Fighting Fire

Fires due to short-circuits, substandard wiring and electrical faults are common in Bangladesh, where building regulations are rarely enforced. Every urban apartment has bars fitted, both on balcony and windows to protect against burglary, which also effectively trap the residents inside. Rural homes are not much safer: constructed from wood and woven palm, the occupants cook on wood burning stoves. Many fires blazed in Bandarban town during the six months I lived there. One fire alone burnt fifteen homes to the ground with frightening speed, due to their close proximity.

Here in Dhaka city the deadliest fire for 40 years killed one hundred and eighteen people in the cramped area known as ‘Old Dhaka’ just last month. Seven buildings were engulfed by fire, fueled by the large explosion of nearby gas burners. The lethal practice of locking workers into factories, in particular those from the garment trade, is fairly common practice across Bangladesh. Faced with such enormous challenges, I was most impressed by the quality of personnel and their equipment when visiting the Lalmatia Fire Station this afternoon. With over fourteen years experience, some gleaned from visits to countries as far afield as the United States of America and Saudi Arabia, this leading Fire Fighter closely mentors his team of thirty two colleagues to ensure his valuable knowledge is passed on.


Hartal (Strike)

Nationwide dawn-to-dusk strike action has been called today. This mass protest translates into a total shutdown of offices, shops, schools and law courts, all as a form of civil disobedience. Here in Bangladesh a hartal is a constitutionally recognised political method for articulating demands. This one was enforced by the opposition BNP, highlighting what they consider to be the failure of the government to resolve the utilities crisis caused by acute gas, electricity and water shortages, but not surprisingly accusations of extortion and political manipulation are also high on their list.

10,000 additional ‘law enforcers’ have been deployed in the capital Dhaka, clusters of them could be seen waiting at every street corner when I went out briefly to take a look around. Bangladesh has a history of ugly violent clashes between political demonstrators and government forces. I’ve never seen the city this way. With motorised vehicles banned from the streets it took my rickshaw no time at all to move around, and the silence was golden. All that will change once the demonstrators arrive however.

Venerating the Sacred Bo Tree

Monks from the Thervanda Order have left offerings at this shrine, dedicated to Ficus Religiosa. Incorporated into the fabric of Buddhist practice, the ‘Bo’ tree represents an integral part of Buddhist tradition. Buddha chose to sit beneath a Bodhi tree while searching for shade to stop and meditate. It is therefore intrinsically linked with his moment of enlightenment, as he resolved not to rise until he had attained the ‘ultimate knowledge’.

Touching the earth, thereby calling it to witness the countless lifetimes of virtue that had led him to this place of enlightenment, he entered into a state of deep meditation. Three days and nights passed until his intention was realized. Henceforward, for Buddhists, the Bodhi tree became a venerated object. Some became pilgrimage sites, as this one in my little village. Ironically this powerful and vast specimen now finds its modern self standing in the middle of a busy woodsaw mill.

Be kind whenever possible…it is always possible – Dalai Lama

Some days little things can really mean a lot. Today, for the first time in a long time I was given flowers. It almost made me cry.

You often don’t realise exactly what you miss until an unexpected gesture or action springs it up before you into sudden relief, and there it is, staring at you, right in the face.

Today wasn’t a particularly easy day, so when a friend turned up at the office to say ‘hello’ and presented me with a single stem of a beautiful jasmine scented flower, he had no idea of the impact his simple act of kindness had. Thank you.

Celebrate! The 100th International Women’s Day – 8th March 2010

On the 8th March, spanning across the globe, many countries celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women. Whatever your perspective, despite undeniable and vast progress, many women and girls still face gender-based issues each and every day. We must remember and recognise that there is much more which has to change to ensure an equal, bright and safe future for young girls of today.

The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men.

For many years the United Nations has held an annual IWD conference to coordinate international efforts for women’s rights and participation in social, political and economic processes. In Bandarban town both women AND men marched together through the streets in celebration, ranging from school children, NGO employees to local dignitaries.

The face of women here in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is represented through many and varying forms. Some wear nijab and others bhurka, with indigenous women bathing at dusk in the local pond, swimming, splashing and laughing with delight.

Most however work hard while facing restrictions and prejudice of some kind, just the same as their sisters in other parts of the world. Even so, I do see great strength, passion and talent in the women here, which I feel sure will continue to move things forward, shaping a more empowered life for those generations yet to come.

