This is a guest blog written by Anastasia Bow-Bertrand. Ana is studing for her Masters in Global Health and Medicine at University College London. She recently spent a month in Bangladesh visiting some of our projects, to research her thesis which looked at mental health among people affected by leprosy. 

Blogging from Bangladesh

They don’t make it easy. It’s lengthy, time-pressured and largely self-organised from funding to getting ethical approval - organising academic research projects that is. I mulled over my dissertation research project from the moment I started my Masters programme at University College London last autumn but now, as I write this, sat in Dhaka’s main airport in Bangladesh, I can say that it is finally completed.

I have spent the past month in between the dust and chaos of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, and the rural district of Sirajganj. My research has focused on exploring the psychological experiences of persons with leprosy in this region and asking whether this impacts the follow-up of treatment and how it is associated with any external disability.

Lepra have facilitated my trip and they completely exceeded my expectations. I had envisaged mostly remote support via the occasional phonecall, instead I was warmly welcomed by the district director, Mr. Shakawhat. He is also the father of my translator (Raha) and helped to accommodate me during my stay in the comfortable guest room on the top floor of the office.

With their support, and particularly that of Chanchal who was appointed as my guide and secondary interpreter, I was able to carry out thirty interviews with persons with leprosy. They had a range of disabilities from visible to less severe and no recorded external disability. Some interviewees also experienced fever or tingling sensations as side effects of the combination of drugs they take to treat leprosy. These interviews were spread across four of the nine upazilla (sub-regions) of Sirajganj, which I accessed via rickshaw, CNG, or a car speeding across a landscape.

Clearly not from Bangladesh, my appearance prompted wildly varying reactions over the month. The friendliness and exuberance of my interviewees and the Lepra staff was at times countered by strange reactions. From dubious looks at the Bangladesh Medical Research Council to the lovely office cook who was convinced that I would cause an explosion if I tried to make coffee, reactions were varied. I still don’t know how he found out about my nighttime brewing activities, but I think he found my determination to continue functioning independently confusing, even amusing.

The interactions I had with interviewees through my research were also challenging, not purely because the stories relayed were alien but because there were very few points of reference that I could identify with. Meeting and being given an insight into the lives of strangers is often overwhelming even in one’s native tongue, but navigating the assumed roles of researcher and participant in another language is even more so and demanded intense focus and reactivity, managing multiple expectations.

Research aside, Bangladesh is not a place for the faint-hearted. The record-breaking heat we experienced during April sucked the breath from your chest as you left the office and headed into the early morning Sirajganj. Culturally, the nation is written through a British colonialist narrative, but differences remain among gender quality, faith and factors associated with being a lower-middle income country.

Indeed, while few people in Bangladesh want for food, the standard of living is vastly different to that experienced at the basic rate in England. In spite of that, the citizens I encountered both in and beyond the context of my research were open and giving, offering me space in their homes during their mealtimes and as part of an extended family in which I was adopted through the common term of endearment, ‘Aunty’. Bountiful generosity was matched with a fertility of land that boasted sugar cane, budding rice in acres of paddy and watermelons busting up from the earth in the brightest hues.

It was these moments, in natural spots of Bangladesh amongst its people, that left lasting impressions. It was on a late Saturday afternoon, when we drove out to the nearest point on the River Jamuna which divides Sirajganj from Dhaka. Knowing my enthusiasm for Rabindranath Tagore, our driver told us how the river, here at its widest point with the far banks invisible and promised only by the former fishing vessels ferrying people across, originates from Agra, India. From there it skirts around the Taj Mahal and south into Bangladesh towards Dhaka. As we sat on a bench with spiced monkey nuts and popped corn bought on the embankment, we felt the swell of its story coming to life.

Having never been a destination on my wanderlust list, and knowing very little about the country or its people before I went, Bangladesh overwhelmed me with its beauty and untold health burdens. I had a sense that it was riding a wave of development that might change the simplicity of life irreversibly here, but possibly bring with it greater transparency, equality and celebration of everything this nation and its people have to offer.