The Rickshaw Capital Of The World
You need help to enjoy Dhaka. You certainly need help to understand Dhaka. Otherwise, you might easily be scared off. In 1971 the population was one million. Even conservative estimates believe that number to have grown to 15 million, and with 80 per cent of the country’s jobs located here, there’s little sign of this headlong growth rate slowing down. I’ve been warned that getting around can be slow and uncomfortable, but I have great faith in my companion Ishraq Ahmed, a short, canny man with a trim beard and an immense list of contacts.
This morning’s Bangladesh Observer carries front-page reports of the second hartal this week. Both leading parties use these one-day strikes as political weapons and there are reports of marches, arrests, accusations, counter-accusations and several deaths in violent clashes with the police. The paper’s mailbag seems united in condemning yesterday’s action. Today, Dhaka is back to normal. This means unmoving lines of cars, trucks, buses, and over-revving, smoke-belching tuk-tuks, interwoven with any number of the estimated 700,000 bicycle rickshaws that offer a sporting alternative to the traffic jam.
There seem to be very few rules of the road. Road sense, in Dhaka, is knowing how to get to your destination by any means possible.
‘It’s the only country in the world where every one has right of way,’ says Ishraq, with, I detect, a certain quiet pride.
There’s a bracing, nerve-shredding excitement to Dhaka’s street life, especially as we near the river, at the heart of the old city, where the traffic is infiltrated by hundreds of people weaving in and out of the crush, dodging from warehouses to shops to dealers with heads and shoulders full of anything from fish to electric fans and company ledgers to car parts.
There are women in black burkhas and women in riotously coloured saris, men in white skull caps and long robes, men in dark glasses with two-piece suits. Ishraq is emphatic that Bangladesh is ideologically tolerant and politically diverse. This may be part of its problem but it also explains the relative absence of the religious fundamentalism we saw in Pakistan.
We emerge from the press of markets and wharves and out onto the wide open spaces of Friendship Bridge Number 2, a graceful, grey curve slung across the River Buriganga by gift of the Chinese government. Adverts for ‘Green Love’ condoms have been slapped onto its concrete columns and beneath it is surely one of the most tumultuous stretches of river on earth. It reminds me of those paintings of the lagoon in Venice or the Pool of London in their heyday, before there was any other way of shifting goods and people en masse. The parallel is relevant. Only a few miles upstream from downtown Dhaka, the Ganges (known here as the Padma) meets the Brahmaputra (re-christened the Jamuna) and a combined total of 3357 miles (5730 km) of water sweeps on down to the sea. The only form of transport that can adequately deal with the delta is waterborne. Hence the ranks of multistoreyed ferries, drawn up off-shore like floating new towns, the broad-bottomed junks fat with sacks of rice, the smeared and shabby freighters carrying steel rods twisted like barley sugar, the barges almost invisible beneath cones of sand and, everywhere, the slim, low-slung, cigar-shaped water taxis waiting to launch out into the middle of this mayhem.
I walk down to the shore below the bridge. A line of men, teeth clenched and bow-legged with the weight, scuttle up the riverbank with blocks of ice on their heads. Others emerge, like a line of ants, from within the dark hold of a barge, balancing wide baskets full of sand ballast as they negotiate a wobbling gangplank. A pye dog, all sores and clouded eyes, collapses in the shade of a van. When I get out my notebook, a curious crowd presses against me. The Lonely Planet Guide devotes a whole column to ‘Staring’: ‘The Western concept of privacy is not a part of the culture in Bangladesh,’ it warns, and I can see what they mean. I find it as much comical as threatening, as 20 or more people all peer over my shoulder to try and see what I’m writing in a very small book. When I stop writing, all eyes turn to my face, watching expectantly. When I resume, they go back to the book, following every line and curve with the utmost concentration.
Just when I think they may be with me till the end of the series, they’re distracted by shouts of indignation from the film crew, who, it appears, have been peed on from the bridge above. Whether intentionally or not, no-one seems to know. I try to console Nigel by telling him there’s a first time for everything, but he’s not in a humorous mood.
Despite the oil, the grime, the smell and the procession of unspeakable things flowing along it, the River Buriganga is lined with impromptu laundries. The crew of a timber barge wash their clothes by treading them inside old oil drums, before taking them out and beating them hard on wooden planks and tossing them onto a pile, from which they’re picked up and laid out to dry on the sand. The odd thing is that they do look sparkling clean.
I am intrigued, and impressed, by the number of women in high positions in Bangladesh. The two main parties, the Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League (the ones responsible for the current wave of hartals) are both led by women. One of the most successful groups of garment factories, employing 7000 people and exporting 68 per cent of their output to the USA alone, is run by the highly charming Rubana Huq and her husband, but she is the one who travels the world and brings in the orders.
