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.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Ashley said,

    Lorenz, your posts are great. It seems like you’re having an amazing trip, and a really really fascinating experience. I just read all of the blogs, and I’m hooked! Rachel just gave us your site last night at our mtg, and I’m glad she did. Hope all is going well, and keep writing!! -Ashley from DPE

  2. 2

    Hey there,
    I’m so excited for you to have all of these life-shaping experiences. Remember, to write them down or post your thoughts in your blog regularly. 10 years from now you will be glad you did.
    The pictures were fantastic and really documented life in Dhaka. Great job!

    When you get home we’ll be sure to go rock climbing!

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