Stories from the field

Day 2016-07-01

Sidney Moss – Blog 2: An Interview with Sukrit and Swathi on Urban Sanitation and Governance in India

First of all, I would like to apologize for my raspy voice that decided to make an appearance on the day of this interview. My immune system has proven to be less than sufficient over the past few weeks. Regardless of this, I have been trying to figure out the best way to structure my first blog post. This has been unexpectedly challenging for me – not in that I did not have enough to say, but in that I had too much that I wanted to tackle. The last month has been dedicated to familiarizing myself with a project titled ‘Strengthening Civil Society of the Urban Poor to Participate in Planning and Monitoring of Sanitation Services in Indian Cities’. The complexities that exist within the issue of urban sanitation in India are profuse. It is therefore extremely difficult to grasp an overall understanding of why basic sanitation facilities do not exist in many informal settlements; and the devastations that stems from lacking sanitation needs such as clean water, and functional toilets.

One particular aspect that has stuck out to me in trying to form a basic understanding of the complex project has been that of the governmental tier in India; focusing on this has been helpful in solidifying (some) context and background of the project. One bit of history that I think worth mentioning is the 74th Amendment Act of 1992 – a constitutional amendment that ultimately gave validity to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) by outlining the structures, functions, and resource generation capabilities of ULBs. Logistically, this amendment was supposed to enable more people to participate in the decision making process of everything from economics to infrastructure.

Once again, it is seemingly impossible to simplify the significance of this amendment and its relation to urban sanitation. Thus, instead of attempting to explain the diversity of this project (which would probably have confused whoever listening, as well as myself, even more), I decided to conduct a casual interview with two of my coworkers, who do a MUCH better job than myself at “boiling it down”.  Thank you to Sukrit and Swathi for the insightful discussion! 

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 2: My Storyteller’s Crisis

Hello dear readership! Thank you kindly for endeavouring to read my first set of reflections on life in Dhaka.

My first post is all about the stresses of sharing my Dhaka experience, and how I might try to mitigate the things that make me uncomfortable. I have always fancied myself a bit of a storyteller, but this facet of my personality has been challenged by a sort of  existential ‘storyteller’s crisis’ that I have encountered while going about assembling this first blog.

‘Storyteller’s crisis’ sounds horribly pretentious, and I apologize for that, but it really gets to the heart of the conundrum I have faced in my first twenty three days in Dhaka. The ‘crisis’ manifests itself in endless questions and self-critiques, largely focused on the absurdity of me, a Canadian newcomer to the city, writing anything worth reading about Dhaka – a vibrant and massively diverse city that is so much more than the little things I observe about it.

How can I write about this city, or its people, without doing it immense injustices? I know so little. My personal methods of understanding, and my ways of explaining, are totally inappropriate to Dhaka’s context. I have no background for what I encounter in Dhaka. When I see something, I see the surface of what is going on; the event-moment only, and none of the mechanisms that created that event. Simply put, my brain has little of the contextual tools necessary for understanding the things it receives through the eye sockets.

So how do I communicate my experiences to friends and loved ones back home? If I write a paragraph on pollution in my blog, do I write two more on the beautiful artwork that graces the countless rickshaws that roam Dhaka’s streets? If I write one on begging, do I write two more on the wondrous shared laughter and joy that occurs when shopkeepers encounter me trying hard to speak Bangla to them? Even if I were to balance negative and positive stories, the same problem would persist, and it is embedded in the very nature of the story itself. Stories are, of course, subjective and one-dimensional by nature, and this is true even when they attempt to incorporate other voices and perspectives. Selection of quotes, for instance, seemingly gives the writer the ability to make others say what they are needed to say.


I am making this rant as a sort of preamble for the stories I plan to tell in subsequent blogs. It’s a disclaimer – if you will – declaring the contents of this blog to be far from a comprehensive account of the stories included in it. Dhaka is a city full of unique and rich perspectives – somewhere upwards of 20 million of them – and there is a sort of tongue-tiedness that results from experiencing this grand diversity on a daily basis, and then contemplating writing a reflection of these experiences.

And here lies the dilemma I have so precociously dubbed the “storyteller’s crisis.” I am so excited to share in this blog about my experiences working with the amazing team at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), but I am respectful of the fact that my stories of them cannot do them, or their work, full justice. Likewise, Dhaka city, and the people I encounter within it, cannot be limited to the keyboard at my fingertips. All of which leads me to ask readers – please, take my words here with several massive grains of salt.

I think the reason this blog became so much about a ‘crisis’ of description is because I am still learning the details of my life here. Everything is still so gestational, and my brain is rushing to keep up with every new development. For these reasons, I worry when I have to share my experiences, because I fear I will miss an important detail and misrepresent a scenario or person. However, maybe by sticking to the basics – and continually referring to those massive grains of salt – I can share a little bit of the very important work that I am so fortunate to be a part of.

RMMRU, as I mentioned before, is up to some really cool things. One focus of their research is the investigation of the relationship between climate change and internal migration within Bangladesh. I have been asked to edit some of these works, and thus have gotten a chance to read the migrant surveys that the organization carries out as one of its primary research methods. The importance of organizations like RMMRU is reinforced for me whenever I read of homes and livelihoods being washed away by typhoons and floods, a bleak reality for many Bangladeshis. On the other hand, the various adaptation practices utilized by these affected peoples highlights their phenomenal agency and endurance in the face of staggering challenges.

Whenever I start wondering about what I am doing in Dhaka, a place so beyond my understanding that I stressfully blog about my inability to describe it, I remind myself that any assistances or partnership that I can provide to RMMRU is, I believe, time and energy very well spent. They are storytellers that matter here – their research tells the stories that will hopefully shift policy – and so my job is to be the best-supporting and most-eager-to-learn intern that I can manage to be. Focusing on that simple fact is currently my most potent antidote for the storyteller’s crises that I have come across.

Until next time,


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