Hello, all, so officially it has been fifteen weeks since myself and thirteen other fresh western volunteers arrived in Bangladesh for our twelve-week placement with International Citizen Scheme (ICS) and Tearfund. Being home in Northern Ireland again and having begun to settle back into the way of life, I have found it quite difficult to answer questions about the past three months of my life. How do you illustrate what you saw with perfect clarity? How do you describe the sounds, smells and colours? How do you convey the family dynamic that developed within the team? How do you verbalise personal experiences and the movement of God throughout 12 weeks of your life? Many things which happened are beyond what words can comprehend and language describe, but with a few weeks of reflection time and with the grace of God I’ll try to give a little insight into my experience in ‘banterous’ Bangladesh.
An Asian Jewel both in terms of its unique culture and community
Bangladesh, to quote a volunteer is a “one of kind” experience: It is the noisiest, strangest and yet most beautiful and peaceful place. An Asian Jewel both in terms of its unique culture and community. It is hotter than the hottest Irish summer all year, yet, around November the temperature can plummet at night. Transport is mainly motorbike or tuk-tuk and wherever you are, you will be guaranteed to hear prolonged beeping horns. There are ponds everywhere and if you were to wander past market shops you will either hear Hindi beats, Bangla dubstep or Justin Bieber’s 2010 hits. In the morning, you will wake to dogs barking and the 5 am call to prayer and at night you will struggle to sleep because of Hindu festivals, karaoke and again the call to prayer - Earplugs and headphones were a blessing in this land - All these things were strange to my western perspective but the norm to everyone else.
My home was in the red brick road village of Rangrapara in Northern Bangladesh; three miles from the border with India and seven hours from the capital Dhaka. Every day followed the same pattern; eating, sleeping, working, eating and eating again in my little mud home with my Amma and ICV (In-country volunteer) called Nokshi beside the Rangrapara Baptist Church (shout out to all the Baptists). My Amma was the BEST cook in the village and each meal was absolutely moja (delicious) and rice filled. Yet every day was completely different from the last and it brought new challenges, unexpected blessings and stories to tell.
Only through such times of devotion could we know that God is a rock of ages; a stronghold and refuge; ever-present and a loving Father to us all.
The Rangraparadise team was made up 21 people; 11 from the UK and 10 young Garo people plus the dog pack on our compound whose number was ever increasing. Every day apart from Saturday was spent from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm in the office building on our church compound or out in the communities surrounding the village. That’s 11 hours together with a language barrier between the English volunteers and myself (thank you for your prayers) and with our Garo ICVs. Daily we tried to exercise (six weeks six pack with Jillian Michaels) and in the mornings, we prayed for an hour before the day started then after breakfast we would have had devotions in Bangla and English which meant singing powerful Garo hymns not quite in tune. My team experienced a roller-coaster of emotions over our 84 days in the country, yet, these precious times of devotion, worship, and seeking God together allowed us as individuals and a team to kept Him as our constant source of life and peace. Only through such times of devotion could we know that God is a rock of ages; a stronghold and refuge; ever-present and a loving Father to us all.
The issues were vast and varied on a large scale
The team that went before us was the first ever Tearfund team in Rangrapara and their work of surveying thousands of people across our district and collating data in a report gave us a clear picture of the main needs of the community. The issues were vast and varied on a large scale. However, the most surprising yet prevalent problem was the youth of Bangladesh. Upon hearing Bangladesh, you may think “climate change, flooding, poverty or that place Jenny went to,” all of which are true and appropriate yet being there it was easy to see how many NGOs were already tackling the issues first-hand with projects and NGO workers. Being exposed to the Bangladesh culture for three months and intimately knowing Bangladeshi young people, I learnt that due to the education system and the hierarchical nature of society the youth are often neglected, lost and ultimately lacking opportunities and skills we take for granted here the UK.
"But by God’s grace and understanding only He can impart we were given a passion and vision for this project"
Our project was focused on empowering the youth through a leadership and entrepreneurship programme which aimed to give confidence to the young people in northern Bangladesh regardless of ethnicity, religion and socio-economic background. At first, my team met this proposal with much scepticism and annoyance; why weren’t we planting trees? Why not focus on more important issues? What can we offer the youth? But by God’s grace and understanding only He can impart we were given a passion and vision for this project and its potential to help thousands of young people over the next few years. Other secondary projects involved planting a vegetable patch in our compound, building a dam wall, filling in potholes on the roads in our area, doing English songs and stories with Compassion (an international Christian education charity) children and the Sunday school children (which was on a Friday because the kids go to school on Sunday).
