Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the Wagon

As I walked through the VSO office on my way to meet with my Program Manager, one thought resounded – these guys are all alcoholics. Desk after desk was adorned with quart bottles of familiar tipples: Gordon’s Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, Bacardi Rum. It was like walking through the aftermath of a fabulous Christmas party, where the only other evidence of the previous night’s debauchery can be found in the sheepish grins of those who overindulged and the photocopies made of various parts of their anatomy. Sitting down across from my Program Manager, I surveyed his desk for Tylenol bottles, AA brochures, pictures of his bottom or any other sign that he may have been one of the guilty revelers last night. But aside from the enormous bottle of Jim Beam next to his laptop, I could find no clues. “Before we begin, can I get you anything?” he asked, “Would you like a drink of something?” Allllll right!, I thought, Let’s get this party, er, meeting started. I always knew I would enjoy being a volunteer here.

Of course, the contents of his bottle (and all others in the office) proved much more innocent, and we both enjoyed a stiff glass of water as we reviewed my work plan for the upcoming year. Any sense of disappointment I may have had was mitigated by an appreciation of the irony presented by the situation. Alcohol is forbidden in this country, at least for Bangladeshis, so the use of derelict liquor bottles to hold water is a scene straight out of Prohibition. I half-expected Eliot Ness to come crashing through the front door and my Program Manager to exclaim, “Cheese it! It’s the coppers!” At which point, I would grab the nearest gat and take it on the lam. All of which would have been much more interesting than discussing my work plan.

The ban on alcohol is a reflection of the strict Muslim prohibitions in effect and is reinforced by the country’s legal code. Look behind the bar at the Dutch Club in Dhaka, and one will find a sign stating clearly “We are prohibited by law to serve alcohol to Bangladeshis”. Now, the fact that there is a bar at the Dutch Club in Dhaka does provide a hint that alcohol has not been completely banned in the country. Its permitted use has been restricted to foreigners, but this segregation has not allowed its widespread sale and availability. Only a few hotels are licensed to serve alcohol, so it mostly falls to the clubs catering to various foreign nationals to serve the demon elixir.

Even in Dhaka, a city approaching 15 million people, the locations where one can purchase alcohol for home consumption are so rare that they have taken on mythical auras rivaling the lost city of Atlantis. Not to be denied in their Arthurian quest for the Holy Ale, VSO volunteers have proven to be as adept at finding these oases of booze as airport dogs sniffing out a different kind of vice. But even their combined talents have yielded only one legitimate place in the capital city where alcohol can be bought without a club membership, hotel reservation or mob ties. My curiosity piqued, I had to pay a visit to see it for myself.

As with many places that are much discussed in advance of the actual experience, the Duty Paid shop had already been built up in my mind. I saw endless rows of fine wine from every vineyard worthy of mention, a selection of beers not seen since the last Oktoberfest and a collection of hard liquor that would shame a Monte Carlo casino. Having been warned that the shop was difficult to find, a fellow rookie and I enlisted the help of a more seasoned volunteer, though one many years our junior. Hopping into a CNG, the three of us set off on our journey across the city. True to its reputation, we missed the shop on the first pass and had to request that our driver turn around to make another attempt. Not willing to waste time by following silly traffic laws, our driver spun around on the spot and drove us back against traffic on a one-way street. I could see the headline: “VSO Volunteers Killed on Beer Run” with the sub-header: “Said They Were Really Thirsty”. Luckily, the CNG is small enough to drive on the shoulder of the road, so we avoided the transport trucks and other vehicles large enough to crush us like an empty can of Moosehead.

Arriving at the shop, it turned out to be a bit different than expected. No gleaming bottles on display or counters set up to provide tasty samples. In fact, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the shop from a post office or other government office. We were greeted inside by a pair of friendly clerks who presented us with the list of alcohol on sale. Given the restrictions on alcohol in the country, the list was passable, but any wine connoisseur would be slightly disappointed, as the choices were red and white. One bottle of each. Beer enthusiasts were slightly better off, with a half-dozen selections, and hard liquor was also adequately represented by at least one well-known brand in each category. The prices were steep, as one might expect from any place having a monopoly on imported alcohol, but we weren’t about to be denied at this point. True to the law, we were asked for our passports to prove we weren’t Bangladeshis in disguise, and we handed over our documents for inspection. Our purchases were delivered to us outside and we sailed off once again in the alternate direction down the one-way street, singing the old standard “24 Cans of Beer on the CNG”.

