Friday, 22 October 2010

Khulna University Revisited

My host receives a phone call from Khulna University that they would like us to come for a longer visit this time so we can exchange information and start exploring collaboration. 

The visit has been arranged for 3:00 PM and we spend part of the morning discussing our presentations and best approach towards collaboration. We decide that I should introduce the subject by discussing the importance of relevant regional research and university-community interaction, a subject I am well familiar with as applied research it is on most university's agendas these days, including my own. My host will introduce his NGO and explain his knowledge brokering system.

Set up in 1991, Khulna University is quite a young University and despite its young age has managed to establish 21 faculties. 

This time we are hosted by the Dean of Sociology who has invited some of his own facility staff and other departmental heads to join in the discussion. 

We do roundtable (well oblong really) introductions and I learn such interesting facts that research has been conducted by staff of this University on the present condition of the informal sector ~ which in many cases is the real economy in the developing world, growing rapidly and contributing significantly to GDP ~ as well as on the socio-economic vunerability of communities in the coastal zone (e.g., most of the communities we have visited!). 

Dean of Sociology
roundtable intros

Dean's Office Luxuries

Our presentations are well received and we have a frank discussion about future collaboration opportunities, especially between the University and my host's research and development organisation. In the process, the Dean of Sociology assures us that unlike other universities there is no corruption in Khulna University ~  staff in public universities are public servants appointed for life ~ and that their interest in collaboration is genuine. Some two hours later, we leave with promising ideas for the future.

Before we leave the university grounds, we stop for cold drinks at the uni cafetaria, which  makes the caf in my Aussie uni look like a five-star restaurant!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Up at the crack of dawn again for a return drive to Jhenidah ~ another part of the district this time ~ we're off to Mehepur to visit a local government-funded organisation called Subah Samajik Unnayan Sangstha. Subah works to improve the conditions of the under-privileged who have no access to food, health services and education, especially women and children of low caste vunerable groups. It runs programs ranging from supporting a women's farming cooperative to increasing school enrolment of minority and ultra poor children, who often end up as child labour to increase household income. 

a Bangla staple
children picking chillies

Subah also runs a 'tobacco free society' advocacy program lobbying for the implementation of a 'Tobacco Control Law'. This is predominantly aimed at British American Tobacco ~ TAB is the second largest global market player with brands such as Dunhill, Kent and LuckyStrike ~ which is employing farmers in the region to grow and cure tobacco. 

tobacco curing shed
Curing tobacco is known to cause  bronchial illnesses, lung cancer and premature death among farmers and their families, not to mention its detrimental effects on the environment ~ tobacco curing requires a lot of wood burning ~ and its perpetuation of poverty and hunger as it diverts prime land from food production. As it stands, around 65.3 million Bangladeshis do not have enough food today and the population continues to grow.  But I digress..

Until now Subah has been coasting on funding from the Ministries of Health and Education, as well as some funding from HOPE for Children UK and BRAC, the biggest NGO in Bangladesh, but with the recent change in government, Subah's future may be in doubt.

We visit the women's farming coop and Subah's director proudly shows off his English skills during the consultation session. The women are enterprising but lack capacity to go beyond the middle (wo)men and have no access to city markets or marketing mechanisms, despite the fact that there is a high level of literacy and just about everyone present has a mobile phone. When we make some simple suggestions about how they could use their mobiles to access markets beyond their immediate area, the women look at us in amazement and agree that it's an interesting idea!  They are also keen to find out how they can preserve their crops longer, but without electricity and cooling mechanisms this a little trickier to solve. As it turns out, they already engage in vegetable pickling and fruit preserving but it is predominantly for own household use and the women have not considered taking products such as pickles and dried mango to market. It is clear some entrepreneurial capacity building would be useful for both the community and  Subah to move towards a more market-oriented and sustainable future. We go for a stroll around the village and the women proudly show off their crops and crop processing skills.

rice processing machine
vegetable crop
showing off

On the way home we run into a number of Durga Puja processions. On the fifth day of the festival Hindus bid farewell to Durga, ending with immersion in the river of the idols of goddess Durga and her children Lakshmi, Sarawati, Kartik and Ganesh. The idols are paraded through the streets where devotees, with tearful eyes and red paint splashed all over their faces, bid farewell to their goddess for another year. Relative peace and quiet will return to the streets of Khulna and I look forward to a good night's sleep.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Durga Puja

My host stays overnight in Jhenidah but some of the gang travel back to Khulna as there is nowhere for me to stay ~ will have a day off from travel before we head back to Jhenidah for the last of the field trips in the region.
A day off does not mean I have it to myself. One of the volunteers arrives to take me to her house for lunch and meet the family. This pretty much means I meet the family, the next door neighbour, the upstairs neighbour, the downstairs neighbour, the neighbour across the road ~ you get the picture ~ I am once again on display ! I have to consume something in every household as it would be impolite to decline ~ this is not helping my waistline!  We end up on the roof where we take the mandatory photos with everyone I've met ~ I like the vantage point & get a few other shots in as well.

