International Writers Magazine:Life in Bangladesh
I left I heard it said that the tourist slogan for Bangladesh was,
Come to Bangladesh before the tourists do. In
fact, there may be time yet, said my friend with laughing: theyve
had the same slogan for over 10 years. Judging by the way things
look in Dhaka these days, it could be in use for at least another
10. Working for an international relief agency has given me the
chance to see more than my fair share of disasters and third world
shit holes. But I cant remember ever seeing anywhere that
felt quite as desperate as Dhaka.
the population: Bangladesh has a population of 140 million people,
packed into a country the size of New York state, living on an average
of $6 and a half dollars a day. With a birth rate of 2.7 children per
woman, that population has doubled in just a few of generations. Nearly
60 ercent of the population is below the age of 25. The average woman
marries at 18.
The day I arrived two headlines rocked the news, and unlike watching
the news in the west, here I could witness the effects of both stories
on the streets of Dhaka. One, skyrocketing food prices that were already
rocking markets in the west had crashed down in Bangladesh: the price
of rice and oil, the two major staple commodities, increased by 30 percent
in just a week. After an initial disavowal of responsibility, the government
stepped in and began selling rice and oil from special stores at subsidized
rates. As I drove around Dhaka, people were queuing all over the city;
everywhere I looked there were queues of several hundred people, separated
second crisis was a massive demonstration that shut down the western
part of the city, making it impossible for me to cross town to reach
a meeting. The workers at the SK sweater factory were protesting
working conditions, spurred on by the recent death of a co-worker
who had been literally worked to death when her employers refused
to let her take a sick day. Their unreasonable demand? They wanted
to reduce their work shift from 14 hours a day to ten. The impudence.
Bleak House apparently isnt a thing of the past,
its just been outsourced.
Free Trade Zones
are widely agreed by most in my business to be the scourge of the third
world. In special agreements with countries desperate for foreign income
and labor outlets, these fenced-in compounds buy no raw material from
the local market place, and pay no taxes. All items arrive and leave
the factory solely for the purpose of exploiting the cheap manual labor.
The goods arrive via ship, go straight to the factory in sealed containers,
and leave the country immediately after assembly. Technically, the items
never even touch the soil of the country they where the factory is located.
And because they pay no taxes, they contribute nothing to the infrastructure
of that country, nor do the workers have much bargaining power with
management. As such, the wages are typically horrible, and the working
conditions even worse. These are modern day sweat shops.
While these zones have been set up around the world with the permission
of governments from Mexico to the Philippines, the complaints against
them by workers are universal.
But in an indication of just how bad things are in Bangladesh, the conditions
inside the free trade zones there are actually better than the conditions
at places like the SK sweater factory. In Bangladesh, no one at the
sweat shops complains; they consider themselves lucky to have jobs.
The free trade areas are one of the reasons people continue to migrate
to Dhaka. In Bangladesh they are so desperate for work that the conditions
in the factories outside the free trade zones, like the SK sweater factory,
are even worse.
Theres something much more disheartening about urban poverty than
rural. For two years I lived in a village in the second poorest country
in the world among shoeless children, naked but for a pair of shorts,
kids who will never spend a day in school, never see a dentist, and
likely never see a doctor, running free and playing happily. This is
not to say that these children dont deserve more, but they seem
possessed not only of a greater freedom and sense of community but of
a greater dignity than the barefoot children walking on the overpasses
in Dhaka, or peddling goods between the cars at every stoplight, seven
year old girls in grubby clothes going from car window to car window,
keeping one eye on the traffic light so they can dash back to the median
until it turns red again. They appeared not to have been robbed of their
childhood, as those girls at the traffic light had.
