Hands On in Bangladesh
by Kirsty Henderson
Hands On project in Bangladesh
Travelling just for the sake of seeing the sights and experiencing a new culture, as wonderful as it is, can start to get old after awhile. These days, I prefer to spend a lot longer in each place I visit and my goal is usually to do something while I'm there. Sometimes it means going to a concert or a sporting event, other times I might work in exchange for food and accommodation on a farm, or I might rent an apartment for a few months and work online for awhile. Lately my addiction is volunteering and it's a perfect way to get involved in place, make local friends and do some good work at the same time.
The organization I volunteered with in Bangladesh, Hands On Disaster Response, deployed there after Cyclone Sidr hit late in 2007. The work revolved mostly around building small homes for people whose houses had been swept away by the cyclone. We were working very closely with families in the rural community of Rayenda which meant a lot of contact and interaction with the wives and daughters we wouldn't otherwise have been able to meet. The women volunteers among us were often able to strike up friendships and the cultural exchange was fascinating.
Outside of the capital in Dhaka, a woman's role is primarily to work in the house so most interactions you will have in Bangladesh are with men. Being in a place with customs so different from my own was challenging, but being there as a volunteer allowed me to connect with women I wouldn't have otherwise met. My experience in Bangladesh offers a good example of using volunteering to connect with women that I wouldn't have otherwise even seen in the streets.
One of my favourite experiences was when a group of us travelled even further into the Bangaldesh countryside to build a playground at a school. The trip there involved a local bus ride and then we unloaded onto bicycle taxis and headed further into the unknown. What we found at the other end was a smattering of houses, a small school and a giant, concrete cyclone shelter where we would be staying for the week without running water or electricity.
During the day as we built, we were surrounded by giggling students and the male members of the community who would sometimes help but more often than not, just stare. After work we would have to wash off the nasty combination of dirt, paint, sawdust and concrete that had affixed itself to us and, without any running water where we were sleeping, this meant hitting up the bathing ponds surrounding the school - women in one, men in the other. The men bathed in the pool right beside our shelter but the women were led to a private pool behind the school headmaster's house.
The pool was a hive of activity and interacting with the curious local women was really fun. We all bathed fully clothed so it was a bizarre mix of trying to wash while dressed combined with being stared and pointed at by a group of laughing women. Despite not being able to speak each others languages, after seven days of this we had all developed a great rapport and when we went back to our cyclone shelter each night, the women went off to their respective homes, not to be seen again until bathing time.
Ed Note: Kirsty left Canada in 2001 and has been travelling, working, and volunteering abroad ever since. Her latest and greatest passion is volunteering and she has spent 12 months out of the past two plus years as a volunteer doing disaster relief work. She has written an ebook called The Underground Guide to International Volunteering that she hopes will inspire others to give their time as they travel the world. You can follow her travels on her blog, Nerdy Nomad, at www.nerdynomad.com.