I’ve just returned to Dhaka after five days away up in the north-west of Bangladesh, very near a large town called Dinajpur. I was working for a big partner NGO of VSO Bangladesh, called Gram Bikash Kendro (GBK), who really are a development powerhouse of the region, employing over 300 staff, delivering seven big projects, working across many themes such as education, health, micro-credit, the full development monty.
I was there to help them produce a website; planning and producing thier content before another colleague comes up and designs the site. It was a good experience for me to see how big organisations are run in Bangladesh (compared to the four staff in my own NGO), everyone was very friendly and spoke decent English, so I’m happy with the experience, and hopefully they should have a functioning website within the next month.
It was hot though – Dinajpur is in the hottest region of Bangladesh, and last week, across the country, 29 people died due to the extreme weather. What made it even worse was that the power supply was really awful, blackouts for three or four hours every evening, so there was not much else to do except lie on a towel in the dark and hope to eventually get to sleep. Not exactly a lively week for me.
The office was the biggest thing in the town, and other than GBK, there seemed to be nothing really except for small shacks and houses along the main through road, and large paddy-fields stretching out across the flat horizon. People were harvesting the rice, if that’s the right word, and a lot of roads were half-covered by the grains being spread out and dried under the merciless sun. Later the rice would be packed and sent up the train to the main town of Dinajpur for market.
Cows meandered around, people buzzed about on rickshaw carts or the occasional motorbike, and small shacks sold the usual goods of nuts, sweets, and soft-drinks. I didn’t see any newspapers anywhere. There were almost no cars, except for the occasional goods lorry.
The railway was the only thing that seemed to connect the town to the outside world – otherwise one got a sense of a sleepy hamlet where people worked and slept and ate and drank tea amidst the rice, safe from the touch of any other civilisation. But in our global world first impressions are always deceiving. Several times I would pass small huts with a crowd inside (when the power was on), and you could see maybe a dozen men staring intently a small eight-inch tv screen crackling away in black and white or bleached colours, showing WWE Wrestling.
WWE is very popular in Bangladesh, indeed it’s popular everywhere, but not many places can there be a bigger cultural juxtaposition than young men wearing traditional muslim robes standing in a hut sheltering from 42 degree heat, in rural Bangladesh, avidly watching steroid-pumped sacks of muscle and spandex bounce off each other in huge arenas in urban America. Connected by nothing but for a few satellites, the young boys in Bangladesh simultaneously have nothing and something in common with their contemporaries across the world. Miracle of technology, or tragedy? I’d go for miracle.
The other thing that made me smile was in one of the three small restaurants that pass for somewhere to go in the town, again all the men were distracted by the tv, and it turned out they were watching a Charlies Angels film,which is the type of thing you definitely watch more than concentrate on. I’m not sure what the two poor women wearing traditional hijabs thought about all the guys staring at Drew Barrymore’s arse, but again, it just goes to show how a few satellites and a bit of cable can unite men across the world in appreciation. She should be proud of herself.
So despite the poverty and deprivation, we were still connected up to a wider world, with all the pros and cons that brings. I was also intrigued by the presence of an old English colonial settlement, by the side of some railway sidings. If you cross the main set of tracks you can suddenly walk in to a miniature village of grand red-brick houses, distinctively English in design, with a front and back garden and set off from broad, well maintained straight roads, all surrounding a village green with a nice cricket wicket set in the middle of it.
What was bizarre was that none of the buildings were in use. They had been built solidly enough to barely be in disrepare, other than a few cracks and boarded up windows, but they still looked more structurally sound than most of the shacks and bamboo/mud/concrete huts and houses that everyone else seemed to live in. I couldn’t understand why the town wasn’t using such a fantastic resource – either preserving it properly as part of Bangladesh’s cultural heritage, or utilising the buildings as houses, or schools – you could have fitted four or five families in to some of them, and with a bit of work they would have provided vastly superior housing to what was currently available. They were all on Bangladesh railway company land, which might have something to do with it, but it just seemed terrible to me that these grand edifices, instead of serving a much-needed practical purpose just had to stand there dormant, looming over the town reminding the people of what they couldn’t and still can’t have, rather than being an asset to the town.
So there was a lot to think about on my nine hour journey back to Dhaka. Not really going back to ‘civilisation’. More just transfering from one form of it to an other.