Baby Steps in the Field: Field Site Two in Bangladesh

by:  Jamie McClung and Chista Keramati

Master of Global Affairs students Jamie McClung and Chista Keramati are currently working in Bangladesh with their global partner, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. Below they reflect on their most recent field site visit and their experiences interviewing rural community members in the southwest part of Bangladesh, the Satkhira district.


Jamie McClung: Deep Tracks

This week, Chista Keramati and I traveled to villages on the edge of Bangladesh where people’s livelihoods rely on the resources of the Sundarbans—the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Bangladesh Fish and Shrimp
Fishermen throwing their nets to catch fish and shrimp for future sale in the market.
Bangladesh climate change Sundarbans water
A boy stands pensively with land on one side and water on the other, a daily reality for the people near the Sundarbans.

En route to the villages, we confronted slick and muddy roads, where one wrong step meant the difference between staying upright or falling into the rivers and ponds used to hold drinking water. The challenge of navigating these roads was actually quite enjoyable, as it gave us the opportunity to connect with locals, who graciously helped us make our way safely.

Chista and Jamie in Bangladesh
We smile as we try not to slip on the road.

Our deep tracks in the mud, and our presence in the villages, seemed to leave a meaningful impression on the communities, as NGOs and even government officials do not seem to visit here often, especially not during such wet weather conditions.

Bangladesh climate change villagers
I stand with villagers who helped us trek down the road to their homes.

Most meaningful to me was all the people who helped us—each day, and in each community—so that we did not fall. Seeing how adept they were at navigating these treacherous conditions left me with two thoughts: 1) the very location of their homes leaves the entirety of these communities vulnerable; and 2) the sheer strength and resilience within these communities is why they are surviving on very little outside support.

Much of this strength comes from traditional and indigenous knowledge. Most people still live in traditional homes, which are intentionally built with locally grown materials and methods to withstand floods or other climatic hazards.

Bangladesh rainy season plinth
Near the Sundarbans, a traditional home built on a mud plinth (the raised ground) to keep the home from flooding during rainy season.

Through our interviews, we discovered that international trade and the strength of multi-national companies are threatening these ways of life and contributing to many of the development challenges we are witnessing today, from malnutrition to lack of housing. Local communities are quickly losing access to the resources they have depended on for generations, as multi-national companies and NGOs introduce services and materials that don’t align with traditional ways of life. The question for me now is: how do we create locally innovative development that delivers sustainable services in line with traditional ways of life?


Chista Keramati: A Humble Reminder to Self

I wrote my first blog post after I had spent barely ten days in Bangladesh. My research partner Jamie and I had not yet interviewed many people. Dhaka, the capital, and its busy streets and narrow pedestrian areas were the only places we had seen of this geographically and ethnically diverse country. Simply put, I knew not what to expect.

This past Friday—fifty seven days into our stay, and at the closing of our second field trip in rural Bangladesh—we gathered in the local restaurant below our hotel to have our last breakfast in Shyamnagar, a small coastal town in Southwest Bangladesh. While waiting for our now usual “Naan roti and eggs,” we chatted about the past week’s experiences interviewing rural communities, local government officials, and NGOs about their work and life in coastal Bangladesh.

Jamie and I were baffled by what we had heard, observed, and experienced during the past week. Just one day prior, we were on an island where people had lost their land and livelihoods to river bank erosion, and lost family members to cyclones.

Bangladesh climate change women fishing
Women fishing at the bank of Kholpetua River during low tide. They earn somewhere around $1-3 per day selling their catch to local traders.

We walked some of the most difficult hikes of our lives where the seemingly trivial task of going from one village home to the next was a huge challenge in and of itself. Constant heavy rain turned the island’s dirt roads into little (or big) pools of sticky and slippery mud. At every step of the way, I tried to remind myself that, while this was for me a perhaps one-time hardship, it was an everyday routine for local habitants.

Bangladesh Monsoon Muddy Roads
A local woman walking on the muddy village road, which also serves as the river embankment. Storm surges present difficulties in commuting and threaten access to their only roads in and out of the village.