Much like Prohibition, the ban on alcohol for Bangladeshis hasn’t ensured its disappearance, only its growth underground. Those who wish to drink have managed to find an alternative by setting up stills and making it themselves. Local versions of rum and whisky can be found for sale at different establishments in Dhaka, and rice wine has proven popular throughout the country. I had the chance to sample some rice wine at a party for VSO volunteers in April, and its alcohol content would set sailors on their rears. Its potency tends to be accentuated when one makes the unfortunate error of mistaking a glass of rice wine for Sprite, as some volunteers did at various points in the evening. Though its taste will never be confused with a buoyant glass of Chardonnay, the rice wine does have the advantage of doubling as a durable floor polish.

None of this is meant to paint a picture of lonely volunteers seeking a respite from their difficult assignments by getting blotto on a regular basis. Most volunteers are perfectly content with the prospect of living without a drink or only raising a glass occasionally. But being able to enjoy a nice glass of wine with one’s meal or a cold beer on a hot afternoon is something that is taken for granted in most of our home countries. When it no longer is available, except through extraordinary means, one realizes the role that alcohol plays in our social lives, for better or worse, and its absence requires an adjustment in how we interact with each other. Sober conversations last throughout the evening, rather than devolving into karaoke singalongs or Austin Powers impersonations. And though the dancing remains a bit more self-conscious, there are fewer limbo-related injuries.

So, the experience of living in a “dry” country remains more of a curiosity than an inconvenience or trial. Though the lack of alcohol has meant a minor shift in the customs of the bideshis living here, the adjustment hasn’t been onerous. And our floors have never looked shinier.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Silver Jubilee, YPSA!

Cutting of the cake to celebrate the start of YPSA's 25th year. From the left: Rubayat Farzana Yusuf Tania (Human Resources); Some joker from Canada; Mahabubur Rahman (Director of Field Operations); Arifur Rahman (Chief Executive Officer); Khaleda Begum (Project 912 Lead).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex, Bideshi

Enjoying a stroll in Bhawal National Park outside of Dhaka, Kristel and I were hailed by a man who had been busily photographing his partner when we walked past. “Your country, please?” he called out to us, the usual opener for most conversations with the Bangladeshis we meet. Normally, the conversations don’t extend much beyond our responses to this question. Not this time. Abandoning his girlfriend, the man introduced himself as a naval officer enjoying some time on leave from his post in Chittagong. When we mentioned that we also lived there, it was if he had discovered some long-lost relatives, and any hope we had of making an early exit quickly evaporated. After asking how long we had been in Bangladesh and how long we would be staying, he quickly moved on to matters of greater interest to him. “So, how long you two together?”, he asked, and we described how we met in Nigeria, which was probably a case of supplying too much information, but it’s become our routine answer whenever someone asks how a Canadian and a Dutch citizen managed to meet. Nodding his head as he listened, the man then asked, “And how many times have you copulated since then?”

I must admit, I didn’t have a routine answer for that one. In fact, the last time I’d heard the word “copulate” was during my grade 10 biology class, when its mere mention elicited giggles from me and the rest of my hormone-enslaved classmates. Sensing that the same response would probably be inappropriate here, I quickly racked my brain for the best possible reply to his question, one that wouldn’t be too outraged (“That’s none of your business, sir! Pistols at dawn!”) or bawdy (“We’ve lost count, know what I mean, eh?”). Finally, I settled on the universal response to an awkward question. I pretended I hadn’t heard it and moved on to discuss the weather (“Yes, it sure is hot today”). Of course, given the question, it might not have been the best move to discuss how hot we all were. Anyway, after a less than skillful segue into our opinion on Bangladesh and how much we enjoyed being here, we agreed to pose with the man’s girlfriend while he took some pictures of us. I can only imagine the stories that will be told when they’re displayed. “And these two bideshis, they didn’t even know what “copulate” meant!”

