What do you know about Bangladesh? You will probably know that thousands of Bengalis now live in the UK and have made a huge contribution to our economy. And that Bangladeshi curry has become one of the UK’s favourite foods!
But did you know that the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh, which is home to the endangered Royal Bengali Tiger, is the largest single block of mangrove forest in the world? Or that the country is home to 160 million people, which means it has a larger population than Russia, despite being 120 times smaller?
Pobitra is a man of unrivalled energy. When he’s not working on his shrimp farm, he’s serving drinks to locals at his tea shop, or tending his vegetable garden. But his shrimp farm and crops were badly damaged by Cyclone Aila in 2009. He lives in a small house belonging to his sister, with his wife, Mollika.
“Cyclone Aila was more destructive than Cyclone Sidr in some ways. Sea water came right up to our house. My shrimp farm was damaged and our crops too. I got training from Caritas Bangladesh in how to grow vegetables in soil affected by sea water. I learned how to preserve seeds, how to make a raised bed so the crops are less affected by salt and how to help the vegetables thrive organically. If there’s enough rain and no cyclones I’m hoping our vegetable garden will recover and we can grow as many vegetables as we did before the cyclone.
“I believe there’s opportunity here if you go out and look for it. A few years ago I only had my tea shop. I worked early in the morning and in the evening – but I didn’t have anything else to do for the whole day. Now I have lots of ways of earning money.”
Sabita was at home with her husband and son, Pardha, when Cyclone Sidr hit Kainmari in 2007. She and her family fled to safety, but their house was completely destroyed. Now the president of the women’s group and a key member of the disaster committee, Sabita helps other people in the community prepare for disasters.
“When Cyclone Sidr hit, I knew what to do because I’d had training from Caritas Bangladesh. I collected our identity documents, put them in a polythene bag and buried them in the ground so they would be safe. I saw a tree falling down and God held me back. Then I saw my husband and son following me. We had rainwater and mud all over us. The next morning we returned to our house and it was completely washed away.
“I have no alternative but to live here and cope with tidal surges, cyclones and floods. This is my family house, I cannot leave. So we are trying to adapt. In the disaster committee we have three flags for different levels of cyclone. Caritas Bangladesh gave us the flags, along with a radio and a megaphone.
“We can’t stop natural disasters, but we can try and minimise the damage. My priority is for my son to finish university so he can get a good job.”
Profulla’s grocery shop is at the centre of village life in Kainmari. Selling everything from sacks of duck feed, to packets of biscuits and fresh vegetables the business is thriving. But when his shop was destroyed in Cyclone Sidr in 2007, Profulla was left with nothing. Starting again from scratch, Profulla built back his shop brick by brick. He now lives in a room at the back of the shop with his wife and daughter.
“I have never experienced anything like the Cyclone Sidr. It was very cloudy and the speed of the wind was increasing. Then it started to rain, and it got heavier and heavier. Everybody closed up their stalls, and made their way to the cyclone shelter. The next morning, I came back and there were trees lying all over the road. I used an axe to get through, and saw that my house and shop were completely destroyed. It was a terrible situation. You can’t understand. It was our home and everything had gone.”
One of six children, Tapati left school at 10 and got married when she was 14 years old. Now she lives happily with her husband, but is quietly determined that her daughter, Tunpa, will become a nurse. To realise her dream for her daughter, and to earn extra income, Tapati has started her own duck farm, with support from Caritas Bangladesh.
“With Caritas’s help I bought 25 ducks and took part in training where I learned how to look after them. The ducks aren’t producing eggs yet, because they’re too young. But in a few months I will be making money by selling the eggs. My daughter, Tunpa, helps me look after the ducks. She wants to be a nurse, but I’m worried that I won’t be able to afford the college fees.
“Our family was big – so my parents couldn’t afford to educate all of us. If they’d had more money I could have finished school and I wouldn’t have had to get married so young.
“I have seen so many changes in this area since I was a girl. When I got married women rarely left the house. But now I’m a member of a women’s group. We talk about how to plan to our families and why it can be beneficial to have fewer children. If people have fewer children, they have more money so girls don’t have to get married when they’re under age. I hope that if I can earn some extra money, Tunpa can fulfil her dream.”