When I came back to France after one year and a half in Bangladesh, I heard a lot the question “how was your trip?”. As if I had just left for a few months, visiting a new country and exploring its peculiarities, landscapes and culture. Indeed, I discovered a co
untry I was not sure to place exactly on a map. But I also experienced and discovered so many other things, and one I was not expecting to: myself.
I say a lot “I”, but I had not the bravery to leave my country, my job and my family all by myself. I took this turning point with Jérémy, my partner, who is also someone whom I highly respect the posture and energy in a working environment. Leaving for this great adventure together, it didn’t seem to be a difficult commitment for me to approach. Going to an unknown country, with a totally new professional environment, living a frugal life and meet with new people.
But in the end, I know that this adventure with LP4Y has brought up to me a deep personal introspection, of which I have probably not yet fully determined the contours and the impacts on my future path.
I take the opportunity of this LP4Y Story to do the exercise of the key learnings that my Catalyst journey taught me.
I was confronted, at the very beginning of my Catalyst adventure, with a situation over which I had no control.
I knew for a few weeks that I would be leaving for Myanmar. My family gifted me many essays and novels about the country for Christmas, I had tried to learn a few words in Burmese, already understood that the alphabet would be a tricky part of the language learning, I was picturing the marvels that I could visit during my holidays in the country, and already felt linked to this mysterious and rich culture and people that I was going to meet.
It was February 2021. In the middle of the online training session with LP4Y (covid was still complicating all admin and organizational processes), we all learnt about The Coup that happened in Myanmar, making the situation completely uncertain: was the government able to replicate? Was the incredible strength of the people in the street enough to prevent the army from rolling back the painful democratization of the country? Was the admired leader Aung San Suu Kyi equipped to counter this well-planned coup ?
In the middle of these important geopolitical concerns, Jeremy and I were plunged into perplexity and had to find comfort in unpredictability. Our plan was to leave around February 15th, and the days were passing without giving us any answers of our million questions. Would the LP4Y projects continue in Myanmar?
Would we be ready to live in a country hit by civil war? And if we were not going to go to Myanmar, would we still be able to leave for a mission? We had not taken yet neither our flights, nor did we get our visa. We just had one thing to do: wait and see. Accept the fate and stay flexible. Forget about our plans. Feeling powerless in front of this massive political change in this country that we had started to love.
On its side, LP4Y was already used to changes of plans after months of covid, announces from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decisions from the different ambassies. In one word, they already mastered the Letting Go mantra. On our side however, it was mentally very difficult not to know about our future. We had quitted our job in the busy French capital, and fortunately had a place to live, but we had no idea what to be ready for. We had finished our two weeks training, seeing fresh catalysts excited to join their country of mission, going to meet each other, whereas we were sort of stuck in this blurry situation. We had to be ready to leave at any time, prepare ourselves for countries on which we hadn’t learn much about. But we also had to prepare for worse: to possibly wait for months in France if we had to (as it happened to many catalysts from the previous batches during covid). In any case, we had to admit to ourselves and also to our relatives, that we had zero control on what would our mission with LP4Y become.
Fortunately, we escaped this uncomfortable state in only four weeks, to reach a totally new one: plunging into the unknown. Indeed, as France would not authorize volunteers to go to Myanmar in the current political situation, Jeremy and I would go to Bangladesh (a neighborhoodcountry), and not for any mission, but to create from scratch the first Green Village of Bangladesh.
What a challenge.
First regarding the mission of course. We had no experience with LP4Y before, had to learn everything about the pedagogy but also about the country we wanted to be useful to. And second, regarding the country. I had not read any books about Bangladesh, I didn’t know about its history and culture, the words learnt in Burmese would be totally useless there. And as a woman, what to expect? I had heard a lot about female condition in India and could only imagine what it was to leave in a Muslim country.
I quickly realised how lucky we have been to have the opportunity to deep dive directly into unknown waters. Having no formal preparation dedicated to discovering Bangladesh, I have tip-toed into a culture as I will probably never have the opportunity to do again. We could only be fortunate enough to learn through the people that we would meet, by listening, looking, walking, eating.
