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OP-ED: A journey of 50 years

  • Published at 09:29 pm July 23rd, 2020
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A few special moments over the years

Being locked down for so many months has given me the chance and the time to look back and remember many things and events -- interesting, educational, happy, and sad.

Here are some of those memories:

Bihar, India, 1970

As an agricultural volunteer, 50 years ago, working with the extreme poor in a village development project, I was able to demonstrate that with hybrid maize seed, fertilizer, and irrigation bumper harvests could be achieved. 

However, the villagers did not want to continue for some reason. I was at my wits’ ends and very depressed. I failed to understand what the problem was -- what was my mistake, my failure? Ready to resign, I shared my frustration with a Gandhian colleague. 

“Julian bhai,” he asked me, “have you ever asked the village elders what they think about their own development, what they wish for? We then talked to the village elders and they said that to support anything in the village they needed the blessings of their gods and their small shrine was badly damaged and needed repair. At once we organized the repair for a few hundred rupees and I learned a very basic lesson. Do not do anything for anyone without first discussing and seeking opinions. This is how I learned to be “purdah ke peechane” as much as possible.

Liberation War, 1971 

The visiting British Minister for Overseas Development Richard Wood was visiting one of the refugee camps where we (Oxfam) were working. Accompanied by Indian government and British Deputy High Commission officials, we were walking through a very muddy, flooded camp. 

The minister, over 6 feet tall and the thickset, had a rather stiff, arthritic way of walking and used a stick. The government officials were worried how wet the minister’s feet were becoming and apologized to him for the trouble he was experiencing. 

With a bit of a smile and a laugh he said: “No problem at all, dear man, I don’t feel anything,” and banged his leg with his stick and a tin-like sound was heard. He had lost both his legs in the Second World War while fighting in North Africa. 

Needless to say he was a great inspirational figure.

Western India drought, 1972-73 

The Nal Lake, just about 60km west of Ahmedabad in Gujarat had been declared a 120 sq-km bird sanctuary in 1969. Normally, during the winter months, the water would be about four feet deep and hundreds of species of migratory birds would come. By March 1973, it was completely dry and accompanied by a Spanish Jesuit priest and development worker, Father Miguel Urrutia, we drove across the lake in a jeep. 

We stopped at a villager’s house to have a rest in the over 40-degree centigrade heat and chatted to the villager about the drought. I noticed a smart steel ruler on a ledge and asked for what purpose he used it, thinking that he might be a carpenter. He replied that he got it to measure his heart because the drought and heat were drying his heart up!

Later that year in 1973, Gujarat suffered devastating floods and by chance in September Father Urrutia and I chanced on the same house where we had met the man with the “shrinking heart.” We asked him about his tape measure. 

He replied that he left it at the local temple as an offering of thanks for the rain.

Western India drought, 1972-73, part II 

I was visiting drought-hit tribal villages in the Aravalli hills near Udaipur in Rajasthan. Tony Hall, an Oxfam journalist, and I heard about a water diviner, Laluji, a member of the Bhil tribe. 

It was arranged for us to take him out by our Land Rover to the villages and we set off very early one morning, so early that it was still dark when we reached the village. We passed the time drinking fresh sugarcane juice, and he told us the following. 

Some 20 years earlier, when he was about 20 years old, he was looking after some sheep and goats and slept for some time on a big rock slab. When he awoke, he saw some water which seemed to be oozing out of a crack in the rock. 

Having confirmed that neither he nor his colleagues had urinated at that spot, he looked a bit closer and found a small green plant growing out of the crack. He pulled the plant up, took it home, dried it, and kept the dry pieces in a box. 

After some time, he related his story to a holy man, a Sadhu, and was told to powder the dry pieces and put the powder under his skin. He described a messy and painful procedure. After this, he told us, he was mad for the next nine years and his family cared for him. Then he became somewhat normal and since then had this power to “see” water with X-ray eyes. 

He would tell his clients how deep was the water, and the location and even the estimated litres per hour. And then, we watched him at work in amazement!

Bangladesh, 2008 

From the Chars Livelihoods Program, we were distributing blankets among the very poorest in Rowmari upazila of Kurigram District. We came to a very old woman living alone. 

In trying to assess her age, we asked in the usual way. “Do you remember the Liberation War, and how old were you then? Were you married?” Also: “Do you remember the famine soon after the war?” 

To this question, she replied that the “’Kicchri’ of the ‘bideshis’ was very good.” 

“I still remember the taste,” she added. Oxfam ran gruel kitchens with Brac in those days.

Bangladesh, 2012 

I was walking along Road 27 in Banani one night during winter, and I found police rounding up people who were sleeping on the street. I felt sad at the way they were being treated, and wondered where they would be taken. 

Suddenly, an old woman broke away from the group and ran towards me waving a red blanket, and saying in Bangla: “Look I have still got it,” and she proceeded to hug me. When I had been with the Red Cross in 1999, I had accompanied the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society staff to distribute blankets to the people sleeping on the streets. 

I was overcome with emotion that she had recognized me, and so with the permission of the police who were also very moved by what they had witnessed, I was able to pass over some money as well.

These, then, are a few special moments that have enriched my life and have certainly affected the way I think and work. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship.