Our last day in Mymensingh was fairly uneventful due to the protests we spent the day at the hotel composing some of our thoughts for the TEEAL presentation and thinking through what we wanted to include in our report.
We were able to spend some time in the city and explore the different side streets with fruit vendors and chicken sellers. The team was struck by the vast economic differences in society and the stark contrast outside of Dhaka. While in the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka it is harder to see the difference in the economic classes. We are surrounded by the more wealth in the neighborhood with fancy cars, gated houses, and security; going outside of the city we are able to see more of the poverty that is the life of many people in Bangladesh. Despite huge leaps in development, there are still people living in tin shacks and begging on the streets to survive. Often times our team members are torn apart as children approach us to ask for a few takkas to eat. Our trip outside the city was a nice reminder that our project still has a long way to develop in order to truly affect the majority of lives in the country.
We were also struck by how religious the people are outside of the city. Cities in general tend to be more liberal. With ex-pats, embassy staff, and business people from around the world there is definitely more freedom in the choice of dress and lifestyle in the cities. However, I was surprised to see just how religious Mymensingh was even though it was just a few hours from Dhaka. Most of the women on the street wore headscarves and many more than in Dhaka wore the burka. Its a reminder that religion plays a large part in developing nations.
On the way home tonight we stopped at one of Shamir’s friend’s house. His father is a professor at BAU and we were able to ask him some questions about his work, research, and opinions of the University. The entire family was incredibly nice to us and went out of their way to provide an amazing dinner. They brought out oranges, Bacul fruit (a special fruit developed at BAU), five different types of cakes, samosas, roti, pankora, plum pudding, and soup. There was so much food and it was all delicious. The professor liked to brag that it was homemade by his daughter and wife and we made sure to frequently praise the cooking. I really wanted the recipe for the soup, that was something I would love to back back at Cornell! It was nice to end our trip on a sweet note of hospitality in Mimensingh.
One the way out of town in order to avoid any major issues with the continuing political unrest, Shamir printed out signs and taped them to the van that read “Press” so we all got to be part of the international press team. Our team is definitely coming back from Bangladesh with some very interesting experiences.
One of the best things we get to experience while in Bangladesh is the food! Everything is delicious, though you have to be willing to try some very spicy food. Some of our favorite foods involve the variety of sweets that can be found. There are at least 35 different types of cakes and sweets that can be found in local shops and restaurants. My favorite is a dried milk ball soaked in honey…yummmmm!
Today we were able to visit the Bangladesh Agricultural University and meet with the Vice Chancellor.
BAU is the main agriculture university in Bangladesh and is home to 44 departments with 548 professors and 5,887 students. Graduates from University number 40,378 and the PhD students and professors have completed 1,036 research projects. The focus on the university is on applied research which will be nice for TEEAL to be involved in researchers that have a direct impact on farming practices. One of the main criticisms of the program is that it focuses on the higher divisions of society with intellectuals and there is little evidence that this system has led to changes in the developing farming industry.
The Vice Chancellor seemed very interested in receiving a TEEAL set, they currently have access to about 3,000 online journals through Indiajournal.com, AGORA, and HINARI. However, they are still missing some of the more famous publishers and their journals.
The VC is also interested in bringing more digital and online resources to the library and although TEEAL is offline it offers some of the attractions of online research. The main concern of the administration is the cost of the system. Despite the fact that they are getting the system for free, the update cost at $650 seems a little out of their budget range. We explained that holding trainings could reduce this cost however they seemed at times confused about what everything would entail. Our team highly suggests that during future meetings TEEAL designs a power-point to be used to explain the system. This way if anyone is uncomfortable with English reading tends to be easier for them than interpreting the various accents and speeds at which we talk.
It appears that with limited internet access, intermittent power outages, and a small computer lab with internet access that having a resource like TEEAL would be beneficial for the campus.
We were able to see their network server room and meet with the main ITC administrator who seemed positive that the set would work well on the system and could be added through the server with little technological difficulty.
Part of the BAU campus includes two research centers. However, these centers are not connected to the main BAU network. I would recommend that there are separate meetings held with these institutions.
I would also recommend separate trainings for them. I am nervous that hosting only a few trainings in Bangladesh limits the positioning of TEEAL. If we want to promote this we need to hold more trainings. It takes work to infiltrate a country efficiently with a new program and only focusing on 4-6 institutions might limit our impact; especially since trainings are constrained to 35 people max and many rural places might not be able to send representatives for the specific trainings. We will have to discuss more of this as a team in order to figure out how marketing could make up for limited trainings.
After our meetings we were able to explore some more of the campus including the germplasma lab which is the largest in South Asia and the second largest in the world. It was an outdoor facility with various plants, trees, and shrubs from different countries. The scientists conduct research on the plants and often will look into genetics and splicing in order to develop superior crop and tree varieties. Shamir also introduced us to more of his friends that volunteer with his NGO. It was great to talk with some students and get to know what they study and their perceptions of the university.
We got to play cricket, which was a first for all of us. I think Hill and Shamir were definitely the star players. Additionally, we were able to watch the interdepartmental faculty handball tournament championship game. Animal Husbandry beat Agricultural Engineering to defend their title as Faculty Handball champions. Maybe at Cornell we should look into CIPA or CIIFAD handball tournament, faculty vs. students?