In the early evening after the visit we depart to go to the Durga Puja celebrations. Durga Puja, the greatest religious festival of the Hindus, is the worship of 'Shakti' ~divine force - embodied in goddess Durga. It symbolises the battle between good and evil where the evil forces eventually surrender to the good ones. While this is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the state-run and private television and radio channels air special programmes and newspapers bring out special supplements for the occasion. It is a 5-day long noisy affair. According to the Daily Star newspaper over 27,000 so-called puja mandaps (goddess displays) are set up across the country. These are the castle like entrances made from cloth, held up by bamboo and surrounded by flashing lights we see in just about every town we travel through on our way to Jhenidah.

I am unsure what I am in for but soon discover that we ~ alongside thousands of others ~ will be pushing our way into each available puja mandap, where strange, kitch looking goddesses, gods & evil spirits made from mud and painted in bright colours are on display accompanied by super loud Hindi disco music and wild disco lighting.  

Police are directing and controlling the people traffic, which is highly necessary. In some places men and women are separated. In one private home where we climb a narrow set of stairs filled with shoes (taken off inside homes, offices and the like) to view the goddess shrine, the owner kisses me on both cheeks. In another slightly less crowded puja mandap, three Hindi men invite me to sit down for a brief (inaudible) chat and then ask the mini orchestra to play for me.

But most places we visit I am pushed and shoved like everyone else by the massive crowd and after walking around for about 1.5 hrs and visiting some ten puja mandaps, I beg off and ask the gang to drop me back @ my hotel ~ not exactly fleeing to peace and quiet as the outside festival noise there too is deafening, but at least I am safely out of the crowd. The next day I read in the newspaper that in India 10 people are trampled to death visiting a puja mandap... 


Get up at the crack of dawn today accompanied by the call to prayer for an early departure to Jhenidah. Thank goodness my host has a penchant for roadside 'cha' (tea) and we have regular refreshment and (at times borderline) toilet stops.

tea ceremony
My host has been working with several communities in the Jhenidah district, setting up an ICT-enabled knowledge brokerage system for farming cooperatives. The knowledge brokerage system has trained young educated men from these communities to act as the knowledge brokers ~ which means they are a trusted source. It provides much needed employment for these youths. The information being brokered (in Bangla) creates a 'know-do' link for farmers. It is available on the web as well as in CD-ROM format and brokers travel into communities for show & tell as needed. There is information on all  main local crop varieties, such as rice, wheat, potatoes, jute, maize and dahl ~ when to seed, when to plant, effective pest and other disaster control.

An MOU has been set up between farmers, the middle (wo)men and the local market committee which provides crop security in terms of both sales and pricing. The market extends credit without interest to the farmers, who pay back by way of crop. An innovative system but not without its pitfalls. The biggest threats to this system are external forces such as pest and weather. If the crop is damaged, the farming coops end up in debt unless they are able to make it up with other undamaged crops. 

With the cyclone season having started, there have been some severe rainstorms over the last few days, making it difficult to reach some of the communities we are supposed to be visiting in the Jhenidah.district. Instead, a central meeting place has been arranged in one of the communities and after wading through a fair bit of mud, we arrive at a clearing where some chairs have been set up for the visitors. People throng around. 

We chat about the benefits and gaps in the MOU agreement and also hear some of the now familiar stories on micro credit from those who are not part of the coop system. The farmers are looking for recommendations and we talk about the benefits for non-members to join the coop, intra- and inter-coop collaboration to increase critical mass and local power, possible farming bi-products they can sell, building a seed bank to steer clear of having to rely on hybrid seeds and a move towards organic farming and related pest control.

When my host disappears for his famous 'ten minutes' it translates into 1-2 hours Bangla time. This time he says he'll be gone for about 1 hour, which turns into almost 4 hours. In the meantime I am fed an abundant Bangla meal of rice, fish and mouton, shown around the village, stared at, stared at some more (I am continually on display and everyone who meets me immediately takes on a possessive air, showing off the white-skinned novelty to their neighbours). The people in this village are superbly hospitable, sharing whatever little they have, and I have a lovely time interacting with them, taking copious amounts of pictures of the beautiful people and surroundings as well as some cool videos of crop processing, henna making and the like. 

I am keen to share these in the blog, but when I come home, after another long and scary night-time car ride, I find that most of it hasn't recorded properly ~ bugger, bugger, bugger !

rice processing