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City girl: My year of 'madness' in Bangladesh

By Estelle Visagie for CNN
  • Visagie took voluntary redundancy from her job in London in order to volunteer.
  • She spent 12 months in a rural community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh
  • As a volunteer she lived the "local life," including squat toilets, bucket showers and $145 a month

Estelle Visagie, 35, an IT consultant from South Africa, was faced with redundancy because of the global economic crisis. She left her comfortable life in London, where she had lived for 10 years, to volunteer for a year in a remote corner of one of the poorest countries in the world. Here she shares her experience.

London, England (CNN) -- If you had asked me at the beginning of last year to pinpoint Bangladesh on a map, I would have struggled.

But in April I finished working for a year as a volunteer with international development organisation VSO based in a rural, indigenous community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The area is close to the border with Myanmar and is mostly Buddhist, whereas 80 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim.

Before I went, I read whatever I could find about Bangladesh's indigenous communities. It didn't take long; there isn't much information on the subject.

I'd been seriously thinking about volunteering when the company I was working for in London started cutting back staff because of the global recession.

I opted for voluntary redundancy, and my company had a partnership with VSO for staff to take a leave of absence volunteering. The link was enough for me to know VSO was a legitimate organization.

Being able to use my professional skills was an important factor. The real hard work in development is not in just building physical structures, but transferring practical skills and knowledge.

As one of the only three foreigners in Rangamati, I never went anywhere or did anything without everyone knowing about it.

Trying to understand, much less control, the events of any given day was an exercise in futility A lot of my year was spent in state of bemused confusion, and lost in translation. But the days when I just gave in to the madness were always the best.

I occasionally traveled to the capital Dhaka, which gave me a break in some sense, but involved a bumpy, dangerous windy 10-hour ride on not entirely safe buses.

Around three months after arriving, the initial elation and excitement wore off, and reality sunk in.

I wasn't making the difference I envisaged, was sweating my way through the insufferable summer and countless power cuts, couldn't figure out my place within the organization and couldn't figure out how I could help.

I also witnessed some dirty tactics. The NGO sector is big business in Bangladesh and many people line their own pockets with the juicy foreign aid without caring about the poor.

Corruption is inherent in all levels of society, which is frustrating.

The old me would never have thought she'd get through those challenges, the scratch-your-own-eyes-out-heat, and the hit-your-head-against-a-wall-frustrations.
--Estelle Visagie, IT consultant and volunteer

I kept a blog and had thousands of hits from all over the world.

People have told me it would make a good guide for people thinking about volunteering, especially in Bangladesh.

I also took photos and posted them online.

Adjusting to the pace and culture of working life in Bangladesh took time, patience and quite often a sense of humor.

Often large NGOs have to pay people to attend meeting otherwise no one turns up.

The more senior you are, the greater 'honorarium' you're paid. Once arrived (invariably late) at a meeting, falling asleep is commonplace.

No one is nudged awake, and no one is embarrassed. Culturally there is no shame in this, something that amused me in every meeting I attended.

Although I initially didn't feel like I was achieving anything in Rangamati, the fact that I showed up -- and stayed -- was a massive morale boost to the people I worked with.

Knowing that people in the world cared enough to help them gave them the confidence and motivation to really start addressing their own issues.

I worked for an education-based organization and there was a school within the grounds. A 15-year-old student was found dead hanging from a tree about three months into my placement.

There are 1,000 students at the school and it seemed everyone went to view the body before the police arrived to deal with it.

The cultural response to the suicide was so different from mine, which really shocked me. But the suicide itself did bring home to me just how universal some issues are, and how no community, no religion and no culture is perfect.

As a VSO volunteer you live a 'local life,' which means squat toilets, bucket showers and about $145 (£100) living allowance a month.

Now that I am back, everything seems so predictable. For now I'm enjoying the predictability of everyday life here, but I expect I'll soon feel a bit bored by it.

If I knew then what I know now, speaking honestly, I don't think I would have signed up for it.

The old me would never have thought she'd get through those challenges, the scratch-your-own-eyes-out-heat, and the hit-your-head-against-a-wall-frustrations. But that's why this journey has been so amazing.

And I'm not exaggerating; I had a lot of tough times out there. I was a corporate girl who loved nice things.

But this journey has changed me, has turned me into the type of person who can, and did, survive it.

For anyone wanting to shake things up, experience different cultures, and hopefully help a few people along the way, I unreservedly recommend it.

As told to Julie Clothier