Leaving our adventure day by day.
This first key learning, of being able to let go, was probably crucial to the adaptation skills I had to develop throughout my own journey, would it be for lockdown and uncertainty of the realisation of our project, for visa issues, for sudden lack of resources during the project. But I also know that it is a true asset that I have added in the vision of my life in general, and I hope it helps soothing people around me.
Breaking mental barriers
I spent my first six months of mission in Dhaka, in the neighboorhood of Bhashantek, nearby a large slum area.
The arrival in our shared-flat with almost 10 other Catalysts surprised me in a way I hadn’t expected: despite the location, and after having read the difficult living conditions of Lucie Taurines in her book (Scarred by Life), I was amazed to see we had quite a comfortable environment. Tiles on the floor, kitchen, electricity, individual rooms, a WiFi connection. All the modern comfort I was ready to give up during this adventure.
And on the outside, the village-like surroundings of the slum charmed me very quickly, thanks to the highly welcoming spirits of the inhabitants and the lively rhythm of life that we were witnessing and soon taking part of.
However, everything was not so easy and smooth, as I had to break several mental constructions that seemed very common in my culture.
One of the first that comes to my mind was linked to the legal authority of the country.
As for many NGOs or organization volunteers working in Asia, I had entered the country with a visa that was not exactly matching my purpose of staying. This actually caused my several visits of the immigration police, sometimes at night. I had never encountered problems with the police before, and I knew that deep down, I was on the edge of the legality for a purpose that I could fight for, and that I was doing it supported by my organization. But being a quite discreet citizen in my own country, I have been tensed by these administrative tricks, and had to question my motivation and my values.
More prosaically, we were in a fluctuating situation regarding lockdown during my first months of mission: sometimes we could not go out of our homes, sometimes shops opened, sometimes Youth were allowed to come to the center. But generally, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to leave our neighborhood of Bhashantek. Police officers were posted at every corner, drivers were not authorized to reach our area to connect us to different places of the city and get out of the slum, checkpoints were marking out the road and randomized control were the common situation.
At the same time, my mission was focusing more and more on determining where we should settle our Green Village, meaning we needed to go and visit places, to meet with people in rural areas, to convince and collaborate with partnering NGOs having offices in other places in Dhaka and projects scattered everywhere in the country. Trying to be flexible and useful for the advancement of the project, we had to be cunning to understand the extents of the regulation and to manage to visit whenever it was authorized. Sometimes thanks to the national holidays, when all the roads were magically re-opening, sometimes using our local contacts to better understand a region without having to investigate on the field too quickly. In the end, I felt extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to deep dive into a culture, a country, hundreds of landscapes, hundreds of meetings throughout my mission, but not in the easy way.
And maybe as a last example, I had to deconstruct a mental barrier of comfort. I will jump a few months after my arrival in Dhaka, after having found the perfect place to settle the first Green Village of Bangladesh, it was time to move to our new home. Located a little further than 300km from the capital (often translated as a full jumpy night in the bus), we were entering a whole new part of our experience by choosing to live in a very small village, in a building as old as the country that was unoccupied for at least 10 years. I wouldn’t say I need a lot of comfort in my daily life, but one thing I was sure I definitely needed was to have access to running water. But of course, when we moved in, with Jeremy and our two first Green Village co-catalysts Raisa and Shams, there was no proper rooms, no kitchen (so no stove or refrigerator), dangerous and messy electricity, no thermal or phonic insulation and of course, no running water. What a challenge to go every day at the nearest well, to pump our water into buckets in order to shower, cook, clean or simply go to the washrooms (even at night, no respite for missing water). But finally, even if I wouldn’t say we were not tired by the situation, I realised that with time and good companionship, we could manage to live in the simplest and most frugal conditions.