While walking back to the office from the march today I stopped to speak with some local marma women, one of whom asked me to take her photograph. I find her strong and dignified image fairly representative of the indiginous women living here in Bandarban.

Bengali Road Trips

A ten hour journey in a clapped out old bus with no air-conditioning doesn’t sound like too much fun. The driving is madly erratic, often fatal and something you never get used to. But as hot and dusty as it can get, whenever possible, I open my window wide. I crave the amazing sight of beautiful Bangladesh laid out before me. This is a totally non-commodified experience in evey sense, and all the more special because of it.

I always keep my camera at the ready, in an attempt to record what I can. Not an easy task during such a bumpy journey, but irresistible never the less. The road surface in places is, to say the least, not so good. In fact on one particular stretch, not far from the approach to Chittagong city, we actually leave the road all together to drive down the tracks of an abandoned railway line. Here are some of the sights which typically represent what can be seen.

There are thousands and thousands of lorries on the road, hauling just about every kind of goods you can imagine, but on most journeys I see at least one which has unfortunately left the road under what can only be described as ‘dramatic circumstances’.

Driving over bridges opens up a birds eye view of the many rivers running through Bangladesh. I love the variety of boats to be seen along the way, representing a very different and interesting lifestyle.

Saw Mills are not an uncommon sight when traveling on the Chittagong to Dhaka highway. Deforestation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a real worry, but there is clearly a heavy demand for wood, with many skilled carpenters in most of the villages we pass through, busy making furniture of some sort or another.

With such a huge population, (Bangadesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world) there’s no shortage of interesting people just about everywhere you look, and with such congested roads some even find time to pose for my camera!

Despite the number of times I make this road trip, up to and back from Dhaka city, it never ceases to amaze me how Bangladesh always has something new, vibrant, bazaar and exciting to offer. I dare not fall asleep for fear of what I might miss. Even witnessing road rage Bengali style was fascinating!

The paddy fields look different each and every time I travel, but on my most recent road trip, in early March, they were at their very best, cool, lush and the most stunning shade of green.

Buddhism in Bangladesh

At a glance, Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. It teaches that all life is interconnected, so compassion is natural and important.

Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent – change is always possible, and the quest for the path to Enlightenment can be found through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.

Buddhism arose in around the 6th Century BC. It is not centred on the relationship between humanity and God as there is no belief in a personal God. The two main sects are Theravanda and Mahayana. There are currently 376 million followers of Buddhism worldwide.

Buddhism is the third largest religion in Bangladesh. Most of those practitioners live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and follow Theravanda, a relatively conservative form of early Buddhism, which literally means ‘Teaching of the Elders, or ‘Ancient Teaching’.

Theravanda is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, with over 100 million followers worldwide. In the hill tracts these predominantly consist of Chakma, Chak, Marma, Tenchungya and Khyang people.

There are several monasteries in the Chittagong Hills, and a beautiful Golden Temple right here in Bandarban, which houses one of the largest statues of Buddha in the entire country. To be precise it is actually a pagoda, as the building itself consists of many tiered towers. Local Buddhist shrines also form an important centre for village life, with major festivals commemorating the important events in the life of the Buddah.

Most Buddhist villages have a boarding school known as the ‘kyong,’ where boys learn to read Burmese and a little Pali, an ancient Buddhist scriptural language. It’s fairly common for men who have finished their education to return at regular intervals for periods of residence at their school.

Although the European term ‘monk’ is also often applied to Buddhism, the Theravanda term is ‘bhikkhu’, whose disciplinary code is known as the ‘patimokkha’, consisting of no less than 227 rules when fully ordained. There is often a trial period prior to ordination, to see if a candidate still wishes to become a Buddhist monk.

If he does, he will remain living in the monastery, otherwise, he is free to leave. If he stays he will lead a life of mendicancy, with a daily morning alms walk around his village, where he will receive food from the locals, although he is not permitted to positively ask for anything.

Young boys can be ordained as ‘samaneras’, literally meaning small, in essence as a novice or apprentice monk. Both bhikkhus and samaneras eat only in the morning, and are not allowed to lead a luxurious life. Their rules forbid the use of money, although this is not always followed by every modern day monk. The bhikkhus are also only allowed to own four items other than their robes: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl and a water strainer.

I was honored with an invitation to attend the recent inauguration ceremony for a newly ordained monk at my local Buddhist temple in Bandarban town.

