My day usually starts with a 5.30am wake-up call, courtesy of the muezzin. The call to prayer echoes through the pre-dawn stillness; there is a strange sort of harmony in the short chorus from the various mosques in the village. I roll over and try to go back to sleep but mostly fail. The dawn chorus starts up at 6am, firstly with the birds, then the cows and finally the chickens join in, squawking in a rather alarming manner. I can hear Auntie sweeping the courtyard and Uncle chopping wood for the stove outside. I drag myself out the bed, creeping around in the dim morning light so as not to disturb my roommate, who is still sleeping. Four mornings a week I do yoga and meditation, the other three mornings I meditate and then do circuits with the other two girls in my host home. We can’t exercise outside because of the local culture so we just do bodyweight exercises for half an hour in an attempt to keep the 'rice babies' (tummy fat) at bay!
Showering afterwards, first thing in the morning, is a double-edged sword. I always feel invigorated afterwards, but the water is freezing and the mosquitoes are really active. The only sink in the house is outside so my host sister Roshni and her friends stare at me with utter fascination as I put my contact lenses in! Twice a week I do laundry in the morning, so it has all day to dry in the sun, making sure to hide my underwear under a scarf so the whole village doesn’t see.
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, mostly because I get a break from rice. We normally have roti with a boiled egg and vegetables, and chai. Today we had a treat with 'shemai', a kind of sweet noodles with lots of cinnamon, served with puffed rice (think plain Rice Krispies!). Sometimes we also get bananas – wrapped in a roti, it’s a delicious banana pancake.
In the office
It’s only a short walk from my host-home to the office in the bazaar. We always walk past the same group of girls on their way to one of the local primary schools and we stop to say hello to Nani in her little roadside shop on the way.
We work from the offices of our partner NGO, PJKUS. They have been working in the community for the last ten years so are vital support for our project as they really know the people here. Our project works with marginalised women and youth. We're setting up two handicraft businesses to provide sustainable livelihoods, particularly for disenfranchised women.
All of the volunteers work together on the project every day in sub-teams, looking after different areas of work. One of the most important jobs I have is coordinating all of the different activities between the teams, making sure we stay on track with our goals. Throughout the day, S (pictured at the top) and I sit with the volunteers to discuss their activities, helping them arrange meetings and working with them to problem-solve and so on. One of the teams has been organising basic training for 30 beneficiaries – we will sit with our entrepreneurs later in the week to select the final twelve production workers – so I reconcile their spending against the original budget with them and then help them file the receipts with our Project Officer.
Tea for Team Leaders
I always make time for a 'tea date' with my counterpart S. The relationship between the team leaders is vital for the success of the project but cultural differences and the language barrier can make communicating difficult. S and I have had our ups and downs over the past few weeks; we now have a cup of tea in one of the little shacks in the bazaar every day to chat about work and, more importantly, our lives outside the project. We had a bit of a heart-to-heart recently ending in a very emotional hug. S said it’s the first time he’s ever hugged a girl and, apparently, he quite likes it! He's a lovely man and a fantastic team leader. I’m really lucky to have such a great counterpart, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on some issues. We’ve been very fortunate in that we complement each other’s strengths – I think together, we make one perfect team leader!
Today the tea shacks are all packed with people watching Bangladesh’s quarter-final match against India in the World Cup. The national volunteers keep sneaking off at various points during the day but cricket is important here, so I can’t really complain! After Bangladesh beat England in the group stages, getting through to the quarter-finals for the first time, the village went nuts celebrating. The opposition party even suspended the national strike for twelve hours so people could celebrate. Cricket isn’t so much a sport on the sub-continent as a religion so everyone is a bit subdued later on when Bangladesh lose the match.
In between all of this, I work on the weekly report for the Project Manager in Dhaka to keep fully up-to-date on all of our activities and any challenges we’ve faced. I also start to put together the team plan for next week and make notes for our team meeting tomorrow – we get the whole team together once a week so they all know what’s going on across the project and what’s coming up next week. We suddenly don’t have much time left in the field and even though we have achieved so much already we still have a lot we want to do before our time here is over.
When lunch is over I have an informal supervision with one of the volunteers. We do three formal supervisions for the volunteers throughout the cycle but I’m always available to discuss volunteers’ personal development and welfare. Today we talk about what this volunteer wants to do after the project finishes. Many of the volunteers are still trying to get their heads around what they want to do when they go back home and I’m doing my best to help them. I’m empathetic as, at the ripe old age of 31, I’m still asking these questions myself!
Most of my afternoon then gets taken up by a meeting with the Youth Clubs – groups of young local volunteers in the community. One aspect of our project is to help improve the capacity of these organisations so that they can continue the project work after the ICSE volunteers leave. They also help with our community integration activities. We are planning an Active Citizen Day to celebrate Independence Day on 26th March and are trying to get the Youth Clubs to help out. It’s always a bit of an uphill struggle with the Youth Clubs but I think we’re making progress. The meetings always seem to go on forever but I think they've been successful so far. Everyone wants to have their say but relevance appears to be optional; even the national volunteers have trouble translating sometimes as some of the discussions are so off-topic. We eventually agree on a programme for the day and they’ll work alongside the ICSE volunteers to organise all of the events over the coming days.
When I leave the office I go to visit one of the host homes, just to check on the volunteers and their host families. This is the family I stayed with during my pre-placement visit and I get on with them really well. The oldest sister is getting married in a couple of weeks and they’ve invited all the volunteers so I gossip with the sisters and the host mother for a while about what colour sari I should wear. It’s a perfect opportunity to practice my Bangla. One of the previous cycle’s volunteers lived with this family and learned some Bangla while he was here. When I first arrived, all I heard about was this guy’s Bangla so I am delighted (me, competitive?!) when the host-mother says my Bangla is now better.
I get home just as it’s getting dark to discover that our host mother has made delicious winter cakes called 'peeta'. They’re piping hot and delicious, we end up eating so many that nobody can face dinner! This is a real treat – we don’t get much other than rice and vegetables normally – so feels really indulgent. It was Mothers’ Day last weekend and we gave Auntie a box of Bangladeshi sweet meats to say thank you so maybe she is doing something particularly nice in return.
The evenings here are normally very relaxed. We hang out around our dining table on the edge of the courtyard, sometimes one of the Bangladeshi volunteers comes over to teach me Bangla and we all end up chatting before dinner. We normally end up going to bed quite early, asleep by 10pm, mostly because there isn’t much to do after dark (about 6pm at the moment) – that, and the early alarm call. I’m going to miss being able to sleep this much.
And so ends another day in rural Bangladesh. Tomorrow will be the same, but different. Every time I think I’ve got this role figured out, something totally unexpected comes up. But that’s what makes it fun. New challenges, looking after people; the volunteers, my counterpart, the community, myself. Being a team leader enables me to make a unique contribution to this project and the journeys of all my volunteers. There is a lot of responsibility but I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding role.
Shuvo ratri. Goodnight.