Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas in Bangladesh

Christmas with the minaret towers blasting out Islamic prayer is a rather unique experience, as is the dust, heat and procession of cows dressed in flowers and hats ready for the Eid slaughter. All good Christmas stories start with Christmas Eve, and this one will be no different.

The build up to Christmas Eve is very different. There is no sense that Christmas is just about the corner – I could only hear Slade in my own room – but to engender some of the spirit, I had a small Christmas party at my NGO, and brought some Christmas pudding that they all could try. Most of the people there brought their wives and kids and also some samosas and home-baked cakes and I was able to tell a little about Christmas and how we celebrate it. The pudding went down well, though the kids ate only the ice cream and then stuffed their faces with samosas. But at least they tried a small bit: one even spat it out on the floor. I didn’t think it was that bad.

I managed to escape sometime around 6.30 and rushed back to our flat to collect the Muppets Christmas Carol (still highly recommended for those that have never seen it) before going to a Filipino Christmas Party at another VSO flat. There are probably more Filipinos than any other nationality here, and they celebrate Christmas on the 24th. So we had fish curries, noodles, cakes and all sorts whilst some others murdered songs on a kareoke machine. But by nine it was time to move out, a little full on rice wine, to midnight mass.

Bangladesh is a unique place where midnight takes place at 10 pm. Ten is the cut off after which you are likely to be mugged and attacked (one volunteer was mugged later that evening at knife point), so things are moved forward. In 2004, eight churches were bombed by fundamentalists of one creed or another, and so the churches have been guarded by the RAB (the special police force whose particular speciality is extrajudicial killings – see Human Rights Watch’s latest report). Tim and I rushed (in as much as this is possible in Dhaka traffic) up to Banani Catholic Church and met Georgia and her mum for the mass. And this was an experience not to be missed.

Firstly, remember that this is supposed to be a catholic church, or al that follows will not seem strange and wondrous. The opening ‘hymn’ – to which two priests brought in a plastic doll called Jesus and laid at the alter – was Johnny Mathiers ‘When a Child was Born’. This stupendous start was bettered when the next hymn appeared: Boney M singing their Christmas song, which I do not know the name of but has the video of them all in big Eskimo suits.

Already we had some level of sacrilege, but this was further compounded by the addition of evangelical tones. Through out we had to have open hands praying, alleluia refrains, Silent Night in millions of languages and other things not befitting Catholic services. There was no fire and brimstone, going to hell and general misery, but this horrendous fusion of the worst of all churches. One of the priests would not have looked out of place on Craggy Island. But once we had finished our singing of pop songs and one carol, we could leave and struggled back to our flat, where I finished watching the Muppets, for a more Christmasy feeling than the church.

Christmas morning in the bright, dusty sun was more than a little strange, with calls to prayer darting around and life for most being no different. Tim and I dashed up to the Mohammadpur Market to get new potatoes, carrots, beans, spinage, cauliflower and peas, and then topped this up with bombay mix, pringles, pistachios, milk and all else needed for a full blown dinner. By 12 or so we were able to start peeling vegetables for 15 people and then try to get the little electric oven that had appeared in the induction flat to roast potatoes and garlic. We had five ready roasted chickens to enable us to eat meat that was not boiled or fried or stewed, and then spent the next three hours laying out mountains of veg, grapes and oranges, dates and nuts, Christmas cake and pudding and mince pies. We also had chocolate and fruit pastels, jelly babies and After Eights so that by 4 I felt pretty sick (and I think most did). The assault of rich and sugary foods after the relative austerity of cooking here sent stomachs into freefall, but it was certainly worth it, even if I am now on antibiotics for dysentery.

We had a pirated copy of Casino Royal to for the early evening, and then finished off the wine, brandy, rice wine and some cheese specially arrived from England (you can’t get it here) and let the evening pass, interrupted only by more calls to prayer: if only we could get hold of the mike and play Wizzard through it.
Boxing day and Christmas was definitely over, though most Bangladeshi’s hadn’t noticed it had passed. We stumbled about Gulshan trying to buy a plane ticket for our Sundarbans trip, and whilst I got this, Tim decided that it would be a prudent time to learn to ride a rickshaw. We are pretty sure that the bloke sitting in his car that suffered the collision Tim engineered was not expecting to see a rickshawala being driven by a bedeshi, and this may have been enough to prevent him leaping out and adding a gash to Tim of the same length and depth as the scratch embedded in his paint work. It turns out that rickshaws are wider than you’d think, and worthy of more respect when being driven by the inexperienced. We got out of there as quickly as possible, and discovered the British High Commission Club is a lot cheaper than our own and has better bacon.

And this summarised quite adequately Christmas in Bangladesh, a hot, dusty and noisy one, but with a certain level of charm and a lot of fun.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Photos of the Rioting

I've finally been able to shrink photos and get them online. These show the rioting and protests over the last few weeks...
Police at Russel Square, near my office

Barricades against an Awami League Demo

Burning police car close to my office

Protesters on Pantha Path

Some photos

Finlay Tea Estate, Srimangal

Padma River, Rajshahi (Ganges in India)

Hindu Street, Dhaka

Tea Estate Worker, Srimangal

Putschka Perpared on the Street

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Catch Up...

I’ve not written in a while as it got surprisingly busy recently, but here is a few paragraphs as snapshots of what has been going on.

I’ve finally moved into my new flat, along with Elias and Julius, two Ugandans working on VSO’s HIV/Aids programme. We have a bedroom each, a very small squat toilet bathroom, a dining room populated predominantly by a table, a small living room and a kitchen. The kitchen gives room for one bin and half a person, and is also home to the largest colony of cockroaches in Bangladesh. I have been on a Fallujah style offensive over the last week, and can report that there are over 200 dead or wounded cockroaches, with little collateral damage. The combined forces of the UK and Uganda (the coalition of the less than willing and even less able) have suffered no casualties but a little too much insect spray in the eyes. We also have few lights, and the plug socked blew up my plug adapter. But I have bought a cheap rug to put on the wall, so it may soon become homely.

We had the VSO Christmas party last Thursday, which was enjoyable in its way. The Chinese cuisine was a break from more traditional Christmas fare, and the white wine was decidedly orange in colour, but nonetheless, with Band Aid and Slade playing in the background, it was as close to Christmas as Bangladesh can come.

The downside is that this meal rendered me incapacitated for the next three days, as it took its miserable toll on my stomach. I am still recovering and offer this passing but unpleasant illness as reason for a gap in the news.

Apart from that, I have four days until I finish for Christmas, and because of the Eid holiday where locals cut the throats of anything non-human that they can get their hands on, I am having 10 days off for the price of three, and will make a trip to the Sundarbans mangrove swamp for new year. It may not be Edinburgh, but there might be tigers...

Old Sonargaon

A couple of Fridays ago I made a trip with a few other VSO volunteers to Old Sonargoan, about an hour or so outside of Dhaka. This was the first capital of Bengal following the Muslim invasion in the 13th century, and site of some of the oldest buildings in the country.

The journey out was typically irritating, with buses and trucks attempting to use our van as a pinball to bash about the road. New highlights in Dhaka’s road management system were revealed, such as the policy of digging a big hole in a major routeway, and then walking away. Occasionally, our traffic jam was interrupted by open road, and suddenly we left the city and were into the countryside.

We arrived at a parkland area in which there is an old museum and a moghul palace. The museum has little to recommend it – the best stuff has long since found its way to London and Edinburgh. This was clearly collected from the ground after even the most hard-pressed antiques dealer had discarded it as junk. The grounds however, were really lovely, with lots of greenery and shaded walks, and a brown pond doubling as an open toilet. We spent a good few hours walking about the waterways and bandstands, and saw a few games of cricket being played, as well as arguing as to whether candy floss is called candy cotton or fairy floss. I won this, pointed out to the assembled Canadians, Americans and Australians that we invented this language.

