Archive for March, 2009

A Smorgasbord

In light of me finally putting up those river-cruise pictures, I though it would be a good idea to relate my second encounter with the mighty Bariganga. This time our plan was to go to Old Dhaka on the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and rent a little boat that would ferry us around a bit to see more of the harbor. Due to it being a holiday, the roads were thankfully relatively empty and we had little trouble getting there. Once there, we met up with our friends and, after arguing over what in retrospective was 30 cents in the name of fairness to us, we got a boat for the six of us. The whole issue of paying adequate fares is one I’m still struggling with and will return to later.

Anyways, we were led to where all of the big ferries were anchored. Slightly surprised that we were being led onto a very large boat instead of one like the on one we had gotten for our last cruise, we nevertheless acquiesced. That feeling of security soon evaporated quickly however as we were led through the ferry and took a sharp left where the ferry ended and our real vessel was anchored. Now I have no problems with wooden rowing boats, but the thought of fitting 6 of us plus the guide and the boatsman into a vessel barely 10 ft long was mildly distressing. Added to that was the fact that the loading procedure included somehow carefully jumping down 5 feet from the ferry into our “cruiseship”. The boat wobbled precariously with every new passenger and in the end, with all 8 of us in the boat, we had barely half of a foot of clearance over the waterline. This “unique” perspective offered us the chance to acutely observe the state of the water in harbors around the world. I think everyone would agree that you wouldn’t exactly want to swim in any harbor’s waters but being literally face-to-face with the trash, refuse and just general sewage that collects in harbors was something else. Accordingly, the smell was sickening, and we set off from the ferry both queasy in our stomachs as well as our minds. The general sense of unease continued as our goal of shipping along lazily on the river depended on us crossing the river to get to the other side. I say “depended” because it involved a fully-loaded, unstable 10ft boat to slowly creep its way across a very busy river, filled with everything from motorboats to full-fledged tankers. However, we were successfully maneuvered across and then proceeded to float alongside the bank of the river, looking back on Old Dhaka and observing the happenings on either side of the river. This is where we were finally able to shake off our general sense of shock and, frankly, disgust at our situation and actually enjoy ourselves. Though it was an overcast day, Old Dhaka, with its run-down colonial and modern buildings, provided an interesting backdrop to our trip. On our right was a shipbuilding yard where we observed the various stages of ship-building/breaking seeing it was often unclear which process was happening.

Part of our journey included a stop at a jeans-dyeing workshop for us to look at, as well as to, as the guide said with no hint of humor in his face, “empty the boat of water”. Surrendering our last illusions about our boat-trip we got off and had the jeans-dyeing process explained to us and did some more looking around the other side of the river. Having emptied the boat of water, the boatsman invited us back on and we proceeded to again cross the river, but this time with less feelings of mortal danger. The journey back to our starting point was relatively uneventful and the bank of the river provided relatively few sights. One important one, however, was an immense vegetable market right on the piers jutting out from the river’s edge. The splendid colors of the produce provided for a great visual but once again our olfactory senses were subjected to the smell of rotting produce floating underneath the piers. This would all have been less memorable had not been the appearance of a tiny boat carrying 6 foreigners attracted the attention of a couple of kids who followed us along the pier and who, to our horror, proceeded to jump off the pier into the sewage below and swim after us without any hesitation. Seeing how widely our perception of this river and its state differed from the one held by the kids illustrated yet again just how far removed our lives are from each other.

Of course, being the entrepreneuring amateur photographer that I am, I forgot to check whether my batteries were empty or not and thus ended up carrying around my useless camera through all of this. I apologize.

And now for something completely different:

I usually play volleyball on Saturdays and Tuesdays, seeing that even the field of development consulting does not involve rigorous exercise. I had heard about a group of expat runners who ran on Saturdays around and just outside of Dhaka. I figured I would join last Saturday. The venue this time would be just outside of Dhaka but luckily I knew a guy from the German club with whom I could drive there. As we approached our destination, I noted that our starting point looked oddly familiar.

