Benjamin begins his volunteering with a question
If you come from Western Europe and have just arrived in the noise and traffic and crowdedness and pollution and inequality and general chaos of Dhaka, a visit to somewhere like Sidhai Char is going to be especially striking to you. There – at least on a normal day – everything seems calm. Natural beauty is all around you; the earth is extremely fertile and the landscape luscious; cows and goats sit placidly under every other tree, living side-by-side with the people in a pretty open and spacious environment. The pace of life seems slower, more humane. And sure, some are richer, some poorer, but all live in the same essential conditions, facing the same essential threats.
I don’t want to romanticise the lives of these people – I am of course aware of the huge difficulties they face in sustaining themselves, protecting their homes, and accessing basic healthcare, education and formal justice. There is no question that Friendship’s work in these places is invaluable.
Nevertheless there is, I have the sense, something very special in the lives these people lead, and it’s something that, in focussing on the huge problems they have, we are at risk of overlooking a little. Putting a focus, even just briefly, on all the things our beneficiaries have going for them would, I think, help us to understand them better, and perhaps also inspire us more, and in a different way, to do what we can to help them flourish.
In any case, watching the Char Theatre rehearsals and seeing the great talents of the performers, or talking to some of the Friendship community representatives and seeing their openness and equanimity, or just watching the schoolchildren learn and play, catching glimpses of their sense of humour, their closeness to one another and their readiness to learn, I feel strongly that these are things I want to explore and write about as well.
My name is Benjamin. I’m 27. I’m British by birth, but grew up mainly in Luxembourg. I did my bachelors in English at Cambridge University, and then a masters in Philosophy at University College London. I’ve also studied Politics and Sociology at postgraduate level. I’m interested in the arts, in questions of ethics and values, in everyday problems and everyday wisdom, and in cultures very different from my own.
The Luxembourg government funds its citizens aged 30 or younger volunteering abroad for anything from 6 to 12 months. It was not an opportunity I could miss.
I chose Friendship, rather than another NGO, because of its bottom-up and integrated approaches. These I hoped would give me something of an overview of this extraordinary country, as well as the problems it faces, how they relate to each other, and the solutions the culture is generating.
My hope is that, while here, I’ll write articles that will draw more attention to the problems and the people that Friendship is concerned about, and therefore also encourage more support for Friendship’s work. Aside from this, I’ll of course always be on hand to help with English, and offer a different perspective wherever one is desired.
I’ve been here a month so far. The first two weeks, more-or-less, were taken up by my induction sessions in the various sectors – a fascinating experience, as I essentially got to ask the leaders of Friendship’s many projects all the questions I could think of about their work and its context.
In the third week, I went on my first field trip, to Gaibandha in the north. My first article, about the music and dance training that I went there to report on, should be appearing on the Friendship website soon.
I have now plans to interview one or two people who’ve left the chars and come to live in Dhaka, to write about mental health in the Rohingya refugee camps and about the means by which Friendship has won over initially sceptical groups in the communities it’s worked with. In January, I hope to join the Char Theatre actors on one of their performance tours and document the process. I have even thought of writing a short story – i.e. a fictional piece – about happenings within a char community. (I’d take an outsider’s perspective, of course. That’s all I’m entitled to.)
Something about the setting of the chars and the way of life there I find enchanting, though I should say that my whole experience of Bangladesh and Friendship has so far been rewarding to a degree that I had not imagined possible, the noise and traffic and crowdedness and pollution and inequality and general chaos of Dhaka notwithstanding.