We saw a few craft stalls and some people weaving silver and gold thread into long sari cloth, which was really fascinating. The looms were sunk into the ground with a foot well for operating it, and colourful threads handing from the top. This was formally a Hindu area and there were remnants of temples and colour to break up Muslim austerity.

In our strolling we managed to acquire two small girls who chased us for baksheesh the whole way round. Their efforts were rewarded with 10 Taka and endless photographs – climbing trees, climbing bridges, climbing more trees and hitting rival street kids moving in on their patch. They even sneaked into the old moghul palace (a grand building seriously suffering the effects of neglect) to harass us further. At the end, we each had a coconut from a stall. They pack them up high here when still green, and the end is hacked off. A straw lets you drink the milk from inside this huge cup, before they slice it in two and make a scope so that you can eat the flesh. The husks are then used to stuff pillows. We were able to give some to our little companions, who were decidedly disappointed that this was not more Taka.

The next stop took us to the country’s oldest Mosque, built in 1509. Rather than the all powerful symbol of new rulers, this was a tiny box like building not much more than 20 by 20 metres, hiding away in low forest. Compare this to the grand churches and castles of Europe and it gives an idea of how much wealth Europe has had for so long, and how long Bengal has gone without. Again, this had seen much better days. We also visited what is now a small village but was once a compound of grand Hindu buildings. Today, these red brick and stone palaces are falling apart, crumbling at the base as more and more homeless families cram into less and less space. There is not enough money here to provide sanitation, so preserving buildings is way off the priority list: and hence these grand structures wear their decline as a sad badge of past glories. Out side the village, a large temple was more like the set of an Indiana Jones film – blackened stone fights with the jungle to stay prominent, yet even in this isolated spot, small children arrive to ask for money, and a family attempts to make a living in the bowels of the building’s dark spaces.

This little part of Bangladesh is a fitting metaphor for the poverty of the nation, where so much cultural wealth is being lost as the daily struggle to survive takes place over its ancient stones.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

World Human Rights Day 2006

This is my article published in Bangladesh's national New Age for Human Rights Day. Slightly strange editing which has left it a little confused at times. But if you are interested...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Charlands: a Dramatic Way to Travel

Over the last few days I have been in Kurigram in the very far north of Bangladesh, commonly known as North Bengal. It is the poorest district in Bangladesh, which being one of the poorest five countries in the world ensured that the people I met were among the most disadvantaged and destitute alive. Alive, however, is a tenuous adjective for this we were visiting at the height of the Monga season, cyclical famine that has occurred for over 500 years.

Monga is the local Bangla word to describe the situation. The vast majority of people in this area work as day labourers on rice farms owned by a small number of local landholders. Very few of the poor have their own landholding on which to grow any of their own crop, and so they are almost all entirely dependent on this work as their livelihood. In mid-September, the Aman rice crop is ready to be transplanted into paddy fields. Once this is complete, it then takes around two months before the crop is ready for harvest: the harvest has only just begun in the last week. During this two month period, there is virtually no work available for people, and a near-famine situation exists.

The government provides small quantities of rice through its Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme (VGF), but this is insufficient to give more than one meal of rice a day. The absolute poverty line (under which one receives less calories a day than that required for basic metabolic functions) is three meals of rice a day. There is relief organised by the World Food Programme which provides high nutrient biscuits in schools. A major impact of the famine is that children stop attending school due to health problems and the need to be active within the household coping strategy. The aim of the WFP work is to make going to school part of the strategy, and it has had success, though funding is being withdrawn rapidly, much related to the Tsunami of 2004 which has sucked money out of many other projects.

Men tend to leave the region to go to Dhaka, Khulna or other cities to work as rickshaw pullers, but do not necessary earn more than their own daily subsistence. Other families sell small assets, take out loans from local lenders at extortionate rates (up to 300% a day) or sell their labour in advance at lower than market price in order to obtain the money to live until harvest begins. These all contribute to maintain the prevalence of the Monga in the region on an annual basis.

My organisation is completing research work in the field on the impacts of DFID sponsored poverty alleviation project. This is a $150 million project and is the largest in DFID’s portfolio around the world. Its aim is to bring alternative livelihoods to char dwellers. Chars (for those that do not remember their GCSE Geography case studies) are small islands of shifting sediment found in the courses of major rivers in Bangladesh. I visited one char which sits at the very edge of the Brahmaputra River. In winter, as it is now, the river is dry here, only running through the deeper channels further west. At the time of my visit, the river, we were told, was four kilometres away, and was ‘only’ 6 km wide at the moment! This vast river that can swell within its banks to nearly 20 km is width, marks the border between Bangladesh and India. The char people are particularly vulnerable, even in the context of Kurigram district, because they depend on labouring and fishing. In the Monga period, there is no labour and the fish are at least 4 km walk away. The basin was left littered with small boats, useless until the waters return in March.

On this particular char, DFID had helped fund a local NGO to set up a fishing net craft factory. Around 20 women were making fishing nets to sell to local fishermen and market traders, and were managing the unit as a co-operative to ensure its sustainability. It was really quite amazing to see the reality of the development projects so often seen in glossy brochures. I actually arrived on my own because the local facilitator and my organisation staff went for prayer, so I had a strange experience at the hands of the local NGO staff. One made me watch a medical examination, and then handed me a piece of paper I later found to be a prescription so that I could give it the local woman he had treated. A camera was produced from nowhere to take the photo. It made me very uncomfortable, and made a bit of a zoo of these people, but I was unable to explain it. I managed to stop a photo to be taken with who one local described as the ‘mad woman’. In fact, it was just that she had lived on the char since 1974, and not left it. It was a beautiful spot – I can see why one would stay.

I did my bit for participatory research and tried to show set an example by sitting with the people working on the nets and not standing amongst them as I was being encouraged to do. I also was able to persuade the NGO to let someone try to teach me to make a net: her hands moved incredibly fast across the tiny pieces of thread. I simply couldn’t do it, it was far too hard. But it did get some laughs from the local people and had the local NGO people also sitting at their level, so perhaps I was able to share a few skills. Changing lives will take longer.

Walking through this part of the world is like stepping back in time and moving to a new planet all at once. The way of life is so alien to anything that takes place in Britain, and the reverse is the same. The chasm between the realities of life for so many people in the world, and that of the privileged few is incomprehensibly deep. It makes Madonna’s adoption idea even more perverse and arrogant. North Bengal’s dusty white skies and dry, desolate plains perfectly capture the ephemeral nature of our existence.


The bus ride there and back, however, embodied the crushing mortality that we hold, and is not a journey I would like to repeat. I was highly sceptical when I was told that the bus ‘was not a good bus’. I’ve been on buses described as ‘excellent’, ‘first class’ and a host of other superlatives, and they have generally been death traps of one form of another, so not a good bus in Bangladesh could mean anything. I received my ticket. Every company in this country adds a motto or tag line to their products, often in ludicrously exuberant English. For this bus company, it was ‘A Dramatic Way to Destination’. Having swallowed my immediate sense of fear, I was able to ponder alittle what this meant, trying to work out how bad it would be. Would this mean dramatic in relation to National Express in the UK, or in other words, normal for Bangladesh, or was it referring to the Bangladeshi standard and hence likely to be even more dangerous than normal? Before I had a chance to change my mind I was on the bus. It was 11.30 at night: it turned out that not seeing was more reassuring than the return leg.

We swerved in and out of buses and rickshaws, zoomed along single lane roads in thick mist that would stop one driving at home. In the early morning haze I saw us push two separate cyclists off the road: one hit a tree, the other a river. The horn was a permanent battering ram, serving as stern warning to all oncoming that a madman was coming and he was not stopping for anything. At one point I was thrown against the ceiling as the bus seemed to leap from the road, and someone I was travelling with told me the huge thump that we got as rounded a bend was the inside wheels retouching the ground. This bus was being driven like it was a Bond car.

