Published: April 15th 2009April 15th 2009
It is a broad assortment of things that we do out here in the name of development. Everything from a project to promote the production of dried fish to a classic microcredit program falls under the guise of international development, and the direct recipients of aid could be anyone from local government bodies to unborn babies. Pretty much anything that falls in that very inclusive net of criteria is happening here in Bangladesh, which has for decades been a testing ground for development research and practice.**
What Parendi and I do (see blog from October or November 2008) is just a slice of the development picture. For newcomers on the development seen like us, one of the most valuable things about our year here has been the chance to observe and interact with development projects (and the people working on them) of all sorts. Bangladesh might not be a place where I would want to spend significant portions of my life, but for now it is almost the perfect place to be—to watch the history of a young nation unfold, to apply the things we’ve learned in text books, to make connections, and to gain firsthand knowledge on the many
This woman's husband and only daughter have both died, leaving her alone. The shack that she currently lives in is in a dry river bed; when the floods come after two months she and her neighbors will have to pack up and try to find other land to squat on.
ways that people approach and work for social justice. In the spirit of “all experiences contribute to professional development,” Parendi and I recently decided that we would take two days off of work for an educational field trip (a “learning exchange,” in official NGO lingo) of our own design. We hopped on a three hour bus to Mymensingh to visit our roommate Ashley, who has moved there for a few weeks to test the feasibility of a project on urban poverty and waste management.
The crux of the project is a flimsy piece of plastic known as the Peepoo Bag (www.peepoople.com)—I kid you not.
The Peepoo Bag is a simple device—a plastic bag within a plastic bag that can be used as a private, anytime, anywhere toilet. The bag is designed to target the urban poor who do not have regular access to sanitary toilets, with the added bonus of providing these economically marginalized users with an income generation tool. Sounds like a tall order for a plastic bag, but really the principle is quite basic: users do their business into the innermost plastic bag, which contains a chemical solution that will treat the waste and ultimately transform
Neighbors like this woman help buy food for the widow and provide social support as well.
it into fertilizer. After loosely folding up the inner layer, the outer layer is tied up securely so that users can store the waste safely until it is collected and brought to a compost center. Although the Peepoo bag in Mymensingh is still being tested, the idea is that someday users will be able to sell their waste as fertilizer and literally make a profit from their own shit.
The idea behind the Peepoo bag (or Toilet Bag, as local users have chosen to call it, there being no common Bangla words for either bathroom or bag) in this particular project is to generate income while simultaneously improving the health and quality of life of slum dwellers—specifically women. In the kinds of slums we visited in Mymensingh, toilets are a rarity, and the bags have so far been welcomed enthusiastically by most residents.
Some communities in Mymensingh have toilets, although after Ashley reported that most are literally full to the brim with waste (and in some the waste was actually moving, propelled by some foul unknown source) I wasn’t brave enough to take the tour myself. Other communities, in place of toilets, have four poles stuck into the
ground with some old plastic or jute bag strung for “privacy.” In many cases these modest coverings go no higher than a person’s waste, and the toilets themselves are often in heavily trafficked areas, effectively meaning that no one uses these toilets during the day. In a feasibility study conducted recently in these communities, many women reported “holding it” all day until night fall and then sneaking off to the riverbed or behind a building to relieve the day’s urine and feces.
The whole subject is rather unglamorous and despite the silly name of the European invented “Peepoo Bag,” the topic is quite a serious one and provides some perspective into the truly unimaginable lives of the urban poor. Various friends and I have often discussed the difference between rural and urban poverty, but I don’t think I’ve ever really had an accurate concept of what it actually means for families to live (sometimes for generations) in conditions that are so severe that even the basic human need to go to the bathroom cannot be fulfilled in a dignified or safe manner. I, for one, know that even though I was in Mymensingh for less than 24 hours, my
first visit to a truly impoverished urban slum (viewed through the lens of sanitation and personal hygiene) has left an indelible impression.
