Bridge(t)toSomewhere

On July 19th, a friend of a Bowdoin alum took me and Sonya to the National Liberation War Memorial. The liberation war of 1971 separated Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from the larger Pakistani state created by partition. Now, legally splitting two large areas with ethnically and linguistically distinct populations that were completely geographically separated by another very large country seems rather logical in retrospect, but logic does not necessarily translate to politics. The political center of power in Islamabad did not want to lose Bangladesh (which at the time had a higher population and GDP despite being under-represented in the Pakistani Parliament).

The war was brutal, deadly, and resulted in the death of millions of civilians, including many of Bangladesh’s most well-educated people. Thus, because the war was so difficult, Bangladeshi’s are very patriotic and take their history very seriously. The monument is incredibly beautiful and is a mandatory visit for all foreign dignitaries, who usually plant a tree in remembrance of those who died. We couldn’t find the Clinton tree, so here’s the Chavez one haha. 

After visiting the site we went to his house. Him and his wife are actually from the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, which has been an area of conflict between the indigenous Bhuddist groups and the ethnically Bengali settlers who have moved there due to natural disaster and whatever else may have drove them away from their homes.

His father sent him out of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Dhaka to live with an uncle in hopes that he would have a more stable upbringing. Despite having to learn a new language and face discrimination, he was able to excel in school, get a great job at HSBC, and then switch careers to become the second person at the Bangladeshi Sesame street and a part-time professor. We had an amazing meal at his house, and also learned some great parenting tips, mostly about letting kids explore and explaining to them why something is forbidden, rather than just saying “no.” 

His hard work and kind heart overwhelmed us as much as his family’s hospitality and his daughter’s cute smile.

note: on the way there, we stopped at the national parliament building, considered to be architect Louis Kahn’s crowning masterpiece  

So, since it is so related to our project on alternate channels, last Thursday Lamisa and I went to the bKash headquarters. Here’s a brief explanation of the company (also check out the website, it’s pretty awesome and user friendly)

Their growth is really incredible, in its two and a half years of existence, bKash has grown to be the second largest mobile money provider in the world. 

What I liked so much about the visit was the tangible buzz in the air. The headquarters, spread out over sporadicly purchased floors of a mostly empty building (a result of bKash’s rapid growth) had a distinctly silicon-valley start-up feel to it: white-board surface everywhere, young staff, and being on the cutting edge of something new that has the chance to change their country.

More pictures from New Market.

After wandering around for a while, both Sonya and I got pretty famous, especially since New Market is not a place frequented by foreigners. Eventually the workers got pretty comfortable with us and started asking for us to take their pictures, and if they could take ours. I know “third world” portraiture gets a lot of bad press, but for some of these people, it was the first time they have seen themselves on a not cellphone camera. Also, they were just as curious as we are, and when language is a barrier, an exchange of pictures and laughs is a bridge to genuine communication.

Note about the last picture: during ramadan, any place where people break their fasts (by eating, smoking, or even having water) they go to food stands behind fabric. This fabric could be sheets, old cloth advertisements, whatever so long as it at least pretends to hide the temptation of breaking the fast for other muslims.

July 11th, Shaan, Sonya and I went to explore New Market. As you can tell from the first picture, it is one of Bangladesh’s biggest markets, where you can get anything from factory reject garments, to muslim “artifacts” to plastic flowers. Not interested in haggling and sifting through the immense volume of stuff to find something we want to buy, Sonya and I went exploring. On the top floor we found amini-factory where workers were painting, embroidering, and sewing beautiful tapestries and clothes. Because it was part of the market, there was actually a fair amount of fresh air, leading to much better working conditions than factories that we think about when we look at the tags of our clothes and see “made in Bangladesh”… and… only one worker was clearly under the age of 16, and since it was a friday (not a school day in muslim countries) it was potentially excusable.

More pictures to come!

So… from my blog, it probably seems like I’m not actually doing any work while in Bangladesh. False!

For the past 6 weeks, my co-intern Lamisa and I have been conducting a study on service delivery and turn around time (TAT) in BRAC Bank’s Small and Medium Enterprise service centers and Krishi Branches (essentially micro-branches). In Bangladesh, like in many developing countries, people still use branches as their primary contact point with banks, as opposed to ATMs, internet, or mobile banking. This leads to long lines and high costs, both for the bank and the customer.

the study is two parts: measuring customer TAT, number, and types of services provided at the branch in a given day so we can see where resources are currently being utilized. The second is a survey finding out why customers come to the branches, what the barriers are to using alternate channels, and what suggestions they have about how the bank could improve its service.

