I left for my “field trip” in Madaripur early Saturday morning last week. I was in a car with two colleagues I hadn’t met before. It took a while to get out of Dhaka with all the traffic and pick the other two up but once out everything turned greener and got more rural. Dhaka is actually a very green city with vegetation everywhere, especially in my area lining all the streets. Outside of Dhaka though it’s very green – and the further you go the more rural it gets. The journey took around 7 hours but I was not bored for one second and kept my eyes glued to the window. A couple of hours in we had to get a ferry across the “lake” (actually a wide river) which was nice although it was misty so I couldn’t see much. Everyone on the boat was very curious what a white girl was doing crossing into rural Bangladesh so I got a lot of stares, as always.The ferry was completely packed with cars and buses parked so close you could barely walk between them. There were many vendors selling jhal muri in small paper cones from portable trays hanging from their shoulders – a clear box full of puffed rice beneath the tray and then little pots of crunchy crisp, chili oil, spices in a plastic bottle squeezed out through a small hole in the top, and a plate of cut up chilies, tomato and onion above. Everything goes in a rusty Hunter – a bengali beer that is worse than Feldschlossen(!) – beer can, covered by another, and shaken, then dropped in a piece of paper rolled up to make a cone. It costs around 20 taka – 15p. It looked really delicious and I’ve actually had it before in Brighton shortly before I left – by chance – from a lovely guy who took the idea from India and sells it at events in the UK. My colleague felt, quite rightly, that I shouldn’t have it on the way to Madaripur but perhaps on the way back as my stomach may not be used to the germs it inevitably carries.
As we approached the other side (around 20 minutes) I was met with a sight of many people by the water side – washing pans, clothes, kids playing in the water, animals drinking from it, men washing.. there were lots of huts around and many goats and cows – many more than in the city. We drove off the boat and it was immediately rural – dense vegetation lining the surprisingly well maintained and good cement roads and miles of fields and crops beyond. Every five minutes we would drive past a clearing of a few huts selling snacks or cha, street vendors selling mangoes and jackfruit – the national fruit in Bangladesh, and many people. Even for a rural area there were a lot of people around, fewer than in Dhaka but still more than I would have expected, just walking down the road or sitting in a hut drinking cha. Cows, dogs and goats were everywhere – the cows always eating vegetation but looking quite thin – the dogs looking well fed and pretty happy dodging cars and people. The journey got a lot more exciting when we drove past an elephant (!!) walking calmly down the road with one man leading it and one man sitting on top. Unfortunately I didn’t get more than a glimpse as we drove right past but I was pretty excited anyway. Everything was so interesting to see from the car as it was completely different to anything I was used to. Through the vegetation lining the road – mostly banana trees, bamboo and jackfruit trees – there were little paths built of mud or little bridges built from bamboo leading to small clusters of huts surrounded by washing lines with colourful saris drying and women carrying water in silver jugs on their heads, kids playing in water, or people walking to and from their homes carrying various things on their heads. It was so interesting to see.
We were staying in the town’s Legal Aid Association Training Centre – not exactly quality hotel. It was very basic and I wished I had brought my own sheets. I got a little bored the first day as we had nothing planned from when we arrived around 4pm to dinner at 8.30pm, so I had a sleep. Meals were served in the small dining room in the centre and made by the cooks living there – traditional bengali food. I quite enjoyed the first meal but my colleagues weren’t so impressed. Every meal was served in the dining hall and it actually did get better. Traditional bengali food is really delicious and I’m on a mission to learn how to make it. As we were in the country surrounded by lakes, fresh fish was served every day so I was very happy. All the food was served in big bowls and you could take however much of each thing you wanted. Typically breakfast was chapatti/ruti (like a bengali tortilla) with an omelette and mixed vegetables with spices. Bangladeshis (and other countries around here such as Nepal) eat with their hands. As a bideshi I was offered cutlery but turned it down so I could practice my bengali style eating – I got the hang of it by the end of the trip! Lunch is typically rice, some sort of veggie dish, a fish dish and a meat dish. Dinner was similar to lunch but occasionally with chapatti too and a few more meat dishes – usually chicken, beef and fish offered in the same meal and a few more veg dishes, one of which was often “spinach” – a name for many greens here. The fish was caught freshly that morning and was delicious – I tried many different types of fish I have never heard of and apparently you can’t even get in Dhaka as they were river fish and completely fresh from that morning. Many had a lot of bones in them and you had to be really careful but eating with my hands was actually very helpful in this respect – you can feel exactly where the bones are so there are no surprises. I might be a convert to the eating with your hands thing, at least with bony fish..