First something about the group. I learned that they were called the Hash runners. No, not for their ravenous consumption of hashish, but for the fact that this run would be a game that the English call the Hare and the Hashers, in which the goal is to follow the Hares. there’s two groups, one for the runners and one for the walkers, who get a shorter distance. The course of the run is pre-laid by some of the runners, with paper confetti marking the right way. However, what makes this run special is the fact that the lovely masters of the course lay plenty of false trails, which is why the entire running core is often stretched over many hundreds of yards, going down different trails in a desperate attempt to find the right trail. Thus, the countryside is over-run by a group of 40 sweaty white people shouting “on-on” or “false trail” at the top of their lungs at their seemingly imaginary friends. This leaves the locals we encountered visibly and deservedly so, confused. Oh, did I mention that alcohol is consumed at all rest-stops throughout the run? Yeah, why am I not surprised that this whole thing is a British idea?

The Hasher running groups basically exist in every place where there’s crazy British expats to be found. Actually, saying “crazy British” seems to be redundant here. In terms of the location, that feeling of familiarity soon led me to the realization that we were in the region North of Dhaka that I had encountered in one of my first factory-visits. Thus, our cours(es) led us through those same ricefields that I described a few weeks ago. We passed through forests, invaded little hamlets, at one point were pursued by a cow and passed Hindu-architecture.

It’s these random and, by all accounts, crazy incidents that make life here so very interesting and fascinating. Once again, no pictures as I was mostly focused on not twisting my ankle again on the treacherous terrain. The trails we used could sometimes barely be identified as such and thus I spent most of the time trying to make as little contact with the ground as possible. Luckily my friend was part of the walkers group and took some pics so I will post those at some point.

Real quick, two observations about living here day-by-day. Power-outages happen with astounding regularity now, as the Dhaka power-grid cannot satisfy the demand of 13 million people. The increasing heat is driving up demand for ACs which just suck the power-grid dry.There are now on average, I would say, 3-4 power outages a day, each lasting for anywhere between half an hour and two hours. Luckily, my apartment building and my office building have back-up generators so the actual routine is not disturbed. But in the slums for example, just as we left the NGO a few weeks ago, the power went out and the entire city-block was plunged into darkness. Luckily the moon was shining and our car was close-by. Nevertheless, it is much harder to take energy for granted here.

On a slightly humorous note, walking around my part of town, Baridhara or where I work in Gulshan, every other rickshaw driver that drives up to me and asks me to drive with him, knows where I live, no matter if I’ve ridden with the guy before or not. “Hey, boss, Baridhara, yes I know.” I guess my indulgent overpaying and predictable movements around the city have made me a good target for them. It’s kind of creepy but then again, I don’t have to worry about whether my driver knows where to go.

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Way overdue river cruise pictures

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The mighty river!

The mighty river!

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ship-building/breaking at the shore

ship-building/breaking at the shore

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A Hindu landmark reminding us of the Hindu presence in this country for hundreds of years

A Hindu landmark reminding us of the Hindu presence in this country for hundreds of years

The grounds of a villa that's been converted into a college

The grounds of a villa that's been converted into a college

The college itself

The college itself

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As well as the preceding picture, in the courtyard of the college

As well as the preceding picture, in the courtyard of the college

Cricket outside the college

Cricket outside the college

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Proof that I'm actually here!

Proof that I'm actually here!

This boy followed us around everywhere

This boy followed us around everywhere

At the back of the villa

At the back of the villa

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Back on the river

Back on the river

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Our boat

Our boat

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Our entourage in the second village

Our entourage in the second village

Sari production in the village

Sari production in the village

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Women

This is not a new development or specific event but rather a feeling that has been with me for a while.

I have come to the conclusion that I will never have the strength it takes to be a woman in Bangladesh. It is entirely unfathomable to me how people can endure under certain circumstances. If there exists a glass ceiling for the women of the West, in its place, the women of Bangladesh have one made of brick, devoid of light and almost impossible to ever break through. The society here is so patriarchal that it’s almost easy to overlook it. But then you start to notice that there are few, if any, women on the streets at any given point. You start to notice that all important local people you talk to, at least for my project, are male and that you’re hard-pressed to find a woman with a leading role in almost any major organization.

It is shocking to observe this discrepancy in a country whose two sole political figures are women. Recently Sheikh Hassina has pledged to expand the number of seats held by women in Parliament but these are superficial reforms. The real root of discimination and oppression lies much, much deeper.

