Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category

We didn’t know what to expect from Bangladesh. It’s not really the kind of country that gets major press back home. In fact, all you really here about are the frequent natural disasters that seem to plague it’s national consciousness. In India we discovered that Bangladesh was originally part of India but the British put pay to that when Lord Curzon carelessly, though with apparent good intention, divided the country for the 1947 Partition. The predominantly Muslim area around Bengal was hived off as part of Pakistan though it was separated from the larger West Pakistan by thousands of km. We knew that East Pakistan became autonomous from Pakistan in the 70s but had no concept of how or why. In Dhaka we were to discover the brutal truth.

A bloody massacre and a proud nation

Today (18th Feb) we visited the Liberation War Museum in central Dhaka, walking distance from the impressive and highly modern University. Having stopped en-route to add my best wishes to a large mood board supporting the Bangladesh Tigers for the Cricket World Cup (a wonderful experience in itself as the people in the queue wanted to know all about us), we eventually found the museum entrance down a narrow side alley in an unassuming building.

When we left 2hrs later we were slightly shell shocked and emotionally tired. The museum objectively maps the history of the Liberation War between Pakistan and Bangladesh, from its social and political roots in the early 20th Century through to the commencement of the war in 1971. The museum is incredibly well thought-out, with Bangla and English explanations for all exhibits.

If the early days read like an informative who’s who of Indian politics, the lead up to and aftermath of the war are quite brutal. The displays pull no punches. You move from a bio of a leading Bangladesh political visionary to shocking photos of human bodies decimated by warfare and shredded by bullets. Gradually the scale of the atrocities becomes clear; over 1m people lost their lives to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan, most of whom were massacred, tortured or clandestinely killed to remove ‘dissidents’.

The treatment of the people by the Pakistan army, supposedly their Muslim brothers and sisters, was shocking. And all this because East Pakistan failed to adequately integrate the Bengali people into its constitution and culture. The Muslim League that ran Pakistan refused to acknowledge Bangla as a language and insisted on Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Equally sad is the initial unity between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh that was torn apart by agitators with a vested interest and their own political/social agenda. I’m not going to rant over the shameless self-interest of world leaders but there were people like Nixon in the US who supported the Pakistani government despite the appalling violence inflicted on the Bangladeshi people.

On the other hand, it was warming to learn of the support people in the west lent to Bangladesh, with rallies across Europe and US and famous celebrities like George Harrison using their influence to raise awareness and funds.

From decades of conflict and a long brutal struggle for independence, a beautiful country has emerged with people who are amongst the friendliest around. We’ve been blown away by the welcome and hospitality we’ve received. I know I’ve written this a few times but Bangladesh is even friendlier than Egypt, Nepal and India. We can’t put our finger on it and perhaps words can’t do their kindness justice, it’s just something special and you can only understand if you come and visit.

Soaking the atmosphere of Old Dhaka

Our classic tourist trip in Dhaka involved walking the streets of Old Dhaka, the heart of Muslim land. From the Lalbagh Qila, where the local resistance battled the English troops, to the ancient mosques and the Sadarghat quay adorned with traditional wooden boats, we found history on every corner.

Abandoning the trusty guide book, we got ourselves lost in the cobweb of alleys that knit the roads together. Here you will find the bazaars, the trading lifeblood of Dhaka, where you can buy almost anything. Shops are organised by the commodity they sell, so you will be walking through row after row of car tyres and then suddenly be hit with the towering smell of fresh vegetables and spices.

We had so many enjoyable encounters with the locals I can’t possibly write about them all. The one that sticks in our memory is of Iqbal, a 32 year old shop manager, who sat us down and got his assistant to buy us a coke. We chatted for ages about London and Dhaka and then, as we stood to leave, he insisted on walking us to where we needed to go. He then waved down a cycle rickshaw and paid for the 3 of us to go to the northern part of Old Dhaka. When we parted, he gave me a huge hug and told Muneeza that he hopes his son will grow up to be like me because I am a good man. It almost brought tears to my eyes being honoured with that kind of genuine affection.