The evening at the campus ended with a walk around the grounds talking about future plans and the studies with Shamir’s friends. We also got to try some chai and winter cakes that we ate while sitting on the train tracks that run through campus. I think that was one of the best experiences of the entire trip. We finally were able to slow down and enjoy the company of some incredible people while taking time to enjoy the simple things we often take for granted in the United States. It is rare to sit with friends and drink tea and coffee without planning events or trying to network, in Bangladesh the culture seems to foster close relationships based on true friendship and companionship.
Unfortunately the day ended with reports of a student strike in Dhaka and 17 other districts as well as a continued blockade. This ruins our plans to go hiking in the mountains at the border to India, and ends all hope of our possible visit to India this time around. We will have to see how the day goes tomorrow but we are bracing ourselves to stay in the hotel and leave for Dhaka when it gets dark to avoid the protesters.
Bangladesh’s focus on agriculture comes from its location as the land intersected by 57 rivers. Today, floating down the Brahmaputra River, one can begin to understand the importance of water and food security. Without the annual floods much of the nutrients in the soil would be lost. Looking at the expansion of agriculture in Bangladesh from famine in the 1940s to exporting rice today it is incredible to see how technology and new techniques are changing farming.
When you travel do you ever run into something really strange that makes you want to do a double take? That is what goats on the roof was for me. That strange occurrence where you can’t exactly be sure if that is what you are really seeing and yet at the same time it feels completely normal. Nothing out of the ordinary, just drove past and was like, “Hey there is a goat on that roof.” It makes sense knowing that many people often participate in rooftop farming; and yet it was unreal actually seeing a live goat staring at you from a roof as you drove by. This brings up lots of question for me. For one, why do I find incidents like this strange? How can I make an impact in international development when I enter a country to help as a complete stranger? How do I appear walking down the street; am I someone else’s goat on a roof?
As the team travelled today from Dhaka to Mymensingh district to visit the Bangladesh Agricultural University I mulled over these questions. The trip is about 3-5 hours depending on traffic so we left very early in the morning in order to avoid any possible trouble with the ongoing blockade. It was nice to be able to travel a little out of the capital in order to explore the country more and understand how more rural universities operate.
As soon as we entered Mymensingh I fell in love with the city.
It reminded me a lot of parts of Freetown and Cairo. Small streets with mainly rickshaws, motorcycles, and CNGs operating. Little shops covered all open sidewalk space and despite the few precious inches of walking room vendors set up more tiny street stalls and food carts. The constant sound of honking, yelling, and bicycle bells filled the air and I loved every second. It’s that feeling when you get somewhere that tells you that you belong there. When looking at colleges, everyone always says that you will know you belong on a campus. I never felt that way about a place until Cairo. When I got to Caro it felt like I belonged there. There have been a few other cities where it felt like I fit, like I was part of that place; Copenhagen, Stockholm, Istanbul, Kisumu, Krakow; and now Mymensingh.
This afternoon we decided to visit a museum that contained the works of Zainul Abedin.
He was an artist from the 1930s until the 1970s and his sketches of the famine in the 1940s were viewed worldwide and he is considered the father of Bangladeshi Art. His sketches were very beautiful and it he included plenty of different perspectives and variety of angles in his work. The grounds surrounding the museum were gorgeous as well with gardens and flower patches scattered around and flower trellises hanging off the front arches.
Following the museum we decided it would be interesting to take a boat ride on the Brahmaputra river.
This is one of the three major rivers in South Asia and is truly a life force in the region for agriculture. In the middle of the river is a large sand barge that has been claimed as farming land by a variety of different people. This farming would not be possible in the sandy soil without the water from the nearby river. It was peaceful to float down the river and watch as other groups of students relaxed in the sinking afternoon sun. As someone who has always lived close to water I don’t think I could go for very long with seeing a lake or a river, it just seems to have a calming effect on one’s disposition.
As we docked on the sand barge we found what Hill has termed “Farm of Cuteness.” He was very accurate in that name, there were baby goats, sheep, and chicks that were just begging to be oohhed and awed over. Hill even got to hold one of the baby goats.
However, we quickly stopped all notions of him bringing it back to CIPA. After exploring past the farm we vised a Krishna temple. I was shocked at the warm reception we received. The priests greeted us and provided us with a small snack of a dried milk sweet cake, apples, and oranges. One of the practitioners that spoke fairly decent English was more than willing to explain the practices of the temple and the challenges they had communicating with the city.
Before heading to dinner the team decided to explore the BAU campus before our meeting with the Vice Chancellor in the morning.
While there, Calvin proved to be the star of the show as students asked to get pictures with him. However, myself and Hill also got to star in some of our own photos.
After meeting up with some of Shamir’s friends we were able to walk through the gorgeous botanical gardens on campus that are used for research purposes by the faculty and students.
As the day ended, I think the answers to my questions I had asked myself at the start were beginning to form. Despite past travels, each new destination for me will be unique and bring about challenges in and of itself. Just because I have travelled to developing countries before doesn’t necessarily mean that I have the experience needed for a new culture. I need to keep my mind open and be willing to learn new things. Going into development work I need to rely more on local contexts. Instead of immediately finding fault in a practice I need to take the time to understand what is happening and to look at the consequences that can come to a local community from development. It is a challenge and will involve constant innovation and reflection but it is necessary for sustainable development.
No worries we are all safe back in Dhaka from a short trip to Mymensingh. Unfortunately, we didn’t have regular access to the internet while there so we are currently getting caught up with the blog. More posts to follow throughout the day.
The basic greeting. Hello. The universal sign of welcome and acceptance. The one word that said with a smile can connect people to one another and open up a new world of knowledge. Hello. The start of a glorious new day. Hello, how can we work with you?