Being stuck at a traffic light is something you will spend at least
two hours of your first day in Dhaka doing. Its trite to complain
about the traffic in foreign capitals, especially in Asia. There is
bad traffic all over the major cities of the subcontinent. There is
horrendous traffic in Bangkok. There is traffic in Manila which can
occupy your whole day. And Dhaka is no different: those cute little
dotted white lines on the road that we call lanes are totally
ignored, and its a free-for-all race for the next intersection,
the cars and tuk-tuks constantly overtaking each other with mere inches
between them. They honk the horn nonstop, especially in rural areas,
when drivers toot relentlessly just to announce their presence on the
road. Bicycle rickshaws are by far the most common vehicles on the roads,
followed by busses, which are packed to overcapacity and usually have
no tail lights. (Not only have the bulbs gone out, but the whole assembly
is often removed, and the back end is paneled over and painted.) In
all of these respects, Dhaka is not categorically different from many
other Asian cities. But sitting in a motionless jam in Dhaka, packed
in on all sides, staring into the soot stained, five story apartment
buildings on either side, each dingy room illuminated by a bare fluorescent
bulb, while another crippled beggar taps at your window, burdened with
the knowledge that the population of the city is set to double within
25 years, and you have to wonder if you havent landed in some
version of hell.
I was on my tour of Dhaka, a city vast in number and area. The
centerpiece of the capital is a Louis Cahn-designed parliament building,
a massive, nearly windowless set of brick and concrete cubes surrounded
by a reflecting pool. Next door to the parliament is a planetarium,
a big modern building dominated by a giant silver sphere. A planetarium?
This was my first clue that something in Bangladesh was amiss. In a
country as poor as this, what possessed them to build a planetarium?
What were they thinking? How about, oh, I dont know, a hospital?
Or maybe an extra school or two? Anyone consider that a few more of
those might be important before building a goddamn planetarium? How
about closed sewage, for instance, not just for parts of the capital,
but for the whole city? Now theres an idea! (Im on a hunt
for a new tourist slogan for Bangladesh. Come to Bangladesh
Now Weve Got a Planetarium! is definitely in the running.)
Unfortunately, the parliament has been turned into a prison for the
last two prime ministers, and parliament hasnt met in over a year.
The country is ruled by a small group of advisers who are shadowed by
the military, under a state of emergency thats over
a year old and is expected to last at least another year. We stood at
the edge of the vast lawn in the back side of the building, and watched
another man being ushered toward the prison. God knows what hed
done, though my hosts assured me that it was likely a criminal rather
than political offense. Nevertheless, watching an ordinary-looking guy
being frog-marched by three men with their hands on the back of his
neck into the parliament-cum-prison is never a pleasant sight.
After a brief walk around the building since we couldnt
actually approach it we visited a few other sights: the university;
a monument to the Bangla language movement who rebelled against the
imposition of Urdu by the eastern Pakistani administration where we
witnessed a group of men laying a flower wreath at the base of the 70s-era
concrete and steel structure; and then on to a monument to the freedom
fighters who brought independence to Bangladesh in a nine month long
war in 1972. We moved back into the crawl of traffic with the beggars
weaving between the cars, and on to other sights.
Inevitably, those seven year old girls selling things for 12 hours a
day lingered especially long outside my window, whether in the hopes
of selling something to a rich foreigner or due to sheer curiosity,
Ill never know for sure. But the guy who spent five minutes today
trying to sell me newspaper in the inscrutable Bangla script today is
an indication that its probably the latter. Come before
the tourists do, if you want to be ogled everywhere you go, surrounded
by an audience watching your every move. This isnt always the
best thing in a country with very few public toilets. I often travel
to out-of-the-way places. Though its certainly not the first ,
its been rare for me to find a place where my mere presence has
provoked such a staggering, relentless curiosity as Bangladesh. Often,
a Bangladeshi guy will walk up to me with wide eyes and just smile and
stare in a naked moment of totally innocent wonder. I can almost read
the thought bubble over his head: Holy Shit! So thats what
a white guy really looks like. He may not even try to make conversation
whether because they assume I wont know Bangla, or because
it just doesnt occur to them, Ill never know for sure.