Focus on the essential
We spent three intense first months in our new location. During this time, I had mostly become site manager, supervising the construction, renovations and equipment of the soon-to-be Green Village training center. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with the community around, as most of the workers and suppliers were almost our neighbours. It was also a perfect time to improve in our practice of Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh and also the national pride of the country, as it symbolises the liberation of the country after its violent separation with Pakistan.
After that, we were ready to open the center to young women, coming from different areas of the region (or even further away), from different organizations or coming from the neighboring villages, and we enlarged the team with a new member, the great Sharmi. It was a period when we were ready to experience a lot of “firsts”: the first youth of the country to enter a Green Village, the first time for Raisa and Jeremy to become coaches, for Shams to mobilize Youth and for Sharmi to find her posture as a Community Catalyst, the first time people would live in the center, the first time we would open MEIs, the first time we would rely on the Youth to make a center run, the first time I was witnessing and coordinating such a project, the first time for both our team and the Youth that we would see a Green Village for real.
The key learning I have withdrawn from these dense and satisfying months is to focus on the essential, especially in periods of doubts or difficulties.
At the end of the year 2021, the renovation works were almost finished, we had planned and communicated about our opening date in the coming January and organized everything to fit our timeline. Unfortunately, as in many organizations, the end of the year is crucial for accountancy balance, and we learned at the last minute that we would not receive sufficient funds to finish our renovation works, pay all the workers and suppliers we needed to, and open the center on time. After a very stressful period, we managed to sort out the essential: what we needed to prioritize, what could wait a few weeks more, who we needed to contact and how to communicate to the stakeholders trusting us. We learned altogether to trust ourselves and work as a team, and to communicate extensively about our fears, our stress, solutions we could find, and most of all, take a step back on what was happening. We ended up pushing our opening date of two weeks and explaining our difficulties to workers and suppliers, who were very understanding. Honesty and trust were our saviours at that time.
We could finally open peacefully on January 23rd with our first batch of 20 motivated and inspiring young women. We started to find our rhythm, and even if we sometimes lacked of human resources, we managed to focus on the essential, thanks to the amazing energy all the catalysts put into the project, but also to the great moments of sharing and debriefing.
In this context, a new problematic came to me. As we were in a quite remote area, we were far from any large city or entertainment. Also, we were living 24/7 with the Catalysts we were working with, which required us to find our own personal balance. In this peaceful and remote environment, I had to ask myself simple questions: what do I really like to do? How to reinvent my daily routine, and especially my weekends, far away from friends or restaurants? What do I need to feel comfortable in this different environment?
This introspection helped me to determine what was really important for me, even outside of the context of my mission. Among other things, I can now say that I like to see the nature, to have time for myself, to spend time with people I love, to be surrounded with people I admire and respect and feel a mutual respect back, to do some physical activities, to laugh a lot, to eat tasty food. Maybe not very original, but with these essentials, I know I can feel at home, wherever I am.
Learning from people
As this story is starting to get very long, I will finish my testimony with a last learning I developed during my whole mission, which is to always learn something from people I meet.
I had the opportunity to let my heart open to new encounters with different personalities, aspirations, qualities, and I feel that these meetings filled me with an unvaluable wealth. The richness of knowing we can always be inspired, to become better ourselves but also to share to others that amazing people, people sometimes a little different from our usual circles, do exist and make this world a way more interesting place. I hope I will keep this habit and continue seeing people surrounding me as individual souls.
I will not enter into details, but I have witnessed true open-mindedness, kindness, professionalism, generosity, alignment, optimism, hidden skills, technical knowledge, patience, humour, resilience, determination, love, sacrifice, honesty, good will, intelligence, welcoming, inclusivity, passion, activism, selflessness, pro-activity, active listening, team spirit and so many other traits of personality that will enlighten my vision of humanity today.
Thank you to the great Green Village Bangladesh team who made this project come true with their determination and kindness, thank you to the amazing Catalysts I have met along the way, thank you to the Youth who taught me so much, thank you to all the Bangladeshi who made my journey so delightful and sometimes very funny, and good luck to all the inspiring spirits enrolled in an intense but fascinating mission around the globe.