Dhaka, Bangladesh. October, 2013: A couple of days ago, when Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, or Saqa, as he seems to be more commonly known as, a notorious Bangladeshi Member of Parliament, was about to be found guilty for war criminal charges (I’m not going to debate the kangaroo court surrounding my distaste for the less than transparent proceedings of the war crimes tribunal), I decided to take a long walk.
What a walk perhaps doesn’t compel many of us to remember, however, is exactly how far the divide is in terms of social responsibility, and social accountability- those whimsical words and concepts that are blown around by Bangladesh’s corporate, social, intellectual and political elite, just as much as the country’s development workers. The harsh reality of Bangladesh’s roads is, at best, veiled by those cursory heads that shake at the ludicrous amount of time spent in traffic jams sitting in air-conditioned cars whilst hoping to create a stronger and better world for Bangladesh’s 64 million plus children.
Dhaka, which is fast on its way to becoming the largest megapolis in the world, has seen a four fold increase in its population levels, in a country which is roughly smaller than the state of New York, and a city, which although spread out over about 150 km, has a very small downtown stretch.
And yes, you read the population of children correctly too: Bangladesh has an under 18 population that is the ENTIRE population number of the UK, and is higher than that of Italy, while remaining smaller than either of those two nation-states.
Some Asian cities, as many more of you are aware, given that Asia holds about half the world’s overall population, can provide a challenge for the meek and weak-hearted walking lovers.
Several months ago during a gridlock traffic jam that ensured that no auto-rickshaws, the city’s yellow taxi cab’s poorer relative, were willing to traverse the seemingly opposite poles of Sheraton Mor with its green leafy views of Ramna Park, and Gulshan, where the city’s monetary (we’ll leave cultural acumen off the table, for now) wealth is splattered in urban steel jungles, I decided I was going to walk at least part of the way, to Panthapath, and the Sonargaon Hotel.
What initially appeared like a mere six avenues turned out to be a shock inducing nightmare, so much so that in between walking for about forty five minutes in the heat of the May sun, with honking cars and buses zooming by in a frenzy that make you wonder what cocktail concoctions the drivers must be high on, and motorcyclists taking over whatever part of the pavements which were not being used as trash outlets, shops, or the final resting place of the frequent competitors for Dhaka’s, I came upon a simple and terrifying conclusion: Something needs to change, and something needs to change drastically.
The chaotic lack of traffic control which is governed by a secret logic ensures that road accidents are rare but near misses occur at least two dozen times a day, and simultaneously there are not enough parks, enough statues, enough squares or relief for walkers, or clean water free of arsenic, and food free of formalin.
Hatirjheel and Dhaka University, Ramna Park, the are around Dhanmondi Lake all showcase vestiges of a hidden plan towards grandeur that were shared in many minds, but is the vision being saturated, corroded even, by those of us who drive our cars.
Hence, with accountability on my mind, with thoughts about how justice and honor, those laudable concepts, are paraded for us common citizens with our whims of fighting past impunity, whilst we live with the fear that a verdict condoning one of the “big shots” will be met with mini-bombs that just might set off and kill us, or at the very least, burn our cars and cause them to explode, I set out to just explore, on perhaps a less than auspicious occasion.
A friend and I made a valiant effort to go to an art gallery and fill our minds with palatable chunks of decipherable culture.
We didn’t quite make it, because violence broke out in Motijheel and our ever-conscious parents, who have previously lived through worse political ordeals than most of us can ever imagine, decided to ensure we went back on our merry paths back home. On the way, I took ten photos that made me feel hopeful: there are those, who quite seriously, do what they must to survive.
1. A sign that says “Dream to Lead” behind vendors sitting on the sidewalk, who champion wares of, among formalin-ridden crustaceans, LIVE fish.
Yes, folks. You read right, In a country whose biggest import in 2012 was none other than the chemical formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve cadavers, riding a rickshaw through Dhaka city serve as an informative reminder that some honest vendors will appeal to all taste buds.
God bless their patches of conscience.
2. What lies behind this man hanging out of a moving vehicle.
See that little exposed brick turret and the yellow flowering shrub in front of it? See that and imagine chunks of Dhaka, landscaped perfectly with THOUGHTFULLY planned squares and consistent architectural patterns with a landscaping design that takes flowering seasons into account.
