Friday, August 12, 2011

Where is the "New Hope," again?

Sorry, I haven't gotten my pictures back yet — you'll have to use the picturemill in your mind. :)
On the road to Comilla, in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, thin power lines stretch between clusters of houses and shops.
The bigger, steel utility poles, visible for miles, shepherd clusters of wires toward industrial concerns. "New Hope" is one such, a giant blue factory on N1, the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway, biggest structure for miles, with a Bangladeshi flag for its logo and Chinese characters in its name. It produces fish and poultry feed, and seems to have employed locals to carry sand in baskets to create a sand flat.
There is something difficult in seeing an small older woman in an ochre sari carrying a basket of sand on her head, dumping it, and slowly moving back toward the mammoth sandpile. I'm not sure why. It's honest work. Isn't she carving out the landscape like Bostonians did, building a future city's foundation by moving earth, creating a peninsula where it hadn't existed before?
That earthmoving work, done by the nameless thousands, undergirds Boston's present-day public transportation system, our school days, our nights on the town. People moved earth with their hands, with baskets, and in carts, because those were the tools available — it was a job, presumably for a poorer colonist.
But Boston wasn't contending with quite this level of powerful private industry when its landscape was forming. Maybe that's why this scene still feels ominous to me. The giant factory is so large, and her body so small. She will tire. She will shiver in the rain. She is susceptible to worms and bacteria and hunger. She will come and go. The giant blue feed factory, "New Hope," will live forever, susceptible only to rust, dependent only upon utilities and some organizing human brain — but not hers. (Who decided fish and poultry needed a factory so they could eat? Was that the best choice for this community?)
Is it somehow more ominous because her body is so vulnerable compared to earth-movers and backhoes? Does it feel problematic because the people in the countryside break their backs in the rain to do work that could be done by machine?
Yes. Because the people who hire them know this. Her worth is perhaps 1/100th of a machine. If she says "no," or "how about this way," there will be other bodies to carry sand, if those bodies begin to ask for benefits or education or a neighborhood school, the company might just decide it's cheaper to bring in a machine after all — I can just see that memo, the middle manager looking at his margins, saying, "Pay the damn freight! This has gone too far."
At least the worker who maneuvers the machine is the master of something. Skilled. More than just her arms, her legs, her basket.
That consistent chant of developers, "it'll bring jobs, bring jobs, bring jobs" — what does that mean, exactly, in this kind of landscape? Is any job a gift? What would it take for these jobs, and the local people who hold them, to carry weight and bargaining power? It's not enough to pay for a week's food, while leaving the powerlessness of poverty intact. What would jobs look like that did more?
I should add that New Hope does offer jobs besides carrying sand. Here's an ad for a control center operator for the Gazipur factory. New Hope also has charitable impulses. It has publicly distributed blankets to local residents during the Bangladeshi winter.
But, as developed nations working in developing nations, our responsibility, in service to the larger goal of development, is to offer more than handouts or two or three good jobs in a district. We shouldn't just get families through the week or through the winter, even if they are poor and uneducated. They are not dispensable.
What would a real investment look like? Doesn't she, in her sari in the rain, deserve to be supported in her vision for a better future? Climbing the hill with her basket, does she earn a place at the table, making decisions about the company's future in her community? Does she earn the time to spend with a manager, a decision-maker in the company, talking and thinking about what would support her family's livelihood in the long term?
When she does, that faceless blue factory will start to earn its name.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Observations from a bus, Dhaka to Comilla