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection”
– Buddha

Baidyas or Traditional Healers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Locally grown medicinal plants and traditional healing practices play a significant role in the general welfare of the the Indigenous communities living in the Hill Tracts, as well as representing a rich seam of local heritage.

The knowledge and wisdom which underpin the practice of Baidya, as traditional healers are called, has predominantly been passed down, spanning generations. Having been extensively and effectively used for hundreds of years, many people living here today are still almost totally dependent on these methods, for both the treatment and upkeep of their health.

Broadly speaking, Baidyas provide two categories of service. The first is plant-based, covering preventative, curative and healing treatment, known as ‘kabiraji’. The second is the practice of spiritual and sacred ceremonies and is called ‘tontra-montro’, a popular practice with the Baidyas from the Tanchangya community.

In recent years, concern has been raised that this local wisdom is under threat and eroding fast. This has been attributed to many factors, but the two main contributors are deforestation, and the rapidly shrinking land resource, which together are responsible for the drastically reduced availability of the plants and herbs required for practice.

Medicinal plants can often be found along the hedgerows and boundary lines, with the shrubby species usually cultivated as undergrowth in homestead plantations and also on fallow land. It’s typically women who play a major role in maintaining these local medicinal plantations.

Baidyas themselves also grow and maintain their own personal stock of the main plants and herbs used for their practice. Some however rely on purchases from their local bazaars, but generally this quality is poor, with limited available varieties, as the most widely used species become increasingly rare and more difficult to find.

Collecting and harvesting at the correct time is a vital factor in ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the finally produced medicine. Unfortunately this time-factor can often be ignored, due to the acute shortage and high demand for these plants.

With no formal arrangement or recognised institution to train and nurture existing local knowledge, coupled with the difficulty in obtaining raw materials, the practice of Baidya does in fact appear to be one under threat. Moving forward, conservation measures are urgently needed to be put in place, to protect remaining stocks along with this priceless inherited knowledge.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have been working in the Bolipara district over the last couple of years to do just that, and I was delighted to also come across evidence that this valuable work is now taking place in other areas of the Bandarban hills too.

Bain Weaving in the Chittagong Hills

Alongside Jhum farming, some of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Chittagong Hills can earn additional income through their weaving skills. This knowledge, method and the traditional designs have been handed down through many generations, spanning centuries.

Weaving has been a common practice across all eleven Indigenous and ethnic groups living within the three hill districts that make up the Chittagong Hill Tracts: Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari. Due to it being such labour-intensive and time-consuming work however it is sadly in real danger of falling into decline. Should this happen, a major part of the cultural heritage of this region could unfortunately be lost to the future.

Today the process often begins with the unravelling of second-hand woolen clothing to obtain yarn, which is then recycled and carefully woven to create beautiful hand made textiles. Throughout the various villages I’ve visited to date I have seen the backstrap loom most commonly in use. This traditional technique is also known as ‘Bain Weaving’.

It can take several working days to produce one blanket, which would typically find its way to the local market and sell for between 350 and 400 taka (£3.25 – £3.70). Since I relocated to Bandarban during the winter season, I have bought myself several colourful scarves, two beautiful blankets and many shawls, all of which are soft, warm and very durable.

Jhum Cultivation in the Hill Tracts

Jhum cultivation is an age-old, rain-fed cultivation method, practiced by the Indigenous people on the hills and slopes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, because of the lack of flat land suitable for farming. This system involves cutting back and clearing large areas of the hillside through fire, which also acts as a fertiliser, to obtain clean, fresh soil to farm, and why it is sometimes referred to as a ‘slash-and-burn’ method. This agricultural system is practised by the individual or family, however on occasion may involve an entire village.

Seeds of different crops are mixed together and sewn in this ‘field’ after the first rain shower has fallen, usually during the months of April to May. Plants on the slopes survive the rainy season floods. Typically, upland rice and vegetables are harvested within a few months after sowing, whereas cotton, turmeric and arum are harvested after 8 or 9 months, during December.

This is followed by several years of wood harvesting or crop growing until the soil loses its fertility. Once the land becomes inadequate for crop production it is then left to be reclaimed by natural jungle vegetation once again, while the same activity continues elsewhere, with this cycle continually repeating itself.

In the past, land was left fallow for between 15 to 20 years, which allowed the soil time to regenerate its fertility. These days however population pressure, coupled with acute land scarcity has forced that time frame to be reduced to a rotation cycle of between 3 to 5 years. This is widely recognised as not being sufficient for soil to regain its productivity.

