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Come to Bangladesh

Erik works for an NGO in Bangladesh and finds himself at once charmed by the people and appalled by their circumstances. He’s there to help but the whole effort seems futile.

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 generations. Nearly 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25. The average woman marries at 18.

The day I arrived the food crisis dominated the news and I could see the effects on the streets. 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, I saw queues of several hundred people, separated by gender.

There was also 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. The demand of the protestors? That their working day be reduced from 14 hours to 10.. Bleak House apparently isn’t a thing of the past, it’s just been outsourced.

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 but of a greater dignity than the barefoot kids walking on the overpasses in Dhaka. Or the children robbed of their childhood, 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.

Being stuck at a traffic light for hours every day is par for the course in Dhaka. But It’s trite to complain about the traffic in Asian cities – Bangkok or Manila are just as bad. All traffic rules are merrily ignored in a 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 where drivers toot relentlessly just to announce their presence on the road.

So okay, it’s trite to complain. 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 tapped at the window and the city on course to double its population in another 25 years, I had to wonder if I hadn’t landed in some version of hell.

I was on my tour of Dhaka and saw next to the parliament a planetarium, a large 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! )

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, who can say. 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 – but only if you don’t mind being followed and stared at wherever you go – a real dilemma when diarrhea sends you to the side of the road. I’m used to traveling off the beaten track but it was the first time that my mere presence provoked such a staggering, relentless curiosity for the locals.

Often, a Bangladeshi guy would walk up to me with wide eyes and just smile and stare in a naked moment of totally innocent wonder. I could almost read the thought bubble over his head: Holy Shit! So that’s what a white guy really looks like.

But whether they live in towns or villages, the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis have a charming lack of self-consciousness. Watching them spit, for instance, they just don’t think twice about it. Sometimes the sound of one person hawking up stimulates another and before you know it you’re standing in the middle of a symphony of spitting.

The North Korean embassy was across the street from my hotel in the upscaleBanani 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. In fact, all the pariah states are here: 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.)

On the other hand, 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 is that so many new ideas are tried here. Their logic is ‘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 didn’t like Bangladesh. Actually, I loved it. The people are lovely – friendly, curious, and open. And though it got a bit tiresome having a captive audience everywhere I went, watching everything I did, I had to love the innocence and naivety that was so far removed from the hard-nosed sensibility of most capital cities. Instead of hating me for being from America their eyes actually lit up with wonder. Even if most conversations were made up mostly of gestures and misunderstandings, the Bangladeshis’ patience never flagged and they continued to smile from ear to ear.

I was in Bangladesh with an NGO to help families after the latest cyclone had caused immense flooding, killing large-scale death and homelessness. My organisation was replacing fishing boats and fishing nets, digging wells and providing latrines and clearing the countless fallen trees. It was pitiful to see how the flooding had turned the very poor into the 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?

‘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. They 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 fatalistic 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.

Not to mention that the groundwater is tainted with arsenic. 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? Is there any doubt left that God just has it out for these people? (Candidate number four: Bangladesh – Godforsaken)

And yet impossibly, they manage delight. Somehow, the Bangladeshis 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.

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.

And yet we still managed to be sarcastic. Even as we helped the people we made fun of them between ourselves and I struggled to understand why we felt the compulsion. A friend back home 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.

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.

Perhaps 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. You may want to help, but knowing that you’re part of an economic and political system which keeps the afflicted poor in the first place. Black humor is perhaps the only sane response to such a case.

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 objective.

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