We were cautioned during our orientation training that we could expect some rather direct and unexpected questions during our time here. Our status as foreigners, or bideshis, makes us objects of curiosity for the people that we meet, and they tend to want to find out as much information as they can in a short period of time. This requires the discarding of the usual conversational pleasantries in favour of beginning the interrogation early. The rather disarming thing about this is that the questions are asked in the same friendly, matter-of-fact way that one might be asked one's educational background or how many times that one eats rice in a day. Questions about sex are meant to be answered with the same lack of concern that one would have in discussing sports or politics. And in asking these types of intimate questions, Bangladeshis may think they are doing nothing more than holding a mirror up to the foreigners and letting us fog it up with our own salacious details.

Though it’s perhaps too simplistic to say that all of the impressions of foreigners held by Bangladeshis have been the result of movies, television and other popular media, these sources of entertainment must have a considerable influence on the way people from “The West” are perceived. (I know that Westerners form only a small subset of the larger group of people from foreign countries, but for the purpose of this discussion, I make them the focus). Bangladesh finds itself well-supplied with the latest movies and television shows produced mainly by American studios. Though the more subtle and intelligent offerings are available (in pirated form, naturally) in shops throughout the country, the majority of the films and TV shows for sale are of the action-oriented, sexually-charged variety, where plenty of skin is shown and the good-looking leads always get it on at some point. Likewise, the television networks here provide their viewers with American movies around the clock; these are perhaps a bit more sedate to appease the local censors, but they still emphasize buff bods and liberal attitudes toward sex. On a recent visit to a village in the Rangamati community, I was surprised to enter one of the homes and find two men watching Wrestlemania videotapes. The usual lowbrow antics were on display, as was much of the girlfriend of one of the wrestlers, who, of course, ended up in the ring for the finale. As I watched the two men who were transfixed by all of this nonsense, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they think this type of entertainment is representative of Western society. I’m sure they recognize that not all of us walk around half-naked and hit each other with chairs, but even if they think that this our preferred spectator sport, they must think we’re up for anything.

So, it should come as no surprise when we’re asked rather frank questions about sex. The timing and location for receiving these questions can still throw one for a loop, though. The other day, one of my colleagues came into my office with a dictionary. “Can you help me, please?” she asked, “I need another word for this.” Looking at where her finger was pointing, I saw that she had highlighted the phrase “Nocturnal emissions”. “It sure is hot today, isn’t it?” I wanted to ask, but somehow, I knew I wasn’t getting off so easily this time, no pun intended. So, I ummmm’d and cleared my throat for a while and finally asked, “Do you know what these are?” “Yes,” she said impatiently, “They’re wet dreams. But what else can you call them?” Admitting that my sexual thesaurus was shooting blanks, I shook my head and said, “No, I think that’s the only thing I would call them, too.” “OK, thank you!” she said brightly and walked out of the room. To this day, I still don’t know what that conversation was about.

As we continue with our placements over the next two years, I expect that we’ll continue fielding many more of these types of inquiries. And I expect I’ll be talking about the weather enough to qualify as a meteorologist before I’m through.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Oldtimer Power in Social Action

An observant reader of this blog pointed out the irony in me working for an organization called Young Power in Social Action, given my recent achievement of official middle-age status. I believe his exact words were “Young Power in Social Action? Who are you kidding?” It’s a fair comment – a slightly nasty one, but fair, nonetheless. And it did start me thinking about the organization that I’m supporting. Given that I’ve yet to dedicate a blog entry to YPSA and the work I was recruited to perform here, it seems like a good time to introduce both to all of you.

YPSA was created in Sitakund in 1985 in response to the United Nations’ declaration of that year as the International Youth Year. Initially known as “Young Power”, YPSA began its life as a club for youths seeking to make a change in their communities. The early years of the club were spent in developing sports and cultural programs for youth in the area, but the organization came of age with the arrival of a major cyclone in 1991. Participating in the relief and rehabilitation work that followed in the wake of the devastation proved to be a galvanizing moment for the club and spurred it on to seek greater and more long-term projects. A change in status was required in order to better pursue these goals, so the club transformed into a full-time development organization in 1992, renaming itself as “Young Power in Social Action”. Two of the founding members of the club, Arifur Rahman and Mahabubur Rahman (not related), have remained with the organization throughout its existence and now occupy the two top operational posts of Chief Executive Officer and Director of Field Operations, respectively.