But the return was worse. This time, I could see what was happening. I saw at least three rickshaws hit the bank, water or forests along the road, saw buses miss by centimetres as they swerved towards each other, and people fall from the bus as he would not even stop to let them off! However, the crowning achievement was the secret behind the bumps of the journey two nights before. I could see us approach at breakneck speed a thin looking bridge. A sign depicting something like ‘no buses’ flashed past my eyes as we headed out across a river. The bus was bouncing up and down, throwing things around the interior. I could not understand the haste until I saw the road ahead. It was not a road. Two train tracks ran out ahead into the distance, surrounded by sleepers and bricks that were the cause of our jumping. It really left me speechless. It turned out later that the road bridge added an extra hour to the journey so it is better to use the railway. I failed to see the logic of this in retrospect, but at the time I was looking about wondering how I could get off if a train came hurtling along. Train drivers here have similar disregard for the laws of physics to bus driver: it would be like one of those cheap films that pitch evil creatures from different franchises together. Except with real terror.

That I am writing this entry should be sufficient evidence that we did in fact make it, swerving off the bridge to avoid a another bus about to make its approach from the opposite end. A cloud of grey sand hid any look back, but within ten minutes we passed a train hurtling along the track in the direction from which we had come. A near miss or ‘just-in-time’ traffic planning? That last word has no place in the Bangla language, so I have instead ticked off another life, and now look with some concern on the dwindling number I have to call on.

I have made a Christmas pudding, Bangla style. I managed to find Guinness after weeks of searching, and substituted prunes, plums, raisins and currents for lots more sultanas, cherries, jackfruit and dates. It feels heavy enough to be a pudding, and should make do for Christmas. I also have been able to buy the Muppet Christmas Carol, and so have everything required for a real Christmas day.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Globalisation Gone Mad, or Why Marx is Still Right

I have yet to upload any historical-geographical materialist analysis of Bangladesh and its place in the world, but perhaps now is a good time to do it. This is mainly because I am sitting in the office alone save for a gecko crawling the wall and trying to hide from me by standing very still. Most of the office is researching the field in North Bengal.

Bangladesh is a country of contrasts, but two small things that I have been involved with have thrown up some remarkable insights. The first was a meeting with a Dutch guy working for the embassy, who told me some interesting wealth statistics for Bangladesh. Around 8-10% of the population are in a situation of immense wealth (relative not to Bangladesh, but to the whole world). Their financial situation is such that there are more rich people in Bangladesh than in the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, most of Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, and large parts of Southeast Asia. Their wealth is a result of business and politics mixed together in an unhealthy class alliance, ensuring that any moves to ensure substantial redistribution of wealth do not take place. This is not a poor country – it is self sufficient in food and has a large industrial sector – but the social relations of Bangladeshi capitalism are extraordinarily unequal.

The second event was a walk through one of the huge clothing markets selling seconds and overruns of made-to-wear garments exported to the West: this is where the extra jeans and jumpers end up, dumped on crowded market stalls squashed into tiny spaces. Piled at the top of one table were dark blue jeans, clearly marked with a ‘George at Asda’ label, and a 4 pounds (no pound sign) label. Intrigued, I asked how much these would be, receiving an answer of 800 Taka, about 6.50! This is globalisation gone mad, I thought, before remembering the Bangladeshi tendency to try it on with bedeshis to see what they can get away with. Yet despite some hard bargaining (harder for him given that I had no intention of buying), I could not get the price down to below 550Tk, or about 4.50. Yet the whole episode made his cries of ‘a good price, very cheap’ but a mockery – I could have stayed at home and got cheaper in Chelmsford. And in an environment not too dissimilar!

This little vignette, however, should be striking. The processes of globalisation (or rather, the current round of the spatial expansion of the capitalist means of production) are such that consumers in Europe pay less than working class consumers for the same product (with a little poetic license with regard to the scientific value of my evidence). Global systems of finance, transportation, logistical support and labour suppression are now so efficient that despite the distance in time and space between the factory floor and the two sites of consumption (Dhaka and Chelmsford), the latter is cheaper! At the same time, Bangladesh sustains a wealthy elite that is greater in number than the population of all but the largest European countries.

Bangladesh has had two bourgeois revolutions that have established the rule of the interests of property and capital. Firstly, as part of India, the Bengali elite removed the external British ruling class to replace it with an internal Indian one. Following partition, Bangladesh then removed the external (discursively at least) Pakistani ruling class and the Bengali bourgeoisie – today an alliance of political, business, industrial and intellectual elites – has ruled ever since. Parties have come and gone, and indeed political systems have come and gone and come again, but the class with power has remained more or less constant (despite the competition between different fractions of capital, such as landed versus industrial capital, or the Army versus business interests that have given the uniqueness to the manifestation of the social relations of capitalism in the Bangladeshi context).

This cemented ruling class have ensured their own position by facilitating the exploitation of the Bangladeshi working class at an alarming rate. This is such that garment workers earn around 2000 Taka (14 pounds) a month on average, though some can make almost 6000 Taka (45 pounds). Labour laws are poor and poorly enforced, and unions are regularly crushed by police and paramilitary units: control of the legitimate use of violence remains tight, however, illegitimate it’s exercising may be.

All this means that the elite are firmly inserted into the functioning and managing of global capitalism, not as powerfully as others certainly, but with their interests firmly lying in ensuring that the social relations of production remain as extreme as they now stand. In the enormous extraction of surplus value that Western and now Chinese corporations undertake in the country, shifting billions of dollars of capital from Bangladesh and recirculating it developed economies, Bangladeshi and other developing world elites get an ample share in order to ensure that their interests lie within keeping things the way they are. In order to maintain social control, small concessions are made towards democratic choice (but with no real choice or franchise), violence is enacted upon the activist marginalized working class, and the concepts of nationalism and religion are excessively mobilised to maintain rhetorical allegiance to the idea of ‘Bangladesh and Islam’, no matter how much these are failing people. As Brendan Behan said: ‘the rabbis and priests go on about how great heaven is, but I don’t see any of them in a hurry to get there’.

In the West, we all benefit hugely from this misfortune of the Bangladeshi poor – we spend less on jeans than them and the host of other items we readily consume at an accelerating rate. It is now in our interest to maintain capitalism in this way. Radical politics has died and instead we fight along the lines of ‘Make Poverty History’: we object to the outcome of the system but not the system itself.

However, a proletariat exists in the West: it is in McDonalds and Tesco, in banks and law firms, in buses and on trains. Marx again: ‘workers by hand or by brain’. We are all working class who do not own means of production - we all sell our labour in order to live – it is just that some of us have more of a stake in the system. Yet we do have the opportunity to change it positively and democratically. This requires global action from all those at the bottom. If there more people in Bangladesh with a certain level of wealth than most of the Dutch, and if India has more wealthy people than half of Europe, and if the poor in the USA would be also be poor in 50 countries less wealthy than America, then nationalisms, religions and races should not be a barrier. Only class politics, infused with cultural realities, is a viable check to the onslaught of globalising capitalism. The capitalists – the global bourgeois – are already acting globally, and are getting more and more refined in their methods. If we are buying the same clothes at the same prices, then surely we too can act globally: we simply must open our eyes.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bengali Culture at The British Museum

The British Museum is currently running and exhibition called 'The Myths of Bengal'. To see a little about Bangladesh and the culture I am working in, go along and have a look. Amartya Sen (Bengali economist and Nobel Prize winner) will be speaking on Friday (1st December). I do not really agree with him but he could be interesting, and is looking at culture and identity in Bengal.
At the very least, try to see to the exhibition.
For tickets call 020-7323 8181 or visit

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Day

I thought it may be a good time to tell a little about my day, now that I have finally started work and have developed some sort of routine. I usually get up sometime between 6 and 6.30, and then go for a run. It is impossible to run in this city if you leave any later than 7.30: there are too many kids and dogs that decide to run with you, too much traffic determined to run you over and the heat and noise starts to get unbearable.

