Sunday, June 12, 2005

# Posted 9:44 PM by Patrick Belton  

OUR ASIA CORRESPONDENT writes a letter from Bangladesh where she has returned after four years:
Very little has changed in the four years since I've been gone. Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 138th on the Human Development Index in 2004 (which still does not put it at the bottom in South Asia - Pakistan ranks 142). The poverty is still breathtaking. The first time I was here, I noticed an alarming number of children and elderly people without limbs begging on the street. After enquiry, I learned that families often lop a limb off one person to increase their begging prospects. One child's arm means food for the other six or seven children. The middle class is miniscule to the point of non-existence. Any Bangladeshi with money or connections almost invariably goes overseas, most to the Gulf, the UK or the US, sending remittances home and providing one of the main sources of income for the country.

IT is the new buzz here, but it is unclear whether it actually exists besides one sad-looking internet cafe with two computers in the 'wealthy' part of town (read: less than abject poverty). Both times I went there was no current and hence no internet, but in theory you could check your email. Dhaka still does not have a McDonald's nor any other international chain, although it does have a Dominous pizza (note the ingenious way around copyright) and a restaurant that has stolen the Chili's logo and sells Thai food. The country has trouble attracting foreign investment because it has one of the highest corruption rates in the world, exacerbated by a political system run almost entirely by two political families who trade off power almost every election. During my visit, two strikes called by the opposition caused economic activity to grind to a halt. Fearing reprisals from the organized crime mobs controlled by each of the families, the entire country shuts down. When I ventured onto the streets around 2 p.m., the only activity I saw on the usually congested streets was an occasional rickshaw.

After several days in Dhaka, I traveled by launch down the Ganges River to the island of Bhola, which served as my home for several months back in 2001. Things here have changed more dramatically, but I fear for the worst. When I was here before, women did not adhere strictly to purdah and many ventured into the marketplace wearing only hijab. Now, women are largely kept to their homes and are required to wear a burkah in public. However, some advances have been made in women's health. Birth control in the form of contraceptive pills from India is now available, although apparently the local Madrassa has organized a campaign against its use (not that it seemed to be having much effect; most of the women see it as a Godsend). The island still only has a handful of doctors for 8 million people; education is spotty, although improving. I was glad to hear that in the past five years, families have begun to send their daughters to school past primary school. I also saw evidence that microfinance projects were living up to their touted potential here. Several women's craft guilds have appeared in the area since I visited last and many women appear to be supporting their families on the income they make.

The biggest difference has to be the proliferation of cell phones and televisions. Before, the only telephone was owned by the police chief, who doled out phone privileges based on bribes or personal connections. Now, every third person seems to have a cell phone. The people in the area may still not have reliable electricity, or safe drinking water, or indoor plumbing, or much of anything else, but now many families do have a television. The children look just as malnourished but now they can sing Bollywood songs. Because of this, the people have a greater awareness of the outside world than they did four years ago. And the more they see of the outside world, the less likely Islamic extremism will make inroads in the area, something that it is constantly threatening to do.

On the final night of my time in Bhola, I went up to the roof of the orphanage where I was staying and watched a storm roll in over the flat landscape. One of the teachers at the school gathered the children in a circle and sang a slow melodic folk song as the wind swept through the branches of the Khrishnachura trees below. When a lightening bolt would cascade across the sky, the red blossoms of the tree named for a god appeared against the night like tiny orbs of blazing fire. It was one of those moments of beauty and tranquility that, perhaps mistakenly, gives you faith in something that transcends the banalities and tragedies of this world. Bangladesh has a way of reminding you of the fragility of human life. I knew that many people would die in the floods that would follow the storms. The orphanage on which I stood was itself an artifact of the brutality of life here, built in the aftermath of the 1971 cyclone that killed millions in a matter of days.

The moment on the roof was ethereal, but it was I who was the ghost, swooping in from another world to which I would shortly return. Most people here view the United States as akin to Paradise and equally unreachable in this life. Yet, life does goes on. Another child is born. Another dies of fever in the middle of the night. And another still is given a chance at making more of herself than the world ever intended. I’m glad I have stayed involved in the community since I left, organizing a program that has given some young adults the chance at a university education and a better life. The misery of the people here is only matched by their potential to rise above it.

I learned later that a launch similar to the one I had taken just days before capsized in the storm that night and 200 people died. The launch had capsized twice before, killing hundreds, and had been condemned by the river authorities. And yet, it had set out that night overcapacity and understaffed. Ironically, it was the first-class passengers who bore the brunt of the casualties. Trapped in their cabins when the boat capsized, they had no chance to swim ashore, while some of those on the open-air lower decks were permitted a fateful reprieve from death. As I paced nervously on the first-class deck the next night on my way back to Dhaka, afraid to retire to my cabin, I reflected on the strange twists of fate that have left Bangladesh permanently on the lower deck in the world today. Hopefully, the boat won't have to capsize in order for them to someday reach the shore.
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