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The International Writers Magazine:Life in Bangladesh

Erik Johnson

Before 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: they’ve 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 can’t remember ever seeing anywhere that felt quite as desperate as Dhaka.

First, consider 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 by gender.

The 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 isn’t a thing of the past, it’s 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.

There’s 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 it’s 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 haven’t 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 don’t 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 there’s an idea! (I’m on a hunt for a new tourist slogan for Bangladesh. ‘Come to Bangladesh – Now We’ve 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 hasn’t 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’ that’s 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 he’d 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 couldn’t 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 70’s-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, I’ll 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 it’s 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 isn’t always the best thing in a country with very few public toilets. I often travel to out-of-the-way places. Though it’s certainly not the first , it’s 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 that’s what a white guy really looks like.’ He may not even try to make conversation – whether because they assume I won’t know Bangla, or because it just doesn’t occur to them, I’ll 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 I’ll 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 it’ll top 20. They just don’t think twice about it. Sometimes the sound of one person will excite the impulse in another, and before you know it you’re 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 didn’t, that he couldn’t have touched his two hands together during those few moments between the sneeze and the handshake when I wasn’t watching him, but I’ll 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 that’s really caught on. Those who aren’t wearing sweater vests are usually wearing a wrap-around man skirt, perhaps accented with a light scarf tossed nonchalantly over the shoulders. What’s remarkable about people’s neatness of appearance is its contrast to the place itself: it’s 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 you’d expect to be clean – like the toilets at the NGO I’m 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 didn’t listen carefully enough), and so on. One evening I saw a Korean man lingering outside the building. I couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t mind the blood on your hands.’) Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world with enmity for both India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, it’s the darling of the World Bank, and I’ve 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 I’m giving you the wrong impression, leading you to think I don’t 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 that’s 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 I’m 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 Bangladeshi’s patience never flags, and he smiles ear to ear.

You gotta love the rivers. Despite its modest size, Bangladesh must have as much coastline as the entire United States. I’m 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 that’s 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 it’s 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; she’d 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 we’d 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 destitute.

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 we’re 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 couldn’t help but be affected when they said, as they did, time and again, that while help is welcome, we shouldn’t worry. They will get by. Many of them actually said that they don’t want relief food any more. What they are want are new houses, and loans to restart their livelihoods. Their attitude wasn’t exactly hopeful, either. The people I spoke to weren’t 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 fatalist’s 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. What’s worse, as the fresh water from the Himalayas that thaws every year to fill Bangladesh’s 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, I’ll 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 can’t say for sure. Given what we know about the place, it’s hard to imagine them as the world’s 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 can’t 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, it’s not that I don’t love Bangladesh. But I can’t 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 can’t decide. I heard that 1 percent of Bangladesh’s 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 I’ve 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 can’t help themselves from mocking them from a safe distance. It’s a kind of therapy.  

I suppose this is the ultimate test to maintaining one’s 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 I’ve 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 can’t see what I’ve 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 what’s 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 can’t see past the numbers to see the people they represent even when the people are right in front of you. If it doesn’t 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. It’s 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.

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 you’re not supposed to give anything personal to the people we refer to as ‘beneficiaries.’ When the woman tells me that she’s lost her home, her livelihood, her husband, perhaps a child or two, I’m 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 you’re not supposed to give anything personal to the people we refer to as ‘beneficiaries.’ When the woman tells me that she’s lost her home, her livelihood, her husband, perhaps a child or two, I’m supposed to restrain the overwhelming impulse to personally intervene on her behalf. I always want to empty my pockets on the spot. But I’m supposed to remain professional and execute the project that I’m there to manage. I’m supposed to make sure that it’s 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 it’s 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 I’d 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 wouldn’t make a difference. And I still didn’t feel any better.

Winner of the quest to find a new tourist slogan: ‘Come to Bangladesh: You’ll leave a changed person.’

© Erik Johnson March 2008

Erik's work has previously appeared in: The Hartford Advocate, The Charlotte Loafer, and Humanitarian Exchange.
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