My run takes me up through Lalmatia to Mohammadpur. I run past the Mohammadpur market where I get some of my vegetables and fruit. Two or three times a week trucks bring in massive coups stuffed with chickens, all stacked atop one another. Locals unload these chickens and begin to start slaughtering them. By the time I return with half an hour, there is usually a pile of chicken heads and innards rapidly growing by the roadside.

I continue along Asan road before heading up Mirpur Road, a major thoroughfare. I go past the national graveyard (which doubles as the toilet for many of the area’s homeless) and then into the Parliament complex. I run up to the Zia monument (for a former general and leader assassinated in the 1980s) and then turn to go back. Around the Zia monument a fair number of Bangladeshis also come to exercise. But as seems to be their way, it is their tongues that are moving most as people sit on walls talking to others. A few are walking – sometimes vigorously – and others do the most bizarre stretches and other static exercises. Some of these are really very violent and look like they will leave long-term bone damage. Very occasionally, I will see someone who is actually running. I am the only person in shorts.

I get back to the flat at 7.15 or so and then have banana and toast before going off to work. I get to work at 9 – by 9.30 or 9.45 someone else arrives. Given tha the ED lives in the office there are few excuses for his tardiness. I usually endure the newspaper reading session, then a gossiping session before I can check the Internet to see some real news. Then at 10 there is a tea break (I know not what from they are breaking) and at 11 another break for a samosa. Lunch is always ridiculously late – 2.30, 3, and even 4 in the afternoon. By this time I am starving. The day passes quite fast and I leave at 5, avoiding any need to have a gossip. I can be back at our flat by 5.30 and so have quite some time in the evening to do read as well as cook some dinner and play a it of guitar. I have also started writing one of my books.

And so is my day, every day, with the exception of Friday when I can get some time off and go for a swim at the Bagha club, and Thursday evenings when sometimes I can go and have a beer or two, also at the Bagha. Although I have now created a lot of work for myself, and for my work colleagues, who suddenly realise that taking 25 days to input the results of 100 questionnaires (with 10 questions each) into the computer is a little lazy. So they will find their own routines a little busier very soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tim's Blog

Tim - as I have mentioned before - is another YfD volunteer in Bangladesh. His blog is funnier than mine so some of you might wish to switch.

Here is the link, and it will be on the side bar too...

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Office

After weeks of induction and inaction, I have finally been able to start work, and a minor shock it has been. Firstly, my VSO focal point is the only Bangladeshi who does not like cricket, but lists his hobbies as wrestling (watching), chess (playing) and gossiping. A thrilling collection of interests and hobbies I am sure you would agree.

Whilst other VSO volunteers around the country and the world are going into large, dynamic organisations, mine has but 4 employers, who do less work than I thought humanly possible. On my first day, I entered the office and my focal point said ‘here is the office, now I must work’, and disappeared, leaving me a little bemused by his scuttling away. After 2 or 3 hours, and having read all the English language material in the office, I was able to have lunch, and meet the other three employees: the Executive Director (ED), another researcher and the administrator. After lunch, one erstwhile employee told me that ‘when we finish, we will have a gossip or maybe a sleep’. Lunch started at 12.30, and no one returned to work afterwards.

Day two and I was the first in the office by at least half an hour. I also met another trustee (the ED is one), who is usually teaching at Dhaka University – which my focal point told me was once the Oxford of the East but is now ‘about 37th ranking in Asia – it looks it. I also found out three minutes before that I was to go to a meeting with Plan International – aha I thought, a time to mobilise the supposedly extensive networking skills for which I apparently am sought - but alas I sat through a 2 hour meeting in Bangla. I asked for a summary afterwards, and this lasted 30 seconds.

Days 3 and 4 and 5 were very uneventful, with no work to do. I did do my introductory workshop with the office, a shambolic event in which the ED sat with his hands over his eyes for the whole time. I noticed he did not look at any of the pictures of home I handed round (note: Max, Andy, Michelle, Ania and Paddy, consider yourself introduced to my colleagues). He is incredibly difficult to talk to, because he starts playing with his computer, or reading something, or singing whilst I speak. Yet whilst some have complained, I don't remember being this boring, and I am certain he has not heard any of the stories before…

However, the good thing is that there seems to be a lot that I can do to make some tangible difference. My terms of reference for my placement are to help build participatory research capacity, to build external networks and communications with multilateral and bilateral donors, INGOs and the UN, and to develop literature reviews, research proposals, seek academic and policy publication and some filing. Seeing as they do very little of this at the moment it seems that even a little change could take place, and there are two people who I think I can work with so that they can take over the jobs for when I leave. My hardest task right now is convince the ED that I am not simply a human cheque book upon which DFID will write, and that tee shirts for the team are not priority.

I have managed today to draw up a work plan and will spend the next few days attempting to get the ED to read it and understand what I think I can do and why I am there.

The office itself is quite airy and bright, and just of Panta Path, a major thoroughfare in the city. The political situation is deteriorating again today and I had to cross two barricades to get to work. Tomorrow I may not be able to get there, and 20,000 Rapid Action Battalion soldiers are in place, with the remit to keep order at any cost. On the way home tonight I saw two policemen give a rickshawala a rather unpleasant beating, with a stick and a rifle, and shouted at me for looking. But at least a bedeshi meant that they stopped.

The Awami League opposition has started a blockade of Dhaka, restarting the ‘Dhaka-Seize Programme’. There is serious talk of the army imposing martial law and taking control at the moment. Amazingly this is openly discussed! As I write the water cannon is being set up on the main Mirpur Road (which I walk along to work).

But despite my frustrating, tiring and very difficult working conditions, and the violence, there is some good news: Bangladesh is no longer rated as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International – it is now third from bottom. I like to think that I might have had a small hand in that…

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Tuesday was Revolution Day and meant a public holiday. What better way to spend it than with Zinedine Zidane and 40,000 mad Bangladeshi football supporters. They love him here, apparently because the rest of the world loves Beckham more and the Bangladeshis always want to be different. I can certainly think of many ways in which they are different that are far more dramatic. But nonetheless, his visit was an experience.
Zidane was here at the invitation of Professor Mohammed Yunus, founder of Grameen Microcredit Bank and recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Grameen and Danone were opening a joint venture high nutrition yoghurt plant in order to allieviate some of the worse impacts of malnutrition. Zidane was the official ribbon cutter.
At the national stadium, a dilapidated and crumbling relic, we packed into cramped plastic chairs to watch hours of disorganisation. Firstly, a massive group of girls in PE kit and scarves came out on to the pitch and sat around for two hours, occassionally making shapes on the grass. The pitch was checked and rechecked and checked again, seemingly by anyone who felt the need to have a look. They need not have bothered for from our distant vantage point it was still obvious that the pitch was pretty rubbish. Eventually, some players arrived (the under 16 squads of Bangladeshis two best teams) and a horse and cart was parked at the far end of the stadium. Accompanied by a massive roar, Zidane headed into the stadium with Yunus and some other dignatries, and then did a lap in the chariot whilst being chased by paparazzi (the 'filthy paparazzi' as the paper called them), two teams of under 6s and anyone else who happened to be filling the stadium, including one or two riot police. This procession, somewhere between a state visit and a circus, eventually halted and he sat down to view the school girls in their kit give a choregraphed show that would force Kim Jong Il to have then immediately shot were they to perform like that in Pyongyang.
Finally, we were ready for kickoff, late as always, and the two teams lined up as though it were the world cup final, with the FIFA fair play flag and proper referees. But strewn out along the end of the lines were tens of supporters who were able to freely walk on to the pitch and join in! The highlight of the event was undoubtably the sight of riot police clearing the pitch for a under-16 game, as the invaders were heckled. I wonder if FIFA will issue a fine?
Zidane played for about twenty minutes, ten minutes of each team, stopping only one to put on some fluorescent orange shorts. I do not know why. He mainly did a great deal of standing around and occassional falling over (once induced by a phenomenal tackle by the white team's star defender), but it was fun to see. His unceremonial leaving was a wave and a dash of the pitch to the waiting car that swiftly left. In the post Zidane confusion the match continued as everyone left, and eventually the referee halted proceedings in a rapidly emptying stadium.
The newspapers made a lot of the fact that the VIP areas were full of the 'upper class the shun the national stadium and football' and a strange analysis that he is not as popular as Brazilian or Argentinian players, judged by the predominance of young people in the crowd. But all this aside, at least I can say I saw Zizou play, if it was on a dodgy pitch in Dhaka and with him in trainers, jeans and day-glow orange shorts.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nordic Nights