But whether they live in towns or villages, the overwhelming majority
of Bangladeshis have got this charming lack of unselfconsciousness,
an inimitable insouciance nowhere more in evidence than during the Bangladeshi
national pastime which my own countrymen refer to as hocking a
loogie. Tomorrow my mission is to count how many times Ill
hear that gorgeous sound, for which I can find no other expression than
the aforementioned, when a man (or woman) summons forth a gob of spit
and phlegm from the back of his throat, and hurls it forth into the
world. I am convinced that itll top 20. They just dont think
twice about it. Sometimes the sound of one person will excite the impulse
in another, and before you know it youre standing in the middle
of a symphony of spitting.
This tendency, combined with their friendliness and curiosity, can sometimes
be a dangerous cocktail. Today I was stretching my legs on a long ferry
ride when I saw a man in a double-breasted suit sneeze into his hand
a dozen times in a row. A few minutes later he was approaching me with
his hand outstretched thank god it was the other hand
in greetings. I tell myself that he didnt, that he couldnt
have touched his two hands together during those few moments between
the sneeze and the handshake when I wasnt watching him, but Ill
never know for sure. (Tourist slogan number two, Come to Bangladesh
- Feel Free to Hock a Loogie, is definitely a contender.)
For a land of such utter poverty as Bangladesh, people are remarkably
well dressed. (Second runner up is, Come to Bangladesh, land of
the sweater vest.) Many men in towns, even in poor rural towns,
go round in blazers or full suits. And the sweater vests are ubiquitous;
this is a look thats really caught on. Those who arent wearing
sweater vests are usually wearing a wrap-around man skirt, perhaps accented
with a light scarf tossed nonchalantly over the shoulders. Whats
remarkable about peoples neatness of appearance is its contrast
to the place itself: its absolutely filthy. Despite the woman
that I saw sweeping up leaves by the side of the road today, or the
man I saw meticulously scrubbing the based of a concrete pillar outside
a hotel, many places that youd expect to be clean like
the toilets at the NGO Im working with are disgustingly
dirty. Bangladesh is a country nestled into the crotch between two great
peninsulas jutting into the Indian Ocean, India on the one leg and the
other made up by Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. By the looks, and
the smell of it, this crotch needs a wash.
The North Korean embassy was across the street from my hotel in the
upscale (-ish) Banani neighborhood. A lighted glass case displayed scenes
of Kim Jong Il reviewing the troops, Kim Jong Il reviewing the rockets,
Kim Jong Il giving advice to some wheat farmers, (I guess they didnt
listen carefully enough), and so on. One evening I saw a Korean man
lingering outside the building. I couldnt help myself, so I struck
up a conversation. Told him that I thought it would be my only chance
to meet a North Korean, since they didnt seem to travel much.
Nonsense! he said, and went on to talk about his 10 years
with the World Food Program around the world. A North Korean with the
WFP struck me as somehow ironic, though I didnt think it was a
wise joke to share. I told him I would love to visit his country, and
asked for his business card. When I told him that I worked for a non-government
aid organization, he said that he too worked for an NGO, pointing to
an unmarked white building across the street from the embassy. Then
he cut the conversation short and walked back into the embassy.
In fact, all the pariah states are here: I also saw the embassies of
Iran, Libya, and Myanmar, and I suspect that Zimbabwe was just around
the corner. (Third runner-up: Bangladesh: where everyone is welcome
we dont mind the blood on your hands.) Bangladesh
is one of the few countries in the world with enmity for both India
and Pakistan. Nevertheless, its the darling of the World Bank,
and Ive been told by several different people that the reason
they get so much development aid, and that so many new ideas are tried
here, is based on the logic that, if it will work in Bangladesh,
it can work anywhere.
But I get the feeling that Im giving you the wrong impression,
leading you to think I dont like Bangladesh. But I do; I actually
love it here. The people are lovely friendly, curious, and open.
And though it is a bit tiresome having a captive audience everywhere
I go, watching everything I do, often to a soundtrack of Hihowareyou?,
you gotta love the innocence and naivety thats so far from the
hard-nosed sensibility of most capital cities. You gotta love the fact
that not only do they not hate me when I say Im from the US, their
eyes actually light up with wonder. You gotta love that throughout every
hopeless conversation made up mostly of gestures and misunderstandings,
a Bangladeshis patience never flags, and he smiles ear to ear.
gotta love the rivers. Despite its modest size, Bangladesh must
have as much coastline as the entire United States. Im of
course just making that up, exaggerating for the dramatic effect.
