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Bangladesh: beauty in humble places

BANGLADESH | Saturday, 4 May 2013 | Views [909]

I arrived in Dhaka on Easter Sunday – a day of resurrection and new life. I had risen before dawn that morning – 4am to be precise – and, as my yellow taxi wound through almost empty Kolkata streets towards the airport, I wondered what Jesus had got up to in those pre-dawn hours before his empty tomb was discovered. In the airport terminal I watched the sun rise over the tarmac, and I broke Lent with a chocolate Santa. A short flight took me across the border and landed me in Bangladesh – a shared language, a shared tortuous history, but a world away from Kolkata.

“Asalaam Alekum… kemon achen?” I tried out my limited Bangla on the passport control officer who was gratifyingly impressed with my attempts. Out of the terminal and I was met by Kenny and his motorbike. MOTORBIKE! Pack strapped to the back and me sandwiched in the middle (no helmet… don’t tell Mum!), we weaved our way across the city through the packed Dhaka traffic; buses, cars, rickshaws, CNGs, trucks, and the occasional goat. There are no road rules here, other than to try not to hit anyone. It was an exercise in faith!

I have come to Bangladesh to volunteer at GEMS – an NGO run English medium school set up by a Kiwi teacher who has lived and worked here in Dhaka for over 20 years. I have to laugh sometimes at God’s sense of humour… the last time I visited Bangladesh I came home saying “that’s one country I could NOT live in!” And here I am, back for 3 months! There was more than one occasion in the first few weeks when I wondered what I was doing here. But even as the temperature climbs, the political unrest escalates, and the suffocating pollution starts to feel like it’s seeping into my pores, I can say that I am glad I came back.

“Fortunate are they who see beautiful things in humble paces where other people see nothing”

Dhaka is an ugly city built up out of the sand and silt of an overburdened land. The sprawl of concrete apartment buildings (pieced together with terrifyingly abstract construction methods) makes for an impersonal landscape. Dhaka is one of the worlds ‘mega cities’, with a current population estimated at over 12 million people, packed into a land area smaller than that of Auckland city. It is hot, dirty, dusty and polluted; almost a third of Dhaka’s inhabitants live in desperate poverty, without access to piped water or sanitation.

You have to look a little harder here to see the beauty – but it is definitely there for those willing to see it.

There is beauty in the little pockets of village life that flourish down the side streets and around little lakes. The brightly coloured fabrics, the carts loaded with watermelons, the giggling kids. There is beauty in the raucous cricket games beneath our balcony, and in the laughter of the kids splashing naked in the lake. There is majestic beauty in the powerful electrical storms that fill the night sky with strobes and forks and crackles of lightning. 

There is beauty in the warm and generous hospitality.  For people who live in a country where the food supply is so precarious I am constantly amazed and humbled by their willingness to share. I can’t visit a primary or playgroup class without kids lining up to share their tiffin (snacks) with me. Homes are opened up, and lives are shared without any expectation of receiving in return. Extending hospitality is considered an honour, not an obligation – it puts our western ideas of individuality and personal space to shame!

There is beauty in the hopes and aspirations of parents for their kids and their country. Bangladesh is a country still in its adolescence. Having wrestled its independence first from India and then from Pakistan, Bangladesh was born in violence and injustice – and violence, injustice and corruption still taint the politics and economics of Bangladesh. But there is hope here and an understanding that things need to change.

Frog song:

A few nights ago we took the two high school classes from GEMs to see a B-Boy crew and Korean cultural group performance organised by the Korean embassy. The show was opened with speeches by the Korean ambassador and Bangladesh’s Minister for Culture. Addressing the performers, the minister made the comment that “Bangladesh is not Dhaka” and he hoped that they would return to see his beautiful country. He is right of course – Bangladesh is much more than this crazy city. When I was here two years ago I spent a wonderful Christmas in Shreemongal, in Selet, surrounded by tea gardens, rubber plantations and virgin forest. Also on that trip, and again a few weeks ago, I travelled four hours down river by ferry to Chandpur.

In Chandpur the sun sets pink and orange over the river, the women are hidden beneath burqua layers and the young rickshaw wallahs race each other through the narrow streets. As bideshi (foreign) girls, we are novelties, drawing cries of ‘Ali babba!!’ (amazing!) from the cheeky boys playing in the dirty canal. Although few foreigners visit Chandpur, Kiwi missionaries have had a long association with this town. The big old mission house we stayed in was built long before Bangladesh was even a country. Walking through the gate was like stepping back in time. Surrounded by trees, gardens and lakes the mission compound is a peaceful oasis. I went to sleep each night under my mosquito net canopy listening to the chorus of crickets, geckos and frogs. In this place at least, the common miss-pronunciation of ‘Bangladesh’ seems appropriate: Bangla (pronounced BUNG- gla) is the language spoken by Bengali people – so Bangladesh means ‘land of the Bangla speaking people. Bangladesh pronounced ‘BANG-gla desh’ on the other hand means ‘land of the FROG’.

Back in Dhaka, I've been working, living and learning with a fantastic multinational team – there is so much more to share! I have two more months here so I will try to be more regular with my blogs… definitely to be continued…

Tags: bangladesh, dhaka, school


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