I thought it was about time I talked a little about LAMB – the NGO in Northwest Bangladesh where I work. When I first started blogging, most people reading were friends who already supported us – usually financially – to stay here. As time has gone on and the blog is currently read about a thousand times each month across more than thirty countries, I figure that the assumption everyone knows about LAMB is not really justified any longer.
I do intend to tell you about LAMB in detail over this year and will probably work department by department. I definitely want to tell you about the work my wife does in the Rehab department and with the clubfoot organisation she is partly seconded to. I think she does amazing work and would be quite happy if I never did a job here myself but just enabled her to do the work she does. If either of us has made an impact in Bangladesh in any way, it is her. The work she does is so tangible you can virtually touch it. But I digress – that is all to come in the future.
For now, I want to try and describe something of the atmosphere here. Something of what I find so fascinating about living here. A taste, as it were.
LAMB is a walled-in compound comprising a hospital, training centre for medical staff, school, Rehab centre, various admin, maintenance and other assorted buildings and, of course, numerous housing units to give a home on site for the hundreds of people working here. Not everyone lives on site but most do – especially doctors who need to be on call through the night. It has grown over thirty years and continues to provide health care clinics throughout the area serving, I think, around 5 million people.
Being walled in with only a single entrance in or out and with guards patrolling day and night, the whole compound is a haven of peace and tranquillity. We’re in the middle of nowhere – even for Bangladesh! – and from upper storey buildings such as ours you can see over the walls into field after field and watch the farmers busy tending the rice and grains. During the monsoon season you get the most amazing thunder and lightning displays at night as the whole horizon lights up as far and as wide as you can see before – several hours later – the fury of Thor himself seems to be unleashed upon your head for a while as the storm, so peaceful in the distance, wreaks havoc right on top of you. But it is a havoc you welcome – if you don’t live in a mud hut or tin roof house which can be washed or blown away. It is welcome because with the rain comes the well needed drop in temperature and humidity. In a country which reaches 40 degrees with a humidity that gives the affect of much, much higher, this is welcome relief indeed.
When the storms are not there, you can watch the stars dancing around in the fields or even go down to the main field where, during the day, the annual cricket and badminton tournaments get held, and there you can even catch a star. If you are very lucky, a star will fly into your room at night and light up your ceiling with an eerie glow. The stars, called jonaki , are fireflies and create a magic all of their own at night. They are like old friends for us now and I look forward to their return this year, as I do every year.
Incredibly peaceful though living in LAMB is, there is the most incredible transition the instant you pass through the gates to the outside. As much as LAMB is a haven of tranquillity, the road that runs alongside it is full of noise and bustle. Still, after years of living here, the sound shocks me with its sudden intensity. It is like stepping through the wardrobe of Narnia but somehow coming close to hell.
But it is not hell – though it is easy to be overpowered by it all. It is alive – vibrantly alive.
The road effectively grew up because of the hospital. With the sick and their families turning up in droves on a daily basis, there were supplies to be needed and food to be sought. Every year we see another dokan, a small shop setting up along the ever increasing row of barbers, phone shops, hotel cafes, vegetable stalls, fish vendors, tailors, groceries, meat sellers and fabric shops for making saris, shalwa kameezes and other clothes. Even at night – until at least 10:30 the road is bustling with men and women buying, selling and, most importantly, catching up with the gossip of the day. Lorries and tractors hurtle along the road every few seconds, beeping their horns to say “I’m coming, I’m not stopping, it’s up to you whether you move to one side or not”. You learn to sidestep when you hear a horn almost without looking or breaking your conversation – and you will always have a conversation with someone. It is impossible not to. No one, however, is so casual about the buses. They don’t just hurtle – they fly! I have never worked out if the sound of their horns is meant to induce panic or is the sound of the panic of the driver who forever seems to be speeding to disaster. When we travel by road to Dhaka we often see accidents or the remains of accidents. They always, without fail include the smashed wreckage of a bus. When you hear that shrieking horn, you dive for cover.
But along with the bustling people and the noise comes the smell.
Fish, meat, blood, rotting vegetation all ends up on the muddy floor outside the gates and along the road. Mixed with the smell of various breads and sweets frying at the hotel cafes and you have an odour that is as chaotic as the noise. Not unpleasant but certainly not nice, it is the smell of the bazaars throughout the country. For some, it is an overpowering smell and many bideshis, foreigners, shrink from it. But for me it is the smell of life, of community. Neither good nor bad; noble nor plain. Just raw feeling; raw life.
When I step out into the world outside LAMB I feel almost giddy with the whirl of these sensations. It is intoxicating and when we have been for a dawat, a meal- invite to a friend’s house in the next village, my favourite part is walking back in the dark, watching the stars dance in the fields and coming back to the melee of life outside the compound. But I am glad, at the end of the day, to step back through those gates and into the peace of LAMB’s embrace. Somehow, the madness becomes an echo and dies away the instant you step through the gates, leaving the silence of the chirruping crickets, the dance of the fireflies in the bushes and, if we’re lucky, the distant rumble of a storm on its way to cool the night air.