Racing boats and celebrating Women in Agoiljhora, Barisal

Last week, I (along with 8 fantastic ladies) visited the village of Agoiljhora, a couple of hours drive from the port town of Barisal, in the south of Bangladesh. We were gone only 48 hours, just enough to travel back and forth and partake in the celebrations around International Women’s Day, but these hours were filled with intense, fun-filled, and unprecedented experiences.

We left Dhaka aboard one of the Rocket Boats, a paddle-wheel river steamer built in the 1920’s, and I’ll dedicate another post to that first leg of our journey. For now, I would like to rush to the Barishal regional office of TARANGO, the acronym for Training, Assistance and Rural Advancement Non-Goverment Organization, where a traditional welcome with marigold garlands, and the traditional Tilaka or Tikka (the area is predominantly Hindu) awaited us.

In the past 30 years, TARANGO has helped tens of thousands of women through their programmes (Handicrafts, Women Entrepreneurship Development, Village Savings and Loan Association, and Women Institutional Development.) They’re best known for their beautiful jute bags, and their baskets sold across the UK and other European markets, including fancy stores like The White Company, London.

Recently,  TARANGO started organizing a women’s boat race on International Women’s Day, but this year, the race involved a group of unexpected, if rather conspicuous participants: eleven Bideshi (foreigners in Bengali) women crazy enough to embark on a traditional flat bottom boat without any preparation whatsoever. All we had was a pair of arms each, and plenty of enthusiasm.

I had somehow accepted the responsibility of steering the boat, being blessed with reasonable good balance, but after only a few minutes during which I narrowly escaped falling headfirst into the water, and almost clobbered my friend sitting at the tail of the boat, a man wearing a dhoti tucked high up on his legs jumped aboard, grabbed the steering paddle from my hands, and proceeded to steer the boat while yelling orders in Bengali that none of us could hear – the racket was astonishing – forget about understanding them. In his considerable enthusiasm, our rescuer also cheered us up, shouting, and swinging his arms wildly back and forth. Incidentally, he also hit my head and shoulders (and those of my friend paddling on the other side of the boat) whenever they happened to be in his way – pretty much all of the time. And when he felt we were not paddling fast enough, he’d drop the steer, leap forward to the middle of the boat, which immediately diverged according to the current (which was pretty strong and contrary, I forgot to mention), yell and swing his arms some more, before he remembered his mission and bounced back to his steering position.  I have no idea how long the race lasted, but thanks to this impromptu collaboration, we eventually did glide under the red string marking the finishing line.

Of course, we lost the race. But it’d been a long time since I’d laughed so much. And, if the joy and appreciation demonstrated by the very large public is any indication (the banks of the river were packed with throngs of people on each side, as shown in pictures below), the story of our clumsy participation will keep the area’s villagers entertained for many years to come. Invitation was already extended for us to come back again next year, and indeed, why not ? It would be nice if we could train, though, so we don’t look so utterly ridiculous, next time. Maybe I’ll bring a helmet, too.

None of us took their cameras on board the boat. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to operate it without capsizing it. Besides, we’d seen a few of the local participants frantically scooping water out of theirs, so we also had to worry about it sinking. But I still hope some pictures or short video will turn out, somehow.

In the meantime, here are photos of the area, the crowds cheering on each side of the river, and last but not least, the official participants to the 2011 TARANGO Boat Race.

This lady kindly demonstrated the paddling moves for us.

Before the races, we sat under a colorful tent as they kicked off the day's celebrations with a few speeches and, much more to my taste, a couple of songs.

As we only participated in the last race, with the winning team, we first got to follow the action onboard a "speed boat" - well, it had a motor. This was the bottom! See what I mean when I mention the possibility of sinking?

On your marks! Get set! Go!

As I said, there were a few people around...

The winners, their red and white saris still soaking wet. It was a joy to witness their pride and unabashed happiness. The team was awarded medals that we each passed around their necks, and... a television to be shared by the community.

By then, it was only the middle of the day, and we still had a few mundane things to do, like break a clay pot blind-folded, sing a cappella in front of hundreds (more?) people, and dance, but this is for another post…

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6 thoughts on “Racing boats and celebrating Women in Agoiljhora, Barisal

  1. Well Katia, your ‘craze’ is creative and inspiring even to those of us who were not there. Thanks for taking us on the trip with your excellent story. You appear to have roots in African story telling! Isa Achoba

  2. Thank you Katia for this wonderful story of celebration by village women from my home town “Barisal” and shared it with the world. I love the way you told your story, touch my heart. Arifa Sharmin

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