The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:2060] The Marginalized or the Resilient?


Let me tell you a story about some of the most resilient people of Bangladesh. The coastal people, the poor people, but mostly we must know them as the people with an exemplary spirit of life, of revival. The people of my story live in a small area called ‘Bainpara’ in a village named ‘Sutarkhali’, Dacope. The tale starts from May 2009.

The area Bainpara has about 110 families living in the locality were households are run by the earnings of the men only, who mostly work as honey, wood, leave collectors of the adjacent ‘Sunderbans’- the largest mangrove forest of the world! The average monthly income of each family was five to six thousand taka per month. Only 30% of the population is high school graduates, and literacy rate is only 60%.

So why are these people called the strugglers, the survivors? They live in the extreme south of the delta land- Bangladesh. Here every year the coasts get submerged with water and flooding takes place throughout the entire country. The humble residents of ‘Sutarkhali’ were still recovering from the devastating cyclone ‘Sidr’ of 2009. Non-governmental organizations or NGOs like Ulashi, and other professionals were already working for them. Bangladesh received a significant amount of foreign aid from International community for the revival of the area.

But, on the 22nd of May, 2009, there started turbulence in the air again. The water seemed wilder and much more untamable. But unlike Sidr- the upcoming horror could not been foreseen early on by the authority.

The warning came early in the morning of the 25th May. Residents were asked to go to the emergency shelters immediately.

But the declaration was as good as gibberish for Kodbanu and her family. The small rectangular hut, with the thatched roof is her identity! Kodbanu’s belated fathers in law’s last savings were used to build that small hut. The goat tied to the post was bought the same day her second son was born and the toddler is extremely fond of it. Kodbanu’s mother in law was still stubbornly holding on to the quilt she had sown for her husband. The widow wakes up every day for these memoirs of her beloved. They can’t leave all that behind, just because a mechanical voice is insisting them to do so. Besides, how can they move the elders and children in such a short time?

The formidable Cyclone, ‘Aila’ hit the shores of the western and south western Bangladesh at about 10 am on 25th May, 2009. The storm was responsible for at least 339 deaths across Bangladesh and India; more than 1 million people were left homeless. The storm surge was of about 10 ft, which impacted these regions of Bangladesh, submerging numerous villages. Even many of the embankments broke down, causing widespread inland flooding. In Dacope Upazila alone, more than 50,000 people were left homeless.

All of KodBanu’s homestead, her clothes, her small wooden chest containing her thin gold chain and her husband’s savings, her son’s goat, the food, the furniture-everything was washed away with the tidal surge. What remained of her thatched hut were broken poles inundated in water. Her mother in law got stuck under the debris and they had almost given up on her, but it was a miracle only, that she was saved. The tidal surge would come every evening. They had no food or clean water to drink. Kodbanu would look around in search of food, and when she would come across a person who was eating, she would ask them if they can spare the next morsel for her sons.

Kodbanu along with about 3000 other residents of “Sutarkhali” were uncertain about their tomorrow. They built temporary houses along the single axis of the embanked ‘Wapda Road’ with the help of the little aids they would get now and then. But the tidal surges would gradually break those down as well.

Soon-but not soon enough, along with the help of professionals, Social workers of Ulashi Sreejony Sangha-USS (the NGO already working for the Sidr affected children of the area) the government announced a tender for reconstruction of the houses of this area. Architect Hasibul Kabir, the humanitarian architect of Bangladesh came to survey the locality. With his help, the locals surveyed and diagnosed the area for 15 days. After this many NGO’s came to the area to try and redevelop but failed to see any prospect of rehabilitation with the limited funding.

Finally the nonprofit organization ‘Shushilon’ with the help of HBRI (House Building Research Institute) started the design of their sustainability from February- 2011, two years after the strike of ‘Aila’.

The spirit to live on and struggle was an endowment, grown within these people. This spirit built a natural resilience in them- the kind that only Mother Nature can built in those, who she has repeatedly cursed herself.

The timeline planned by ‘Shushilon’ estimated a one year long construction plan, but the locals started to move into the half built structure months before the completion.

The locals proposed the design for their own dwelling units. These plans were further scrutinized and reviewed by HBRI to formulate a revised module. Their plan consisted of a ‘gable roof’ hut raised on a high platform of 4 feet.

The final construction consisted of a ‘shed roof’ dwelling units, with Ferro-cement roof. Various parts of the unit were built in modules. The unit consisted of a room of 140 square feet, with four structural pillars at four corners. The beams and columns were all screwed together. Instead of foundation piling under the ground, rectangular boxes with depth of 4 feet were placed on the ground at the four corners. The pillars were inserted in these boxes. The gaps left were filled in with sand and cement. Everything was built in modules and fixed and screwed together at site, the walls were built afterwards at the site.

The dwelling units were provided with a RCC water tank with rain water collecting facility, a shaded toilet of GI Sheet, a gardening land and enough space for further extension along with the rectangular rooms,. Each household was provided with 6 decimals of land.

Talking to the chairman of their union- Mr, Rezaul Mollah, I got to learn that the residents extended their help in the construction process themselves; they consulted planning and architecture educators who according to their demands and their guidance developed a new resilient ‘township’ for the affected population known as ‘The Model Village’ or ‘Adorsho Gram’.