Thus far, we’ve seen that the majority of transactions are ones that could easily be done through alternate channels. Also, the biggest barriers to using the alternate channels are unfamiliarity with using them/electronic money in general, and perceptions that it is more efficient to go to the bank.

Obviously, there are factors outside of BRAC Bank’s control such as low literacy rate and a general lack of internet infrastructure in Bangladesh. However, because BBL serves more customers than any other bank in the country, if they institute some policies that give their customers more ability to participate in the new era of banking, such as providing mobile money accounts for all of their SMEs so they can receive payments for their goods in electronic form, that could actually have a huge impact.

Kind of after the fact, but Bangladesh TOTALLY had world cup fever! What was pretty funny was that the entire country was rooting for only two teams: Argentina or Brazil. Needless to say, Germany left them pretty disappointed.

Best part:, all the flags and are still up.

some more random pictures from Sylhet.

I have to say, that trip was one of my highlights. Going to school in Maine has really spoiled me. After weeks in Dhaka I just craved fresh air and space. However, of course, Sylhet is not just a green paradise. Wage slavery, malnutrition, and pollution (note the workers spraying pesticides above) are just as present here as anywhere else.

With the month of Ramadan coming to a close, I have to say I am so thankful to have been here during this holy time. Yes, the traffic is infinitely worse as people are hungry and in a rush to get home in time for Eid shopping and then iftar. Yes, it has forced me to be more creative about where I source and eat lunch since the cafeteria at work is closed. Yes, it has limited my abilities to travel for the sake of work and fun. Yes, beggars are now more aggressive because they know that this is the month when they will be able to receive the most income, because their fellow muslim’s hunger will be a constant reminder of the Quran’s chief teachings: to remember God in all things and to be Charitable with a capital C.

However the beauty of seeing Bangladeshis come together at prayer and iftar time, no matter where they are, is incredible. Islam’s clear rules on how to conduct your life and your daily religious requirements makes the spirituality of believers here far more visible than anywhere else I have been. But in Bangladesh, I have not found it to be a showy “I am more committed than you” contest. Rather a simple practice of humbling oneself to a higher power.

This not only has been a beautiful learning experience, but a time for personal reflection. Melodic calls to prayer, even if not publicly heeded by those around me, serve as a constant reminder of the possibility of something greater than whatever, usually petty, thing I was worrying about. I am someone with a religiously inconsistent upbringing (a mostly apathetic family and evangelical nannies) trying to make sense of my faith in God. Ramadan has inspired reflection I usually push off or prioritize beneath school and other pursuits.

Islam is a beautiful religion. It celebrates compassion, not hate. It teaches respect, not oppression. Violence is a tool of last resort, reserved for defense against the extermination of your community. The Quranic encouragement of modesty (of all people, not just women) is not the same as individuals using out-of context passages to justify cultural practices that subordinate and exclude.

Anyone who says different is clouded by ignorance.

Pictures taken in New Market, Dhaka and from the women’s section of Baitul Mukarram (Bangladesh’s National Mosque).

While in Sylhet, we visited the Ratargul Swamp forest… no, it is not a former haunt of Smeagol and the river people, but rather the only swamp forest in Bangladesh, and one of the few freshwater swamp forests in the world.

After a long ride in an autorickshaw and climbing into a low, less than stable canoe (with the same design as a venetian gondolier) and trying on some of the local head gear, we were transported to another world.

Because it is the rainy season, the forest was especially spectacular. We were among the canopy branches of ancient trees submerged in 20-30 feet of water. Being the heat of the day, there wasn’t too much activity, both human and wild. However, we were able to see some fishermen setting their traps and climbing to a high platform to, I assume, survey the prospects of their next catch.

We had a real treat just as we exited the forest: our driver / drive steered us to see a macaque as it bounded through the trees.

On our first day in Sylhet we went to a near-by tea estate and saw how they prepared the tea for sale. First, they grind it up into pulp and then little pellets of varying coarseness. the more coarse, the higher the quality (less processed, retains more natural flavors, etc. Then it is sent into a kiln to be dried. The tea when it comes out is extremely hot, but workers still hold and move it with their bare hands… they have some pretty aggressive callouses. 

It was striking how much tea there was even though the factory was relatively small and did not have too many workers. It was stiflingly hot in there even though it was spacious and there were windows. It’s hard to know who suffers worse conditions, them or the pickers, but seeing as all the staff were men (unlike tea pickers who are women, men, and even children) I’m guessing they at least get higher pay for their sweat and blisters.