghana, Uganda, and the other former British areas of Africa. I miss it in French speaking Mali, Portuguese speaking Angola, and now Bengali speaking Bangladesh. But non-verbal communication always works for basic contact.
As you can tell I’m having a great adventure. That’s enough fun for now. More later.
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