Counter-Culturally Culturally Appropriate

One of the new routines Erin and I now have is cycling back and forth to work. In fact, most of our traveling around Mymensingh is done on the old one-gear bikes that were passed down to us. As we navigate the busy streets that are full of vehicles, people and cows, we tend to bike in single file so that there is enough room for us to maneuver. This position has provided me with some great perspective of people’s reactions as we (and specifically Erin) pass by.

For numerous reasons, women tend not to use bicycles in Bangladesh. Although one can observe young girls learning to cycle, as they get older they hardly continue with it. Nevertheless, there are plenty of alternative and cheap transportation options available (like buses, rickshaws, autos, CNGs…), but there still remains an element of independence and freedom when one is not dependent on others to move around.

When cycling on the streets of Mymensingh, Erin gets noticed for two reasons. The first is because she is easily distinguished as a foreigner because of her hair and skin colour, and the second is because she is a woman riding a bicycle. After observing people’s reactions for a couple months now, I have noticed a few distinct responses that people have.

Quotes 9The most amusing reaction I’ve noticed is from cycle rickshaw drivers; they have a reaction that mixes being astonished and impressed. The next is a reaction generally drawn from children; they often overtly react with pointing and smiling. The last major reaction that I’ve noticed is a lot more subtle and I tend to notice it in older girls, women and fathers with their young daughters; their reaction is of quiet but keen observation, and sometimes I see parents pointing out Erin to their child. Whenever I see this third reaction, I always wonder what is going through their mind. Are they wondering what it would be like to cycle? Are father’s pointing out to their daughters a simple example of something they can also do?

Perhaps I will never know the inner thoughts that people have as they see Erin cycle by, but their visible reaction is an indication that something as common as a bicycle in Bangladesh can cause people to reexamine their familiar social norms.

This past month we had to opportunity to attend a special celebration for L’Arche Mymensingh’s 12th anniversary. L’Arche is an international federation that was founded in 1964 by Canadian Jean Vanier in France, to communally live with and care for people with intellectual disabilities. Today L’Arche has 146 communities across 35 countries (for more information about the great work of the L’Arche Mymensingh community, please see: L’Arche Mymensingh)

The celebrations lasted all day, but it concluded with a special rally procession where we walked to the city center with a drum band, music blaring from a sound system strapped to the back of a cart, a large banner, many colourful helium filled balloons, some of the L’Arche residents riding on a horse drawn carriage, and a ton of street kids from a program run by the Taizé Brothers. Although this was a fun experience, it initially struck me as a very odd component of the celebration. However, as I thought about it more I quickly realized that this form of rally is often used in Bangladesh to raise awareness.

Although the L’Arche community has been in Bangladesh for 12 years, it still faces challenges to support the work it does as it receives very little government support. Prior to the founding of the community, some of its members were put in jail as there wasn’t any infrastructure to care for them.  Through organizing a familiar rambunctious rally, L’Arche was hoping to raise awareness of the needs that exist in Mymensingh and get people to reexamine the social norms of how we should support those with disabilities.

The approach of using something that already exists in a culture as the foundation to introduce a new concept/idea/message can be found in the Bible. When the Apostle Paul was in Athens, he noticed that the Athenians had recognized their own ignorance in what they believed because they had constructed an alter with the inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”, and he used this to share the good news (for more on this, see: Acts 17:16-34).

Quotes 10One of the major objectives in development is to ensure any positive change achieved is sustainable, and in order for this to happen a community must have full ownership of the achievement. In Cambodia, a peer NGO called iDE used local comedians to mix comedy with education on improved sanitation practices. This approach was so successful that the demand for purchasing pit latrines significantly increased, revealing a sustainable shift in local values reflected in the market system. In a short while, this contributed to reducing illnesses and deaths from fecal pathogens (for more on this, see: Mixing toilets with profit in Cambodia).

Finding a good balance between being counter-cultural and culturally appropriate is not a simple formula. It would be extremely arrogant and ethnocentric for one to think that this process was one-sided.  In his article The Impact of Globalization on the Poor, Latin American theologian Rene Padilla states:

The object of our work is not to enable poor people to become full members of the consumer society. It is, rather, to help men and women – regardless of race, gender, or social class – to experience fullness of life. For the poor this implies the recovery of a sense of human dignity and the satisfaction of basic human needs. For the rich it implies the moral commitment to stewardship – “not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God” and “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share… so that they may hold of the life that is truly life (1Tim 6:17-19). For both poor and rich alike fullness of life implies putting God at the center of their lives, in such a way that, like Paul, they are able to say: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13).
(Rene Padilla. The Impact of Globalization on the Poor, 10).

Quotes 11In Bangladesh, it is very common to see buildings with rebar sticking out of the roof. This indicates that a building has the potential for additional floors to be added. In a sense, we are all like these building as we all have a foundation that is capable of adding more layers (growth). Yet in order to grow, these buildings need the input of an external component, like a construction crew, that can add a new element necessary for growth beyond itself. Every culture is fallen and has its shortcomings, but through humbly and respectfully working together, we can help each other pursue the abundant life.

Hartal is a term used in the Indian sub-continent to describe a general strike. This form of civil disobedience can trace its roots back to the Indian Independence Movement, but in more recent times this form of protest is characterized with violence. Last year, Bangladesh was crippled by hartals for nearly 2 months due to a controversial election and a controversial war crimes tribunal that was sentencing those who committed atrocities during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.

This past month, Bangladesh experienced a consecutive 3 day hartal called by separate political parties. The first was for a politician accused of war crimes that was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the second was in protest of an amendment to the constitution that enables the governing party to have more power. This all happened while Erin and I were traveling separately in different parts of the country. Thankfully, we were safe and were only forced to delay our travel plans back to Mymensingh (from Dimla/Bogra for me and Dhaka for Erin).

A special thanks to all those that prayed for our safety! This hartal was relatively uneventful, but much of the country’s infrastructure shuts down in solidarity or in the anticipation of violence. Whether you realize it or not, your prayers in the big and small things have a significant impact on our daily lives here and we thank you for it!

1. We are safe as we travel around Bangladesh
2. Erin’s new role teaching nursing part-time at a local university goes well
3. MCCB continues to transition well as there are many changes in how we approach our work on the horizon

Nishant (and Erin)

Picture Banner 10
Check out the full album at: September 2014


Mehndi is an Indian sub-continental traditional art form in which a dye is made from henna leaves and then it is most commonly used to decorate the hands and feet of women for special occasions (like a wedding or festival). During a short visit to a village, Erin got to have her hands done up!

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