Historically Jhum farming represented a subsistence shifting cultivation. These days it is gradually evolving and becoming more market oriented, which is also adding pressure for shorter land rotation. Ironically it seems possible fertilizer will become more and more necessary, and come to play an important role in this process, in stark contrast to the purely organic practice of the past.

I met this woman while out walking in the jungle. She was on her way back to her village home, carrying some of her harvest in a traditional head basket, which are used extensively here.

The many faces in and around Bandarban town

The obvious and historic face of Bandarban is of course an Indigenous one, for me there is no argument over this. In reality however a much more varied and wider reaching population can currently be found represented here. Over the remaining months that I spend living in this busy little town, where I too form part of that rich variation, I will attempt to capture and record some of those faces in the form of establishing a photographic portrait gallery, adding to this post as time passes.

“A small group of Muslim school boys I met one morning in Bandarban town, who found both me and my camera a little more interesting than arriving at their class in the local Mosque on time!”

“It’s pretty typical for a field trip to take place during the working day. At this time the people you are most likely to meet comprises of the very young, along with the older residents, who are not out Jhum cultivating in the jungle, which provides income for the vast majority of village inhabitants. At this Marma village I ‘chatted’ with this old lady who was almost deaf and losing her sight. At 88 years old however I was stunned at how mobile she still was, as I watched her climb the dozen or so steps of the wooden ladder up to her home.”

“While on a recent field trip to a village just outside Bandarban town itself, I met, as is usual, some of the young children living there. While always shy at first, soon a combination of curiosity and the universal mischief of all young boys kicks in. First they start giggling and then daring each other to speak to me. When I offered to take their photograph however they suddenly took it all very seriously!”

“This photograph represents three generations. Unusually the older woman pictured here is not wearing the traditional Marma tribal dress, as can be seen worn by her daughter, who is standing in the doorway behind her.”

“This woman belongs to the Mru or Mro tribe and is the wife of the Headman of the village I have visited on a couple of occasions. She has become a friend who stays close to my side the entire time I spend here. When we first met she was fascinated with my camera and was so once more when we met again recently. After taking this photograph, she was very curious and satisfied to see her own image ‘inside’ it at last.”

“This little girl and her younger brother also belong to the Mro tribe but live in a different newly built village, not far from Bandarban town. ”

“As can often be seen on the streets of Dhaka city, here in Bandarban women also work alongside the men on building sites, often continuing right through the heat of the mid-day sun.”

“This mother, wearing traditional dress, and her baby boy belong to the Chakma people, who are the largest ethnic group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, making up more than half the tribal population. The Chakma historically ruled the Chittagong Hill Tracts under the control of a King, whose lineage is still recognised today.”

“This man, hammer in hand, stopped breifly from his work, breaking down bricks into small chips, which are required as building material. His entire family labour here beside him, right down to his five year old daughter”.

“I met these two Tripura women as they stepped of a small wooden boat on the banks of the Sangu river. Each removed one of their many bead necklaces and offered them to me. I wasn’t only taken aback, but found it quite emotional. I couldn’t let them leave without taking their photograph to remember them by.”

“I met this amazing man fishing with a small hand net in the large pond close to my flat. To my delight he was remarkably successful. He looked very serious in my first few photographs, and when I encouraged him to relax and smile he proved remarkably successful doing that also!”

“This lovely little Mro village girl I met recently, dressed so smartly in her school uniform, needed no encouragement to smile. In fact I found it so infectious I couldn’t stop smiling myself!”

“I met this gentleman down on the banks of the Sangu river as it runs through Bandarban town. I love to go there on my day off to take in the sights and he came over for a brief ‘chat’, which we did through my terrible Anglo-Bengali lingo!”

“Lunchtime today, just outside my office, I realised watermelon is back in season!”

High in the beautiful Bandarban hills

I’ve just returned home to my little flat in Bandarban town after spending two days working in the field. The simple act of traveling, hour after hour through this amazing and stunningly beautiful area is in itself uplifting. Spectacular views open out around each and every corner turned, while climbing up to the higher altitude on a constantly twisting and seemingly never ending mountain road.

With the recent slight increase in temperature, and as we prepare to leave winter behind, butterflies abound. Some are as large as birds but even the smaller ones are of a vivid eye catching colour.