The seventeen years that have passed since YPSA came into being as a development organization have seen it undergo substantial growth both in terms of the projects undertaken and the size of the organization. Currently, YPSA counts among its personnel over 600 full-time and 300 part-time staff, making it one of the largest NGOs (or non-governmental organizations) in Bangladesh. Beyond the staff members, YPSA is able to call on the services of over 500 volunteers trained by the organization. With its head office now located in Chittagong, YPSA also maintains field offices in eleven communities throughout the south-eastern part of the country. It estimates that the total population of disadvantaged and vulnerable people served by the organization is approximately five million people.

In order to reach this number of people, the projects and programs undertaken by YPSA are understandably diverse in their scope. Too numerous to list here, the thirty projects range from separate HIV/AIDS prevention programs for street-based sex workers, youth and garment workers to a program dedicated to the prevention of human trafficking to a pair of projects focused on disaster management and the reduction of risk from such events. One of the highest profile projects in the YPSA organization is the advocacy group that lobbies for more rights for those involved in the ship-breaking industry. Chittagong is one of global centres for this industry, which involves the dismantling of cargo ships that have completed their years of service and the selling of the scrap metal and other parts that result from their demolition. Conditions for the workers are deplorable and dangerous, and the attempt to improve these has earned YPSA much recognition internationally and an equal amount of enmity domestically from the local ship-breaking companies. More can found on this program in YPSA’s website dedicated to the issue: . And YPSA's own website can be found at

With all of these projects running simultaneously, it can be difficult to determine the impact that they are having on the communities they serve. Funding for the projects often comes from a number of different international donors, and a common (and reasonable) requirement is for a project to report to its donor regularly on the progress made. These international donors tend to have their own favoured mechanism for reporting, and as a result, the projects within YPSA employ a myriad of structures to satisfy their respective donors. Though accepted as a necessary element of working with donors, the impact of these diverse reporting schemes has been to individualize the monitoring and evaluation of the projects to a certain extent, and a common framework for such activities is missing from YPSA. Without a shared system for monitoring and evaluation, it’s as if the projects are all speaking their own language, and the management of YPSA sensed that this babel of project reporting could result in the projects failing to deliver to their fullest capacity. A common Monitoring & Evaluation (or M&E) system for the projects was determined to be the best way to rectify this, an internal system that would operate as a complement to the reporting requirements of the donors.

This is where I come in. As the M&E Adviser for YPSA, my main responsibility is to design and implement an M&E system for all of the programs and projects over the course of the next two years. Or rather, my responsibility is to work with YPSA to help them develop the tools and skill needed to do this for themselves. Understanding that my placement is only for two years, the expectation of YPSA and VSO is that I will help individuals within YPSA learn how to construct the M&E system and to keep it running after I leave in 2011. To that end, YPSA has already assigned an individual within the organization to act as my counterpart during this time, someone who already occupies the position of M&E specialist for the programs and projects. The expectation is that the amount of work entailed in the implementation and continuation of an internal M&E system will dictate the creation of a team dedicated to this pursuit.

How are we going to construct this M&E system? As a starting point, a format for the system must be selected. Based on the stated requirements of YPSA for this reporting structure, I decided that an Outcome Mapping system would best suit their needs. Briefly, Outcome Mapping focuses on the changes in behaviour that an organization is able to contribute to in its boundary partners that lead to a greater change overall in the community. Boundary partners are those individuals and organizations with whom YPSA has direct contact and is able to effect an influence on their behaviour. The Outcome Mapping system is designed to examine how a project or program can develop its strategies and internal organizational actions to move the boundary partners toward behaviours that it would like to see exhibited by these partners. The actual reporting on these activities is done through a series of journals that can be reviewed on a quarterly basis or however often the organization deems it necessary. Management can review these journals with an eye to assess whether the project or program is achieving its stated goals and the changes that may be needed if it is falling short.