Yesterday, it being Thursday - the beginning of Bangladesh’s weekend – and payday, seemed a good opportunity to investigate some of the other clubs in the Gulshan area before we all headed off to start work. Having now secured our Bagha club cards despite VSO’s and others best efforts to prevent this simple task, we were able to go to the Nordic club for the evening, which happened to be holding a James Bond themed party. Another opportunity to find out how thrilling expat life can be.

The Nordic Club, as its name suggests, is the second home of Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Icelandics. The general clientele did definitely look as such, with lots of silly beards and blonde hair, surrounded by a d├ęcor somewhere between a ship and a sauna. However, they had made some effort with lighting up their outside area (no doubt at the expense of domestic power in slums elsewhere in the city), and one or two had come in elaborate costume – or at least we can assume it was costume – parading cats, capes and black tie around the swimming pool in hope of winning a night at the Nordic Club. Needless to say, we did not take part.

However, it certainly made a change to get out of Lalmatia and see a little more of ‘respectable’ Dhaka. Drinks were quite expensive, at 150 Taka for a 330ml can of (naturally) Carlsberg, but it was worth to hear the Swedish DJ playing endless rounds of Abba but staying clear of The Cardigans. It also seems to be that events like this most of the contacts are made between people: VSO volunteers looking for money tend to go along to capture people off guard. We did meet a number of interesting characters: Tim has secured the contact details of a guy working with DFID who came as a Bond villain whilst wearing a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB – Bangladesh’s finest police thugs) T-shirt. Georgia instead got a home-made card by some Danish joker calling himself Dr Love, and also that of the deputy chief of mission at the Egyptian Embassy, a pretty useless collection.

However the night did wear on and it remained rather bizarre and further evidence that expat life is just strange. We thought it prudent to borrow some Vodka and Champagne as it would go to a good cause, and having lost Georgia (a clothed shower in the changing room and a swift but wet rickshaw ride home accounted for her night), Tim and I were able to go back out into Dhaka. Outside the club at what was about 2 or 3 in the morning, crowds of rickshawalas fought with crowds of prostitutes for our business, but one guy that seemed set on a ten Taka fare all the way back to Lalmatia (an hour by bike) was the one for us. It quickly dawned as to why he was so keen for the cheap fare: our bottle of Vodka was his desired prize, and he soon was asking for a bit. We obliged, and then continued along the road with a wala on one hand smoking something pungent, and on the other taking swigs of Vodka as though it were water. There is something about Dhaka that makes drink-driving seem ok, but by the end of the journey we were going very slowly, getting long drunken lectures on the Awami League and his wife. In all he had half a litre of the stuff, and kept refusing the fare (which was to be at least 100 Taka) in exchange for Vodka. We did manage to pay him, and left him contemplating how he was to manoeuvre his large rickshaw, and singing to himself.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Panic on the Streets of Dhaka

The last week or so has been a tense one in Bangladesh. Having established a unique constitutional set up in order to protect against threats to their democracy, the country has been plunged into unnecessary violence and disruption. Hasan, the Governance programme manager at VSO told me with no hint of dark humour that this was an historic moment because in the past supporters fought with police who would retreat to barracks after a few shootings, whereas what has occurred this week has been fighting between different factions, with the police blindly shooting into a crowd.

The Bangladeshi constitution states that an interim government is established led by the chief advisor to ensure free and fair elections. They have three months to organise and hold these elections, scheduled for January. The chief advisor proposed by the outgoing BNP government - Judge KM Hasan – was rejected by the opposition Awami League because he is a former BNP member. He refused to accept the position just before the deadline and put a small constitutional crisis in place. There were three other persons that could be called upon but all said no (or were rejected by the parties) and so the President has taken the position, for now.

Whilst this was going on, Dhaka was descending into turmoil. Rival groups of supporters blockades railways and roads leading to the city to stop food and other goods entering. The roads were completely deserted as offices closed, and groups of police were the main pedestrians, hanging about intersections with stacks of riot gear by their sides and substantial sticks in their hands. And of course, semi automatic weapons loaded with rubber – and real – bullets.

In the evenings along Paltan Avenue, around Mirpur Road and Dhanmondi and in other parts of the central city, fires were set, supporters clashed and home-made bombs were lobbed at police. The demonstrators were properly tooled for a fight, and we met many carrying six foot wooden paddles looking like a giant hurling stick, some adorned with the colours of the Awami league. The people carrying them, however, were often diminutive and bespectacled, a strange combination! At least 18 people have died in the city as a result of police firing, and over 500 were injured. At the moment the city is calm and shops have opened for the first time in a week, but the Awami League is only tolerating the current president as chief advisor. If he does not do what they want him to by Thursday, then there will be more violence on Friday and beyond.

The FCO’s warning to British nationals has been to not leave the Gulshan area. Unfortunately, we are the few British nationals that are on the other side of the city from Gulshan, its bright lights and refined police checks, and instead are squashed between the Parliament itself and the areas of violence. On one hand it is very exciting, with flags and announcements and some tension in the air, but it is also so unnecessary given the system in place. As all over the world, the ones that are dying did not start it, and are dying for political parties promoting none of their rights or meeting their needs, but rather ensuring the Begum Zia and Sheik Hasina remain powerful and influential women in Bangladesh, if nowhere else in the world.
Today, however, all is open and it may be possible to get a curry for the first time since I arrived.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Srimangal Tea Estates

Last week was the end of Ramadan Eid festival, and most of the country was in shutdown. For some reason, whilst the rest of the Muslim world celebrated Eid on 23rd October, Bangladesh waited until the 25th, mainly I think to give the Bengalis more holiday. There have been no newspapers in six days!

However, this five-day break did offer the opportunity to get out into the rural areas of Sylhet. We were able to catch a train up to Srimangal, which is the centre of tea growing in Bangladesh. The train itself was eventful, not only when nightfell and the carriage became filled with insects and beetles of innumerable quantity and variation – it was almost biblical and trying to read whilst fending off grasshoppers sucked in at 60 mph was a challenge. However, the highlight of this journey was its very beginning, where having sat down, stood up, knocked over a travel table and generally caused localised havoc with our insensitivity, a man came up to use with a card and introduced himself as an outside broadcaster with ‘FM Today’, Bangladesh’s second radio station. Apparently, our very existence was sufficient to warrant a newsflash for the station, and having asked us a few taxing preparatory questions (‘Why are you here?’, and ‘Where are you going?’), we were put onto the news bulletin. I was asked ‘Was this my first time in Bangladesh’; I was happy to reply, ‘yes, this is my first time’. Investigative journalism at its finest.

Later on, a woman opposite us had an hour-long row with most of the train staff, about her ticket or something else. So we had the unusual experience of being part of the audience for a change, as thirty or more Bengalis pitched in to offer their contribution to what was an inexplicable but probably simple problem.
We stayed at the HEED centre in Srimangal. This is an NGO that runs health care programmes for rural Bangladesh, as well as health governance and other development work. Their main focus is TB and Leprosy. They are a large NGO here and also operated a programme in Afghanistan after the Taliban were removed, though that has since been closed. Anyway, they offered good food, a bed and our money was going towards a better cause that that of other establishments, so winners all round.

