Stepping out of the van, having just spent the last 5 hours watching Bangladesh unfold, we were met by another world. The Bangladesh I had experienced in Dhaka was no more. Here was an entirely and much anticipated side to Bangladesh that I was eager to explore.
We were working as volunteers for shiree for two weeks and they had kindly organised us a field trip to AID COMILLA to visit an Alternative Livelihoods Option (ALO) project in the Feni District. The project involved giving 750 female headed households who suffered from extreme poverty a heifer, through which they would be able to generate an income via selling milk.
After spending some time researching this project, we were all eager to see it in action and chat to the beneficiaries about their thoughts on the project. Being so preoccupied with the project we were visiting, we had neglected to wonder as to the nature of the environment we were visiting. The busy hub and hustle of Dhaka with people practically on top of each other in the quest for space broke away into acres and acres of green luscious rice paddy fields and bamboo houses built round ponds. It was an absolute pleasure to see children running around with small chickens and goats at their feet after the stark contrast in Dhaka where we had only seen children begging or working along the kerbs. However, we knew that we would soon be coming face to face with the reality of extreme poverty in the countryside, and that as in all things in life, there would be pros and cons to it.
After reaching the project HQ and a brief briefing we were invited to go to a training session that was happening in the nearby village of West Shaheb Nagar for new beneficiaries. We eagerly accepted and bundled ourselves back in the van, anxious to make this first meeting with the beneficiaries a productive and positive one. We arrived to find a group of 16 women and a few of their children gathered for the training session. This was their second day of the three day training and they seemed excited to see us, although we couldn’t know for sure due to the language barrier, but as we had great translators present and the body language and tone of the women seemed to us that they were just as keen for us to sit down and talk to them as we were, it was not a problem. First we asked their ages, in order to gain insight into the similarities and differences between beneficiaries. Their ages ranged from 22 to over 70 years, and all the colours of their sarees and smiles were just as varied. Just as we wanted to know about their marriage status, how many children they had and how they spent their days, they wanted to know the same from us. As we were asking what the beneficiaries thought of the project and how they thought it would affect their lives, we were being asked the same questions by the project staff who were just as keen to see how the project translated through new eyes.
During this session it started to rain and we were at once invited into the nearest house in which we were lucky enough to be offered a tour from a proud owner (this woman was not one of the beneficiaries). This particular house looked strong and sturdy; its walls made of mud and clay, and had a waterproof tin roof. The house was large enough to hold three rooms, plus a space for her cow to sleep in. Once the rain stopped and we came back outside one of the beneficiaries wanted us to see her home, less than 30ft away. The contrast was obvious. This home was one room and made out of patchy bamboo. Yet she was overjoyed at having us in and showed us the divider she had made so to create an area for her cow to sleep. One noticeable difference to the previous house was the lack of cooking equipment, utensils and clothes. But this beneficiary eagerly assured us through much gesturing and smiles that this project was going to change her life. We left this village giddy on excitement and smiles of having come face to face with the lives behind the stats and figures we had been reading about previously.