It can and has been done elsewhere. Think about how the Japanese center entire festivals around cherry blossom blooming season. Why can we not think of doing this with laudanum, with chrysanthemums, even with cabbages?!? (not even kidding- there were several patches of purple and green cabbage that was artistically arranged between Deak Ferenc and Vorosmarty Ter in Budapest for all of winter 2011).
3. This woman, who was picking up trash all on her own, off the road, whilst the crows kept her company.
It was noon, it was hot, and perhaps, all she is doing is her job, but even for those of us who are well-meaning in our recycling efforts, there is little scope for us to practise recycling, because there really are NO public trash cans.
Why is that? Did our politicians spend all of the money for hygiene and sanitation on their latest gas guzzling SUV? Three guesses, but I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure out why Bangaldesh is the most corrupt nation in the world.
Imagine Dhaka with trash cans and compost and rubbish systems that separate paper from plastic, glass from perishables?
Man, I don’t know about you but I just got insanely excited about being able to throw my garbage where it belongs- which is NOT on the road.
4. This MOSQUE.
Yes, this indeed is a mosque. I’m not saying go out and build mosques, but seriously, that this building exists and is symptomatic of how architecture and art do not have be mutually exclusive to religion. And maybe, it’s just the romantic in me, but I’m always on the lookout for fantastic architecture.
I was shocked to find that this building is a mosque- not shocked because it was progressive because that would just be a short sighted and unnuanced- but because of the fact that this little architectural beauty showcases a harmonized concept of minimalism meets contemporary chic- AND it’s a successful space, resultant.
Some of the great architectural tributes of the world have been realized through religion (note the Pyramids, the Acropolis, the Duomo in Florence, if you’re confused). Please note that I’m not blindly endorsing religion, but hey, organization CAN lead to results.
Case in point.
5. This couple who have chosen to enjoy Dhanmondi lake DESPITE the proximity of the pile of trash they’re sitting next to.
Change is an attitude. With the right mindset, love can exist in any context. Even next to a pile of rubbish. Even amongst all the trash. Let’s at least give that a hand of applause!
6. This woman, who, despite the lack of pedestrian friendly walkways for human beings, let alone physically handicapped human beings, continues to confidently wheel her child across the streets and against traffic.
I’m a big fan of breaking rules to make rules, and granted that Bangladeshi traffic defies all logic of anyone even knowing the rules to begin with, with everyone coming at you from every which direction, but at least this woman is portraying the simplicity of a crucial survival tactic: if no one’s going to provide you what you want, you need to go out there and grab it for yourself.
I’ll spare you my less than scathing take on beggars on the streets and begging in general, but rest assured, those who move against the tide are sometimes making a stronger point about the “system” than we give them credit for with our fleeting looks and passing cars.
7. This little child’s parents, who chose to dry the toddler’s clothes along the fence of a public park.
I reckon the parental advisory for this child’s guardians can go into overdrive with this photo. But here’s why you need to stop and think about it: if you’re homeless and you have no access to clean water, you’re quite likely to dress your little ones in some unwashed clothes.
After all, water costs money and money is quite disparately distributed in Bangladesh, as we all know. Hence, this set of drying clothes, to me, represents a microcosmic effort to retain and push positive social mores of proper health and hygiene- a win win situation by all gradations of the word awesome, methinks.
8. This street vendor who gives a water cooler an awesome new identity, whilst cutting down on plastic waste through the simple and effective means of selling water that’s been filtered through a portable filter.
Okay, I know I didn’t take the most flattering photo of her, but take a look at what she’s selling.
Not much variety, right? But given that certain types of plastic won’t even begin to decompose after 500 years, I think this woman’s got the best sort of entrepreneurial head on her shoulders of almost everyone I’ve met in Bangladesh since moving back.
9. This tranquil image of Dhaka’s green spots.
Imagine a city filled with clean water bodies and greenery cutting through the concrete jungle. It is clearly possible.
Some of the infrastructure is already in place, so while we’re looking to hold our past politicians accountable for the violent and heinous crimes against humanity, why are we allowing our present day ones stop traffic to pass, to follow up with less then sanitary conditions for all to wade and live through, DAILY?
Dhaka has copious numbers of well-meaning people and amazingly talented individuals, but really, is the current status quo of carcinogenic smoke sustainable corruption possible?
But change is possible.
Each of these photos prove that rocking Dhaka’s streets is as possible as it is really and truly happening all around us!
- Why Dhaka Deserves to Be Called the Most Unlivable City in the World (wondersonder.wordpress.com)