by Sara Klassen, MCC SALT volunteer at ICF (Interfaith Cooperation Forum). Sara witnesses, gathers, writes, and edits in order to help share stories of peacemaking across Asia.
The 3rd through the 13th of November I travelled to Bangladesh with Max Ediger, my supervisor/colleague on behalf of ICF. Our first purpose was to attend and participate in the Festival of Justpeace which was planned by the ICF National Forum of Bangladesh, many of whom work with Shanti Mitra, a local peace school. MCC Bangladesh and Mati, a local environmental justice group also sponsored the event. An ICF friend suggested that I write about the things I saw, tasted, heard, listened to and felt. This was a practice Lisa Bade, a former MCC Cambodia service worker and an art resource person for the School of Peace, taught in one of her sessions with SOP. Thanks, Lisa, I’ll try it.
so many colors.
Colors burst out at me and stuck in my memory. Colors are what I mention first when people ask me about my time there. Vibrant pink, red, blue, green, magenta… I guess you know your colors I don’t have to list them, but there were so many, all brighter than what seems possible. They popped from different yet matching patterns in women’s clothing in either the draping sari form (similar to India), or the shalwar kamiz three-piece shirt, pants, and scarf combo. Each outfit sports different, brightly colored patterns, no one looks the same, and rarely did I see a monotone fabric (except on MCCers, ha.). But fabric was not the only bright thing. I was surprised that even industrial dump trucks flashed colorful flowers, designs, and sometimes even lush countryside scenes. Rickshaws also could hold their own in a parade. They reminded me of an elementary arts and crafts project, but the teacher’s version—with each colored shape precisely cut and glued on the interior and exterior in a symmetrical layout, the occasional gold or silver shape glinting to attract potential customers like crows. Flashy ornaments dangle from the back of some and ribbons flutter from the handlebars of others.
the arts. Each night of the festival held cultural performances. The first night a theater group from a local university performed traditional drama and dances from several indigenous groups. I was delighted to see young people interested in and devoted to preserving their own and minority groups’ traditions. The next night reminded me of a talent show, but two to three times longer and so much more skill and ability than just a “talent” whipped out at the last minute. There was a slew of soloists accompanied by drumming, dramatic recitation of poetry, many dances and a few more dramas including the classic, no-one-planned-on-this act after the final thank yous, this one unusual in that it was portraying transgender struggles and advocating for rights. While I sat eating peanuts from a small newspaper cone, lost in the whirl of dancersnot only did I feel like I was in a movie or a dream, but also a grand celebration of a culture so rich with traditional arts and youth so excited to carry them on. The cultural performances were only one example of this. Shanti Mitra, the main planning organization of the festival is also encouraging the arts as a way to learn about and act for peace. This organization was started by the Taize brothers thirty some years ago and now functions predominantly on its own with leadership by national staff and volunteers. Shanti Mitra believes creative activities are essential in peacebuilding work. I encourage you to read their insightful ideas about creative activities and more about their and peace classes here.
beautiful countryside, rivers, and a pink water lilly pond.I tasted…
curry spices right off my fingers.
Bangladesh used to be part of India, so many cultural aspects are similar. We ate with our hands and rice and dal were basic components of just about every meal often supplemented with grilled chicken or beef and a curried vegetable dish. I drooled over thick butter nan blanketed in biscuit crumbles and enjoyed the comfort of basic bread, ruti (similar to japati), used to pinch up fried eggs for breakfast. I also ate twice as much at every meal than I would normally. I have grinch images in mind: Her stomach grew three sizes that day… There is no doubt we had thorough hosts.
sweet milk tea in tiny cups.
Tea is a morning and afternoon—or really any time of the day—ritual, a great way to show hospitality. Little tea shacks nestle between other street vendors and provide thick shade like good old trees on small lane intersections. These joints are definitely a man’s world (as are most public spaces. I won’t get into gender observations but inequality felt blatant at times), so I felt super awkward and on display when I stopped for tea. To ignore the stares I focused on my own observing. I was enthralled by the habitual ease of each tea sellers’ ritual as they rinsed, flipped and scalded miniature cups, poured tea from on high, stirred in milk and plenty of sugar and swooshed out to serve from a tray in one smooth routine.
people sing in the afternoon.
