I go back in time, to a surreal memory. The Peace Corps experience was nearly 6 years ago, but the experience still feels close. When I receive e-mails from friends and colleagues, I feel like I’m no longer the Adam they once knew. After returning to the States – returning to the chaotic hum of other people’s lives -- I never fully reflected on my time in Bangladesh. I can do that now.
Walking down the street in Bangladesh workers yelled from behind, pushing large carts down unpaved roads. Their objective: not to stop. Huge carts, overloaded with cement bags, logs, bricks – once rolling could continue on controlled momentum. It was the initial push – just getting the cart moving – which was incredibly difficult.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. I was going to graduate from college, I had to do something. I wanted to go abroad , but also do something good. I wanted a real experience in another culture, learn a new language. But the Peace Corps? A 27 month commitment? It was a leap. Perhaps I switched off the rational brain -- as one must do when leaping into a freezing cold pool. So a few months after graduating from Emory, there I was in Seattle, leaving with 43 others who I was sure had a much better reason for being there than I did. So I leapt.
There were very few expectations. I’ve learned, it is the lack of expectations which can allow for great things. The days and months passed and Bangladesh became home. There were challenges, some expected – language, homesickness, heat – others less so, the celebrity status and staring, the inefficiency, the inability to get anything “done.”
Things were not moving.
In time the good and bad, the things we loved and those we hated, became part of daily life. We passed through training and on to our own sites – mine, Jhalakti, in the South of Bangladesh, a few hours North of the Bay of Bengal. I would be an English teacher at a small training center. The first year was adjustment; getting learning to function in a new home. But I was impatient, chomping at the bit to do something I felt worthwhile.
A lot bothered me. The combination of unrelenting heat, spicy food, and endless cups of “cha” kept me in an anxious state. I want to act, to initiate change where there is a “better” way to do things. It is typical of the Westerner to think he must fix everything.
But in Bangladesh it seemed like so much could be “fixed.”
Often as it was, we had to pick our battles. Women had to struggle with the cultural dress code, and choose to what degree they would follow it. In my own case, I fought with the Peace Corps office, constantly. I felt I needed their support, but it was not coming. I couldn’t understand why wouldn’t they help me, why can’t you get behind me on this?
I struggled with this idea. Our lives there were a struggle. If you don’t like the way something is, do something, don’t just complain. Peace Corps life was not easy, and often there was nothing that could be done about it. We were faced with a choice, accept things the way they were, or struggle. Women were expected to wear the traditional Bengali dress – a shalwar kamis. At first, many of the women in the group were against the idea that they had to dress a certain way. But they changed their minds. Going out in Shavar was difficult enough for us all. Being a “bideshi,” or foreigner, was sufficient to get a stare. One could often use this attention to practice Bangla, meet people, and have amazing experiences. You just didn’t want the attention all the time – but all the time, you got it.
For the women this struggle was exacerbated. In Bangladesh a woman generally wanted to diffuse that attention. Sarah and Molly were fair skinned with blond hair, living in a brown skinned, black haired nation. They surely received more attention than most. For them the decision was, “Do we wear our western clothes and get that much more attention?” The decision was easy. In time they not only grew accustomed, but owned their choice. Designs were picked out and tailors produced a shalwar kamis that they wanted to wear. So it was for us all, each in our own way. It was a matter of picking our battles. That first year I was trying to fix everything. Once I could accept things as they were, I could finally do something.
A big part of the process of being in Bangladesh was the process. The process of letting go, accepting things as they were, patience. In Bangladesh life moves at the pace of rickshaw (a bicycle taxi). Often, on the single lane “highways” busses would get stuck behind rickshaws, forced to travel only as fast as their drivers could pedal. And sometimes the rickshaw behind a cow, the bus behind the rickshaw, on an eight hour trip, in the heat, …
It was all very enduring.
And so Bangladesh slowly but surely broke me down. I would show up for meetings with my boss, and wait three hours for him to show up. Bengali time became the norm. I set my watch accordingly. That frustration became helplessness, rage, and everything in between. Many aspects of the stranger in a strange land-life became the norm, but I never became fully accustomed. But I did see that the frustration was pointless, and it wasn’t helping me any. In a sense, I gave up. The frustration from dealing with people on the street, the frustration I felt from my expectations, the frustration with myself – none of this was why I was there. There had to be a solution.
A Bengali Tiger--sized pet peeve I’d had throughout my 27 months was smoking. On a hot, sweaty bus someone smoking into my face was just too much. I’d flirted with the idea that here was a problem that could be addressed. Smoking was a health and financial problem. Often some of the poorest in the community smoked cigarettes, debilitating both their bodies and wallets. Without awareness of second hand smoke these same individuals would smoke inside their shanties, with pregnant women and children. The smoke in my face had bothered me, but that wasn’t it. I couldn’t stop smoking in this country -- or even in my town -- but I could do something.