There are so few ways for women to get ahead in this country that most are confined to their homes, tending to their children and kitchens. This is where the garment industry serves as a ray of hope through the bricks. Of the 3 million people who work in the garment industry, 80% are female. Thus, those 2.4 million women serve to support not only themselves but another vast amount of people, wuickly ballooning the number of people the garment industry directly supports to more than 10 million. The reason so many women (girls, often) work in the garment sector is because, and I have heard this directly from the boss of factory, women are more skilled with their fingers, more dexterous and more determined to work. However, sadly implied in that conversation was also the fact that women are more submissive and will demand less. Nevertheless, the garment industry provides women with the fantastic opportunity to earn women by themselves and therefore reclaim, if only a fraction of their livelihood.

The women I talked to in the slums last week said they would never work in another industry because the garment sector gave them independence, an ideal that cannot be attained through any other measures but work.

On the side of the factory-owners however, it is spectacular to see the unscrupulous business-methods employed. In the West, our affluent lifestyle has led us to take the saying “knowledge is power” for granted. It’s used a lot and has become a clichee, worthy only of a slight raising of the eyebrows. Here, however, the full effect and meaning of this phrase is clearly visible. The workers, and especially women, here are kept dumb and uneducated in order to get them to work longer hours under worse conditions for less money. The vast majority of the women working in the industry have come from the rural countryside where inefficient practices have made the land less fertile and less capable of supporting a population. Young and impressionable, with little idea of what they’re in for, they set out for Dhaka in the hopes of finding work in order to support their large families at home. They always find work but are of course horrible disadvantaged, paid less than the minimum wage of one dollar a day and work long into the night. Too often, no effort is being made on the part of the employer to help the women gain an understanding of their rights or their opportunities. Their policy of “a dumb employee is a good employee” traps these women in sub-par working conditions, without much hope of advancement.

This is where the NGOs come in. In the slums I was in last week, the story was the same everywhere; just one training session talking about the Bangladeshi labor law opened their eyes to the injustices they are facing and led them to re-evaluate their condition. Now they are eager for more training and will maybe even organize to demand better working conditions. The reason I have become such a feminist for the women of Bangladesh is because I have met so many inspiring women here who make me hopeful that this country does have a future. If Bangladesh is to have a bright future, it will be thanks to the women, not to the men, whose tunnel-vision administration has deadlocked Bangladesh in a cycle of instability and inequality. One of the women leading the reforms is the labor union leader Nazma Akhter, who I’ve had the privilege of meeting on several occasions. Last Sunday for women’s day, she, with others, organized massive marches of garment workers through the streets of Dhaka, celebrating women and demanding better treatment for them. Her life story is also fascinating in its own right and I encourage you to find out more:

http://nosweatapparel.com/news/interview1.html

It is good to see GTZ employing as many women as men, most of them Bangladeshis. Giving the educated women of Bangladesh an arena in which to excel is certainly among the responsibilities of any company setting up shop in Bangladesh.

There is much hope for Bangladesh in terms of gender equity but the movement is unfortunately only in its nascent stages.

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Break on through to the other side

Lots to talk about.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited along with a project my flatmate Tara is working with, which involves monitoring whether NGOs are fulfilling their objectives in the field. We would first visit a skills workshop, where new garment workers, 95% of the women, are being taught the skills they’ll need to succeed on the job. With the skills learned at that NGO, they will be able to skip the entry level position of “helper”, which involves cleaning and only working with the materials indirectly, and go straight into the position of “operator”, which involves actually working with the owing machines and others that are used in the garment industry. It was great to see so many women acquiring these skills and being compensated for it as well. The NGO, thanks to donors can afford to provide the workshop for free and even pay them a little bit in food and accomodation.