The tea plantations are absolutely stunning. The roads are simply made, like those at country parks in England, and with brick paths up to the tea estates. Tea trees squat against the ground interspersed by taller trees and stretch endlessly into the distance. And everywhere is deep green. We borrowed some bikes – a Chinese made one speed monstrosity with a saddle resembling a scaffold pole with a bit of plastic over the top, and very, very heavy – and spent two days cycling around the estates. We visited two estates with their factories, dispensaries, clinics and creches, as well as having a quick look into the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute – sadly the tea tasting was not available. The estates give the impression that workers are well looked after, with some facilities, but housing around the area is so poor that wages cannot be particularly high. Finlay Tea, a British company and the largest producer in Bangladesh were adamant that tourists were not going to see any of their vast plantations, and the guard hastily removed the ‘Eid Mubarak’ sign from the gate to reveal a stern warning to us. We turned back hastily.

Without doubt, however, the highlight was a tea shack on a small road where the owner had invented the five colour tea: this was simply incredible. A glass arrived with five layers of tea floating atop one another – yellow, pink, brown, white, and cream – and drinking it was amazing. The first sip is warm cinnamon, which gives way to a subtle ginger and lemon, with some other fragrant flavour and then sweet honey tea at the bottom of the glass. As we commented many a time, if this was a small tea shop sitting in Angel or Shoreditch or Kensington people would pay four or five pounds for this. The two brothers that invented the method and hold the secret recipe are sitting on a goldmine – even Lonely Planet does not mention this (though the author of the Bangladesh guide is particularly inept!). If only there was a way to find out how to do it…

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Security Warning

This is the text of the latest brief that I have received regarding Dhaka's political life: it certainly makes the anti-capitalists seem rather tame...
Security update

With a view to making you aware of as well as for taking necessary care of your movements, I would like to inform you that the proposed date for handing over of power by the present government to the Caretaker Government is 27th or 28th October for holding the National general election in January 2007. During that period, it is expected that both the government and the opposition alliance will arrange huge showdowns of their popularity and power in Dhaka and the law and order situation may deteriorate across the country. It is also to note that if the present dialogue is not successful and Justice KM Hasan's takeover as the Chief Adviser to the next Caretaker Govt. The opposition alliance is going to hold the 'Dhaka-seize Programme' along with seize programmes in all the Upazillas and district levels. The activists are also instructed to stay in Dhaka with sticks, oars and paddles. They would also declare continuous strikes across the country with an increased level of agitated movements, meetings, emonstrations and public gatherings. On the other hand, BNP is going to arrange programmes in Dhaka from 27th to 31st October to keep their control on streets and in the city. The activists are asked to bring sickles with them. All these give clues that the political situation is going to deteriorate more than expectations at the time of the power handover and later on if the crisis is not resolved through dialogue. Hence, you are strongly suggested to be in a low profile and be vigilant. Please avoid all types of political demonstrations and large gatherings as well. It will be very much appreciated if you discuss this with your employer and if needed, don't go to the office during those days without prior discussion with your employer. Please remain updated about the general security situation with discussion with your friends and colleagues as well and also be in touch with the newspapers and news from radio and television. If you come across any issue to address, please do not hesitate to contact me at any time. The situation is being closely monitored and time-to-time you will be updated of the latest.
The BNP (Bangladesh National Party) is the main party in government, whilst the Alwami League is the main opposition. They have this ludicrous system of government whereby the election is at least 3 months after Parliament is dissolved and power is handed to an appointed caretaker government. The two main party leaders have been arguing over this for the last six months or so. This handover is, by all accounts, the fight that they've been waiting for. We are told to expect a number of reports saying 'killed in the crossfire' given the liberal attitude of the police towards their triggers. It sounds like fun...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Power Cuts

It takes a while to get used to daily life here – from the vacant looks of some of the locals it would seem that they have failed to do so either. But whilst I have managed to find and successfully use the local markets and supermarkets, the power cut issue is a constant irritation.

We get at least three a day; perhaps even more as there is a suspicion that the power is turned off at night. Every evening, around 7 pm, the lights shut off and the fans stop turning, and as the heat from outside rushes in, we begin the daily search for where we left the torches and hurricane lamps. Usually all that can be done is to open up a book and set up a mosquito killing lamp and wait. It is timed quite well, being on or about and hour at a time. The largest problem is that the bright white fluorescent of the hurricane lamp is like Mecca to things that enjoy nothing more than eating people, and so there is a toss up between light to work and closed windows, or an open window and a modicum of a breeze, but one enjoyed in the utter darkness. It is refreshing to see, however, that religious bodies the world all over know how to get what they need whilst their congregations endure the darkness: our local mosque never seems to have too little power for its red neon sign.

The period between about 8 and 9 when the power returns is usually best to cook up some dinner, as this should ensure that there is enough time to eat it in the light before the next power cut kicks in. Typically, this is at about 10 or 10.30, and whilst it can be for a few seconds (when the power board switches off the wrong district), it can be an hour or more, and puts a halt to anything like writing on a computer, watching a film or washing up. Then, during the night the power is off (though none of us has stayed up long enough to find out for how long or often), and there is usually a morning cut at about 10 or 11 am. This nicely coincides with the heating up of the day and the small, ventilation free classroom in which we are still struggling through out Bangla.
Power cuts are the source of riots and fights, and generating some major political interest; political life is very volatile at the moment. Next Friday sees the handover of power from the current government to a caretaker administration that will organise the elections. The government seems reluctant to have its power cut too, and for weeks there have been debates and fights between the two main parties on how to do this. However, it is set to go, and just to be sure that the veneer of order can be kept, 5,000 extra police are being drafted into the city to try to put down the expected unrest, rioting and fighting. It seems the worst timing imaginable: Ramadan will have finished and the Eid holiday to celebrate this will have just ended, and the 5 million people now trying to leave the city to go to their villages to celebrate will be rushing back in, bringing with them a sense of injustice, a post-Eid misery and copious energy ready to be released. There will be fireworks.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Village

We spent the last three days in some of the villages of the Rajshahi Division. This area is in the West of the country, with its western border being made up by the Padma River. This vast water is otherwise known as the Ganges in India, which could be seen as a distant bank, shrouded in dusty mists. The Ganges represents the furthest extent of Alexander the Great’s invasions from Macedonia, the grey-green expanse a fitting boundary to his intentions. At the peak of the dry season, smugglers cross back and forth with contraband – often beer – but during our visit the calm waters were in full spread and Bangladeshi oarsmen drifted slowly through the rushes as the low sun set.

Only two VSO volunteers are based in Rajshahi division, where 25% of Bangladeshis live. We were meeting Samson, a Kenyan who retired last year as that country’s chief economist. A fascinating but quiet guy, he showed us his sparse flat, working offices and some of the villages in which his organisation operates. He works with 5 different community based organisations as a strategic planning advisor, yet seemed deeply dissatisfied with his Bangladeshi life. Luckily, he was accompanied by a side kick – Sylvester – who was seemingly employed to do everything for him: translate, carry bags, organise tours, rickshaws, buses, lawnmowers for rides in the rice fields and anything else. Everyone needs a Sylvester in Bangladesh.

The journey to the main city of the division, also called Rajshahi, was fraught with danger. Local bus drivers showed their characteristic disregard for basic hazard avoidance as we careered along barely made roads at fast speeds, and surfaced roads at ludicrous speeds. Buses or lorries oncoming were not necessary something to avoid, with drivers taking up a position on the wrong side of the road for 20 minutes or more, and then seemingly perturbed to find anything coming towards them. Yet we did arrive in one piece some seven hours later, if not a little blustered.

