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Published: January 11th 2015
So many of my memories of Bangladesh involve bricks. In a delta of silt, a country without bedrock, bricks are often the only solid thing around. Smoke from the brick factories, brick dust from the constant construction, the sounds of bricks being unloaded from trucks or broken into gravel by people with hammers: bricks were a big part of my days in Dhaka.
It’s taken a long time to write this; I left Bangladesh six months ago. I like to come away from every experience knowing what I learned, knowing what kind of impact it had on me. Bangladesh was just so overwhelming, and I learned so much there, that I am still not sure what impact it has had on me, or what lasting effect it will have on me, for that matter.
Living for two years in Dhaka was both not enough and too much. There are so many amazing people to spend time with, and organizations to learn about, that I would have been hard-pressed to get enough of that in two years. I wish I had spent more time learning about the work that Acid Survivors does, the school boats made by BRAC, the medical and educational work done at the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed, the legal work done for trafficking victims and so much more. On the flip side, after just two years I was overwhelmed by seeing so much misery, so many people in need, and so much political upheaval and street violence.
As with every country I live in and leave, it’s hard
Land or Water?
I read that during the rainy season 70% of Bangladesh is underwater. When I was there, no matter what the season was, the difference between land and water was often difficult to distinguish.
to put in words exactly what I have learned and how the experienced has changed me and the way I see the world. Yet that’s what I feel is the essential part of living abroad. It’s not the sights I see. (I did get to visit Bandarban and see the Hill Tracts along the Burmese border, but did not visit the Shundarbuns to look for tigers.) The experiences I had outside of Dhaka, in more rural areas of Bangladesh, did not change how I saw the country, as I thought they would. What I learned there was different from what I learned in the city, but I don’t think those trips made a big impact on my experience in Bangladesh. More than anything, I learned how difficult it is to travel in a country without infrastructure, a delta flooded by the monsoons every year.
Like anybody living on a teacher schedule, I had plenty of vacations, and if you have followed my blog, then you know I spent most of them being a tourist in other countries; I got to experience six other countries in Southeast Asia. Part of the reason for that is I love to travel and
I had heard about the nomadic villages, the families who live in boats even during the dry season, but this was the closest I got to them. Perhaps close enough, except that I didn't get to talk to any of the people living there.
wanted to visit those places. The other part is that I needed a break from Dhaka every chance I could get.
This brings me to a certain quality of Dhaka, a part of the expat experience there, a lesson that is difficult to explain in words. You almost have to hear and smell it to really understand. Dhaka is intense and exhausting. It’s partly the size, although my previous home Istanbul is bigger both in population and square kilometers. Honestly, I think the real reason Dhaka is so intense is the density, the sheer number of people crammed together, competing for food, water, shelter and dignity, yelling to be heard above the honking traffic, banging construction and overwhelming numbers of other voices trying to do the same.
What I loved most in Dhaka was learning about all the problem solvers. There were organizations full of hard-working, intelligent, creative and dedicated people tackling all kinds of problems. They worked to prevent dengue and malaria, typhoid and cholera. They helped people who were victims of trafficking, who had arsenic poisoning from drinking well water, who had been burned in acid attacks, who had no shelter from the monsoon floods, who
When volunteering with Habitat for Humanity I was told that there were no wheel barrows in Bangladesh. I hadn't realized it before, but I never saw one. Bricks were everywhere, but they were carried stacked on people's heads. H4H tried having wheelbarrows made, since they couldn't be bought, but they were of such poor quality that they only lasted a day. With so many available workers, wheelbarrows seem less important.
were paralyzed or had other disabilities. They started schools, created recycling systems and researched the impact of climate change on fisheries. They were inspirational and I loved knowing people who worked in so many different fields all with the common purpose of making life better in Bangladesh.