Of course, locals are much more skilled at handling rain and mud than we are. I was reminded of this fact when Shahrbanu—a local woman who had patiently guided the two of us through the mud—bid farewell to us and turned to go home to prepare her family’s lunch. Once assured we were standing on a safe spot, she broke into a sprint towards her home, not minding the slippery road, the heavy rain, and the mud splashing all over her bright red sari. She ran cheerfully and freely as though all the hardships that nature was imposing on her at that very moment were nonexistent. We watched in awe as she disappeared into the mangrove trees and bushes in the distance.

Now silently sipping our sweetened coffee, Jamie and I contemplated what could be done to help. We agreed that it was both humbling and ironic that the locals, in all of their modesty and generosity, did the most to make our experience in Bangladesh, in their villages and homes, pleasant. At our final breakfast, Jamie and I never reached a concrete, satisfying answer. It was like walking through slippery, sticky mud again—toddlers trying to learn how to walk, taking small unsteady steps. We will continue to contemplate. And to this day, the voice of one female participant from a community focus group will continue to echo in my head: “We told you about our lives, don’t forget about us.”

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

by: Jamie McClung

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

Jamie McClung is currently working on a project with Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies for her Master of Global Affairs i-Lab experience, focusing on women’s adaptive capacity to climate change, particularly in rural Bangladesh. She and her partner, Chista Keramati, have just completed their first field site visit to Teknaf, in the southeast corner of Bangladesh.

Climate
(from left to right) Jamie McClung, Ausing, Chista Keramati, and Dewan Ali Emran bond in an indigenous Rakhine village near Cox’s Bazar.

It’s quite difficult to write a small blog post to describe a trip to another universe. In a few words, I’m meant to describe the surprising findings, the warmth of the people, the strange geography, the never-ending questions in my head, but how? Instead, I’ll highlight 5 aspects of our trip that were particularly meaningful or interesting to me, each accompanied by a picture.

1) Presents, but Little Presence:

School girls in a Teknaf village walk (and run) home from school.

One of the very first things I noticed was the overwhelming presence of NGOs in Teknaf—presence in terms of goods, like these UNICEF backpacks, but not in terms of people. Yes, we saw endless Land Rovers associated with different organizations on the road, but I was surprised by the lack of interaction between the people in these vehicles and the local people. I became curious about what these NGOs were doing in and around Teknaf, and if they ever stepped out of the Land Rovers. Some of my questions were answered when we met with UN Women later in the week, and I realized that they share similar goals for integral human development as we do here at the Keough School.

2) Communication without Words:

An elderly man outside of a typical bamboo house smiles at the camera.

We talked with this elderly man on our first day in the village, and saw him again on the second day. He showed me that you can make a friend and communicate without any words at all. This continued to happen throughout the week, through shared smiles, laughs, and simple eye contact that conveyed a curiosity about one another and an openness to learn more. I experienced these small interactions both during focus group discussions (FGDs) and during our walks around the villages.

3) Water, Water, Everywhere:

A cow grazes in a rice paddy field.

This first field visit made it beyond clear why Bangladesh is so extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea waters. One of my thoughts when returning to Dhaka from the field was that maybe Bangladesh was the last country God created, and He just had a bit of land left, so He spread it out as much as He could, took His chances, and let water inhabit most of the space. It is low-lying, marshy, and a land covered in rivers.

4) There’s No Average Bangladeshi:

A young Rakhine girl poses for a photo in an indigenous village near Cox’s Bazar.

To harken back to a comment I made during one of my first semesters at the Keough School of Global Affairs, I truly believe that there is no such thing as an “average” citizen of any country. This little girl, and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine village we visited on the last day of our visit to Cox’s Bazar, reaffirmed that belief. This indigenous community had their own language, their own religious leader, and their own way of life that was extremely different than what we had experienced in the days before that.

5) Geographic Vulnerability Can Be Overcome:

A typical house for Rakhine people near Cox’s Bazar.

The final insight I had during our first field site visit was that local knowledge is already being used for adaptation, without any assistance from the outside world. This indigenous, Buddhist village has always built two-story homes with an open ground floor. It allows them to have a safe place in their home when it floods. This kind of evidence gives me hope after a week of seeing small homes built directly on the ground, unable to protect families during floods or cyclones.