Meeting a local family

We met a cool Dutch couple at our B&B and Rahima was born in Bangladesh but adopted at the age of 4 because her family were incredibly poor. She recently managed to trace her family and was here for her 3rd visit, sadly for the funeral of her father. Having only met them at breakfast, she invited us to meet her family in Dhaka and visit their home in the Mirpur district, the heart of local town and far removed from the wealthy Gulshan where we are staying. Needless to say we accepted immediately; it’s a great honour to be invited to someone’s home here and it is quite rude to turn the offer down unless you have good reason. Animal Planet, said Muneeza, was not good reason.

The journey was fun. We took a rickshaw to Mirpur 12, the area where her family lived. All street signs are written in Sanskrit, so no chance of navigating ourselves. We ended up asking a young dude in a shop who we reasoned would speak some English or Hindi. No chance. However, being the super helpful people that they are, the dude went a found a wise old man by the nearby mosque. This kind man listened to the address, then pointed in the direction. He insisted on walking us there to make sure we found it ok. Behind him followed a trail of people intrigued to see visitors to the area; this is not a place you would come as a tourist unless you had an invite, it’s far off the trodden path. True to his word, he found the house, knocked on the door and asked for our guest. As we said our thank-yous and ‘alaa hafiz’, we stepped into the world of a Bangladeshi family.

The evening was wonderful. For a local family they would be considered middle-class. However, when you compare their wealth to that of the English middle-class, the wealth gap seems incredible. 9 people share 3 bedrooms, large enough only to house a bed. There is one toilet, a narrow concrete room you can barely squeeze into with a hole in the ground. The kitchen is the hallway and the tin roof doesn’t meet the walls, so there are gaps all around. This is not meant disparagingly, it is simply a description of where they live.

Rahima’s family were so lovely it filled us with happiness. They gave us fresh coconuts to enjoy the juice, apparently good for stomachs. We sat and discussed life in Dhaka over tea and got to know more about the family. They were intrigued to know about life in the UK. The language barrier was evident but it didn’t matter; with such lovely people, who cares if you can’t understand everything?

What struck us the most was the level of hospitality. For a family with relatively little, they wanted to give us so much. Her uncle told us he was honoured by our presence (easily pleased!), a comment I’ve never had from any of you. The culture here is quite special and guests are considered important and treated like royalty. Isn’t it amazing that the people with the least so often give the most.

Parting thoughts on Bangladesh

It has been a truly beautiful time in Bangladesh. The people are incredible, we can’t thank them enough. The common theme on this trip is that wherever we find the Muslim quarter of a city, we meet the kindest and most affectionate people you could hope to meet. And this isn’t because Muneeza comes from a Muslim family; they are just warm-hearted people and feel a sense of duty to look after visitors and guide them safely. It has taught me that I should be more welcoming in my own country and not so quick to avoid having to make an effort.

love jamer & muneeza x

New friends in Dhaka

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Often have I heard NGOs and foreign-run local charities criticised for meddling in other people’s affairs when they don’t fully understand the culture or the best way to get things done. However, less is trumpeted about the wonderful people and organisations that are making a tangible difference to the daily lives of the world’s least fortunate and most marginalised. One such place we visited is called Shishu Polli Plus (Village of the Children) and is located 2hrs north of Dhaka. For years Muneeza’s parents have financially supported the charity having first heard of it through a BA in-flight magazine. The work they did touched their hearts so they decided to lend a helping hand. As we would be visiting Bangladesh and Muneeza’s Mum has never had the opportunity to see where her money goes, we decided to plan a visit. The local contact in England was really helpful and put us in touch with Khadija, the lady who runs the project locally. A phone call later and she had organised a driver for the day at a pretty decent price and we were booked to meet them on Monday 14th Feb.

The project background

SSP is a non-government organisation based in the Gazipur District of Bangaldesh to the north of Dhaka and a charity registered in the UK. It was founded in 1989 by Pat Kerr, then a BA flight attendant. It was built with the support of BA and a large number of private donors, mostly from the UK. SPP was officially inaugurated by the President of Bangaldesh, Hossain Mohammad Erhad, and Lord King, Chairman of BA. Currently the village is home to 500 children and 150 destitute women who all live and work on-site.  The vision of the village was to provide long term rehabilitation for poor and destitute women with children who otherwise would be unable to escape the poverty trap and cycle of marginalisation and in some cases, severe abuse.