‘The Model Village’ consisted of 203 dwelling units, 58 of which constitute the homeless residents of Bainpara, and they form the clustered community. The remaining 145 units were scattered throughout ‘Sutarkhali’.

The Social worker, Ms Farah Kabir- was their ‘Boro Apa, or ‘Elder Sister’. When foreign donors, International goodwill ambassadors and government agents came to look at their sorry condition- the residents of Bainpara treated them as their household guests.

But irony lie in the fact that after talking to other residents of Dacope I discovered, the disaster affected people did not reflect their poverty or distress in front of the donors, rather showed their tenacity and fortitude, the zeal to embrace the change. In fact while their ‘Boro Apa’ was making a documentary to present to the foreign donors, the locals along with the help of ‘Shushilon’ made the entire model of the township with their own hand, with glue and paper!

This completely impressed the donors. People from the privileged society come to ‘the Model Village’ expecting to go back home with heavy hearts and wet shoulders, but instead they return inspired and intrigued by the marginalized. Instances like these indeed make one wonder, what is the true definition of ‘marginalized’ and who are those in ‘poverty’?

When I came across the reference photos of the ‘the Model Village’, I saw many cement structures on the barren land flanked with water tanks and shaded temporary looking toilet. The outlook could be stated to be melancholy to sound impressive, but lifeless to be honest.

Reaching the site was itself an interesting experience. I had to cross a river on a ferry, cross another on a boat, and then finally go to the village on a motor bike!

I did not immediately realize I had reached my destination because I had stopped in front of a pond where children were swimming, green trees everywhere, women sweeping their verandas, some other idle people were gathering around my bike to see what is happening- but nowhere did I see any resemblance of the morose environment of the photo!

The first gateway I entered had a small mud hut; I understood that that’s the kitchen. A lady was cutting vegetables in front of her hut; the front garden was green with onion leaves, colourful with marigold flowers, chili trees, eggplants, guava trees, carrots, and potatoes, even sugar canes.

“Guests are here!” she announced from inside, “Come on in, I am just preparing lunch. Hey you! Get them some sugar cane.” And she immediately made me feel like her house guest instead of some stranger appearing without any notice at her doorstep one fine noon.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” “Kodbanu” she replied.

Sustainability indeed is a precarious word. One would think of solar panels and automated parking systems, and green technology when this word is uttered. But one truly finds sustainability in a 140 square feet hut of a village homemaker.

Kodbanu produces her own vegetables, catches the fish from the community pond of ‘the Model Town’. Her sons go to the community school which is also an emergency shelter. She smiled all along till I mentioned ‘Aila’. She said she never wants to think of those days.

Looking around I saw glimpses of the cement finished houses of each household with their individual water tanks and G.I sheet toilets. But no two houses looked the same- like it had in the photos. The households had all evolved according to the resident’s needs, some had new mud kitchens, some had extra rooms, and some made an extended veranda in front of the hut with mud. It made me wonder, that this village holds the same group of people who were once diseased, famished and homeless. They were provided with just a minimal space for sleeping and a patch of land for vegetation, but the exchange was done on their own terms.

They created homes out of the brick-cement houses; they created a neighborhood out of a ‘cluster of structures’. Whereas modern amenities and urban facilities often fail to create neighborhoods for the ‘privileged’.

Which brings us to the question - What is the reason behind the fate of this people? Why are they being a victim of the wrath of the nature, exclusively? Is the wrath indicated at them? What can we do to tame the wrath?

While I was traveling to reach my destination I observed the livelihood of the entire village of 'Sutarkhali'. As a past time people relax and chat with their neighbors in the local tea stalls, which could be compared to the 'Urban cafes'. But in these meager tea stalls, I couldn't find even a small bottle of cola! The logo of modernization is a luxury to them. There is not one motorized vehicle on the streets or on the water. Basically there is no sign of industrialization in the locality.

Then who are they paying this price for? They are paying the price of our sins and violations we cause to the Mother Earth. Global warming is increasing day by day and igniting the earth. It is caused by our luxurious and convenient mode of life. Global warming is not only rendering the coastal citizens homeless but also destroying the 'Sunderbans', the forest that the people live off. Those who pay the prices for our sins, show us every day how life can be lead without these luxuries. But we are stubborn not to learn from them.

It is very important to understand the people living near the embankments, their lifestyles and their techniques of abode. These people tend be emotional and possessive about their belongings. Rightfully so, as the little they have, they have earned it with their sweat and blood. Hence not a lot of them are willing to shift to a safer location leaving their belongings. On top of it this, emergency shelters tend to become extremely unhygienic.

As a solution to further homelessness, instead of building more shelters, it is crucial to make more resilient homesteads. And it's also imminent that the homesteads have storage spaces for cattle’s and high storage spaces for belongings. So that even if the houses need to be vacated, the residents can come back for their belongings later. In ordered to prevent wind surge, more tall and sturdy trees are needed along the shoreline, there also needs to be more soak able ground and pedestrians, and more reservoirs. As the lives of the people depend on the mangrove forest, embankments should be built not only to protect the islands but also the forest.

The locals also need to get basic training of preparedness during a natural calamity- a concept, which is still an under rated thought at this part of the world.

These people also need technical training regarding rebuilding their own homesteads! Architects, social workers, engineers can take workshops and give them practical training by mingling and interacting with them.

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