Nupur tells me these tall hibiscus are called "kalmilata."
Kalmilata, flat water and rice fields as far as the eye can see, one road only, two thin paved lanes, for mothers with babies, bicycles, painted rickshaws, autorickshaws, CNGs (caged autorickshaws that run on compressed natural gas), trucks, jeeps, open-air schoolbuses carrying 8 or 10 children, traveling buses like ours (the biggest thing on the road), and occasional cars, traveling to and from the city.
The headrests on the bus are encased in white ersatz sanitary covers caked in ground-in grime. I start to itch just thinking about it — my scalp, my neck, my thigh. I don't want to rest my head.
Cattle are packed into trucks moving toward Dhaka, head to tail, jammed like cattle, necks straining toward the sky, eyes show no evidence of thoughts or wishes, not blinking. Straining without moving.
Some homes have woven mats on their floors. People say this keeps it cool.
I see homes on the road to Comilla that have those mats for walls, as the flood waters rise. The monsoons have well and truly arrived.
A swimming baby, maybe three years old, splashing by himself in a pond.
A wailing ambulance is stuck in market traffic, as we travel through a small village; our bus cuts him off with an angry blast of the horn that brooks no refusal. We are through the village in a matter of moments.
Back to the grasslands, where the sand is eroding away under some of the houses. Lengths of bamboo prop up the tin roofs and walls.
Boys have set up a soccer field on a sand flat, bamboo for goal posts, and toed lines in the sand for a goalie's box.
Kalmilata: tall, bending water hibiscus, blood red centers and pink petals.
The most permanent structures for many kilometers are the factories, the mosques, the schools. Madrasas you know by the teardrop shape of the windows.
People and long stretches of pipe carry sand from the bed of the River Meghna to long, flat boats, which will take the sand to Dhaka.
It's a muddy world outside (rain predicted for the next three days) and a young cow is nosing a green apple in the mud in front of a streetside market.
Back out on the grasslands a brown, respectable cow has climbed down toward the water to eat from a vine, compromising her dignity somewhat at a 45-degree angle.
Many of the mud-walled ponds seem to contain fish. The mud walls also offer a path from one mud-flat collection of tin houses to another — some drainage pipes connect the small ponds to the larger, unending stretch of water.
Thin power lines stretch between clusters of houses and shops.
The bigger, steel utility poles, visible for miles, shepherd clusters of wires toward industrial concerns. "New Hope" is one such, a giant factory, biggest structure for miles, with a Bangladeshi flag for its logo but Chinese characters. It seems to have employed locals to carry sand in baskets to create a sand flat.
Another madrasa, boys in uniform and arched windows.
This is a city bus - ours was fancier.
The busdriver won't stop blowing his horn: Once, twice, three times, five times, or a long, angry blast, depending on his frustration level, until they do what he wants — it hurts my ears, my head, I feel it in my ribs. It reverberates. The least belligerent: Two short for mere notification of his presence.
This road is the highest point I can see.
Men in lungi stand in the water plants which sometimes foster a patch of lilies, gathering greens, netting fish, gathering sand. Though it rains, still the people work, the men and boys shirtless.
The horn for a full 8 seconds as the driver tries to pass a slower, smaller bus which is already engaged in its own project of passing a slower, smaller bus. We are nearly off the road.
A woman in a burqa helps to unload a stalk of green bamboo (it is as thick as a grown woman's leg) from a pedal cart.
On one raised sandflat, a tall cylinder kiln for bricks.
A male goat stamps his foot in the mud, perhaps making a point to his female companion.
The trash man has stopped his blue pedal cart and is washing in the pond.
Everywhere, potential buildings stand half-finished — the foundation of a building, rebar exposed, no evidence of recent work, offers a sign, in bright color, announcing, "Palmy Shoes LTD: European Footwear Production."
Did they run out of money or interest?
I can't think this is such a surprise. Folks here seem used to great ideas that don't work out in reality — another thing people might just sort of get used to, like theft or heat, as the means to prevent it do not seem accessible in any way.
A cheery little mosque, painted generously in a variety of colors, its logo a white crescent and a burst of white stars.
We stop for gas. Very soon, there is a lot of shouting. An extremely angry man has exited the ambulance we cut off many kilometers ago, and is shouting at the driver. I imagine that he is incensed on behalf of his wounded brother, who is in the ambulance. "I am late!" the driver protests. But the man's anger is intense. Others pull the man back into the ambulance and they are away.
As our journey continues, the horn blasts become shorter, less certain, less persistent. Is he more aware of his neighbors? Or is it my imagination? This is how I think justice works — I am eager to believe the shouting had an effect, made him a better citizen driver; now perhaps he wonders how his driving affects others.
When we step from the bus, into the mud of Comilla, I offer the driver a note. It says, "Thanks for the ride. May your horn fall off and break into many pieces." I think this is funny and in some way mitigates the physical pain he has caused me.
The look of hope and surprise in his eyes as I hand him the envelope is almost more than I can take. He thinks it is money, or thanks. And perhaps he deserves both. We arrived so quickly. He drove like the very devil was at his heels. I curse my anger, my discomfort, my need for quiet, my need to tell others when they have encroached on my idea of ethics.
Chaim Potok, who I am reading on this trip (taking refuge from the noise and bustle in the warm fold of Ladover Brooklyn), offers this wisdom:
"Truth has to be given in riddles. People can't take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it."
I have long believed this, though the practice of it is a great mystery. In a similar vein, I keep these words on my desktop: "Never tell the truth too plainly," as a reminder that fiction is not the same as what I have written above, a list of observations, plainly told, a travelogue.
Observations, plainly told?
When you see such a small piece of the truth, what is there to tell but the physical, the disparate pieces you are able to see? How can I code the truth when it is always in flux?
Anyway, to offer an observation with kindness I think would bless the person who heard it. Another day, another aggressive bus driver, I will know what to do.
Truth, some, with kindness, lots.