I’ve also noticed subtle changes in the flora across the several trips I’ve made to date, spanning four months of travel through this glorious part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

And as twilight approaches you can witness yet another change taking place, with a more dramatic effect taken on by the surrounding hills, as this light creates a startling quality all of its own.

Having been given the opportunity to live and work amongst the great beauty that exists here in these Bandarban Hills, it will remain for me a time that I will continue to treasure long after I have left this very special place.

One year on…and what have I learnt?

It’s now just over one year since I stepped off a plane from Heathrow airport and onto Bengali territory, where I’ve made myself a temporary home. So much has happened during that time, but reflecting back there are a few things in particular which stand out in my mind as being key learning from this amazing and crazy experience.

Top of my list would have to be that in Bangladesh power is such a strong drug. Everybody wants it; from the very top, right the way down, with everyone fearing who currently holds it. As an ‘outsider’ this wastes so much valuable time, creating huge confusion, causing my head to reel and on occasion making me want to jump off the merry-go-round that is life out here. The worse thing to stomach however is the injustice it creates and the fact that it clogs everything up by shifting focus and energy from where it’s really needed.

I personally have first-hand experienced of what it feels like to become a pawn in the power game. As a foreigner my cooperation represents a desirable association. But for me, calculating the impact that association might have through the ripple effects which will travel through the community is crucial. Any negative impact depletes my ability to work successfully, it’s like running to stand still. Calculating with any accuracy is virtually impossible, so what to do? The sad thing is that we all inevitably end up playing the game, trying to work our way out of this maze. I felt like I was slap in the middle of a mine field.

While there appears to be a general acceptance of ‘the power game’, hope for the future, pride in Bangladesh and a wicked sense of humour abounds. Polite and welcoming people reach out to assist at a moments notice. I’ve even been invited into a Mosque by a couple of women to join them in prayer: an amazing honour and treasured experience.

Personal learning is also high up there. Working through enormous stress and difficulty alone is a major challenge. To cope without normal outlets for frustration, which will inevitably build, is an acquired skill, and one for which there is no short-cut. You simply must face the experience to establish new coping strategies. I can say it has been a fascinating journey however, to be able to reflect so clearly on my own particular personal response, which has now become familiar. But what cost this growth!

While music always has played a big role in my life my iPod has become a lifesaver, helping me to connect with, express and work through the emotions of the moment.

Deciding who to trust in such a transient community has also extracted a measure of pain. The common mistake is to view all foreigners working under the same conditions as being part of a tight and reliable group. Unfortunately not the case, as was demonstrated fairly early on. That said, I have met some pretty inspiring people here, making a small number of very close and treasured friends in the process. Important people in my life who I will continue to hold dear when we all move on to pastures new.

To round it off, the most important thing I’ve learnt is that there is never an easy way out, and so, I stand my ground.

The Sangu River

The contrast between my two homes in Bangladesh is apparent when comparing the main river running through both, the Buriganga through Dhaka and the Sangu through Bandarban, the only river born within Bangladesh territory. After spending the day trekking in the jungle a small boat was hired to ferry us back to town.

The remoteness of my new surroundings was never more pronounced than when watching the wonderful countryside quietly drift by. The source of the Sangu is in the North Arakan Hills, flowing through Bandarban district east to west, finally ending its 270 km journey when entering the bay of Bengal, just south of the mouth of the Karnafuli.

Approaching Bandarban town from the river opened up an interesting new vista, and clearly demonstrated how the local community here relies heavily on the river water for the daily activities of their everyday lives.

Bandarban town tumbles down to the very edge of these waters, with so many people living only a few feet away from the river banks themselves. The Sangu transports goods down to Chittagong city and is an important source of fresh fish with its water being used for irrigating crops, as well as the many households and local business who also rely on it.

Cox’s Bazar

Cox’s Bazar, some 150 km south of the city of Chittagong, is believed to be the longest natural sandy sea beach in the world, stretching unbroken for over 125 km. Although it is one of the most visited destinations in Bangladesh, the tourists themselves are home grown, with very few International visitors.

A busy fishing port and town, Cox’s Bazar is expanding rapidly, as almost everywhere else in the country. Sadly I saw many large hotels being built right on the edge of the beautiful golden sand. Its natural beauty remains relatively unspoiled however, with many picturesque wooden fishing boats to be seen from the waters edge.

Sunset each evening bathed the water, transforming all that interacted with it into a scene of magic and a thing of simple beauty.

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