Dispatches From Bangladesh -Number Seven
The Seventh Narrative From Bangladesh
This is the seventh submission of a continuing narrative by Hadley Rose of her experiences living and working in Bangladesh under a fellowship from Willamette University Law School, with the Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for the banks 30-year groundbreaking project in micro-credit. Rose will be working with the bank for eight weeks.
By Hadley Rose
The focus of Grameen Bank's work is the rural poor. However, since I have spent most of my time in the city, it is the images of the urban poor that I will remember when I think of Bangladesh. Villagers have such simple ways of life that it is hard to notice the difference between a beggar like Jobeda and a more "wealthy" villager, like a Grameen Bank staffperson. In Dhaka, the comparison between the poor and the un-poor is so exaggerated, so stark, that the urban poor seem truly destitute. I daily see them raking through the open dumps to find their daily meal and clothing. I have also started to recognize some of the beggars who live in my neighborhood, which is a new phenomenon for me--in the US, the poor have usually remained nameless and faceless for me. One thing I have learned about the poor from living in Dhaka for two months is that they are all unique individuals with distinct personalities, diverse attitudes, and varied needs. And in that way, they are really no different from us.
A contingent of small, homeless boys with distended bellies lives on the sidewalk in front of my hotel, and nearly every time I come outside, they flock around me and grab onto my hands asking "Bakshish? Bakshish, madam?" (roughly translated "tips?" or "some money?"). I've had to simply develop a tough skin just to get through each day here, so I try to shake my head kindly and walk away. One day as my six foot tall roommate and I were crossing the street, two of the little boys grabbed onto her left hand, each clinging to a couple of her fingers. She looked so tall, so strong, so regal next to them. They were so small and inconsequential that they could share her left hand. That day they followed us all the way to our rickshaw and rode on the back of it until the driver got fed up and hissed at them in Bengali to get them to leave us alone.
When I got back to my room that day, I cried over those little boys. They just wanted to come with us, they wanted us to take them out of their insignificant, impossibly hungry lives. I cannot know when or why their parents left them, or how they found their way to this busy neighborhood where no one gives them a second glance, except the security officers for the grocery store on the first floor of my hotel who whack the boys with long, thin sticks when they are causing too much of a bother. I brought them some of my leftover Chinese food the other day, in what I hoped would be a more fruitful gesture than simply giving them a few taka. As I approached the group of boys with the box in my hand, the oldest one came over and grabbed at the box. I held on to the box for a moment, trying to explain that he needed to share with the other boys. Instead of remaining a humble, discreet gesture, my giving food to the hungry boys became a tug-of-war. Our antics attracted much attention, and I quickly let go of the box when I realized what was happening.
I did not expect the Nobel Peace Prize for my small gift, but at least expected an air of thanks from the obviously starving boys. Instead, I received a heaviness in my heart over the realization that they are simply so hungry that they cannot take the one moment to appreciate or say thanks. They must immediately fight for that cold chow mien because an extra few bites means less pain when they struggle to find sleep that night. A few days later, I saw a man give a shriveled beggar woman a coin (the largest coin in Bangladesh is 5 taka, or 14 cents) and take change for his gift from among the few other coins in her wrinkled hand. I suppose I can understand the boys' skepticism and survival instincts.
Some of the beggars are sadly familiar to me now. When I walk across the street to go to the Bank, I pass a squatting old man, whose wrinkled hand reaches up toward me, but he doesn't even bother to crane his head up to look us in the eyes. Perhaps he is too ashamed. Perhaps his neck causes him too much pain from years of sitting so low on the ground and looking up so high. A little girl sleeps on the dirty, hard metal of the overpass a few feet away from where the man squats. It is regrettably clear that she has slept there for most of her life, since the sweltering heat and the constant din of blaring horns and thundering bus engines doesn't wake her.
While some of the beggars are heartbreaking in their hopelessness, some of them can inspire me
despite their destitution. Dhaka University is in old Dhaka, a particularly busy and populated area of the city. One day I drove through the campus and visited a monument to the language movement. The language movement was a protest initiated by Dhaka University students in 1952 when then-West Pakistan refused to recognize East Pakistan's Bengali as an official language of the country. The monument is modest, and functions as a meeting place and calm respite in the middle of such a crowded, unpredictable city. The moment I got out of the car, I was surrounded by young beggar children, most of whom were selling small candies or other strange, useless trinkets. The scene was so over-the-top to me, and I was already attracting so much attention, that I decided to initiate a game of chase with the kids. We ended up having a lot of fun, and it is a more triumphant memory than my embarrassing episode with the hungry boys and the Chinese food leftovers.
One of my favorite people in Bangladesh lives in Gulshan, the nicest neighborhood of Dhaka. He is a small, deformed man who begs on the sidewalk of an outdoor shopping center I go to frequently. He has an average-sized torso and a fully formed head, but has a large hump on his back and a permanently twisted neck. His legs appear to be vestigial, and he moves around by using his malformed arms like crutches. He only comes up to my knees. Despite the dismal life this man is reduced to, his radiant smile is one of the indelible images I have in my mind from Dhaka. He always looks me in the eye, says "Good afternoon, madam!", and gathers his balance so that he can spare one arm to wave. He doesn't demand or annoy, like many of the other beggars, but simply shares his kindness and love, a humbling reminder of the goodness of life from a man so destitute as he.
Past Dispatches follow below: