Field Journal Week 2: A circus act in Dinajpur
The daily journal clearly didn’t work out; having spent a week each in Rangpur and Dinajpur, and a whirlwind visit to Dhaka for a day, we are now in Mymensingh for our final field visit. This blog may seem a bit all over the place – while many of the reflections in this post and others are drawn from the internship, I’ve been pursuing the Community Health Worker research in our free time, and uncovering plenty more surprises as I go – but those will be for another post.
By Wednesday, it had become a farce.
We were visiting the WASH programme – water, sanitation and hygiene. In the morning, we joined a meeting where a WASH Programme Officer delivered hygiene lessons to village members – when to wash their hands, cleaning vegetables, covering food, using the latrine. We were shown two latrines provided by BRAC – one paid for with a loan from BRAC – and hopped in the auto-rickshaws that had brought us there, to move to our next stop.
This one was a girls’ school, the latrine block provided again by BRAC – an important issue in girls’ education, where having such a facility may be the difference between missing a few days of school each month or not when they hit puberty. Seeing a latrine doesn’t take long; we were sat down and invited to eat jackfruit with the staff, and poked our heads into the class-rooms to introduce ourselves (‘Amar nam Ben, amar desh England’ – I have long lost count…).
Till now, things had gone smoothly, and much the same as the rest of the field trip – arrive at a location where a BRAC project is underway; meet the staff and some of the beneficiaries; ask a few questions and leave. For better or worse, this was about the limit of our engagement with any of the programmes. The next stop, however, turned out a little differently.
Back on the auto-rickshaws – without being entirely sure where we were going. A half-hour ride later, we pulled up outside another school – and were led into a staff room, to a long table, at which we all sat. Mangos were brought out – we ate, hungrily. Staff gathered, and watched.
And – nothing. No one seemed to know why we were there. Was there another WASH latrine in this school? A village WASH committee meeting? Or had the headmaster simply asked if we could come by, to look?
We had become used to a crowd gathering, wherever we stopped – often the two white girls, Lisa and Marie, drawing the most attention. The crowd would stand and stare – though if you returned the favour, an individual would turn away awkwardly; apparently it wasn’t an inconvenience to anyone’s daily schedule. We had also become used to – or at least, familiar with – arriving at a programme and not quite knowing who was who, or what we were doing there: introductions never quite seemed to happen as most of us expected – another cultural stumbling block. Often it was not until we had introduced ourselves and asked specific questions (Who are you? What is your role? What is this programme?) that we would be able to form a mental picture – overviews did not seem to be the common practice. A week and a half of this was frustrating – it often felt as though we were imposing, and yet we would not know if we were waiting for something to begin, or if they were waiting for us to go.
This time, it seemed, was one awkward situation too many. The idea began circulating that the headmaster had simply wanted us to visit so that a crowd of foreigners would be seen at his school. This may well have not been the case – we may have been waiting for a meeting that was scheduled shortly afterwards, and they were simply being hospitable. But no one seemed to be able to clear up what we were doing there – and suddenly we were getting back on the auto-rickshaws, trying to get out of the situation as fast as possible.
Why the panic? Perhaps it was frustration at having been a circus act for the last week and a half – gathering such large crowds that the very programmes we were trying to observe became impossible (in one case, children began taking out chunks of the wall of the school building we were in to peer in!). Especially so if we had been taken to this school entirely for that purpose – rather than to gain a further insight into another of BRAC’s many works. At the same time, we were well aware that we were just as guilty of becoming ‘poverty tourists’ – visiting villages and watching people in their daily routine as though on some kind of safari. For many of us, these were not our expectations of the internship, and we felt as uncomfortable watching a show as being a show. This school was one show too far, and we left, rather unceremoniously, leaving the programme officers who had led us there far from pleased. It was unprofessional, and embarrassing – but at the same time, in a way, a relief.
What are we doing here? Though our expectations about the intership may have differed, the questions raised over the week had broader implications. BRAC is a grass-roots organization – founded by, run by, staffed by, and for Bangladeshis. What role (bar Yaasha, the one Bangladeshi intern in our small group) did we outsiders have in this organization – as interns, or indeed in our future careers? Most of us were there with some interest in international development – but it was clear that the actual development was happening on the ground: through the villagers themselves taking loans; through the volunteers trained by BRAC to teach or deliver healthcare; through the BRAC staff providing counselling and legal services – within a cultural context that many of us struggled with.
I’ve come up against the same question in other contexts: having taken a gap year myself before university, I am painfully aware of the dangers of ‘voluntourism’ – a stint in a developing country, building a playground or digging a well, and returning fulfilled, conscience satisfied, to a life a million miles away in the global North. Such trips, I believe, rarely have a lasting impact on anyone other than the volunteer. Are we so arrogant to believe that a village doesn’t have a playground because the labour wasn’t available? And, indeed, is the most valuable thing that we can send from our position of incomparable wealth simply manual labour for a summer? In my case, I spent a year teaching in a secondary school, with one other volunteer. We were being paid a stipend by the Ministry of Education. Though we were not meant to be counted on the books, we were, and the school was understaffed without the volunteers. We were the fourth pair to visit that school, and I know at least three more have been since. We may have touched 40, 50 lives – those of our pupils – but how much more difference would even one local teacher on our combined wage, employed for seven years, have made to the school and community with that continuity?
The counter argument is tempting, but not easy: that the benefit, squarely in the court of the volunteer, is not insignificant, if that individual returns to their home country with a passion for social justice, with their eyes opened and horizons broadened. I am in no position to weigh up the relative costs and benefits – to the community and to the volunteer – but clearly this is only of value if that individual goes on to act on this. Advocacy in the global North, in supposed democracies where our representative governments pursue policies which systematically keep the global South impoverished, is ultimately where we can play our part – not in a village at the end of the track digging yet another well. But how many of us have taken those reigns and changed those policies? Is the easy route to become and expert in other people’s problems – a development consultant that, as one Ugandan student at Leeds once told me, borrows your watch to tell you the time?
Perhaps the most important lesson that BRAC has taught me, thus far, is that BRAC – and Bangladesh – do not – will not – need me – even once I have finished my ever-expanding training. I am not sure – a part of me hopes that this is not the case. But to do so simply to satisfy my own imagination cannot be an adequate reason.