Across the road from the hotel where I’m staying is a large watery slum, built on the surface of Banani Lake. It sits right in the middle of the city, just a brisk row away from Gulshan, the Manhattan-esque isthmus where the city’s expats, diplomats and elite reside. I’m at the hotel restaurant and an American from the USA arm of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, which incidentally owns the hotel I’m staying at, comes over to introduce himself. We talk for a bit, and then I excuse myself to go outside. Just around the corner is my favourite chai wallah, and I sit in his makeshift stall while an endless stream of cycle rickshaws ferry their passengers through the sea of traffic.
Development expats, rickshaws, diplomats, chai wallahs, slum dwellers, and the world’s largest, multi-national NGO are crammed together in this neighbourhood – an area no larger than a college campus. This is the reality of modern Dhaka. Over 10 days I weave in between all of these worlds, glimpsing enough of each to get a sense of how all these parts fit together in this marvellous, crazy corner of the Earth.
On Thursday night, which is the last day of the working week, an expat from the UN invites us out to dinner with her friends. “This place is a petri dish”, they explain to me, encapsulating in one single metaphor the typical expat’s love / hate view of Bangladesh: on the one hand, a place of profound experimentation, innovation and discovery – The Silicon Valley of development. On the other, a tiny enclosed space where bacteria thrive. You’re just as likely to work on the next micro-finance revolution, as you are to get dengue.
They tell me that Bangladesh is a great career stepping stone. Because few people want to stay in Dhaka long term, relatively junior people get promoted fast. Indeed, at only 27, she’s already a top advisor to the UN executive in Bangladesh. Her friends are similar – squarely within the late 20s, early 30s bracket – young, ambitious, passionate about development… and weary of Dhaka. It’s not just the risk of disease but the lack of modern conveniences like bars, a night life, public places to relax, road infrastructure and public transport that make Dhaka such a grind.I don’t doubt their desire to help the country, but it’s clear most of her friends are weighing up the trade-off of accelerated career progression against lifestyle regression.
Alcohol is banned in Bangladesh. But as Jello Biafra once said, ‘for every prohibition you create, you also create an underground’. The underground in Dhaka comes in the form of a series of ‘clubs’, exclusive compounds designed for westerners’ recreation. After dinner we head to one such establishment, the ‘American Club’. We are signed in by Mel, an American girl and the only eligible member in our group. Inside the complex we find a three storey building set on grounds with a basketball court, pool and some flower beds. If that sounds fancy it really isn’t. It has the feel of a teenage summer camp.
We head to the rooftop of the building where the bar is. There’s a small counter and a fridge of imported beers. There are some tables covered in pink table cloth and it has a quaint, kitsch vibe. For two hours I get a sneak peek into the bubble that is expat life in Dhaka. Everyone seems to know each other, everyone works in development, and everyone has the same travails. The UN woman and her husband talk to me about their next move, hopefully by the end of the year they’ll be out of Dhaka to somewhere a bit more exciting like, East Africa. An Italian guy talks about the wonders of a proper espresso cafe, the first in Dhaka, opening up in Gulshan. Another young professional – an American, sighs as he recalls how he’s been in Dhaka ‘on and off’ for way too long. I ask him what else people do for fun in Dhaka on their weekends, besides hanging out in these clubs.
“It doesn’t get better than this”.
He means that literally.
A couple of days later I find myself on lake Banani. I’ve just jumped into one of the rowboats that ferry the slum dwellers between their homes and the mainland. I’m a bit of a curiosity on the boat – but the passengers are friendly, and despite a huge language barrier, everyone feels like it’s their duty to negotiate on my behalf, rather poorly, for a boat ride around the lake. They bid up the price to… “500 taka!”. The passengers shout it in unison – contracting for me a fare which is about 250 times the standard boat ride. They’re just messing with me, I think. The boat boy is smiling through the whole thing.
After the passengers are dropped off, I gesture to the boatboy to row us around for a bit. We take off around the far side of the slum onto the open water. We pass close to the foreshore of the community – essentially a bunch of aluminium houses built on stilts. There’s a dog chewing on some food scraps by the water. Eventually he runs off into the island disappearing into the mass of houses. A child sticks her head out of one of the houses and yells out to me ‘Hello!’ and waves.