Rajshahi was a bit of a non-event, with a university and the Padma being its saving graces. Yet the next day we took a local bus (same driving but much thinner roads) out into the countryside and it was beautiful. Rice fields stretched for miles, criss-crossed by small paths occasionally walked by farmers. The roads were tree lined like the best of Provence, and small groups of people walked or cycled along. Every ten minutes or so on our hour and a half journey the bus would stop at the smallest of villages and off load people, ducks, chickens, light bulbs and anything else that could be crammed into its dilapidated interior.

We eventually stopped in a small village occupied by some of the indigenous communities (ICs) in Bangladesh. These are the most marginalised and poorest of Bangladesh’s already poor population. Mostly they are Christian, and there was a small Catholic Church nearby that was sparsely furnished but brightly coloured. In the first village we visited the end of a school class for primary age children. In rural Bangladesh, only 25% of girls go to primary school, and then lessons are in Bangla. The indigenous communities are losing their language, land, culture and other rights, and so the local CBOs are trying to keep this alive. The kids sung us some songs and then we were forced to return the favour – the hokey-cokey is now well established in rural Bangladesh.

The villages are however, incredibly poor. Whilst they do have national grid electricity connections, life is hard for these people, working small rice plots and mango groves by hand, with children charged with sharpening knives and cutting bamboo or looking after animals, and women cutting and building and sowing all day. Houses are made of wattle and daub with straw roofs, with pit stoves formed from wetted mud. It is not actually much different to rural Ireland or England in the 1920s or 1930s, or Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Except this is today and there is no apparent way of changing this. On the other hand they were teeming with life – ducklings and piglets, babies and chicks, kittens and calves running back and forth – and whilst this existence should not be romanticised from what it is, there is a simplicity and connectivity that should be admired and enhanced.

We then took a strange ride back towards the main town on a cross between a lawnmower and a motorbike, with nine of us hanging on to the platform. I was only dragged through one bush, and was able to extract a couple of thorns from my bleeding foot before we squeezed between a pond and bus doing an impression of Colin McRae.

The sun was cool and the wind blowing a little which made the trip back lovely, surrounded by virtually no one but a few farmers and miles and miles of low-lying rice fields. In the hurricane of Dhaka finding silence in this country seemed impossible, but it is and it is beautiful.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ami Beshi Bangla Buli

To the end of attempting to get a bangladeshi price for a bangladeshi wage, we’ve now had 4 of 14 Bangla classes. As the title suggests, this is somewhat limited as yet (phonetically, this is I speak some Bangla). Each morning we trek across the city to the language centre – why VSO chose the opposite side of such a congested city has not been acceptably justified – for the lesson. The first day it took an hour, an hour back. Then it was an hour and a half and more back, and so on. All the roads in the city seem to lead to the Parliament building, next to which there is a tiny stretch of road that we sit on every day for up to half an hour. Lorries and buses belch out black smoke and our legs get singed by exhaust fumes. None of the drivers know anywhere in their city. We constantly end up directing them.

Today, it took at least 80 minutes to do a 5 kilometre journey. Having managed to flag down a yellow taxi (for four) and barter a price (at least VSO pays for this!) our driver immediately hared off in the wrong direction. Serving into the residential districts of Lalmatia, his Schumacher-style path was stopped by the inevitable traffic jam, and the five minute walk we take from the flat to VSO took us 25 minutes. Already ridiculously late, our driver then careered around a corner with a vigorous beep of this horn, and only just managed to stop his battered car from collision with a 4x4, and also to stall the car. He then was unable to restart the thing, causing drivers to get out and run over to us to shout at him for blocking the way. Bouncing along a further fifty yards, he pulled over and lifted the bonnet. By now hopelessly late and only 150 metres from our flat. He was genuinely shocked that he wasn’t to get his 150 Taka for such a miserable performance as a taxi driver.

We dashed onto the main road to catch up with the major traffic jams, and in desperation got a CNG, three of us in the back and Mikey, a Canadian, sitting in the driver’s cage. We jumped the first light, but caught in traffic, our CNG gave out and stalled. Already we were ten minutes late for the nine am start and still had gone less than 300 metres from the flat. But this driver decided to constantly attempt to start the engine, despite its obvious refusal to budge, and resorted to dragging the whole CNG with all four of us in it at least 40 metres down the road as the traffic crawled along. We offered to push, to get out, to leave and all were steadfastly refused. Then, with a look to us of utter contempt, he got the thing going and chugged along to the lesson.

The lessons themselves are in a room with very temperamental power, and massive temperature swings. Our teacher is a little scatty, answering questions by laughing and ignoring them, and also possesses two of the most stupid babies imaginable. They respond to absolutely nothing – paper planes, faces, sweets – all are received with vacant complicity. Their sole talent seems to be the ability to bash on the door to get into the tiny classroom, and demand a pen to write on the board. Whilst this is indulged, we attempt to conjugate some verbs. The baby follows acquisition of the pen with rubbing off useful vocab or staring blankly at the wall. Finally it demands to be let out, only to repeat the cycle every ten minutes for three hours. At least I am learning some bangla, and whilst I cannot yet say ‘I’m working on a local salary with an NGO so put it on the bloody meter’, I can say things like ‘I understand some bangla’, ‘I go now, goodbye’ and ‘I need some rice’. The helpfulness of the classes is an open question as yet. However, I’ll have to speak it when work starts so I hope to pick more up there.

On the way back we were treated to our first accident, with a large Toyota crumpled by a tiny CNG. It is at least reassuring to see that the CNG is a sturdy vehicle. A crowd was a round the cars but the drivers seemed to have escaped the usual mob justice. There are at least 47 reported accidents a day in the city, with at least 4 or 5 deaths. But unreported accidents must be huge, and we regularly bump into other cars or baby taxis as part of the normal state of driving. Some to the taxis are more scratch and bump than car.
Anyway, whilst it may seem that traffic and travelling is an obsession at the moment, that is because it is. I’ll put some more stories on about other things when happen.

Hope you have all read the latest issue of (link to the left).

Money Matters

It has been mentioned that there was something incongruous about my last post between noting the poor conditions of the rickshawalas and haggling for a good price, so I thought a little about money and prides in Bangladesh may be of interest.

The currency in Bangladesh is the Taka, with roughly 125 Taka to a pound. Prices are not as low as one would perhaps expect for such a poor country. To my distress, Cornflakes come in at between 400 and 550 Taka, or somewhere approaching £4! And this is not for a whole kilogram, but the tiny 250 gram box. Yet even if this was affordable on my salary, I would then need to mount a Herculean expedition to find milk. Milk comes in a box, powdered and with helpful instructions for making up liquid. Orange juice also comes in a box, powdered and sweetened beyond recognition. Even cartons of milk and orange juice usually turn out to be powdered forms that have been prepared for the eager Bangladeshi consumers. The question as to the point of turning liquid into powder to turn it back into liquid for sale does not seem to have been raised when this ridiculous line of projects was first conceived.

Onions are cheap, as are okra (called ‘Lady Fingers’ here), and green beans. Tomatoes are about 40 Taka for a kilogram, though cherry tomatoes come in at 480 Taka per kilo. We can get rice easily, but pasta is more. Kidney beans and baked beans are 80p a can; Coke is 50 Taka for 2 litres. Meat is quite expensive, with chicken at 300 Taka a kilo, and beef a little less. The supermarkets also proudly display sheep brains, offal, goat heads and other delicacies. Bread is always sweetened or with added milk (powder).