In early afternoon Ishraq takes me to meet Naila Chowdhury, a director of Grameen Phone, one of the great success stories to come out of Bangladesh. Naila, impressively built, with a strong handsome face, is, like Rubana, charming, accommodating and, I suspect, pretty ruthless when necessary.
‘Grameen’ means village and the villages of Bangladesh are poor. To try and help break the spiral of poverty, a man by the name of Muhammad Yunus came up with the idea of micro-loans aimed at the rural poor, who maybe need a few extra taka to buy a cow or a plot of land or a sewing machine. He set up the Grameen Bank 25 years ago and now it has over three and a half million borrowers, 95 per cent of whom are women. (Grameen prefer to lend to women, as they’re less likely to run off with the money.) The Grameen Phone project is an extension of the idea. A woman in the village takes out a loan to buy a mobile telephone and a solar panel with which to recharge it. She earns money to pay back the loan by charging local people for calls, both within the country and internationally. A lot of Bangladeshis are migrant workers in places like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
The women have three years to pay back the loan, and to prevent the whole scheme suffering the fate of well-intentioned causes in a cruelly commercial world, the interest is a hefty 20
The results, as Naila explains to me, as we drive out to the countryside some 25 miles (40 km) from Dhaka, have been impressive. Grameen Phone has led to the empowerment of women and the empowerment of local village communities.
Not only are villagers able to talk with family members abroad, but villages themselves are able to talk to each other. They can compare prices of basic goods like seed and fertilizer and avoid being ripped off by unscrupulous suppliers.
‘They can’t be hoodwinked,’ as Naila puts it.
Watched by a small caravan of Grameen advisers and feeling rather like a royal visitor, I’m led by Naila, wearing a smart orange and yellow shalwar, black, medium-heeled, leather shoes and rolled umbrella, along a narrow mud path between the fields. Pumps chug away, irrigating the rice paddies, and families of ducks are scudding about among the young shoots. Naila finishes a call and snaps her mobile shut.
‘I love my work,’ she says, steadying herself to cross an unsympathetic patch of wet, sticky mud, ‘I love it so much.’
She apologizes for her executive outfit, but she has a big business meeting later. I ask her if the endemic corruption everyone talks about here hinders her work. She shakes her head. Bribes are a commonly accepted part of the system, if you want things to get done fast.
‘They call it speed money,’ she says. ‘It’s not always such a bad thing.’
Passing by a field of lentils, with fragrant blue flowers and clumps of bamboo with bee-eaters darting in and out of them, we reach Athalia village. In a month’s time, when the monsoon starts, we could not have walked here, for the surrounding fields become a lake and stay that way for half the year.
A reception committee is waiting to meet us as we scramble up the bank, and we’re led into the village, composed of around 30 huts of palm thatch and corrugated iron. The huts are built on hard, smoothed mud, freshly treated with liquefied cow dung, which seals the clay and keeps it waterproof. There is no electricity here. The village phone has been held for the last four years by Mrs Abida Sultan, a short, middle-aged woman with prominent, gold-rimmed glasses and matching gold watch. She is shy and rather quiet today, continually readjusting her pale pink sari modestly over her head, in a way that makes me think she wouldn’t wear it like this if we weren’t here. Her phone is in a plastic cover with a purple trim, and she grips it tight as she answers Naila’s questions.
Being the only phone-lady for miles around means Mrs Abida Sultan is in demand. She must be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. She is making between 7000 and 10,000 taka profit every month, about £70 to £100. A rural family needs about 5000 taka a month to survive, so, unlike most of those who live in Athalia, Mrs Abida Sultan can comfortably break out of the life of subsistence. Grameen Phone has enabled her to send her 19-year-old daughter to university, something she could previously never have dreamt of.
Naila says that, despite Grameen’s success, the potential has barely been tapped. Only one million of the 140 million in Bangladesh have been connected through the mobile system, and Grameen Phone, half owned by the Norwegians, is now the biggest single investor in the country. The concept has been exported to poorer rural communities in places like Malaysia, Thailand and Ukraine.
The pace at which Naila and her PR team work is very different from the leisurely diurnal rhythms of this soft, warm, inviting countryside and once away from the village her mobile starts up again and doesn’t stop until we’re back in Dhaka.
For those able to survive the sound and fury of the capital there is a reward. Ishraq puts it simply.
‘The best international cooking in Southeast Asia.’
And he’s determined to prove it. Last night we ate some fine Chinese, surpassed tonight by a wonderfully authentic Lebanese dinner. And tomorrow, yet another strike day has been called, so we can stay in bed and sleep it off.