Back to Bangladesh
The Revd. Matthew Bicket was in Bangladesh from 1977-1983 as Agricultural Missionary for the Church of Scotland. He worked in Barisal for three years, and introduced a Bangladeshi version of the Boys Brigade together with Sister (now Mother) Winifred SE. He knew Fathers Golding, Carlton and Rigby BE, and with his wife and son travelled monthly to Jobarpar which they all loved.
Matthew returned to Scotland and was ordained a minister in the Church in 1989. He has made many trips to Bangladesh since, and always kept in touch with the OM. In July, 2006 he and his wife Frances returned for a happy visit:
The CSS Sisters in front of the Chapel, Jobarpar
The compound at Jobarpar
We arrived in Bangladesh on the day the 14 Opposition Parties had called for a national strike of road, rail and water transport! The airport was 20 miles from the Mission Compound in Old Dhaka. Dont worry, the Bishop had said, I cannot send my car - but I will send my driver.
The heat was stifling. Outside the Arrivals Hall I searched in vain for the car-less driver. After about 15 minutes - there he was, with a beaming smile. He had been an eight-year-old in the Hostel when I first knew him. The strike was not 100% but we had to walk about a quarter of a mile to get a taxi which would only take us part of the way.
As we drove through the streets, and as we noticed throughout our stay, the World Cup was of great interest. On the roofs of houses, draped out of windows, on tall stalks of bamboo over village homes, were the flags of the countries that people were supporting -side by side in places could be seen the flags of Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France and Italy. We saw a couple of English flags! There was friendly rivalry amongst family members who were supporting different teams; and, as we discovered later, amongst the Sisters in Jobarpar and Barisal!
For the last two miles, through the narrow streets of the Old City, we travelled by rickshaw, and soon arrived at the Cathedral Church of St. Thomas and a welcome from Bishop Michael and his family. Never having been back in Bangladesh in July since 1983, we had forgotten the characteristics of this particular month. High humidity, continually damp clothes and bedding, the sweat trickling down the face and back of the neck...We also remembered that we were 25 years younger in those days.
But there was also the saving grace of fresh, ripe mangoes almost straight from the tree - a mango a day. Over the two weeks we ate far too much. We were invited out for meals most days, and how we enjoyed them. No matter how good an Indian or Bangladeshi restaurant in this country might be, they dont come close to the wonderful tastes and flavours of a village meal.
We visited the old places -and some new ones. First stop was Barisal, after an overnight launch journey. At 5.30 a.m. we arrived at the Oxford Mission: and there, despite her ill-health and complications from diabetes, was Mother Susila, sitting on her verandah waiting to welcome us back. It was all rather emotional.
There were a number of unexpected reunions during the next two days: with Sudatta, who had been a Bursar of the Church of Scotland in 1978 and who had been appointed to Barisal recently, and also with Monorama, who was leaving Barisal after 54 years to take up a post as Head Teacher in a mission school in another town. She had come to the Oxford Mission as an 8year-old, and we were able to attend the welcome and farewell meeting for these two friends. There were also sadder meetings. One was with a friend from 1978, a couple of years younger than me, who had helped me with my language study and whose wife I learned had died a few weeks previously. She had been in one of the conversational English classes I had taught in the Oxford Mission High School. It was good to spend some time with Sudhin and his two teenage children in their home.
A few days later there was a visit to another village we knew well, to a woman whose son in his early 40s had died of cancer last year, and with whom I had been friendly.
But these sad meetings were more than compensated by the reunions and the great fun at other times. Although I have visited Bangladesh many times, this last visit I experienced two new places. One was a small village about half a mile from Jobarpar which we did know well, and where we stayed in the Mission compound. It is in this village, Ashkor, that the Bishop wants to have a work camp to build a simple church and community centre on land gifted by a Bangladeshi Christian now living abroad. We were taken to the piece of land, where just now rice is being grown. We then visited some of the homes -sheltering inside during one of the heaviest thunderstorms we had had since our arrival. We lost count of the numbers of cups of tea, biscuits and bananas we ate that evening, such was the generosity of the people.
The other new place was a village called Viserkandi, about two hours down the river. A party of about 12 of us set out for the trip, and it was great fun. River life is fascinating - the different-shaped boats, the houses by the side of the river, people harvesting rice and jute - always something to see. When we arrived we were taken to the church, a small tin building with a low ceiling. More songs and dances from the children - more speeches - I had to speak in Bengali and to translate into Bengali what Frances said -children eager to learn despite the lack of resources - and in the middle of nowhere, the most wonderful, freshly-cooked meal served outside under a canopy.
And then on to Meherpur. It was good to be back in a place I know well, with people like Provonjon who had stayed with us in the Manse and had spoken in church, probably one of our closest friends. The kindness of everyone was humbling -their generosity even more so.
We visited the four villages I had worked in while on study leave. In one we visited the school where the children entertained us, after which we went to the church, where the Senior Citizens entertained us. Song after song, interspersed with poems - it was the Bangladesh version of a Scottish ceilidh. Of course we had to do our bit, and since the words of the hymn Will you come and follow me were in the English section of the hymn-book, we sang that.
The climax was a famous Bengali hymn with people dancing round in circles -people in their 60s, 70s and 80s -slowly perhaps, gracefully certainly - with joy, undoubtedly. These weekly get-togethers for senior members of the church are eagerly looked forward to, and after the activities of the morning -sometimes a discussion, or Bible study - there is a communal lunch.
For both of us there is one meeting which stands out. We heard about the women and child trafficking problem, and the project which had been started to help those who had been rescued. To meet about eight of these girls -all of them strikingly beautiful young women - was a truly humbling experience. What terrible experiences they had had. The staff of the development programme acted out for us the drama about trafficking which they use in the villages. It was powerful. But thanks to the church, the women are being given the chance of a new start, and with an 18-month course in tailoring, they have begun their lives again.
So, a holiday unlike that of anyone else in the United Kingdom probably - but a great holiday. The heat, the damp clothes and bedding, the rain -these memories will fade along with the mosquito bites. What will remain are those of a people whose generosity can never be repaid. A people who are praying for us as we are praying for them. It is the people of Bangladesh who make it the wonderfully vibrant and exciting country it is.
The main reason I had wished to return to Bangladesh was to see Mother Susila again. We had always enjoyed our trips to Jobarpar when we lived at Barisal 23 years ago. So it was a special moment when we met again at Barisal. Staying at the Oxford Mission brought back memories of church and breakfast with the Sisters on Sundays.
Then on to Jobarpar - what a difference getting there! I was sad not to travel in the Sisters boat again, with the basket of coffee and biscuits... Now it is all by road and much quicker. There has been a lot of new building at Jobarpar, and electricity too; but the Sisters compound is still as quiet and restful as it always was.
I very rarely travelled about when I was in Bangladesh before. This was because of Andrew, our son, who was born in Bangladesh, and the difficulties of travel. Now it is much easier to get around. I did more and saw more than ever before -villages, projects, schools, churches -and had a wonderful welcome everywhere. I hope it will not be another 23 years before I return!