After brief tours of the slums (followed incongruously by a visit to the local art museum), we were back on the bus back to Dhaka. The world passed by in brightly colored clips, and for a moment I fancied that I’d found a beautiful glimpse into daily life in Bangladesh. The hot midday air blew in through the open window as we drove through forests of tall spindly trees, waxy leaves reflecting afternoon white light. A boy in a red shirt sat patiently, head bowed, at a lone chair on the side of the road as a barber clipped his hair. Women in saris of every color (the boldness of the combinations never stops being beautiful) stood by pyramids of the season’s newest pale green watermelons in the market. Men in plaid lungis (pulled through their legs to make crude shorts, revealing strong brown thighs) arranged bags of cement, chalky dust rising and catching the white glare of afternoon heat.
For a few minutes I saw Bangladesh in the harmony of its own color-complementary daily rhythms—groups
of young men and women walking hand in hand between home, school, market, work. But then I remembered where I had been just hours before. I remembered the dark and soiled interiors of shacks, where women had welcomed us into their homes for interviews. In one room (no larger than my bathroom), we sat on the bed where four of the seven family members sleep. An 18 year old boy—already home from a morning’s work—slept in the next bed, oblivious to our presence, accustomed to ignoring the sounds of other people in a slum where you can easily hear the activities of at least six contiguous shacks. As we interviewed the mother about the daily bathroom patterns of her and her family members (imagine living in a place where other people can report when and how many times you have used the toilet), she told us that one of her children had been recently circumcised and would particularly benefit from the convenience of the Toilet Bag. The operation had cost the family 200 taka (roughly $3) and had taken place on the floor of their shack without the use of any anaesthetics. She proudly lifted the lungi of her ten
Somehow we look thrilled at having just survived a tour of poverty and shit in Mymensingh's slums.
year old son (who had been lying, unmoving, next to his mother throughout the interview) to show us his recently circumcised penis. He didn’t seem to mind the exhibition at all. Privacy is practically irrelevant there, and nothing is sacred.
In another house, a mother breast fed a child and washed vegetables as she described the toilet usage of her other six children. They, like all children in the slum, line up every morning and squat at the edge of a sewer drainage. The wall of the canal, just inches from some slum dwellers’ homes, is streaked with years’ worth of shit. Walking across the planks that stretch across this open sewer to deliver visitors into the slum, you can almost read the wall as a reminder—an unapologetic declaration of the raw and gritty life that lies inside.
Just outside of this slum there is, somewhat unbelievably, a community of even poorer people. They are waste pickers, and trash literally pours out of their homes, which themselves are just tent-like structures made from scraps of plastic, barely tall enough for a person to crouch. As we walk along the rail lines that divide this small cluster of houses, a woman looks up at us from the dark entrance of her dwelling. Surrounded by other people’s garbage she is cooking the day’s meal; she is too poor to afford a sari blouse, and her breasts hang unashamedly from her skeletal chest. She looks to be 55, but she is probably not much older than 35. She, like her neighbors, wakes up every morning and walks behind a line of parked rail cars to lift her sari and relieve herself.
The grime, the sweat, the fetid water and the shit stains. All of these things—so unavoidably in your face in the slums—are evidently lacking from the picturesque interpretation of life that passes by me on the bus. Just like in the rural setting where Parendi and I work, dotted with palms and ponds and the primary colors of womens’ saris, it can be difficult to remember just how dreary poverty is. The slums, on the other hand, make no efforts to hide the toll that they take on human dignity and quality of life. And sometimes it takes shit—made public and greeting you on the walls that line the slum—to remind you just how degrading and all pervasive poverty is.
** It seems that almost every development economist since the 1970s has cut his (and sometimes her) teeth in Bangladesh, with the dense population and the classic symptoms of weak infrastructure, young and unstable government, and cultural barriers (such as discrimination against women) providing the perfect laboratory for research. International NGOs have an equally established presence. When international development was dominated by concerns for population control Bangladesh was just the kind of place where developed countries wanted to pump money and control the population explosion. After the cyclone of 1970, the Liberation War in 1971, and the famine of 1974, the international organizations more or less moved in and started to run the crippled country. The rest is more or less history (a history which, to be honest, I don’t know very well), and is the background that finds me and most of my friends here in Bangladesh.