We pass by another boat with two young guys in it. It’s clear the boat boy and the two guys know each other and we dock by their canoe. The boat boy explains to me in his broken English that these two are his brothers. The four of us rest on the water as the sun sets over their slum. The nearest life is a hundred metres away and the water is still, calming. This is the most space I’ve had in a week. Space is the most valuable commodity in Dhaka, and we bask in it, like kings.
My laundry comes back to me folded, pressed with cardboard inserts and perfectly wrapped in plastic. It looks almost brand new – like I could go out onto the street and sell it. I assume this is a by-product of the ready made garment industry (RMG) in Bangladesh. Indeed the influence of RMG seeps into Bangaldesh in many profound ways beyond my laundry. Like most people, before coming to Bangladesh the only thing I had heard about the RMG industry was the tragic factory collapse in 2013 at Rana Plaza where more than 1,100 garment workers were killed. In the aftermath of the collapse, there were calls for boycotts from concerned western consumers. These calls I think, too rapidly brushed over the nuances of the impact that RMG has had in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has expanded rapidly since 2000 – with GDP per capita growth going at a clip of 8% p.a. This isn’t just about money – the country has seen simultaneous improvements in maternal mortality, infant mortality, extreme poverty, access to water and food security since 2000. The RMG industry is the second biggest contributor to the economy after remittances. As we’re stuck in traffic I read an email from a colleague about a recent Yale-University of Washington study which shows that in areas where factories have been established, vs places where they haven’t been, girls marry later, they are better educated, and they delay child birth. In short, they have greater autonomy. This doesn’t make a tragedy like Rana Plaza ok – nothing does. But it puts the whole conversation about RMG, work safety and boycotts into its full context.
Indeed, for the most part, the people we speak to in Bangladesh see RMG as very much a given in the future of Bangladesh, for better or worse. Some see Bangladesh as moving naturally into adjacent industries such as textiles or shoe making. Others say it’s a way to empower women, and provide other services to them like nutrition and health, via workplace schemes. Whatever the differences, most agree that the rapid growth in Bangladesh in recent years is in large part because of the garment industry.
We learn that since Rana Plaza hundreds of factories across the country have been inspected by the International Labor Organization, with more than thirty being shut down. New laws have been passed that allowed garment workers to unionise, improving working conditions and doubling wages. I can’t help but think that this is a better reaction to the Rana Plaza disaster.
On the weekend I head to Dhaka’s old town – unbeknownst to me it’s Holi – the Hindu festival of colour. Bangladesh is of course, predominantly muslim, but it certainly has a fair share of Hindu / Indian influence. I’m met by two students – Suvo and Biraj, who are already drenched in colour – volunteers for a walking tour coordinated by a heritage organisation in this part of town. Usually they do tours around the old city but today we head straight to Hindu St – a small lane way and neighbourhood where Dhaka’s Hindus live. As we step through the threshold of the street, my face is smeared with blue paint by a passerby. “Happy Holi!”, he screams.
It has begun.
The lane way is narrow, with apartment blocks rising up 3 or four stories either side. It’s packed with guys and girls, dancing, screaming and throwing water at each other. Buckets of bright rain pour down from the heavens onto the revellers below. Grandmas and aunties know how to play Holi too, but from a safe distance. Massive speakers have been set up throughout the lane way, covered in plastic, with DJs hidden behind shop houses turning Hindi hip-hop and Bollywood hits. The street and walls are stained purple, red, yellow, blue, green and gold.
It’s a party unlike any I’ve seen before (side note: a few years ago I did Holi in Mumbai, and it wasn’t anywhere near as wild).
Suvo and Biraj are friendly, kind and great hosts. They chaperone me through the festivities, being careful to keep me safe and making sure I have a good time. We bump into some of their other friends, fellow volunteers. They see the foreigner and reign me in for a dance. The enthusiasm is infectious and we imitate Bollywood superstars (me very poorly), as colour is flung from right to left. We splash around in an inch of water that by now is an awful mixture of brownish green. I guess this is the petri dish the UN guys were talking about.
They’re probably right – but at least I’m in the funnest part of the petri dish.