All in all, it was a positive week. There were times I was frustrated at how much families were struggling to survive, and how clearly the land left them vulnerable, but I was also awed by the resilience and hospitality I saw when interacting with the rural communities here. Despite being labeled as “vulnerable” by their national government and international organizations, these communities have survived and they continue to live life with or without us. This realization led me to another: development isn’t about helping people survive; it’s about accompanying them as they attempt to thrive. Now that we’re back in the smog of Dhaka, Chista and I are both counting down the days to our next field sites where we hope to continue bonding with and learning from the local communities we visit.

Bangladesh: A New Learning Experience

by: Chista Keramati

Chista Keramati is working with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) in Dhaka. Chista and her teammate, Jamie, will be studying the gendered aspect of climate change by looking at policies and programs in Bangladesh that address the vulnerabilities of women to climate-induced hazards. The team is conducting fieldwork in three different rural areas of Bangladesh, each prone to a different mix of climate disasters.

The pilot announced that our plane would be landing in 40 minutes at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. Looking out the window, I tried to see with my own eyes the Bangladesh landscape. I spotted settlements here and there, green areas of what I assumed were cultivated land, and what I initially perceived as “dirt roads.” I asked myself, “But, wait! Where is all the water that I read so much about?,” only to realize that the “dirt roads” were not really roads but rivers whose brown color comes from the huge amount of sediment they carry with them along the way. I gazed in awe at the magnificent web of rivers and wetlands that were running across the landscape below our feet.

Typical busy street in Dhaka
Typical busy street in Dhaka

That feeling of awe has not only remained but grown with me at every scenic or human encounter here. Life in Dhaka involves learning not necessarily new things, but everything in a new and different way. This new learning experience encompasses everything from the very basic activity of crossing the street (a double challenge when you are not used to people driving on the left-hand side of the road, and overcrowded streets that rarely have street signs) to working with our partner organization BCAS.

FIRST MEETING WITH OUR PROJECT PARTNER

Our first week in Dhaka involved extensive meetings with BCAS members, together with our professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa. We heard about the BCAS team’s hopes and aspirations not just for a better life for the people of Bangladesh, but for the whole world.

On our first meeting with Dr. Atiq Rahman, the founder of BCAS, he explained how the neat and well-organized knowledge in written reports and proposals do not necessarily match the messy realities on the ground.

I can see what he means. The realities we read about on paper before coming here have felt different when faced and experienced first-hand. I am seeing with my own eyes the amount of water running across the Bangladesh landscape, and how this might relate to climate change. And instead of seeing images of busy streets, I am now crossing even the narrowest streets of Dhaka with special caution. I am relieved, too, to find that there are some female experts working at BCAS and that it is not an all-male organization. This is important to our research.

RESEARCHING GENDER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

As a team of two women interested in researching the gendered aspect of climate change in Bangladesh, we are trying to observe and learn as much as we can about the attitude towards women in this country. Of course, our own personal experience has been mixed with our identity as not just women, but non-Bangladeshi women. We are slowly getting used to attracting attention at every turn in the local market, and being asked to take selfies wherever we go site-seeing.

Another lesson I have learned is that Google Maps doesn’t help much with local transportation. When you are stuck in a street and don’t know how to get home, and you also don’t know the local language, you can still rely on the kindness of strangers to help you take a CNG taxi (a small motor vehicle that runs with compressed natural gas). I have learned that once you ask someone for help, they feel responsible for you until their job of helping you is completed successfully.

AnAn attraction in our own right
An attraction in our own right

As I am writing the final words of this blog post, I come across another cause for celebration, not necessarily related to our personal experience here, but surely related to Bangladeshi women: the Bangladesh women’s cricket team has just won the Asia Cup, making it the first Bangladeshi team ever to win this championship. It is both funny and endearing to read the comment of Soumya Sarkar, a Bangladeshi male cricket player on this great achievement, saying, “the moment is a proud one for us. This is the first time the girls won something, and that has come at the Asia Cup. They have won a big title, whereas the boys have won none till date, despite all the facilities.”[1]

Kudos to the women of Bangladesh! Our team is here to learn from you all.

[1] https://www.dhakatribune.com/sport/cricket/2018/06/10/bangladesh-women-elect-to-field-in-asia-cup-final