It struck a chord that an English woman should be so affected by the street poverty she witnessed on her frequent stop overs in Dhaka during her time as a BA flight attendant. As with India, the poverty is all consuming. To be poor here is to be invisible. You have no home, no shelter, no money, no food and no protection. There are millions facing this situation, so competition for meagre resources and the help of kind strangers is intense and, as we discovered in Kolkata, often confrontational.

A vision of beauty

Pat Kerr is one of the special few who don’t just talk about injustice, they take action. Initially she supported another NGO, Families For Children, that was based in Dhaka. It was one of the few places that recognised that destitute mothers were placing their children into care, often at considerable risk, because they were unable to care for them. She instinctively knew that the best way to end the vicious cycle was to provide support to the mothers so that they could pull themselves and their children out of poverty and regain pride and respect.

What we saw at the village blew our minds and dwarfed expectations. As with the charity projects in Africa, Nepal and India we had visited, we were expecting something low key with a handful of people working tirelessly to help the families. SPP is in reality an entire village with approximately 750 people, staff included. The scale of its operations is incredible and testament to the vision and determination of its founder and her wonderful team. Here’s a brief run down:

  • Segregated buildings housing dorms for boys, girls and their mothers
  • Children’s playground
  • Swimming pool (under construction)
  • Water storage tank to improve their self-sufficiency
  • Vegetable garden
  • Small farm with 10 cows
  • Classrooms to educate children up to Standard 1 (College age)
  • Computer room
  • English language learning centre
  • Factories for producing handmade material such as cloth
  • Paper recycling facility and printing press
  • Kitchen to provide food for the entire village
  • Dining hall to serve the food
  • Offices for the staff and reception room for visitors.

 

And I haven’t even done the village justice with this summary. There is much more to behold. We were amazed at how well stuctured village life was. The thinking behind the structure is also smart. They don’t just take people in and give them alms. They make sure they are an integral part of village life and have responsibilities, so people gain self-respect by contributing. The teaching facilities and factories enable the women to work and to make unique handmade products that can then be sold for a profit. Take a peek at the website to see the wonderful cards they make with some unique and highly creative designs – last year they sold 70,000 and this year they plan to sell even more. In this way SPP is encouraging entrepreneurs and equipping women with key skills for survival once they and their children leave. Nobody is abandoned and ongoing support is given to those who most need it.

There is a retired man in the UK called Peter Wilkes who has taken on the mantle of helping the women from Sreepur generate income by selling the handmade products. Most of the people who are involved do this for the love of the village and not for financial gain. It shows how kind the world really can be.

A feeling of happiness and a golden glow

Khadija and her team were the kindest hosts we could have asked for. She is an inspiring woman and her fluent English helped us to probe her on the outlook and plans of the village. She has an impressive background in the not-for-profit work having travelled extensively for charities across Europe and spoken to many senior figures in international organisations like UNICEF.

Her dissection of the political malaise that prevents social problems from being adequately addressed by politicians was astute, as was her evident innate grasp of how to work with and support the women in the village. She is unmarried and without children yet she is a strong mother figure and the people of the village are essentially all her children. She has a warm heart and cares deeply and that made us feel humble once more.

Before we left she did two things that left us incredibly grateful. First she took us to her house in the village and showed us around, insisting on feeding us with fresh fruit and telling us about her life and family. Then, with no need to do so, she got one of the men to phone the bus companies to work out how we could get to Shrimangal, our intended destination the next day. They came back with the information written on a piece of paper and Khadija spoke to our driver and made sure he took us to the right place to book tickets. Her kindness has been mirrored in many of the people we have met here; it seems that Bangaldesh has a kind, warm heart if you open yourself up to the people as Pat Kerr clearly did.

love jamer & muneeza x

CNG and an unlikely eco saviour

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Bangladesh
Tags: , ,

You wouldn’t think one of the world’s poorest countries would be at the vanguard of environmental protection but Bangladesh puts most western countries to shame. It is one of the first countries to completely ban plastic bags, allegedly, in response to high levels of litter (some roadsides are strewn with non-degradable rubbish). Whilst a recent measure and with decades of wanton littering to clear, it is a bold and commendable move. Wherever possible, goods are packed in paper or jute bags, helping support the local jute industry. Alas, not all companies follow the guidelines and from time to time you will be given a plastic bag with your purchase; try explaining in Bangla that you don’t want it!

