This summer, I worked in Bangladesh for 10 weeks with VSO – a charity with a mission to end poverty through volunteering. I was placed in South West Bangladesh, in a small isolated village called Rampal. Our team consisted of two team leaders, five UK volunteers and seven national volunteers that we called our working counterparts. We worked in three sub teams focusing on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), livelihoods and governance.
I lived in a host home with two other UK volunteers and a national volunteer. Although our host father unfortunately passed away a few weeks before our placement, we had a host mother and three host brothers that we became very close to. The home was beautiful, they had a massive front yard where they kept turkeys, chickens and cows. Behind the house they also had a pond where they fished regularly for shrimp and fish. They also had banana trees, jackfruit trees and mango trees – it was just our luck that it was mango season! They provided meals for us three times a day, and I settled in very quickly with the support of the girls I lived with.
During our cycle, we worked closely with local youth clubs and schools to come up with methods to tackle and raise awareness about important issues that affects the community. These issues include child marriage, dowry, drug addiction, women and youth empowerment and disaster management. We led several school workshops and court yard sessions addressing these issues, where our national counterparts helped a lot in translating the content to the citizens that we wanted to engage. Additionally, we ran natural disaster management training for families and local businesses to minimise damage as much as they can in times of crisis, with a focus on flooding as this area of Bangladesh is massively affected by this, especially in monsoon season.
Although we worked hard, we still made time to have fun and interact with the local community in the form of Community Action Days. This was an opportunity for us to showcase our work and get the local community to think about issues affecting them in a constructive way. We used song, dance and dramas (a big hit in Bangladesh!) to act out scenes relating to the subjects that we wanted to raise awareness about. Outside of work, we spent a lot of time together as a team. We visited the local markets frequently, watched the World Cup together at our host homes in the evenings (the England vs Croatia match was particularly painful), and organised day trips to see the local sights. The highlight was visiting the Sundarbans National Park, a world heritage site! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any Bengal tigers. The food in Bangladesh was insane – especially the desserts. I will miss having mishti and jalapi daily, although this is probably better for my health. The fruits sold in market stalls were taken straight from the trees, and you can taste such a difference in the freshness compared to fruit in the UK.
One thing that struck me about Bangladeshi culture is their hospitality. I’ve heard a lot about this even before my placement, but experiencing it is something completely different. Bangladeshi people will go out of their way to make their guests feel as comfortable as possible! At every work meeting we had, whether it was with government officials or youth clubs, we were greeted with flowers, followed by tea, sweets and (A LOT OF) biscuits. Can you imagine receiving flowers in business meetings in the UK? I thought it was such a pure and genuine gesture. The village community was also extremely inquisitive but in a positive member, wherever we went we had kids screaming “HELLO” at us, and random members of the community asking us questions and wanting to interact with us. All in all, I thought that the community members were extremely friendly and approachable.
Of course, it would be impossible to go through 10 weeks in a foreign country without challenges or setbacks. My three biggest challenges were as follows:
- Insects: within my first few days of staying in my host home, I had a cockroach infestation in my bed! I first realised this one night when I was playing on my phone before sleeping, when I felt something HUGE crawl over my face. I tried to frantically scramble out of bed, but I was tucked into my mosquito net – in hindsight it was probably quite funny to anyone watching, but this is probably up there in my top five most stressful moments of my life! I was screaming and jumping (I think there is video evidence of this), got one of my roommates to flip my mattress and there were COUNTLESS numbers of cockroaches just chilling on my bed. I had to sleep with one of the girls that night. Also, mosquitos.
- Dealing with the change in climate: I’ve fainted three times due to heat stroke and dehydration. I underestimated the amount of water I had to drink over there, and I probably went through about 100 rehydration sachets during my time in Bangladesh.
- Language barrier: at first, it was difficult for our national counterparts to understand us because we naturally speak so fast! But over time, we learned to slow down so that we could work together harmoniously.
After completing this placement, I feel a lot more confident in terms of public speaking after so much practice and believing in my own ideas and potential. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and although it is a big overstatement to say that we’ve made a difference in the village, I do believe that we have made some small steps in improving the lives of those we touched by raising awareness and getting people to think about issues more rather than taking them for granted and thinking that there’s nothing they can do to help. I’ve noticed that the youth were so keen to become active citizens make a change for the better once they realise they have potential to do so, and I believe this is the same in the UK too.