Still with me? I know this isn’t exactly riveting stuff. With the format for the M&E system selected and confirmed by YPSA, I modified a facilitators’ guide for Outcome Mapping that had been developed by the International Development and Research Centre in Ottawa. The guide sets out a series of workshops to help the members of a project team develop a structure for their Outcome Mapping M&E. My expectation is that this guide will be used by the members of the YPSA M&E team whenever they want to implement an M&E system for a new or existing project or program. The next step will be to take this facilitators’ guide for a test drive by running a pilot workshop with one of the projects within YPSA. This is where the fun begins, as we get to see how well the plan translates into actual practice. I expect there will be some tweaks needed to make the workshops, er, work, so once the pilot is complete, I’ll sit down with my counterpart to review what went well and what flopped and make any adjustments needed before moving on to the next project. Along the way, we hope to develop M&E expertise in other YPSA personnel, so that they can also start to run workshops for the remaining projects and programs.

So, that’s the plan as it stands right now. But if my experience in Nigeria has taught me anything, it’s that a plan is like a garbage truck – everyone agrees that it’s needed, but no one wants to follow it. So, while a plan is good to have, I expect that things will change over the course of the two years that I’m here. And that’s part of what makes this position so interesting. Should anyone have any suggestions that you think would be helpful as I work through this, please feel free to post a comment or send me an email. I can’t promise regular updates on the blog about the M&E work, since I think most people would find it eye-crossingly dull, but I will post anything that strikes me as worth sharing. Thanks, everyone, for your continued support!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Glenny Can't Read

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, the odds are that you’re a literate person. Either that, or your computer froze on this site by accident and you’ve been left to try to decipher the identity of the geek in glasses, in which case, you would have my apologies if you could read this. In any event, our ability to read is something that we take for granted, thanks to an education system that taught us our ABCs from the time we walked into our first kindergarten class. Though I must admit that my favourite activity from those pre-school days was nap class, even I managed to pick up the basics of the alphabet at a fairly early age. For most of us, reading is as automatic an activity as breathing; we don’t think about it, we just do it. Now, imagine losing that ability and how unsettling that would be. Street signs rendered unfathomable. Newspapers as enigmas. Prices at the grocery store left to the good graces of the clerk assisting you. It’s a very humbling experience.

So, consider me humbled. It was one of the cruelest of ironies that I found myself on Mother Language Day in February no longer being able to read anything around me. The reason, of course, is that the Bangla language is represented by a Bengali script that has nothing to do with the alphabet with which we’re familiar. For example, the Bengali script uses eleven different characters to represent the vowel sounds used, with multiple characters standing for the same vowel, depending on how it is pronounced. So, while we would use the letter “o” for both “vote” and “cot”, different characters are used in the Bengali. And don’t get me started on the consonants and their combinations! Instead, here is the first clause from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sample:

ধারা ১: সমস্ত মানুষ স্বাধীনভাবে সমান মর্যাদা এবং অধিকার নিয়ে জন্মগ্রহণ করে। তাঁদের বিবেক এবং বুদ্ধি আছে; সুতরাং সকলেরই একে অপরের প্রতি ভ্রাতৃত্বসুলভ মনোভাব নিয়ে আচরণ করা উচিৎ।

Which, of course, translates to:

Dhara êk: Shômosto manush shadhinbhabe shôman môrjada ebong odhikar nie jônmogrohon kôre. Tãder bibek ebong buddhi achhe; shutorang shôkoleri êke ôporer proti bhrattrittoshulôbh monobhab nie achoron kôra uchit.

And this is part of the challenge facing foreigners trying to learn how to read and write in Bangladesh. Even if one is able to learn the intricacies of the Bengali script, one is still left with the significant hurdle that the script represents the Bangla language, so even if one is able to read the script, it would still require translation. As a result, foreigners find that the language must be approached in two stages, with the first being to speak and understand Bangla before being able to write and read it, a prerequisite that will likely doom me to illiteracy during my time here.