But man, do they have rivers. Bangladesh is basically a massive
delta, a piece of land thats shattered into a million pieces
separated by water, the place where about a dozen major rivers drain
from the Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal, and in so doing split
off and reconverge into a bajllion minor streams and waterways.
Traveling from one
side of the country takes forever and requires crossing dozens of bridges
and ferries. I am here to help my organization support a project to
assist victims of the recent Cyclone that devastated a large part of
the coast. Though the area affected is a fairly narrow strip of a couple
hundred kilometers, we spent 14 hours in the car today visiting just
two communities, separated as they are by a few major and several minor
rivers parallel paths to the sea.
But its not only the rivers that give the impression of an entire
country under water. There are man made ponds and canals literally everywhere
in the Southern half of the country. At first I thought that they were
the result of an extremely high water table, and that the earthen spaces
where people had built dwellings were artificially built up. I was shocked
to learn that I had it backwards: in many places the water table during
the wettest months is at least 20 feet from the surface, about the same
as a good part of the sub-Saharan Sahel band of West Africa. In fact,
many of the ubiquitous ponds, canals, and paddies are man made, created
to enable rice cultivation, fishing, or simply for household water storage.
It seems that half the country is built on water. The water is sometimes
murky brown, sometimes covered in a thick film of green scum or a living
carpet of lily pads or kudzu. Nearly always rectangular, they range
in size from 50 to over a thousand feet long, and are flanked on all
sides by low earth embankments. Many of them link to shallow canals,
which link to streams, which link to the sea.
There was one such canal around the house we saw today, a moment after
the roof burst into flames. We stopped the car immediately to help the
family throw buckets of water onto the thatch roof, and after the frantic,
disorganized efforts of our five man party and a half dozen family members
(ever heard of a bucket line, anyone?) the fire was out. The roof was
destroyed, and though they had hastily pulled down thatch wall in order
to save it, it appeared that all four walls, as well as the majority
of the roof beams, were saved. We were lucky, our driver said, that
there was a canal all the way around the house. (Yeah, unlike every
other bloody house in this part of the country, I thought.) With the
one wall torn down, the one-room house was laid bare, and there was
precious little to burn at all; it was shocking to see just how little
this woman possessed. I pressed some money into her palm, which, frankly,
is an impulse I have to hold in check several hundred times a day in
Bangladesh. But at least this time I knew that it was culturally appropriate.
She was still in shock, and took the money with a troubled look that
betrayed something other than mere incomprehension; shed just
taken in too much during the last 15 minutes to understand what this
crazy white person was giving her, or why. The other Bangladeshis in
our car gave her a bit of money as well, and we continued our drive
to the next ferry.
It was almost a relief to be able to help that woman, a relief to be
able to actually do something helpful for a change. We had been on our
way back from the second village visit of the day where wed talked
to several dozen families who had lost homes, family members, and livelihoods
in the recent cyclone. Our organization will be replacing fishing boats
and fishing nets, digging wells and providing latrines, and clearing
out the ponds from the countless fallen trees. These families were living
on the edge before the cyclone, occupying the lowest lying land on the
edge of the riverside. When the 10 to 15 storm surge jumped over the
embankment designed to protect them, they went from very poor to utterly
One woman we spoke to quickly came to tears as she told the story of
holding her 11 year old girl in her arms as their house filled up with
water. She held as tightly as she could, but the water ripped her daughter
from her arms. To see what many of these families called a house
in the best of circumstances with just a few corrugated zinc
sheets hammered onto a framework of boards over a dirt floor
is enough to break your heart. Another man showed us the grave of his
wife and two children. What can one do in such circumstances? Offer
condolences and sympathy, of course, which always feel so pathetically
feeble and useless in moments like that. Just your being here
is in itself enough, one woman said. Another woman said that they
only suffered for one day, whilst were still suffering to try
to bring them assistance.
