Bangladesh Medical


“There was a roaring in the wind all night. The rain came heavily and fell in floods.” William Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence


A tremendous electrical storm woke me from sleep with a terrifying show of lightning, accompanied by driving rain. It lasted more than an hour. When I got out of bed the next morning, I stepped into a puddle. At first I thought that window frames were not water-tight, but then I realised the toilet had leaked into the bedroom. Backflush.


The minivan arrived at 7:15 to take us to work. I began to regret having eaten a greasy omelette for breakfast. We made good progress driving north along Marine Drive, despite dozens of goats on the road. To our left, semilunar fishing boats were beached, ready to be launched at high tide. To the right were prawn hatcheries.

We hit traffic driving south on the main road, National Highway 1. All traffic was at a standstill. But patience is not a virtue held by Bangladeshi autorickshaw drivers and after a couple of minutes, they came buzzing past, horns blaring, belting down the wrong side of the road. Someone asked our driver what was the cause of the holdup. He slowly and deliberately said, “It…is…a…traffic…jam.”

We thought that there may have been an accident and I considered getting out of the van to see if my services were needed, as a medical Good Samaritan. My colleagues advised me against it. Discretion prevailed, but imagine the newspaper headlines, “Expat medical team remains cosseted in their air-conditioned vehicle while Bangladeshis perish in road crash.”


In front of us, a truckload of Bangladesh Signals soldiers in rather fetching camouflage uniforms climbed down onto the tarmac. Their officer looked efficient. He had a row of pens and pencils tucked into a pocket on the sleeve of his uniform. He strolled down the road past the stationary vehicles, looking into the ditch. I wondered out loud if he was considering whether it could be possible for a truck to bypass the obstruction by going off-road. “No, he’s just looking for a place to pee,” said one of the Water & Sanitation engineers in the minivan.

When we started moving forward, the drivers behind us became irritable and parped their horns if we didn’t immediately drive closer to the vehicle in front. We overtook the source of the blockage, a massive earthmoving machine mounted on a low-loader. At last other agencies were responding by supporting infrastructure. I guessed that the machine would be levelling ground for the new Red Cross/Red Crescent hospital by the side of the road at the Rubber Garden. It was far too big to tackle the muddy tracks inside the camp itself.


The hospital is muddy and miserable when it is raining. Rain pelting on a corrugated iron roof makes such a racket that taking a history is almost impossible. The consulting rooms and wards have concrete floors, but the tents have flooring made from plastic sheeting. People find it difficult to get to the hospital because the paths in the camp have turned to muddy streams. Old people who venture out run the risk of sliding and slipping in the mud, fracturing their wrists and hips. More work for us.


Bangladesh Thursday Doors

Opening doors to meet the locals

The local Bangladeshi community doesn’t see many white expatriates, in the flesh, out of doors, on the street. They see us flash past in minibuses and four-wheel drive SUVs, plastered with the logos of aid organisations, with little steel pennants on the front wing for a flag.

Occasionally they catch a glimpse of MSF expats walking from our team house to the office or buying ice cream from a local shop. Otherwise, they only see expats when they are ill and need to visit our clinics in the camp.

MSF has a strict security policy, restricting where and when we can roam. I often take a morning constitutional around the paddy fields and market area, as this has been designated a safe area.

I like interacting with the locals. Despite speaking only a handful of Bangladeshi (or “Chittagongi” in this area) words, I can get by with pidgin English and lots of sign language. I hadn’t had a proper haircut since July (done by a Pakistani barber in Green Lane Road, Leicester), so when I finished clinic early last week, I went into Ukhiya to look for a barbershop. Unlike Delhi, there aren’t any barbers plying their trade on the pavement. Well, Ukhiya doesn’t actually have any roadside pavement yet. I was given some general directions by a friend so I managed to find the shop easily.

I am quite used to being the object of people’s curiosity. They don’t glance surreptitiously at me; it is a full-on, open-mouthed stare. I engage with the starers, greeting them and they are obliged to interact: “Salaam Alaykum.” “Alaykum Salaam.”

When I walked into the hairdressers, all the clipping stopped for a moment as the barbers noticed a foreigner in their midst. Even the customers were eyeing up my reflection in the mirrors. But the boss ushered me into a seat and within a few seconds, everything went on as before.

There was an old television fixed up high in the corner of the room showing a Banglawood movie. After some sharp words from the boss, a minion came over, picked up the remote and started stabbing at it. He had been told to look for a foreign station. The only one was a sports channel, showing grainy video of a football match. How about that for hospitality?

One of the barbers came over and established I wanted a haircut. He tied a tissue around my neck and draped me with a plastic cape. Now the difficult bit. What kind of cut do I want? Most Bangladeshis have a short back and sides, some with quite elaborate styling on top. My barber, Mr Sharma, had a good style. I pointed at his hair, then at my hair and smiled. No joy.

How much did I want off? I said, “Chota,” which means “a little bit”. “Speak Hindi?” he asked and rattled off a few phrases which I didn’t understand. Then I played my trump card. I knew the Chittagongi/Rohingya word “alpo”, which also means small. “Trim, small, alpo, understand?”

He nodded and set to work with comb and scissors on one side of my head. After five minutes, I came to the conclusion that alpo meant leave a little, rather than cut off a little. We had crossed the Rubicon now, so I let him continue.

Every now and then, the television commentator got excited and instinctively I turned my head towards the TV screen to see who had scored. The barber grabbed my head and repositioned it as he wanted. I suppose the TV is for the benefit of those waiting, rather than those being scalped.

