As many of you will be aware, here at Nomadic Washrooms we are passionate about loos! So much so that we have decided to help those less fortunate than us get access to decent washroom facilities as part of our ongoing relationship with the lovely people at Self Help Africa, our chosen charity partner.
Our aim for 2023 is to help fund the provision of 25 new latrines through a new project developed by United Purpose and Self Help Africa in the Chittagong Hill Tract region of Bangladesh, known as the Blue Schools + Program. The project will engage with young children as key agents for change in the areas of water safety, sanitation, and hygiene, providing new facilities throughout 25 schools.
In preparation for this, we were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to visit some similar projects previously delivered by United Purpose and this blog tells the story. So strap in, and follow our incredible journey through beautiful Bangladesh.
(Disclaimer: The trip was fully funded by us, Kate and Stu, out of our own pocket, ensuring that any money donated through Nomadic Washrooms goes directly to the Blue Schools Plus Project.)
DAY 1 | HELLO BANGLADESH!
After a hectic season working all hours god sends in our little business Nomadic Washrooms, and a brief trip to Nepal to fulfill one of Kate’s lifelong dreams of trekking Mount Everest (or at least to its base camp) we arrived in Dhaka to a beautifully sunny day. For some unknown reason, the trip began with a VIP car from the steps of the airplane to the arrival terminal. Not pre-arranged or part of the trip but a good start for a couple who can only afford to travel cattle class!
Following a nerve-wracking 15 minutes with the immigration officers (I hate that bit of traveling) we collected our bags and made it out to the arrivals lounge where we were greeted by the brilliant Moin from United Purpose who had been waiting patiently for us for the last 2 hours! Bless him.
On our journey to the rather opulent Pearl Hotel in the residential district of Banani, two doors down from UP’s offices, Moin showed us some of the sites of the city. These included the new airport terminal and flyover road under construction and the impressive Headquarters of the Bangladeshi Navy.
Check-in to the hotel was smooth and they nearly gave us separate rooms, which would have been particularly nice for Kate given my snoring, but after I explained that we were married (Kate is useless at updating her records, as some of you may know), we got put in a lovely room on the 7th floor overlooking the city.
What a contrast through the window though; our plush hotel sat amongst the concrete jungle of the real Dhaka. As night fell the excitement of what the next few days had in store set in!
DAY 2 | MEETINGS AND CULTURE SHOCKS
The two of us were up and in the gym before 7.30am on the 5th to get our steps in before a day of discovery with United Purpose. After a quick breakfast, we were met by Sunil, one of UP’s Project Managers and our guide for the week, who safely delivered us to UP’s Head Office for an introductory meeting with the Bangladeshi management team.
It was great to meet Iqbal, the Country Operations Manager face to face after weeks of email correspondence and we had a pleasant welcome from Sriramappa, the Country Director who hastily asked whether we were okay after the earthquake. Unbeknown to us there had been a 5.2 magnitude tremor at 9am that morning while we were in the hotel elevator!
After a quick tour of the office, we sat down in the boardroom with the majority of the team and began by introducing ourselves and our business Nomadic Washrooms, explaining our charitable goals for 2023 in conjunction with Self Help Africa and United Purpose. Sriramappa was most intrigued by the concept of our portable toilets, and we quickly got into discussions about adapting the concept for floating washroom facilities for the flood-prone regions of Bangladesh which sparked our imagination and is something we would definitely like to revisit and progress at a future date.
Back on track after our little distraction, the United Purpose team then introduced themselves with the project managers taking turns to discuss some of the projects that they were currently working on. It was great to hear all the success stories and get an understanding of how education and community involvement can be a true drivers for change in the developing world.
Some of the achievements and projects highlighted included the successful Women’s Business Centres funded by Coca-Cola. These have been designed to improve the access of rural and marginalised women to technology, marketing links, training, and healthcare provisions.
So far, the project has created 400 centers, each managed by 5 local female entrepreneurs which support over 400,000 women. Another was the INCA (Improving Nutrition through Community based Approaches) project which aims to address the high levels of stunting and malnutrition through engagement at health facilities. Both in the community and at the household level, to improve nutrition amongst pregnant and lactating women during the first 1000 days of their child’s life (from conception). The project has seen the establishment of 164 women’s health centers which are now in full swing and supporting thousands of women during those critical months.
