There were gifts, heartfelt goodbyes, and an unexpected escort to the airport producing another round of goodbyes. With a mixture of sadness at leaving my friends in Ranchi and excitement for the upcoming travels, I boarded a plane for Kolkata, and as we ascended I had a final view of the land of rolling hills and any forests that had escaped the loggers’ saw. That night I stayed at a transit hotel near the airport and in the early morning took a plane that lifted out of the rain and descended through the same cloud system toward the dim confines of Dhaka’s airport.
My first sense of the city wasn’t much better. The airport is located in the suburbs, but once in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, the taxi wove through the increasingly congested traffic, past an overwhelming concentration of slums and heaps of garbage and thousands of bicycle rickshaws proceeding slowly, one after another. Outside the hotel, child beggars competed for attention with the elderly, swarming any foreigner to demand money or a scrap of food.
I tipped the driver and retreated to the hotel, relieved to escape Dhaka’s chaos. “You are the one here for the brack purpose,” replied the jovial man behind the check-in desk when I told him my name and said I had a reservation. He beamed a smile at me that glowed in the otherwise dark and drab reception room. At first I didn’t understand his meaning, but soon it dawned on me: “the BRAC purpose,” as in BRAC International, the organization that had made my hotel reservation and would give me a tour of its schools tomorrow, the largest development non-governmental organization in the world.
Begun in 1972, BRAC’s mission is to “empower people and communities in situations of poverty, illiteracy, and social injustice” (Annual Report 2012, 1). The organization understands that poverty has many causes, so it seeks to effect large-scale and long-term change. Indeed, its scale is staggering. BRAC operates in ten developing countries outside Bangladesh, with programs as diverse as women’s empowerment issues, education, healthcare, farming, and micro finance. In its Bangladesh education program alone, BRAC enrolls 700,000 students annually in its 37,000 schools, with five million already graduated and another ten million having received a basic education (Annual Report 2012, 16).
I visited two schools in one of Dhaka’s largest slums, the first a pre-primary classroom with thirty students, the second a fifth-grade class of thirty-four. Both are clean but poorly lit one-room schools down dirt alleys turned nearly impassable by the rain. But, the students’ energy is infectious. They dance and sing and recite poetry and show off their drawings while the teachers direct the youth, noticeably on edge because of the foreign visitor.
A BRAC Pre-primary classroom in a Dhaka slum
BRAC’s pre-primary and primary school teachers are almost all female, and for the ones I met at a training session, their profession seems to be a labor of love. One teacher is a housewife who had received an education and wanted to pass her learning on to the youth. Another is a former BRAC student who was so inspired by her experience that she decided to become a teacher. Still another is moved to teach street children. “If I can help them, I am so proud,” she said. Each teacher lives in the school’s community, so she brings to her job an intimate knowledge of each student’s life outside of school, a knowledge that aids any teacher in any country but seems essential in Bangladesh, where living circumstances can be a nearly insurmountable hindrance. Many families are involved in the garment industry, and student absences often arise when both parents go to work and students have to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.
A BRAC student working on a drawing project. Students use mini chalkboards so that materials can be reused.
I wish I could say that my trip to Bangladesh was inspiring, but despite my “BRAC purpose,” the passion of the teachers, and the youthful energy of the classrooms, it was difficult. Dhaka has thirty slums and one of the highest population densities in the world (Cox), with “more than 115,000 people per square mile, or 45,000 per square kilometer” (“A look into Dhaka, Bangladesh”). Even after I had spent three weeks in India, a country known for its own population density problems, Dhaka’s poverty and mass of humanity were overwhelming. The statistics give a perspective that only comes to life with the images of endless rickshaw peddlers looking for work and houses piled nearly on top of each other and laborer after laborer streaming by, hauling metal, ice, wood. What common human experience could possibly unite lives as disparate as theirs and mine?
I asked my guides from BRAC to take me to Rana Plaza, site of the April, 2013, garment factory collapse that killed over 1,100 people. By the time we arrived, I had lost any sense of direction and geography, only noting that the outskirts of the city trickled into in a maze of lush waterways before the apartments and factories of Rana Plaza began. The collapse site is marked by absence: two abandoned factory buildings with a space in the middle where there should have been a third. Rubble is everywhere and a small shrine to the victims fronts the barbed wire fence that demarcates the site. I snapped a few pictures and tried to imagine what it would be like to come there every day, telling my oldest child to stay home from school and look after the younger ones. It started raining so we hurried back to the car, the silence of the collapse site trailing us as we started back toward Dhaka.
Young men observing the site of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.
Since then, I have vowed to buy a few pieces of handmade clothes each year, a small symbolic gesture toward a large and difficult problem. I have come home with handmade clothes from Bangladesh and India, both for myself and as gifts for relatives. And, I have followed the international collaborations meant to improve Bangladesh’s labor conditions, the binding agreements of the Europe Union and the voluntary measures initially proposed by American corporations.
If only the executives from Wal-Mart, Target, and the Gap would visit Dhaka and take the drive from the city past the outskirts and delta marshlands to Rana Plaza. If only they would stand by that vacant hole and face the woman who approaches, holding a sign with a picture of the daughter who has been missing since the day of the collapse. If only they would feel the hopelessness that accompanies such a sight, knowing that any symbolic gesture or change in policy will do nothing to assuage that woman’s grief. If only.
That woman took my breath away, and her image still haunts me. What can one do in the face of such devastation? I handed her a few hundred takas then gave a hundred more, walked away without looking back, and went home to write, hoping that my experience and my words may eventually result in some good.
“A look into Dhaka, Bangladesh—The most densely populated city in the world.” Risebd.com. Research Initiative for Social Equity, Society (RISE Society). 9 March 2013. Web. 20 August 2013.
“Annual Report 2012.” Brac.net. BRAC International. 2012. Web. 20 August 2013.
Cox, Wendell. “World Urban Areas Population and Density: A 2012 Update. newgeography.com. New Geography. 03 May 2013. Web. 21 August 2013.