Mr Sharma kept clipping. I now knew his first name, Liton (or maybe Lytton). He could see I was sweating in the sultry heat, so he turned a fan onto me. This made my hair fly up so he sprayed it with water to keep it in place.P1320674

I was reassured when he used a new razor blade to shave the edges and clean up my neck down to the shoulder blades. He soothed the razor burn on my neck using a machine like a large shaving brush, which vibrated and showered me with talcum powder.

My rampant eyebrows were trimmed and he dealt with my nostrils and ears. I probably paid extra for the obligatory head, neck and shoulder massage – the full Monty. There was some discussion over the price. Locals pay about 50 taka, 75 if the salon is air-conditioned, and 100 -150 taka in the big city, Cox’s Bazar. I gave Liton 100 and he was happy (about 90p).

Liton Sharma, hair stylist, wearing a Ma Durga teeshirt


The haircut took about 45 minutes, and it was getting dark as I left the shop. Outside, a group of children sitting on a handcart started giggling as I walked past. They had been watching the performance. I didn’t have time to chat, so I walked briskly back to the house, wondering how hilarious my new haircut was. It looked fine in the salon…P1320954

Yesterday, I was waiting at the roadside for an ambulance coming from the clinic with a seriously ill patient. It was 7:30am and I attracted a crowd before a man shoo-ed people away. We chatted. He understood why I was there and was able to explain to all the curious bystanders. They were satisfied. He had 100kg of green chillies in four burlap sacks. In the mouth of each sack was stuffed some fresh grass. A goat joined us and kept nibbling on the grass. I wanted to see what would happen if it ate a chilli, but the man waved it away. A little boy dressed in his Friday-best white outfit came over to practise his English. A grizzled old rickshaw driver was also curious. He cycled past a few times, then came over to make my acquaintance. I tried asking him how old he was. He understood my age but didn’t know his own. The frame of his cycle rickshaw said “A Long Life”.P1320951

A succession of barrel wallahs passed me. The low sunlight made photography difficult and I should have used video to capture their bouncing gait, in synch with the oscillations of the bamboo pole across their shoulders. The trick is for them to keep moving.P1320946

The ambulance arrived and I accompanied the patient to Cox’s Bazar.

PS This piece was written a month ago when I was still working in Bangladesh.


Bangladesh Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors

This is my last blog post displaying doors from Bangladesh. These are all from the village of Ukhiya, in Cox’s Bazar District, just to the north of the largest refugee camp in the world at Kutupalong-Balukhali. Outside the team house, relaxed security allowed us to walk through the rice fields and into the market area. Here is a wonderful modern house painted in pastel colours by the paddy. Sadly, the door is just a concertina metal fence. IMG_2438

Another colourful house in the village, again painted in pastels. Note the door is set high, with a barrier to prevent flood water from entering the compound.IMG_2460

I walked past this door which has a large gap below the gate. Above, there are some circular, decorative spoke-like patterns.IMG_2456

Some craftsmen make wooden doors, too. When I arrived at this shop, the small boy was sanding down the intricate design. His father told him to stop. I thought that the father might be conscious of Western disapproval of child labour. The boy seemed to be enjoying it, as judged by his big smile. Another man came over to do some sanding instead. P1330005P1330006

Not all businesses are doing well. The weeds on the concrete overhang look to be flourishing more than the shop.IMG_2461

Bangladesh Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors

Some doors from Bangladesh. The first picture comes from Kutupalong Refugee Camp. About 650,000 Muslim Rohingya fled from NW Myanmar to escape persecution over the past few months. This camp is currently the biggest in the world. Conditions are squalid. The Rohingya construct their shelters with plastic sheeting and bamboo. This is where I have been working for the past two months.


Outside the camp, in Ukhiya, the doors are made from metal for security.


This is a door shop in the bazar. The design is reminiscent of Mughal Art in the 17th Century in India.


A testament to corrugated tin sheeting.


This is intriguing. What does the sign say? Does anyone read Chittagongi? Or it might be Bangla?



I’m in Dublin doing an evening presentation and some interviews on television and radio for MSF, Doctors Without Borders. The purpose is to keep the appalling plight of the Rohingya in the public mind.

I arrived in Dublin late on Monday night, caught the airport coach to the centre and checked into my hotel.

The restaurant had closed so the receptionist directed me to a late night Tesco. Or should that be “O’Tesc”? I picked up some snack food and went to the young woman on the till.

“I apologise, but I only have a €50 note.”

“I hate dat,” she said.

“I can pay by card if you like”

“No problem. We’ve got plenty of change. It was just breaking into a fifty. Once you’ve done it, you never get it back. It’s gone for good”

When I told this story to one the MSF staff, he accused me of “paddy wacking”, poking fun at the Irish. But I enjoy pointing out humorous aspects of life in my blogs.

Like the little boy at Dublin Airport this morning, lying down on the travelator. Hilarious.

Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors

Three doors from the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, London. The photos were taken on a cell phone. I was so excited about picking up my visa to go to Bangladesh that they are a bit blurred from my shaking. Forgive me. But they are worth a look, no?


Thirteenth century doors from France. Over the centuries, wood tends to rot and iron corrodes. The iron is decorative and protective. The marks from the keyhole and handle show that the door was used upside down in the past.


This door is from the early 16th Century. The halfmoon “lunette” panel above the door shows an illustration from the labours of Hercules. The door is from Orleans, France.


This is door from Ipswich in England. It dates back to the early 16th Century. The thick oak planks have stood the test of time well.