After a quick coffee break and some lovely cheese pastries, we were treated to a presentation by Shamim about their connections with the local delivery partner IDEA and the projects they work together on in Sylhet that we would be visiting over the next few days. I won’t go into detail about the presentation here as I want to give you real-life experiences later in this blog.
Following the obligatory selfie with the board, we said our farewells (for now) and set off to the airport with Sunil for the short 35-minute flight to Sylhet. Pumped up on the sweetest milk tea you have ever tasted from the departures lounge, the flight was a breeze and our hair-raising 10km tuk-tuk ride to our local hotel on the other side was exhilarating to say the least in the mid-day mayhem of central Sylhet traffic. I think every hour is rush hour out here!
Later that day we met with Shahinur from the local NGO IDEA I mentioned above. Shahinur has worked his way up the ranks of IDEA over the last 14 years and is now the Asia Manager for the organisation and an all-round great guy. After our introductions, we all headed out into the streets of Sylhet as the night drew in and evening prayers got underway.
A brief stroll got us to the shrine and burial place of the 14th-century Muslim saint Shah Jalal and walking around the grounds was quite an experience for both us and the locals. I suspect very few white westerners visit this area and so the attention was very much on us with kids and grownups alike crowding around for selfies and to chat. A gaggle of children then followed us for the rest of the evening, fighting to hold hands with “the pretty one,” aka Kate (on this occasion!).
After a tour of some of the other sites of the city, Shahinur and Sunil treated us to a pitstop at the legendary (Legendary in Sylhet at least) Honey Sweet shop where we sampled some of the tastiest desert-type things we have ever tried. Cheesecake eat your heart out, Rasgulla is where it’s at! The perfect fuel for our project visits over the next few days.
Day 3 | THE MAY 2022 FLOOD RESPONSE
After a little sulking around at reaching the grand old age of 36 (it was my birthday) and pulling myself together again, we met with Shahinur and Sunil in the hotel lobby at 9am and jumped into our car to head over to IDEA’s offices to meet the team.
As I explained above, IDEA is the local NGO that works as a delivery partner for United Purpose and other larger NGO’s, such as Pennys Appeal and the Water Supply and Sanitation Council. The entity was celebrating its 29th birthday (nearly as old as me) later that month and had grown over the years to 8 regional offices within the Sylhet division. It was great to hear that IDEA had managed to acquire their own offices in 2020, even if they joked that the boardroom we were all sat in was the former dining room of the house the premises used to be!
After a quick cup of coffee and biscuits (this was to become a theme of our meetings over the next few days) we jumped back in the car for a 2-hour journey north into the rural sub-divisions of Sylhet, close to the border with North-East India.
Upon arrival at our first project visit of the week, we were warmly welcomed by a small consignment of community members from Durnagar village, in the Gowainghat sub-division of Sylhet.
Knowing that we were both “toilet people” we were first shown a newly built latrine which was funded under the ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations) flood response project and delivered locally by IDEA with the help of ActionAid, United Purposes, VARD and World Vision. This European response fund was set up after the devastating floods that hit Bangladesh and parts of India in May 2022. In the Sylhet region alone, the floods directly affected 3,593,000 people, displaced 390,000 and damaged 48,000 properties.
Although Bangladesh is low-lying and has always flooded, due to global warming, caused in the main by us folk in the west, floods are becoming ever more frequent and ever more severe. Thankfully this newly constructed toilet facility has been built on a firm concrete base which will hopefully stand the test of time, but it was by no means bomb-proof and we discussed how this could be improved upon.
Although this latrine was hugely well received by the local community the single toilet served 7 families and a total of 35 people, whereas 1 loo for 10 people is considered the norm. More are definitely needed!
We then moved on to visit a newly refurbished well. Here the same project had funded the disinfecting of the well’s pipes following the floods, and the installation of a concrete pad around it to make its use more hygienic. This single well was the sole source of clean drinking water for the whole village and although it was cleaner than any of the alternatives, the smell of iron in a glass was overwhelming. The local people are used to the taste but the levels of iron in the water are by no means good for their long-term health.
We were shown a simple trick for testing iron concentrations by crushing a guava leaf and placing it in the water; if iron is present the water should turn a shade of grey. This water was nearly black. Shahinur explained that where money and infrastructure allowed, simple filtration systems could be installed to reduce the iron content but in this situation, the money had dried up (excuse the pun).
We then took a short walk through the fields to visit the neighbouring village of Bolla which suffered the same plight as Durnagar in the May floods. Here the ECHO fund has paid for one latrine and the refurbishment of one well of the same specification, this time for 15 and 40 families respectfully.
After some photo opportunities, we sat down with the villagers and community leaders who told us how grateful they were for the new facilities and the training that had been provided for disinfecting the lines of the well after the next flood occurs.
During the meeting, the subject of additional latrines to ease the burden on the new facilities was brought up again. It was great to hear the advice from Shahinur and the team at IDEA which was simple but effective; to lobby the local member of parliament for governmental support and tackle the problem head-on as a community, something these people would never have previously thought possible.
Although monetary aid is essential to get the ball rolling, educating communities on how to get what they need is how change really happens. But education needs good people to impart good advice, and good people need to be funded.
After a full morning of visits, we hopped back in the car for an afternoon of sightseeing. Shahunir took us to some of his favourite spots which included the Indian Border at Jaflong, and the beautiful blue river of Shari, where we were treated to a boat ride to a small village to sample the local Peazoo and Golla (doughnuts and falafel type things which were lush) and finally dinner on the way back to the hotel. What a first day of project visits!
Day 4 | SCHOOL & COMMUNITY WASH
Today would be a day of School visits, tea, cake and biscuits. Our destinations – in and around Sylhet city centre and the subdivision of Glolapgang. The projects on the hit list had been funded by Penny Appeal, a UK-based charity working in conjunction with IDEA as the local delivery partner to implement WaSH.
In short, WaSH, which stands for Water and Sanitation Hygiene, has been developed to ensure that as many children of school age throughout the developing world can have access to safe water, toilets and good hygiene to keep them alive and healthy. The project that Nomadic Washrooms Ltd will be helping to support (the Blue Schools + programme in the Chittagong Hill Tract Region) is based on the same principles as those we visited today.
The first school we visited was the Shafik Rafik Government Primary school in the suburbs of Sylhet. A short drive out of the city and through a small nature reserve where, believe it or not, we saw a few Zebras, and we arrived to a warm welcome from the Schools Head Master Mr Ataur, and the local community leader Janail. By UK standards the school seemed small but was home for the day to 220 girls and boys aged between 6 and 11.
The project here had funded the refurbishment of one of the school buildings which had fallen into disrepair. The Government only gives these schools a budget of around £500 per annum for all its maintenance tasks, which nowhere near covers the cost of routine upkeep, let alone major repairs. In addition to this, a new girl’s washroom had been built at a cost of £6,000, and a dedicated area was created for girls to learn about feminine hygiene, a fairly taboo subject at present.
It was clear that the headmaster and children were very grateful for the intervention and support they had received and our visit definitely sparked some excitement amongst the students. After posing for the first of many more photos we were treated to cake and biscuits before signing the visitor’s book and moving on to our next visit.
15 minutes later we arrived at Kazai Jalal Secondary school, an all-girls school for 11 to 16-year-olds from Sylhet. The school had 900 students with 22 teachers and was fairly large in comparison to the first. Here we were greeted by Head Teacher Abdul Khaleque and one of the teachers Runa Sultana. Runa had been specially trained by the WaSH project to teach the girls about feminine health; the idea being that with Runa’s guidance, the girls in the schools become agents for change within their local communities on such topics.
IDEA had also helped to fund a type of dispensary where the girls could buy discounted sanitary pads (10 DAK which is less than a penny), gain access to medication, and borrow replacement clothes when accidents happened. We were then introduced to a few of the classes but felt rather bad for interrupting their end-of-year religious studies exams. The tension on their poor faces as they watched the clock waiting for us to leave so they could crack on brought back nightmares from our youth! Another quick cup of coffee and a few biscuits with the team before the obligatory photo opportunity and our next journey to the Subdistrict of Glolapgang.
Here we were shown around Naliuri Primary School, which IDEA considers to be a model example of how things should be done. Penny Appeal had recently funded the renovation of the main school building which was the facility for 211 students at a time. The renovation works included the provision of a new hygienic toilet block.
The school board had been encouraged to engage with the government and had managed to secure funding for a new playground with swings, climbing bars, and a seesaw and the whole environment felt suburban. This was another example of how education and encouragement can be great drivers for change in addition to financial assistance. The kids were super excited to see us and we proceeded to have photo after photo for the next hour or so before more tea and cake and our departure.
Our final visit of the day took us on a bit of an adventure to the small village of Tarapur. Although in the same district as Naliuri Primary School, there are no roads to Tarapur and so our car dropped us at the riverside where we caught a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride to the village via a narrow and winding dirt track. A slight traffic jam at one point saw us go into an off-road mode which in turn momentarily broke the tuk-tuks engine but after a few on-the-spot repairs, we made it there in good time.
Here we were visiting a project that was in the process of being completed having been funded by Penny Appeal through the WaSH incentive. As we arrived a few members of the local community were busy building the new washroom facility which once completed would comprise two latrines, a washing area, and a plant room complete with a 12,000-litre water storage tank and filtration system to better purify the well water. This was the first washroom facility we had seen which would utilise filters and solar power to drive the pumps for the 220-foot deep well.
The filters are a great concept and utilise sand, gravel and coal to remove some of the iron content from the water. The inputs are all locally available and the local community is trained on how to maintain them and replace the filtration elements so that they always work at maximum capacity. It would be interesting to taste some of the water once it has been through the system to see how clean it gets. Once complete this wash facility will support a total of 147 families which is insane! At a cost of only £18,000, it seemed relatively inexpensive, but funding is not available anymore at present.
News spread quickly of our presence on site and we were soon treated to a visit by the chairman of the union parish, Mr Shamim who arrived with his entourage on a motorbike. We sat down with him and discussed the need of the villages under his jurisdiction. He explained that his people are very poor and still suffering from the consequences of the May floods. When we asked what his main concern was his reply was simply clean water. The iron levels in the well water of this region are far too high for the long-term health of the people and although the filters help, they don’t fully solve the problem.
On the journey back to the hotel we both contemplated the last few days with mixed emotions. Although it was great to see so much good being done through the various aid interventions, there was still so much more that could be achieved.
The projects only affect a handful of people and our worry was the increased flooding caused by global warming could put all this good work to waste as flood waters wash away newly installed latrines on a yearly basis. Although the septic tanks utilised in their design are good, flood waters will always wash through the chambers creating unnecessary pollution; another potential problem we observed. That sparked thoughts of the floating loo concept we had discussed with Sriramappa and how we could make that work on mass to create a sustainable alternative.
The iron content in the water was also of concern. As a health freak, Kate knew that excess iron cannot be processed by the body’s organs which causes it to build up, which can eventually lead to organ failure or premature death, which worried her.
There must be a simple solution for effective filtration? Every home has access to electricity and solar energy is here in abundance so perhaps some form of UV filter, powered via secondhand solar panels could be the answer? Much food for thought for sure.
Back at the hotel, we said our thanks and goodbyes to Shahinur over our final pot of tea and biscuits of the day. Shahinur had looked after us so well and had given us a true insight into the beauty of the real Bangladesh at the same time as highlighting the beastly hardships most of the population face.
All of these are surmountable with a bit of outside help and as such, we vowed to do our bit to help raise awareness and contribute to the cause through our continued work with Self Help Africa and United Purpose. We also made a promise to ourselves to investigate some of the possible solutions we thought of on our travels.
Acknowledgments & Special Thanks
Trips like these aren’t the easiest to organise, so we need to take a moment to give a special thank you to the following people and organisations who made this trip possible:
Monica Morrison and the Team at Self Help Africa for their continuous charity work, and helping to arrange the tour.
Iqbal, Sriramappa, and the guys at United Purpose for arranging the visits and local transportation in Bangladesh.
Sunil from United Purpose, who took time out of his hectic work schedule to be our local guide and translator.
Shahinur (and his team) from IDEA, who was the boots on the ground and our expert guide on each of the projects we visited.
The people of Bangladesh, for being so warm and welcoming to us, everywhere we went.
Without these amazing people, the trip would not have been possible, and we would not have made the memories that will last a lifetime.