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Imagining Bangladesh


There’s a family story that on my first trip abroad at the age of ten - to exotic Belgium, no less (I still recall the raw air and the excitement buzzing in my head as I stepped on to the coach outside my primary school one dark morning) - the headmaster wearily and somewhat incredulously informed my mother, as we all tumbled out of the bus on our return, that I hadn’t sat down all week.

And so began a life of travel that has carried on to this day – a restless, breathless journey towards the new, an accumulation of experiences, memories, chance encounters, loves lost and found, on which the latest stop is Bangladesh. It’s all a long way from my schooldays.. For sure, I knew I loved languages from the very first French lesson, but I was unaware of how this would translate into a life on the move, visiting over fifty countries so far for between a weekend and three years, and feeling at home in every one of them.

But now: a rare moment of stillness, The fan turns slowly above me, doing its best to work up a feeble breeze. Outside the air is humid and the trees are lush, silhouetted now against a sky of navy ink. It is evening: there is the occasional jangling bell of a rickshaw and the cicadas are singing, but otherwise all is silent, for once, in this tumultuous and chaotic city.

I am here in Dhaka as a teacher educator, working with teacher trainers from across the country, developing new learning materials. We’re trying to move away from the lectures which have dominated education here since the first teacher stood in front of a class, and towards a teaching approach which gives students a voice, and tries to keep them involved. It’s slow, patient and rewarding work – and it’s kept me coming back to Bangladesh for the last eight years.

But is that really why I am here? Or is it the sheer fascination of a country like this? Close your eyes and summon up what you know about Bangladesh from the media. Perhaps you imagine teeming cities, floods, overpopulated streets, beggars, poverty and corruption. Well, in some ways you’re right – there are all of these things in abundance. A single journey to work will bring to light huge extremes, as the BMWs of the rich cruise past the beggars, who crowd round offering up twisted limbs for inspection, or staring through blind eyes. You’d hear the noise, the constant blaring of horns, and you’d feel the sense of struggle as the city strains to cope with the sheer numbers of people placing demands on its threadbare resources.


But you’d be getting only one part of the picture. You’d be missing out, for example, on an extraordinarily beautiful emerald countryside; a devout but liberal population for whom Islam is a way of life which sustains, rather than a militant political stance; a country of strong families and proud citizens. All in all, an incredibly open-hearted, kind people, who show immense generosity, resilience and the sheer ability to cope with whatever life can throw at them.

I see my relationship with Bangladesh as an arranged marriage, like the local custom in which, rather than falling in love at first sight, you are first introduced to your partner, get married, and then learn to love over the years. And even though there are prettier countries, and more exciting cities around, I carry a little piece of this place deep within me now, wherever I am.

And by the way, I still haven’t learnt to sit down…