On our way to meet the riverine people we stopped off at a site where a few years ago it had been the refuge for flood victims. One of our projects. The deserted area, the size of a football pitch had a large stone building baking in the sun, now abandoned. Outside, a water pump, neglected.
Our guide, a local officer, pointed way into the distance. ‘That’s the Brahmaputra,’ he said. ‘Floods create new passages for the river, it’s constantly moving.’
One of the difficulties in providing Aid, could never be sure of any long-term relief.
The officer continued. ‘We’re going to cross it to one of the islands. There’s a community living there. Even a junior school.’
A school? I scratched my head. ‘How…?’
He was quick to respond. ‘Two branches of the flooded river separated this community from the mainland – they had a fertile area large enough to grow crops and feed themselves. Maybe the next flood will make them move.’
‘Oh,’ I said, beginning to realise the river controlled peoples’ livelihoods. A risky life.
We parked safely close to the river – dry season - got out and walked to a small wooden pier. A local fisherman was to take us in his longboat over to the island with us as passengers. A ferry would have been better, given I was not a natural canoeist.
It was an erratic journey.
‘There are strong currents, and shallows,’ said the officer as I watched the fisherman punt his way across in a zig-zag style. ‘But don’t worry, he knows the river.’
The water was brown, sludgy-looking with miniature whirlpools erupting. Not a place to fall out of the boat.
About fifteen minutes later, we embarked at a similar small wooden pier. Was I happy to step onto dry land, although on reflection, for how long would it remain dry?
A few elders had assembled to meet and greet us. All wearing coloured sarongs and sandals. They seemed overjoyed to see us, treated me like royalty or perhaps a visiting dignitary. I was probably the first English person to ever step on their patch.
Then came the guided tour.
Green – banana plantation, vegetable plots, and nearer the central village, hordes of chickens and a few dogs scattered from our path.
Of course, daytime, they were in school. The highlight of our visit.
Taken to the classroom, I peeped in. A slatted bamboo hut – a woman teacher at the front sitting on a wooden chair, a chalked blackboard behind her. Facing her, about twenty children sitting on slatted bamboo mats. Most were scribbling on pieces of paper. A few dog-eared books, pencils and crayons made up the class.
The teacher saw me – no doubt forewarned – and told the children to stand up to see me.
Which they did. Silently. The teacher motioned to one child – a girl. ‘Well?’
And the pretty little girl with piglets, joined by a few excited classmates, welcomed me in my own language. In English. All smiles. I was later told they’d been practising for days, but at the time my open mouth could have been a fly-trap.
‘Thank you so much,’ I managed to say, rubbing my eyes. ‘Thank you all very much for showing me your home.’
They needed funds, primarily to pay for the teacher who travelled over from the mainland, plus money for learning books, writing pads and basic items.
What could I say? Apart from promising the little girl that I’d take up her request back at Dhaka.
Which I did. And it was granted.
Oh, and the blog title above? On our way back to the river, I met an elderly but wiry man who told me – through interpreters – that the flooded river had made him move house about fifteen times over the years. He’d carried his bamboo home on his back to safer pastures.
Name was Jak…