Set about by the frustration with the progress of my class, my purpose in the Peace Corps Bangladesh slowly revealed itself.
I no longer really believed in what I was doing. Seeing old students became disheartening, as they’d forgotten much of what they’d learned. I couldn’t find purpose in my life. I began to question teaching English. English was a skill to help my students leave their town and families, go to Dhaka and live in meager of conditions, struggling to survive. Perhaps no better from where they had come, but at least in Jhalakati there were families, familiarity. I ran into one former student who had gone to Dhaka, only to return because he got scurvy due to lack of proper nutrition. I checked, and discovered the last person to get scurvy was a pirate in 1836. I no longer wanted to be a link in that chain.
I would take on smoking. Yes, Adam Kaswiner and Co. would take on this great bane of Bangladesh’s existence. Or so I dreamt it. I proposed the idea to my students, encouraging their participation – to do something good, with the chance to practice English as an incentive. One student, Harun, was the first to support the idea. Harun would later become the leader of our organization. At the time he told how he had smoked for 7 or 8 years and after quitting started to feel much better. In advocating my message, Harun also paved the way for his fellow students to become our campaign team. I felt like I had purpose. This purpose and direction defined the last 9 of my 27 months in the Peace Corps.
From that first meeting, to the rally a month later, I began to feel fulfilled. Working hands on with colleagues, we were becoming friends -- side by side, striving for the same goal. We developed a system -- who would do what, when, how -- organizing. We started fund raising, making flyers, spreading the word. All the while, no support from Peace Corps HQ. This was not my primary project, so they could not provide any official support, just, “Good luck.” This motivated me. There was much more we could do than just teach English. It took accomplishing it to realize this.
We pressed forward. The event only a few days away. We talked to people on the street, collected donations from businesses, and invited the mayor to the rally. Nights we put up flyers, rode through the town on rickshaws hooked up with megaphones, chanting, “Dumpan korlay, oikale morbay,” -- “If you smoke, you will die quickly.”
The day arrived. Worn out, running on adrenaline. Everything was set. A large turnout, but many people who had pledged their support had not shown. The plans of the day went haywire – speeches running too long and in the wrong order, too many kids (we gave away bubble gum), me losing a shoe during the march – it was not what we’d planned. I went home in a non--miked rickshaw, disappointed. My eyeballs were sweating. I laid down, not at all cooled by the fan above me.
Harun called. I answered, distraught, dismayed, disenchanted. Then I heard the voice of Harun, Rekon, Dulal, Shubandu, Monir -- overjoyed, excited, full of life and accomplishment. I’d failed to realize how much this meant to them. They had given themselves to this project too, and they were happy. It was the first time they had done something on their own, and for themselves. All along, I had been so focused on the anti--smoking aspect of the project that I’d missed so much. “My guys” were developing.
I got out of bed and met with Harun. I said: “If this is the end, we have failed. If this is the beginning, we have succeeded.”
I couldn’t go back to being an English teacher, and my guys were no longer passive students. We would learn from both what went well, and from what did not. We became the Jhalakati Social Action Organization or J.S.A.O.
Membership grew. The march, if nothing else, created buzz of our work for the community, and the “bideshi” among them. Most people had little idea of what I was doing there – I guess Peace Corps hadn’t let many people know I was coming. This was one aspect of my experience which always amazed me, but I was becoming recognized as someone who did good.
The next nine months were a whirlwind, with the eye of the storm my focus. Daily meetings were held amongst the core members, where we planned, talked, and ate biscuits (cookies). We went from planning to doing one, initiating a trash collection service funded by a generous USAID grant, writing and printing a newsletter, organizing a winter clothing drive and fundraiser, all while establishing a grassroots organization with a solid member base, infrastructure, and even an office space.
I worked in my last month or two to ensure that our work would continue once I was left. Harun would be in charge -- though reluctantly -- and the guys were behind him. After completing my service I toured India, and returned to visit Jhalakati before leaving for the U.S. I saw that, though learning on the fly, “my guys” were keeping the momentum going.
I returned to the U.S. at peace. But while everyone at home commended me for doing the Peace Corps, they never really understood what I did. Just “doing the Peace Corps” didn’t mean anything. I’d realized that making a difference meant caring, and hopefully positively influencing others. In the end we really did some great things together, and learned a lot from each other, individuals and community. There is no “solution” to poverty, but empowerment can uplift a person, a town, or a nation. To make a difference one must believe a difference can be made. Once started, it’s just about keeping the cart going.