At any time of the day people broke into quiet self serenades. Our many friends at MCC, Taize brothers, and Shanti Mitra explained that Bangali culture especially loves song. After those comments my ears were heightened to hear it.
honking. Traffic felt crazy, but it worked, so I’m sure there’s a system and set of social agreements in place that I could not figure out in just ten days. What I did notice is that you just go until you get stuck then you find a way around and swerve if someone’s coming at you. And you honk. Honking is everyone’s way of saying “I’m here! I’m coming! Don’t hit me!” Beep! beep-beeeep! beeeep beeeeeeeeeeeeeep!
I heard Muslim call to prayer in the morning. We got to participate in the Taize noon prayer services on both the first and last day of our time there. The chanted repetition of tunes I already knew created a spiritful, meditative space to both prepare for and then reflect on this cultural experience.
stories of struggle.
While the first part of our time there was focused around the festival, the second half we spent visiting our ICF friend’s homes and work places and communities facing social justice issues. We traveled by CNG (stands for compressed natural gas) to Birisiri, an area composed of smaller villages, where we stayed on the beautiful campus of the YMCA which our friend Biplob directs. We were to stay with his family, but his wife had just given birth to their first son (whom they named after Max) but a few days before we arrived.
The first evening we visited a YMCA volunteer worksite where they were rebuilding the river embankment to prevent flooding. Biplob showed us photos of a rescue effort he participated in right after the most recent bad flood. He explained that flooding affects these villages every year, but when it’s really bad people stand in water up to their armpits awaiting rescue because the flood washed their livestock away, they have no means to cook, and no place to sleep. The next day we visited the YMCA’s rural clinic and school and sat with Garo people (an indigenous group) who have lived on their land for generations but do not have rights to it. They said they walk 12 miles into the mountains to harvest wood and twelve miles carrying it back on their head to sell at the market. Because they do not have land rights they cannot cut the trees they have planted on their land or even harvest the trees’ fruits lest they risk government trouble.
Our last day in Birisiri we drove through the countryside to see the site where clay is harvested and shipped out to produce china dishes. Here too indigenous people have been living for generations but without formal rights to the land. Now big companies slice out chunks of hillside by their homes. One grandmother we visited said 11 children have died already this year from falling from these new cliffs by their homes.
Back in Mymensingh for our last day of visiting, we went to Biplob/Mijanu’s family home and visited the national park forest. The government wants to make an ecopark there to preserve the land, but to do this they would force indigenous people off of their ancestral land.
Unfortunately land rights have become a point of conflict all over this dear globe. But that is not the only story of this place, I also heard
someone playing flute across the road at night.
cool air and shivery cold showers.
I didn’t have to use a fan at night and wanted a heavy blanket!
uncomfortable as people stared and would not stop staring even when I made eye contact. According to our friends there, Bangali people are known for their curiosity. Friends said it is expected that any stranger on the street may come up to you ask what you’re doing and tell you how to do it better. The staring made me uncomfortable, but it triggered important thoughts about how tourism promotes a kind of consumerism with our eyes. I am a part of this whether I like it or not. As much as I try to live alongside a culture, whenever I travel, even inside the country and observe new sites and people I am the one staring. Being stared at was a helpful reminder of how important it is to engage with people when possible rather than just take pictures or stare.
It’s just about thanksgiving and I have a lot of gratitude to express. I am thankful to travel to other countries and learn from experiences like the ones I am having this year. That I get to do this with MCC and ICF who emphasize building relationships as first priority is an extra treat. I am so grateful to the people who donated to help me do SALT, all the coordinators and staff that make the SALT program run smoothly, to ICF for giving me this placement that requires I travel to meet even more incredible people, and to so many loved ones who are sending e-mails, making Skype calls, and praying to encourage and support me.
encouraged (water of the heart rising) and inspired by young people working for peace and well-being in so many ways in so many parts of this world.