The most interesting part, however, was when we got to visit another NGO in the field, meaning in one of the many slums of Dhaka. We first met in the NGO’s office, which was just a small house with three rooms. The NGO employs around 6 people and is responsible for raising awareness of labor laws and workers’ rights. They took us on a small tour of the slums that are cramped between surrounding high-rises. Having just gotten used to the way regular Dhaka looks and feels, I was presented with another shock. The slums here are basically people living in metal and wooden shacks in giant heaps of trash. Trash is everywhere, from the “houses” to the streets to the kitchens. Venturing further into the living quarters, it became immediately evident that privacy does not apply here. If one house is separated from another by the width of one person and neither of them have doors but merely hang cloth over their entry-way, and if the actual “houses” are roughly 2 by 3 meters (7 by9 ft) in area, and if each of of these abodes houses up to 6 or 7 people of all ages, then you start talking about the complete breakdown of anything resembling privacy. I was aghast when I realized that my room at home is as big as two of these houses.

We didn’t get to see the full capacity of these slums because the workers were still in the factory but we did get to see and talk to those who stayed behind during the day, mostly the elderly and women with extremely young children. By elderly, of course, I mean 45 – 50 year old people. Those in that age range looked like they were at least 60, with brittle frames and rotting teeth. Their purpose in life is to guard the children who stay behind while their parents work to sustain their family of 6-7.

After walking around some and taking plenty of pictures of the kids that were running after us, we got back to the NGO’s office where we waited for the first round of workers to be released from the factories. Our job was  to interview them about their involvement with the NGO and what they had learned so far. The plan that many NGOs in the slums work with involves cell training: An experienced worker is approached by the NGO and educated in the labor law and workers’ rights. That cell leader then goes back into the factory and starts to talking to workers around her. Thus, a circle of people is formed; the cell. Then, the cell meets every few weeks to be taught by the cell leader in the aforementioned matters. the factory owners are not aware of this and would punish the women if they found out because to them, a dumb worker is a good worker. It has been used as a clichee in the West, but here, the adage that knowledge is power still rings as true as ever. This kind of work involves very low level intervention and greatly empowers the local workers. GTZ basically allocates funds to the NGO and provides them with a plan, and the NGO merely educates the one cell leader and houses their meetings. Thus, this work represents a concerted effort to form a civil society founded by the people themselves and driven by the people. I have come to realize here that development works best if outsiders have as little to do with it as possible. By this I mean that it is fine for multinational organizations like GTZ to advise and consult but not to delve in too deep although it is tempting to do so. Instead, efforts must be made to make development as locally-driven as possible. And, judging from the groups of women I met last night, it works. Already, having had only one cell training, they are much more aware of their rights as workers in Bangladesh. Before, they had no idea what the minimum wage was, what benefits they were entitled to, what their working conditions were suppoed to be etc., etc. The base of knowledge is so low for these women, who are mostly from rural villages with no connections in Dhaka, that the smallest of improvements can make a huge difference in their world view and attitude. Many now speak much more assertively about their rights and are eager to learn more, if only to earn better wages to better support their families.

It was during those meetings and spending time during the day in the slums that I became really aware of how different this was from what I thought I knew of this country and my view of the world. There, in those meetings and visits, I realized the absolute simplicity of life that can exist for people and the simple, common humanity that is shared by us all. This flowery and romantic view of this situation can of course never cover up for the immensity of the inequality experienced by them and the truly crushing poverty that these people sadly live in. But in an experience that is shared by many who visit these places, the people themselves carry themselves with such grace and kindness that it is easy to question the merits of everything the West has done in the past three hundred years. The times spent sitting on a stone floor, trying to make ourselves understood to our translator, hearing about the women’s simple dreams, ambitions and goals, laughing about the mishaps when we tried to form some sentences in Bangla and sharing our food with them, are ones that will never leave me. And though I had plenty of reason to be depressed and downcast after the visit, I realized just how happy this experience has made me. I have seen human endeavor amidst the complete absence of opportunity, I have seen smiles and laughter among situations deserving of unending grief and I have seen hope amongst conditions of despair.

Also, the people of my age that I have met give me hope that, while things may not improve from one day to the next, there is a vast supply of leadership available, willing to fight for equality and a better future. The three youngest workers at the NGO were 19, 20, and 22. These girls had come up from the factory floor and were now working to better the lives of their fellow workers amidst the worst of conditions. What was I doing when I was 19!? Experiencing these conditions, if only for a day, has completely renewed my faith in people to help themselves and each other and I come away from this encounter, humbled and in awe.