These are doubtless the kinds of things that poor, disaster-stricken
people say to the people that they hope will be their benefactors, but
still I couldnt help but be affected when they said, as they did,
time and again, that while help is welcome, we shouldnt worry.
They will get by. Many of them actually said that they dont want
relief food any more. What they are want are new houses, and loans to
restart their livelihoods. Their attitude wasnt exactly hopeful,
either. The people I spoke to werent exactly smiling when they
said they would make it. They usually broke off eye contact, turned
the corners of their mouths down, and stared into the middle distance.
It was more like indifference, a matter-of-fact fatalists resignation.
They have struggled, and survived, through times worse than this.
Natural disasters are nothing new in Bangladesh, but they are likely
to only get worse. The International Panel on Climate Change and the
International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction have determined that
cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are increasing in both severity and frequency
in the last 10 years, and they expect this trend to continue. Whats
worse, as the fresh water from the Himalayas that thaws every year to
fill Bangladeshs streams and rivers dries up, this waterlogged
country may soon see its water turning increasingly saline, as the fresh
waters from the Himalayas melt permanently and refuse to freeze again
the following winter. Add to this the fact that much of Bangladesh already
has a problem with Arsenic in the water table; hand pumps painted green
have been tested for arsenic, though arsenic poisoning is not uncommon
in some parts of the country. It takes many years to be poisoned by
arsenic this way, starting with lesions on the skin that eventually
harden before they turn to cancer. At this point, I had to wonder: Arsenic
in the water? A poisoned groundwater table? Is there any
doubt left that God just has it out for these people? (Candidate number
four: Bangladesh Now with Less Arsenic!)
And yet impossibly, they manage delight. Somehow, the Bangladshis can
afford joy. How, Ill never know. But a recent study actually found
that Bangladeshis were among the happiest people in the world. Whether
or not I buy this, I cant say for sure. Given what we know about
the place, its hard to imagine them as the worlds happiest,
despite their ebullient optimism. But what do I know. The innumerable
rickshaws are all painted in bright colors with the pictures of Bollywood
stars, festooned with all kinds of decoration that must cost a small
fortune. The drivers usually cant afford a decent pair of shoes,
but they somehow manage to deck out their rickshaws like every day was
a parade. Many of the girls and boys selling things in between the cars
are selling pop corn (or Pop Con, as the signs say), or
Cotton candy. Cotton candy! Imagining a market for cotton candy in a
country where the per capita income is six and a half dollars a day
is simply beyond my comprehension. But then, much is.
No, its not that I dont love Bangladesh. But I cant
think of a more miserable, hopeless country. I have witnessed humanitarian
disasters on every continent, lived in the poorest countries in the
world. But I have never seen so many people suffering so much as I have
in Dhaka. I suppose that impression is mostly informed by the number
of homeless and beggars on the streets, whose collective misery is either
redeemed or compounded by the fact that wealthier Bangladeshis often
give them money I cant decide. I heard that 1 percent of
Bangladeshs 140 million people move out of poverty every year,
even during the gross economic mismanagement of the current regime.
That translates to 1.4 million people climbing out of poverty, every
year. But where are they? The fishing villages we saw on the coast were
among the poorest Ive ever seen. A full six weeks after the cyclone
many people are still sleeping in the open. They ate only two meals
a day in the better times, before the Cyclone sent a wall of water that
flattened their houses and took everything that they had.
I suppose the fundamental question that troubles me is this: is it possible
to have empathy for someone, and mock them at the same time? Or at least,
is it possible to bear witness to heart-shattering human suffering,
to even be deeply affected by it, and still be able to be sarcastic?
A friend who works with retarded teenagers told me that every single
one of her colleagues has the habit of mimicking when out of
earshot the various ticks of the kids they work with. She loves
those kids, she has a ball with them, and still, she and her co-workers
cant help themselves from mocking them from a safe distance. Its
a kind of therapy.
