What You Should Know Before Volunteering in Bangladesh
Volunteering in Asia is a great way to help others who are need while immersing yourself in another culture and society. Volunteering who travel to Asia live and work within the very communities they are serving, giving them a glimpse of a foreign culture and people unlike any other. The experiences you gain while volunteering in Asia will stay with you for the rest of your life and shape the way you treat others within your own communities at home.
There are many places that can use the helping hands of volunteers. Southeast and South Asia have many opportunities for volunteers to serve under privileged communities. Many nations here are developing nations, which, for some, allows for a comfortable lifestyle and job opportunities. For many others, however, life is full of hardships.
In Bangladesh, far too many live a life or poverty. Here, access to modern healthcare and education is out of reach for many people. Housing is all too often substandard and many must work long hours in dangerous factories just to put enough food on the table. Volunteering here can make a big difference in the impoverished communities in Bangladesh. But no matter how you choose to help while volunteering in Bangladesh, there are a few things you should know about the culture and way of life there in order to make the best of your volunteering experience.
Bangladesh, to say the least, is very different from western cultures we are used to. From the moment you arrive, new sights and smells will surround you. The cities and rural communities have a completely different pace and atmospheres than what we are accustomed to. Luckily, as a volunteer, you will be living and working in the same communities you are serving, allowing you to see through a different lens than the typical tourist. You will see and get a much deeper appreciation for what the people of Bangladesh see and live everyday.
Most people in Bangladesh speak the national language, Bengali. Oddly enough, since Bangladesh has a population of around 156 million, Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, despite not being used much at all outside of it’s own borders. Volunteers shouldn’t worry too much because English is relatively understood throughout the country due to its British colonial past. However, in many rural communities in which volunteers work, English is not widely understood, so it’s important to be patient when speaking with the locals. Most locals are very curious about foreigners and may try to test out what little English they know with you. Younger children and adults will understand the least but you’ll be surprised how much you can communicate without speaking the same language.
Apart from the language differences you will face in Bangladesh, there are many cultural differences that volunteer should be aware of before living in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a mostly Islamic nation, but there are many Hindus, Christians and Buddhist in the country, as well as other religions practiced by tribes in the more rural and northern provinces. This plays a role in the fabric of the culture in many ways. Women are expected to dress modestly and volunteers, both men and women, should keep their eyes open and see what people in the communities are wearing as it will be a good way to gauge what is acceptable in the area you are working.
Volunteers should expect a variety of new foods and tastes while working in Bangladesh. The country doesn’t have much in the way of western food options but many volunteers learn to see this as a good thing once they start tasting what the cuisine has to offer. The cuisine is characterized by rich, spicy curries. Fish is one of the main sources of protein and there are seemingly endless varieties of breads and pastries to choose from. Many locals will tell you the best place to try Bangladeshi food is in someone’s home. Many people eat with their right hand as is customary in Islamic cultures but it is not considered impolite to ask for some utensils. Food is often the best gateway into a culture and Bangladesh is no different. It’s encouraged that volunteers eat adventurously and take in all that they can.
Some of the biggest contrast to life in the west can be seen in the amount of modern comforts and infrastructure that can be found in Bangladesh. Simply put, Bangladesh lacks modern conveniences that we have grown accustom to back home. Wifi is scarce, especially in the rural communities. Moreover, a strong internet connection shouldn’t be expected either. In the big cities like Dhaka, some small cafes will have internet as well as hotels but rural communities the internet may be non-existent. Most volunteers learn to love not being connected to the internet all the time and it helps them to focus more on helping the people in the community.
Volunteers who use prescription medicine would do well to pack enough for their entire time in Bangladesh. There are some pharmacies in the big cities that carry over-the-counter medicines but if you take some special prescription it’s very likely that they won’t carry it. Also, out in the rural communities, it’s highly probable that they won’t have a pharmacy at all, so best to stock up before you travel.
Volunteer Health and Safety
While you volunteer in Bangladesh it is important to always remember to stay safe. While there is very few instances of petty crime and Bangladeshi people are rarely violent. The country is slightly unstable as can be seen by the armed police in military gear lining the major streets in the big cities. Sometimes riots and strikes occur but this is only in the major cities and even then, they are still a rarity. Buses and taxis are a great mode of transportation. Expect quite a bit of traffic in Dhaka and other big cities, as the population density is quite high. Buses are on time, relatively clean and comfortable, and can take you to pretty much every part of the country for cheap. Motorbikes can be a bit dangerous so it’s usually recommended volunteers use mass and public transportation.
As mentioned before, Bangladesh lacks many modern infrastructure systems that are commonplace at home. You should not drink the tap water in Bangladesh, as it has not been treated for human consumption. Drinking water is available for purchase and many use drinking water delivery services to keep water stocked up at the house. The electrical grid in Bangladesh, especially in rural communities, can be unreliable and volunteers may experience times where they cannot use electricity. Volunteers should take this time to remember that this is what the locals experience all the time. It gives the volunteer a good sense of what it’s like to live in a less fortunate neighborhood that lacks the things we take for granted.
The currency in Bangladesh is the Taka and equals about 1 cent in American dollars. As with many countries in South Asia, your money will go a lot farther that it can back home. Food and other expenses are nominal compared to prices back home. Volunteers can usually a filling meal for around 200 taka, or two dollars. There are not many ATM’s outside the major cities in Bangladesh so it’s a good idea to get out as much cash as you will need for your trip. It’s a good idea to leave the bulk of your cash at home and just take a small amount out during the day trips.
As you volunteer in Bangladesh, you will constantly be exposed to the vast differences in cultures. But as with all cultures and people in the world, we are more similar than we are different. Volunteers should know that they will see and work in some of the most impoverished communities in Bangladesh and, for that matter, the world. However, the daily interactions you have with locals will show you how much you and the people of Bangladesh have in common. Many volunteers experience some culture shock their first few days in Bangladesh, but that’s totally normal. Give it a few days and you will become accustomed to the pace of life. Whatever the differences that challenge you as a volunteer, it’s good to remember one thing: what makes volunteering in these communities so rewarding is overcoming these cultural challenges in order to serve people who are less fortunate. Once you arrive and start help those around you, the challenges you face will pale in comparison to the rewards you receive. The experiences you get while volunteering in Bangladesh will change the way you see your own community back home and help you take the compassionate spirit back with you.