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Down by the riverside

Just as a disclaimer, all is well in Dhaka. It is still unclear exactly how many people died and I won’t engage in any more speculation than I already have. All I know is that political turmoil, especially in the developing world, is confusing. Over the course of the uprising, I have heard enough stories ranging from nothing happening at all to us being evacuated within days.

To escape the craziness and chaos that characterised Dhaka during those days, a couple of interns decided to take a boat trip. It was organized by one of the only tourism agencies around. Having a monopoly isn’t usually the best in terms of customer satisfaction but it worked out great. The boat was large enough to comfortably fit all twelve of us and we were served tea and lunch during the trip.

Our first stop was in a town that used to be predominantly Hindu, as evidenced by the architecture. Also, we got to see a municipal vill from colonial times which was converted into a college. The entire place was set in an environment of lush trees and plenty of man-made lakes. Also, we noticed how quiet and slow everything got. People walking by, curious as to our appearance but extremely friendly and relaxed. We were followed around by this one little boy who had become the resident expert on cameras and amassed quite a collection of photographs. We drifted on and eventually got to a village that makes a special type of sari. The houses in which they made the saris were brittle and cramped, with 8-10 people sitting in front of their apparatus. These workers work from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, for little more than minimum wage (24 dollars a month, which is yes, less than the magical one dollar a day). However, the people seemed happy enough to show us their wares and were delighted when we spoke a few words of Bangla. More on that later. The kids were also adorable and I had to take a lot of pictures to meet their demands.

The most enjoyable thing about the cruise was actually being on the river itself because it was the most relaxing thing I had experienced in a long time. The landscape drowned us in its sheer greenness and the climate, while hot, was still pleasant and we spent hours just drifting along and chatting. It was great to see that there is more to Bangladesh than just Dhaka and that life can move a little slower than you’re used to. I hope the pictures that I will post later will do it more justice.

Quick rejoinder on the language: It is a fascinating topic here since Bangla is so tightly intertwined with the identity of Bangladesh itself. This is evident in the name itself. Bangla is the name of the language while -desh means country. Thus Bangladesh is the country in which Bangla is spoken and therefore defining its country’s identity on the basis of language rather than ethnicities. To be sure, ethnic identity still plays an immense role in day-to-day life but the overall concept of Bangladesh is based on its language. When India was partitioned in the late fourties, not only was Pakistan founded, but also East Pakistan was created out of the state of Bengal to accomodate the Muslim minority now fleeing India. The two Pakistans existed as one political entity, controlled from Islamabad in Pakistan and had an uneasy relationship from the start. Then, in the early seventies, the spark that would ignite the powderkeg was lit when Pakistan insisted on Urdu being the national language. Bangla being the official religion in East Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh did not take to this kindly and started protesting. The government of Pakistan would not budge however and started to suppress the demonstrations and protests ever more violently. This eventually snowballed into a war of rebellion that killed mor than 2 million Bangladeshis. A scar this deep does not heal easily or fast and even thirty years later, the country views the War of Independence as if it was yesterday. The graffiti and drawings of the war adorn building walls and I’ve even come across business cards that list freedom fighter among occupations, I kid you not. In a move that is strange for me as an outsider to understand, even the officers who were sadly killed in the uprising were immediateley declared martyrs. I assume martyr has a different or more widely applicable function here than it does back home but the fact that this terminology is used so readily underscores the ferocity with which the people of this country hold to their independence.

In more bland news, I have arrived at the half-way point of my internship, a very scary fact that made me reflect on some things. Looking over what I have written so far made me realize that Bangladesh doesn’t exactly come out of this report as an outstanding country to be in. And while there are a myriad of problems, many of them so complex and deeply entrenched that it makes you want to scream in frustration, coming back from the boat-trip and going back to work after the weekend made me realize that there is nowhere else I’d rather be right now in my life. I like what I do, I love the people I’m with and I learn something everyday. My Bangla has improved to the point that I can communicate fairly effectively with the rickshaw driver, making communication less stressful, and I am consistently in awe of the different perspectives I get to hear and experience every day. Also, on a more selfish note, buying two high quality T-Shirts for 4 dollars from a fair-trade store just feels good.

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