Adventures in Kaliganj – my first field trip!

Posted on August 16, 2011

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Last week I ventured outside of Dhaka, seven hours along a dirt road – at times dusty, at times muddy, and at all times death-defying – to visit a peaceful upazila (district) in southwest Bangladesh.

I spent the days squelching my toes in thick, gooey mud, showering in the morning rain, plucking guavas fresh from the tree, and negotiating cows, chickens, goats and amused villagers.

In between the squelching and laughing, I also got the opportunity to see first-hand the projects that Hunger Free World – where I’m working – is doing in Kaliganj (spelt Kaligonji on the map below).

Hunger Free World is a Japanese NGO that has offices in Dhaka, Kaliganj and Boda. All the staff here are locals with a lot of experience in the development sector, and a lot of first-hand knowledge of the challenges that Bangladesh faces. HFW is working towards a hunger-free and self-reliant Bangladesh by 2021. We run schools, a hospital, organic farms and various education and training programs in the districts where we operate.

While in Kaliganj, I was staying at HFW’s small school, Shuniketon Pathshala. It has about 200 students who make their way there by foot or rickshaw six days a week, and it was wonderful to wake up each morning to the sound of children chattering and laughing before they started their day of learning. Literacy levels in Kaliganj hover around the 50% mark, so HFW’s school is incredibly important for the future of the children who attend.

Kaliganj feels like it’s a million worlds away from Dhaka. The jungle and rice paddies are peaceful, the nights are peppered with the buzzing of cicadas, and the days seem to fold in on themselves and blur kaleidoscopically – yet another scale on Bangaldesh’s time-warp continuum!

About 85% of Bangladesh’s population live in rural areas, but the rate of rural-urban migration is very high. It’s expected that by the mid-2020’s, at least half of the population will live in urban areas. That presents a wholly different set of problems and if you’re interested, Al Jazeera did a good news piece yesterday on the housing crisis in Dhaka.

The countryside landscape may be picturesque, but poverty is pervasive, which is what fuels the exodus to the bigger cities. Most people own very little land, and so one farmer’s ‘property’ is often the equivalent of what we’d call the backyard veggie patch back in Australia. Food insecurity is high, which means that many farmers struggle to feed themselves, let alone make an income from their produce. There are also significant problems associated with farmers using fertilizers and pesticides, especially when they’ve received no education about doing so – it’s not uncommon for the pesticides to be stored in containers that will later be used for drinking water.

Subsequently, organic farming is at the heart of the work that HFW does. In Kaliganj, HFW runs an agriculture training centre that operates as a working farm and is open for farmers to visit and learn from at any time. We also work directly in the villages, helping locals to create compost heaps and use companion planting to minimize the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

HFW runs a library, a computer centre, sewing classes and after-school study groups which are open to all the community, and play a significant role in giving more women access to education.

A big part of my trip to Kaliganj was working with the inspirational members of Youth Against Hunger, which is HFW’s youth-led organisation. I’m going to be working closely with YAH over the next year to help them share their visions for the future, and take action towards ending hunger and poverty in Bangladesh. YAH has its annual national conference coming up in September and I’m very excited about the opportunities for change and action that it will bring!

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