Steps have also been taken to reduce the shocking vehicle pollution levels in Dhaka by banning all petrol and diesel vehicles from the capital and replacing them with cleaner, greener CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles. It takes time to make such a huge scale change and it’s not perfect – you can clearly see dark clouds of gasoline fumes belching from older buses and cars – but it gets our admiration for aspiration. The project has apparently been such a success, not to mention an economic respite for the millions of Bangladeshis because CNG is cheaper, that it is being rolled out in the Chittagong district as well. As you crawl through the Dhaka traffic you can see a long line of CNG filling stations and little sign of their damaging ancestors.

Sitting in a CNG fuelled car as it is filled is an interesting experience; the compressed gas fills a cylinder in the back and the noise is incredibly loud. As the cylinder fills the high-pitch squeal reduces and an eerie silence follows and you start to wonder whether or not these things have cut off valves. It’s probably a deeply patronising comment but you just feel that in poorer nations, where health and safety planning is not always the sharpest, that a newspaper story of tourists killed by an exploding CNG tank would not be beyond the realms of possibility.

Sitting tight in a precarious location

When you stop to think, the reasons behind this eco-friendly focus are blindingly obvious. Bangladesh sits on a giant flood plain and faces stern natural pressures. Every few years it is hit with a natural disaster. Floods and droughts are part and parcel of its existence but more recently it has been devastated by the human impact of cyclones. In 1970 a cyclone killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people. The 1991 cyclone wreaked greater havoc, destroying 4x as many house and affecting more people but luckily with fewer deaths – approximately 200,000. In 2007 cyclone Sidr, the strongest storm in 15 years, hit the southwest coast and left 3,500 people dead. The death toll would have been far greater if it hadn’t have been for the early warning system and defenses, including storm shelters,  that were put in place after the 1991 storm.

It has been estimated that a 1m rise in the sea-levels in the Bay of Bengal would result in a loss of between 12 and 17% of the country’s land. With a population of over 150m and many villages adjacent to the tributaries and rivers, you can imagine the devastation that would entail. Global warming is a genuine threat to people’s lives. Western countries need to think more laterally when considering their commitment to global environmental targets. It’s no use tidying up our front yards when the back yards are dirty. Outsourcing manufacturing to future economic powerhouses like India, China and Brazil may be cost effective but their standards of environmental protection are often criticised. Spend time in India and see just how bad the pollution really is and how contaminated the water sources. If we don’t watch out, we’ll heap yet more misery on the people who are least able to handle it.

The future’s bright, the future’s green and red

It feels us with hope that the leadership of a developing nation can place environmental protection so high up on its agenda, especially in an area of the world renowned for its political corruption and self-interest of leaders who often amass great wealth whilst their people descend further into poverty and isolation.

However, there is a long way to go. Traffic in Bangladesh is chaotic. It makes India look like a gentle stroll in the country lanes on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. The vehicles are battered, the engines arthritic and the cloud of exhaust fumes not uncommon.  The CNG move seems, on the surface, a wise one. We just hope this level of thinking extends to other areas such as reducing pollution of the water sources and stopping people from littering. In the Indian sub-continent, water contamination from human waste is one of the key drivers for water born diseases; a grim stat, the prevalence of faecal parts per million is thousands of times higher than in developed nations (people will literally do their business anywhere – we’ve seen it). It all contributes and there is a wider picture the Bangladeshi people need to embrace. They are some of the loveliest people in the world yet their devotion to their environment wouldn’t yet come close to the pass mark.

love jamer & muneeza x