It goes without saying that all of those inspirational people would not be there were it not for the tremendous need for them. I learned about the Royinga refugees from Burma/Myanmar who are living in camps along Bangladesh’s southern border. The UN and Bangladeshi government do not agree on the number of refugees in the camps, resulting in the UN estimating that it is not allowed to provide food and aid for thousands of people. I didn’t read that on the BBC. I spoke to the people who visited the camps and counted the refugees. Knowing the people who were working on solving such horrific problems made a big impact on me: it made the problems seem so much more real and terrible, and yet finding a solution seemed so much more feasible. There are talented, intelligent and hardworking people that I met who are dedicated to solving these problems. They gave
Habitat for Humanity
Of all the organizations I volunteered with, this was the most photogenic. I could never bring myself to take pictures of acid burn victims or people with major medical problems. Building houses is much easier to show off.
me a lot of hope.
I learned about modern slavery and with my own eyes saw hundreds of people standing on the street in front of the airport, waiting for somebody from a richer country (often in the Middle East) to come get 30 or 50 strong backs to do construction work there. I learned how in many countries these workers’ passports are confiscated and they are not allowed to go home, but must settle for whatever “wages” are given. I saw them on the airplanes, leaving their country, confused by the seatbelts and uncomprehending of all flight attendant announcements.
I learned about sex worker trafficking and the women who get “dropped” in Bangladesh. Many are from other countries, being moved through Bangladesh to a third country. The British government sent a Filipino lawyer to Dhaka to evaluate grant applications from local NGOs who offer free legal aid to women who were sold into the sex trade. The collaboration between nations and pooling of resources and expertise is amazing, but the reasons for it are so atrocious.
It was not a war zone by any stretch of the imagination, so it would be meaningless to compare the
Working with Students
The most rewarding part of my time in Bangladesh was when I could help students connect with organization that needed volunteers.
violence in Dhaka with countries that are experiencing real war. However, there were definitely times when it was not safe to go outside. There were ongoing political protests before the January 2014 elections that put the previous day’s death toll on the front page every day, for weeks. I heard explosions in my neighborhood – the rich, posh and “protected” gated community that most embassies and expats were housed in.
I could go on, but you probably get the picture. It was overwhelming for me and it weighed on me. I never got used to it and I don’t think I could ever have gotten numb to it.
After living in other countries, I have reflected on what I loved and disliked there. I have just never had that be the same thing. Without Bangladesh’s challenging climate and lack of free, public education there would not be marvelous inventions like the solar-panel powered school boats that can pick kids up from their homes during the monsoon floods. Without the horrifying water quality and outbreaks of infectious diseases there would not be the brilliant ICDDr’B research hospital.
I loved learning about these organizations and connecting my students to
It sounds silly, but watching goats out the windows of the car on the way home from school was the highlight of my commute. It wasn't a very glamorous commute, but the goats made it more fun. This one is eating a highly nutritious banana peel.
opportunities for them to do meaningful volunteer work and service. Opportunities to learn about what was so wrong in the community we lived in, and how people were finding ways to make it better. I loved encouraging them to find a problem they were interested in, and then find ways to help. It was empowering.
And yet it was crushing at the same time. The need was so overwhelming. There are just so many people there. It was heartbreaking to see so many children begging on the street, so many elderly people with missing limbs and disfiguring maladies, and to know that any money I give may not go to them at all, but to the ringleader who puts them out on the street every day to beg for his profit. It was sickening to see so much need in the streets every day and to feel so powerless to help.
What can one person do? If I give some cash or food to a person in the street, does that really help? Can I keep that up every day? How many people can I support? If I round up a dozen students to spend a day building
On the few occasions I did leave Dhaka, the relative calm of the countryside was a relief.
a brick home with Habitat for Humanity, does that really matter in a country of over 165 million people? What do you do when you learn that one of the organizations you’ve been fundraising for is corrupt and that the money you raised doesn’t really go to chemo for children? How do you talk about that kind of cruel corruption to your students? Or to your friends and family back in the US?
This is why it has taken me six months to post this blog. I kept hoping that with a little more time, a little more distance, I would be able to come up with some answers. I don’t have any answers. What I have to offer is hope. I remain hopeful that the talented, intelligent and hardworking people who I met in Dhaka, the problem solvers working for countless international organizations and NGOs, do have answers. I believe that the educational system is improving and that Bangladeshi children in school now will have more opportunities than their parents. I believe progress is being made and that the future looks brighter for Bangladesh.
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