Yet all this is reasonable if one is on a middle class salary in Dhaka, as it is only the middle class who use the new supermarkets. However, my daily salary is about 300 Taka (or £2 or so). So I live on about $3 a day, which is not much above the official poverty line. Obviously, I have already had rent stopped before I get that salary (£1 a day) and don’t have families to support, but in reality as a VSO volunteer in Dhaka there is not much spare money. Hence it becomes increasingly important to haggle ferociously with CNG drivers and Rickshawalas. A CNG ride and back to most parts of the city can cost 100 Taka, leaving just 200 for the rest of the day. Market traders also hike prices when a gora turns up, our white skin a blank cheque for a good pay day. Getting the Bangla price or the meter on is a constant struggle. If I were a tourist it would not be an issue, but when we earn similar wages to those attempting to make a small killing, it becomes fantastically important. Though it is a very pertinent lesson in the ways of the urban poor in this country, and the daily struggle that their existence has become.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Traffic Problems

Dhaka City, the central part of this massive sprawl, is not particularly large: the up and coming areas of Mohammudpur, Lalmatia and Dhamondi are in the north east, with the expatriate and embassy areas of Golshan to the north west. Old Dhaka hugs the river to the south, with the university and European town north of that as the link between our busy quarter and the more relaxed and grander Golshan area. So in all, crossing between Lalmatia and Golshan (where the British High Commission, Embassy Clubs and our clinic are) should not be more than five kilometres, fifteen-minute dash in a CNG Baby Taxi, or less in a proper taxi. But of course, this is Dhaka, and every bit of travelling is a chore incomparable to anything else.

A CNG is a small green motorised rickshaw. It has three wheels, a small gas powered engine and usually a driver of dubious ability. Having got lost (again) somewhere in central part of the European city, and made up for it with one of Dhaka’s most expensive but least tasty donuts (from the Pan Pacific Sondoran Hotel), myself and Tim (another VSO YfD volunteer who will be working in Sylhet in the north) felt reinforced enough to take what could be our last journey into the old town. Walking out of the hotel and along a small stretch of undulating pavement, we were greeted with an excited shout from a small CNG whizzing along the outside lane of the three-lane road. With one hand waving at us, and two eyes ensuring our movements were not lost to him, he swerved blindly across the traffic, missing lorries, numerous CNGs and anything else in his ridiculous path. He was clearly convinced that we were the lakhipoti (millionaires) to make his day, but nearly lost his sale by driving straight into the six inch wide and three feet deep gutter than runs next to all Dhaka’s streets. Yet rather than sheepishly attempting to remove his battered CNG from its new home, he instead kept asking us where we wanted to go! Such driving clearly should not be considered as a negative point when selecting a CNG. His eagerness was, however, endearing, and so Tim and I took his hobbling vehicle into the old town. After we had helped him lift it from the gutter, check the engine and clean part of a seat. But we got a discount…

Other drivers are similarly vivacious characters. A one-eyed man with three different impact marks on his windscreen seemed disappointed that we chose to avoid his services, whilst another was busy re-attaching the handle-bars of his crate to the front wheel with a tennis racket handle strap. Another kept turning round to have his photograph taken whilst doing 45 mph on what amounts to a glorified vacuum cleaner.

The other, slower mode of transport is the rickshaw, a large tricycle driven by a rickshawala. There are nearly 700,000 rickshawalas in Dhaka alone, making it a major form of employment in the city. Few walas own their rickshaw; instead, a select number of bosses run massive cartels, carving out areas of the city where they operate. Rickshaws are rented to the drivers for eight hours a day, and once this rent is paid, a wala can expect to take home around 100 Taka (about 70p). They are some of the hardest working, least respected and socially and economically oppressed people in the city. Nothing sums up the relationship between the city’s vast urban poor and the small, wealthy elite than the sight of suited business men being driven to work by walas wearing their only longi and sandals. However, the rickshaws are also a major cultural expression, and they are all covered in bright, colourful paintings of folk stories, film scripts and political figures, with tassels, bells and horns in reds, yellows, greens and purples.

Riding them is precarious, and getting a fair price a challenge. Every pothole sends shudders through the wooden frames, and drivers use their bell rather than their eyes before pulling out of a road. They think nothing of heading down major motorways or competing for road space with buses belching out thick grey smoke.

All other traffic uses horns as a warning of approach, and brake reluctantly. The roads are so clogged that the journeys alluded to earlier take 45, 50 or 100 minutes, with detours being made through parks, along railway lines, through slums – whatever will get the driver to his destination quickest. But because everyone is doing it, the whole city is a constant traffic jam, with idling engines spurting out all sorts of noxious fumes: by the end of the day feet are usually a dull grey such is the filth in the air and on the roads.

But there is a strange sort of culture to the nightmarish traffic situation that surrounds the city: in the chaos there is an enforced hierarchy of which vehicles can push (sometimes literally!) others of the road and who will brake for whom at junctions. And the geometry that the rickshawalas and CNG drivers beats anything Beckham or Zidane manage: they are constantly calculating angles, projectories, speeds and braking distances to allow this jammed city to keep moving. Only sometimes, more romantic qualities override their classical mathematical minds, and when seeing a potentially large, Western fare walking dazed along a road, a miscalculation of the road and the gutter can perhaps be forgiven.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Teething Pains and Monsoon Rains

Dhaka is going through the last thrusts of the monsoon season, bringing small bouts of hard, warm rain twice or three times a day. Lasting no more than twenty minutes, it is still sufficient to turn the unmade – or half made – streets around the temporary flat in Lalmatia to sticky mud. Lalmatia is in the east of the city, slightly above the old town. It is a series of small blocks, housing middle class and lower middle class flats of much varying quality and design. The monsoon climate does not look favourably on the masonry and buildings quickly deteriorate, giving even the newest and smartest flats the appearance of years of weathering. Yet apparently Lalmatia is the up and coming part of Dhaka (a short of subcontinental Shoreditch), and whilst it is now populated by NGOS – VSO, ActionAid and loads of indigenous organisations – incomers are being priced out of the area and forced to go to Golshan in the west of the city where the Embassies and clubs are, and the expats on real salaries live.

Lalmatia is also rapidly acquiring the trappings of globalisation, with a new ‘etc…’ store opening, selling DVDs for 100 Taka (about 88p) and hosting a ‘Coffee World’ coffee shop that claims the largest menu in the world (for a coffee chain). This is certainly true, but does not make it either affordable on the VSO salary, or of good quality: they still use powdered milk! Powered milk is ubiquitous here. Even when buying what seems to be normal milk, it turns out just to be powdered milk that has been made up for you (one teaspoon of powder to three glasses of water). Not that this matters much anyway because Cornflakes cost nearly £5, and I cannot afford to spend a 12th of my salary on cereal!

The other most striking thing about the city is that is seems to exist in a state of permanent chaos. Traffic signals are merely decoration, car horns serve as a battering ram, not an alarm, and rickshaws swerve in and out of the fast moving traffic at ridiculous speeds, flinging passengers back and forth on precarious seats. Then there are the CNGs – autorickshaws – that have three wheels, a gas canister and a cage, but are driven like they are in a rally race. The advice is don’t use any transport after ten at night, as the CNGs, the black taxis and even some rickshaw wallahs are all in on kidnapping and mugging scams, and are not to be too trusted.

The induction flat is quite large, and housing four of us at the moment with two Ugandans to arrive soon. It also has a resident population of two geckos, and nightly visits from cockroaches. The largest so far is about three inches, and is by far sufficiently big for now! Luckily, Gordon and Tony (the geckos) like to eat them, and so are being domesticated as the first line of defence.

Dhaka is a bit of a nightmare at the moment – we’ve had power cuts each day, there are some hartals on (politically motivated strikes), riots at the power stations – and then there are the typical bizarre policies of third world governments. Firstly, why put speed humps on motorways? Cars doing 70 or more keep accelerating until the last minute, where a mass pile up is just avoided before the next round of death defying driving. Although Dhaka has the highest death rate on its roads in the world, so in general death is but a speed bump away. There is no lighting at night, at all, so the city descends into a nerve-wracking darkness. The law is such that beeping your horn or ringing your rickshaw bell counts as sufficient warning to pedestrians, and then if they get run over, it is their fault. Which means that from seven in the evening, an evening stroll is a balancing act between the edge of the road, and the cockroach infested gutter.

Needless to say, this is dystopian Dhaka.

Monday, September 11, 2006