This is not for lack of sponsorship on the part of the agency that brought me here. Voluntary Service Overseas provided for an extensive set of language lessons at the HEED Language Centre in Dhaka during our orientation training. HEED stands for Helping Educate Exasperating Dummies (or more officially, Health, Education and Economic Development) and their teaching philosophy with respect to language is to assume that the Bengali script is a boogeyman best kept in the closet and to focus instead on the oral. Arriving at the centre with Kristel and five other rookies, I sat in a waiting room until a handbell was rung to signal the start of class, something I hadn’t seen since Laura graduated from her school on Little House on the Prairie. Following the group, I was led to the small classroom that would be our crucible of learning over the coming weeks. Finding the only left-handed desk in the room (ahem), I took my seat and waited for our teacher to arrive. We exchanged the type of nervous banter common among those about to experience the unknown and glanced at the posters of happy Bangladeshis whose reassuring smiles practically gushed, “You can talk to us!!!”

Our teacher arrived soon after and greeted us with a wary smile that spoke of her experience with Bangla manglers. Not quite suppressing a sigh, she introduced herself, “ Asalam alakum. Amar nam Sultana. Apnar nam ki?”, and all seven of us broke eye contact with her at the same time, which is the universally followed method of avoiding getting picked by the teacher. Finding her victim in the second row, Sultana repeated the question, saying the words with a deliberate slowness that Forrest Gump would have found slightly sluggish. “Apnarrrrr……….naaaaam…….kiiiiii?” she asked again, helpfully pointing at me, to avoid any possibility of misidentification. “Amar nam Glenn?” I asked, as if I were an amnesiac or the victim of a severe head trauma. “Bhalo!” Sultana replied, with a smile that signified my guess was a good one. I tried to contain my pride at this accomplishment, but it was no use. I was already a star, and the others knew it.

Over the next two weeks, we explored some of the key phrases needed to survive in Bangladesh, including “Please slow down” and “Not so much spice, please”. Sultana and I forged a special relationship during those classes, as I became her relief pitcher, the ace who could save the conversation when her questions stumped my classmates. New verb tenses were tested out on me like a champion lab rat, and I wore her “Bhalo!”s like medals on my chest. Conscious that this type of behaviour used to get me beaten up in junior high, I judiciously limited my responses to avoid being too much of a showoff. Finishing off the first series of classes, I wished Sultana well and looked forward to resuming the lessons with her after a short break to explore our placements.

Returning to HEED after six weeks, our group was greeted by the centre’s administrator and was informed that our lessons would now be taken with another teacher, Mr. Polash. My face fell at this news. No Sultana? No more ace relief pitching? This wasn’t bhalo at all. To add to the disappointment, we learned that we also had been bumped from our classroom and would now be taking our lessons on the roof, subject to the capriciousness of the weather and depraved Dhakanian pigeons. I was inconsolable as we trudged up the stairs behind Polash and entered onto the roof into the glare of the early afternoon sun. My anguish was only slightly assuaged by the sight of a proper classroom with four walls and a roof, albeit one that was baked hotter than the sweatbox that Alec Guinness endured in Bridge on the River Kwai.

I tried to make things work with Polash, but the magic just wasn’t there anymore. To a certain extent, he was a victim of his circumstances. The city endured a series of blackouts at that time (that continue to this day) due to a demand for electricity that outstripped supply. No power meant no fans nor airconditioners for the first hour of each lesson, so we all spent our time with one eye on the clock, waiting for that awful hour to be complete. But Polash and I also never really connected in any meaningful way. Compared to Sultana, he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine. When we failed to use the possessive form of the pronoun in a sentence during one class, he hung his head and said, “You make me want to kill myself”. While I was pretty sure he was kidding and admired his passion for possessive pronouns, I didn’t want to have that kind of blood on my hands. So, I decided to become a language school dropout. With only a couple of lessons remaining, I knew I wouldn’t be missing much, and there was the opportunity to take further lessons once Kristel and I returned to Chittagong, so I made my excuses and bailed on the classes. I suspect that things will go much smoother with the tutor that we’ve selected, as he seems less interested in perfect grammar than in teaching us the basics of communication. While I doubt that I will ever progress to the point of being able to read and write in Bengali, I hope that I’ll at least be able to understand some of what is being said around me and to respond in some limited way. At this point, that’s the most that this dropout can hope for.