I suppose this is the ultimate test to maintaining ones humanity
in a career as a humanitarian aid worker, where witnessing pain becomes
part of your daily routine. I worked with a French Child Protection
specialist in Guinea who reunified separated refugee children in the
West African wars. She had the worst case of the Florence Nightingale
syndrome Ive ever seen: she wanted to save everybody. She once
made a driver stop the car so that she could personally usher a dozen
baby ducks to the side of the road. She was the true patron of hopeless
causes, and I think it clouded her professional judgment. Because the
fact is, you have to have some detachment from what you see in order
to be a good aid worker, not only to maintain your sanity, but also
to make good decisions. You cant see what Ive seen and stay
sane without being a little detached. The same must apply for doctors,
or ambulance drivers, or anyone who has to witness people suffering
and dying in her job.
But whats all too common in our business of relief
is unfortunately the other extreme; the byproduct of aid work is cynicism.
You become inured to suffering. It stops bothering you altogether. And
that, too, is bad for your decision making; you cant see past
the numbers to see the people they represent even when the people are
right in front of you. If it doesnt mean the loss of your sanity,
then it does mean the loss of a part of your humanity, the kind of dissociation
shared by porn stars and sociopaths.
It seems to me that humor especially black humor is in
fact our last line of defense against the unspeakable. Its a way
of maintaining our humanity, of dealing with all that we see,
burdened by the full knowledge of our own powerlessness and inadequacy.
And after a while, as you become increasingly professional
in what you do, you gain the creeping awareness that your life, and
the system in which you work, of international organizations funded
by taxes, and citizens of the first world, and by corporations, is in
fact a huge part of the reason why these people are in bondage in the
first place. You may want to help, but you are also a representative
of the very system of global capital and its inherent inequities that
keeps them enslaved. Black humor is perhaps the only sane response to
such a case. The alternatives an overweening earnestness or a
crusader mentality are not only the way to hypocrisy;
they are tantamount to surrender. One must be able to continue working
for the single family in need, despite the foreknowledge that the essence
of the project writ large is failure.
my last night in Dhaka I gave away everything I have. On the short
road between my hotel and the restaurant where I ate was a small
shanty village; about twenty five pieces of plastic sheeting were
hung from the high wall abutting the dirt sidewalk, each big enough
for two or three adults to sleep side by side. God knows where they
get their water. As an aid worker youre not supposed to give
anything personal to the people we refer to as beneficiaries.
When the woman tells me that shes lost her home, her livelihood,
her husband, perhaps a child or two, Im supposed to restrain
the overwhelming impulse to personally intervene on her behalf.
On my last night
in Dhaka I gave away everything I have. On the short road between my
hotel and the restaurant where I ate was a small shanty village; about
twenty five pieces of plastic sheeting were hung from the high wall
abutting the dirt sidewalk, each big enough for two or three adults
to sleep side by side. God knows where they get their water. As an aid
worker youre not supposed to give anything personal to the people
we refer to as beneficiaries. When the woman tells me that
shes lost her home, her livelihood, her husband, perhaps a child
or two, Im supposed to restrain the overwhelming impulse to personally
intervene on her behalf. I always want to empty my pockets on the spot.
But Im supposed to remain professional and execute the project
that Im there to manage. Im supposed to make sure that its
completed on time and under budget, and that it achieves the humanitarian
impact such as reducing under 5 mortality due to water and sanitation-related
diseases that its designed to achieve.
I had a fistful of Bangladeshi takas and I gave them all away, knowing
full well that it would complicate my life the next day when I had to
pay for my taxi and my breakfast and tip the guys at the hotel, to whom
I later gave half my clothing. I gave away my magazines for the flight
to the bicycle rickshaw drivers that lingered outside the hotel. I gave
my sunglasses to the nicest one, whom Id had occasion to ride
with a few times. I gave as much as I could, though I knew it was hopeless,
though I knew it wouldnt make a difference. And I still didnt
feel any better.
Winner of the quest to find a new tourist slogan: Come to Bangladesh:
Youll leave a changed person.
© Erik Johnson March 2008
work has previously appeared in: The Hartford Advocate, The Charlotte
Loafer, and Humanitarian Exchange.
More About World Destinations
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.