Each week, we visited Schools, Hospitals and Higher Level Courses and trialled our leadership programme sessions with young people of different ages and backgrounds. Being a 98% Muslim country, the Bangladesh culture was ingrained with Islamic ideals, ideologies and tradition. This especially affected how young people and particularly how women were treated, so it was difficult in tailoring the programme to all people. As white, western women we were always treated differently (with many, many stares) but ultimately with respect as we were viewed as wealthy foreigners, which in Bangladesh context we were. We always had to wear scarfs and cover most of our body, anything less was culturally unacceptable.
"You know Jenny, oppression in this country isn’t the hijab or clothes the girls are wearing, the oppression is telling them they can’t do this or be this because they are girls, not boys.”
One day in mid-October we were trailing a lesson on practical organisation skills in a local school. Sitting at the back of a classroom full of 90 teenagers 15 years old, my friend Helen turned to me after a while and said something quite profound which changed my approach to the project completely. As our ICVs led in Bangla from the front she said: “You know Jenny, oppression in this country isn’t the hijab or clothes the girls are wearing, the oppression is telling them they can’t do this or be this because they are girls, not boys.” The weight of that statement became a burden on my heart; a burden to change this, to break down the gender barrier and a burden to simply give girls a confidence in themselves to speak in front of the class, to be the first volunteers in an exercise, to apply to university because they are able and to not conform to being a housewife or labour worker just because that is what their society places them as. The ICV girls on my team were a testament to the younger girls they were speaking in front of, in the space of only three months I witnessed a transformation of these girls in their confidence to give their ideas, to speak aloud, to try to speak English, to challenge ideas and to creatively use their skills without holding back. But the majority of young people don’t have the ICS Tearfund opportunity and many are restricted by their backgrounds and family. The education system has little room for creative thought, it exists merely to systematically teach and educate by rote learning. No group work; no mind maps; no learning styles; no sex education. To make matters worse there are few materials for learning and little space to work.
Now by God’s will and provision, our leadership programme is complete and ready to be participated in. We couldn’t change education there, nor could we be a permanent model of people initiating change. But our ICVs and the Garo community can and will be exactly that. Being part of a minority tribal group in Bangladesh is difficult, being a Christian in Bangladesh is extremely difficult. 10 people on my team will continue to face challenges I will never encounter but they can change those social barriers, to use their faith to evangelise and showcase the gospel to their Muslim neighbours, colleagues and friends. For our safety, we UK volunteers weren’t allowed to evangelise, to freely speak of Jesus but our friends and family over there can. We have left Bangladesh but they remain. So please pray for them and in particular the Garo young people; for them to empower their generation, to run this leadership course but ultimately to show the only part of Jesus some people will ever see. Pray also for the GBC Church in their mission to reach all people. When I was there my Babba’s (father’s) church in Dhaka had baptised over 2000 people, in Rangrapara 15 Muslim men converted to Christianity and were baptised in the name of Jesus. They now have new identities and have had to be moved for their own safety due to honour killings. Please pray for them and for the Muslim people in the future who will believe one day in Jesus.
My host family; Amma, Babba, brother Tilon and sister Timna (and Blackie the dog) became my family; spiritually and literally. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be around to inherit my part of the Ghagra rice paddies but still it remains, when you enter a Garo family Auntie’s bedroom, my Babba read 1 John 4 and along with my Achu (grandfather) and Ambi (grandmother) we sang O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night at the same time in Garo and English. It was once of those incredibly special moments which you won’t be quick to forget.
"Overall, I strongly believe we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world"
Overall, I strongly believe we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, consider The Garo people: they know hospitality; they know contentment despite having little; they are experts in loving other people and in loving Jesus. They also know how to throw a rocking 19th birthday party for a Northern Irish girl and like us, they love bonfires (only they dance and drum around them). Though illness was present the whole time, electricity was sparse and threats to security happened, God still worked throughout every moment and for that, we as a team are extremely thankful. It was all schomoshani, all no problem.
“Provo Tumar asha, amar ballow basha, amar eschi pur norkor, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah amen.”
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.”- 1 John 4:7-19.
“Our God is an awesome God he reigns, from Heaven above with wisdom, power and love, our God is an awesome God.”