There were about 8 of us from the office in total and the aim of the week was to begin the proceedings for implementing restorative justice into the mediation sessions here. The town we were in were our pilot and success story of mediation as an alternative of prison for low-level crimes, and as a result of a previous project of my cooperations, there many “master trainer” mediators who run the mediation in the villages and paralegals who give help and advice to those in prison – often just advice about their rights and what they can do about their situation. Medication is where the offender and victim are brought together, in this case with whoever is interested in the villages (in the UK it’s more the “stakeholders” of the crime – affected family and friends etc). They talk about their crimes and how it has affected eachother and the idea is that they come to a conclusion of how the offender will repay the victim – whether it be an apology, a lesson, anything they can agree on to finish the matter. We are now trying to implement restorative justice to make it more about the offender to help with their personal problems in an attempt to cut reoffending and crime.
A few of us were given the opportunity to go see a real mediation, a shallish, in one of the nearby villages. We were taken through tiny streets between dense vegetation of banana trees and small huts poking out and through a few tiny packed streets, where you could almost reach out and take things from the shop front from the car window. We arrived just in time for the mediation – and again everyone was pretty surprised to see me there. Seats were vacated for us to sit down. A kind colleague translated everything quietly for me at the back. The shallish started with the leader explaining how things work to the spectators, and some discussion, then both the victim and offender got the chance to give their uninterrupted speech of what happened. The offence was an attack and theft of a phone – but it turned out that the victim had attacked the “offender” first and there had been no theft. After some discussion from the leaders of the shallish, they went outside and in about 20 minutes had come to a decision. Both the offender and victim apologised to each other and agreed without consequences that they need to move on and get along with each other as they live in the same village. It seemed to be a very amicable decision that pleased all and I was quietly impressed. The shallish are an alternative to the court system and with bail being rare and jail being almost always given, this type of “punishment”, especially for low level crimes, costs considerably less time, resources, and emotional stress – as well as has proven benefits for reoffending. The village we were in was the original pilot for this type of mediation and has been a huge success – so is now being implemented in more areas.
On the way back, one of the master trainers who had gone with us stopped and got some jilapi and some nuts. The jilapi were a very sweet deep fried almost what tasted like just sugar and some sort of sugary dough – made into curls and covered with more sugar. Delicious but sickly. The nuts on the other hand were not for us. Much to my absolute delight we were in Banor monkey territory and we stopped and some local guys helped us find them. They are out during the morning and evening so we were quite lucky – one immensely enjoyed the nuts we scattered and filled its cheek up like a hamster – something I did not know monkeys did! We saw 2 others but they didn’t come very close. They were surprisingly timid for animals that live amongst humans pretty much in the village. That made me very happy. We also tried some puri daal from a street vendor outside our centre, a deep fried dough that puffs up when in the oil to make a hollow centred snack, with the insides covered in daal. Very bad for you but I enjoyed it.
One afternoon I was not needed in the meeting so I took a walk in the village with the two drivers who also were hanging around. Literally a minute in I felt my face and it was covered in sweat – it was about 36 degrees but it is the humidity that really makes a difference. I didn’t even notice until I touched my forehead. We went past the busier “centre” of the village (less than 20 little stalls of fruit, vegetables, and fresh fish) and through the rainforest/forest past little huts, lakes with kids playing, clearings, and tree and after tree. The locals were extremely surprised to see me and we had a little following after a while, which is actually becoming normal here. Word apparently spread and kids ran from all corners, stopping in front of me with big staring eyes but big smiles. I stopped next to two kids fishing, who had a little bucket with 4 or 5 tiny fish in it. They were so happy to have their picture taken. We walked to the lake and back and bar the elephant and the monkeys, it was probably my favourite bit about the trip.
The week consisted of many meetings in non-understandable Bangla, many periods of time doing nothing, and a lot of sleep. I wish I could have understood the meetings as they were undoubtedly very interesting but my colleagues couldn’t translate everything for me. I was also getting a bit bored of rice, but was going to miss the country cha, which my colleagues and I went to have every day as in the country, instead of using milk powder or condensed milk, they use real fresh milk which they cook for hours and it turns thick and yellow. A large spoonful of sugar, a few spoons of hot yellow milk, topped with tea from a big kettle sitting on a fire, and served in a small glass mug, is the very typical way to have cha here and I got used to it quickly! It was really nice. I was very pleased to come home on the day planned (instead of potentially the day after if there was a hartal, strike) especially after finding the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in the bathroom one night, and discovering a toad in my room another. My room mate and I had to call someone that worked there to get the toad out. The journey ended up taking 8 hours including dropping my two colleagues off home first but I really didn’t mind as you always see something interesting or crazy looking out of a car window here. I saw another elephant before getting on the ferry back to Dhaka so that rounded off the trip well and has fueled my desire to go see some more elephants in other districts around the country.